A Force for British Style Band Music at King’s Point
Captain Kenneth R. Force, Director of Music and leader for 37 years of the Regimental Band of the United States Merchant Marine Academy is a force of human nature. Long before coming to the Academy he was a champion of bands, British Regimental bands in particular. A stand-up comedian—when not sitting for an interview—Captain Force delivers one-liners, accents and all, and thoughtful, impassioned musings about music and his total love of British bands—“I can hear one a mile away.” He thinks bands can serve in significant ways to introduce youngsters to music, particularly those who come from less privileged homes, instill in all students music appreciation, and, by way of their studying a band instrument, help them acquire habits of focus and discipline. A band, by the way, as distinct from an orchestra, is a musical group usually comprising brass, percussion and woodwinds, designed for open-air and marching performances.
One of Captain Force’s fondest memories is of the excitement he generated at Port Chester High School, in Westchester County when he was Band Director there. His students wound up playing in the Rose Bowl Parade, a six-and-a-half mile route that no doubt proved challenging for those carrying 60-pound tubas. Never let it be said, however, that coincidence does not at times determine fate. Among the visitors to the Rose Bowl that year was a benefactor of the Merchant Marine Academy, and he invited Force to come aboard. He did, and the rest is history: Force took an existing band and made it into “a company”; he took the company and gave it cachet.
His lament these days is the diminished presence of instruments in the NYC public schools. It’s not enough to have professional groups drop in and let students touch their instruments. It’s a “tragedy,” he says, that watching and listening have replaced hands-on learning. “I don’t care if it’s underwater basket weaving,” kids need to be directly involved; coaches know that. “A country’s soul is told by its arts.” Music unifies classes, ethnicities, and nations.
Who knew, he reminisces, that when he entered Sophie A.M. Smith’s P.S. 115’s third-grade classroom a long time ago (“what did that A.M. stand for?”), and saw the only two pictures on the wall—Arturo Toscannini and Marian Anderson —that the moment would be a defining one for him, though only later, in the late `50s, when he was soloing on cornet with the First U.S. Army Band on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, did he have his “epiphany.” A British band had arrived to play with the Army band—pith helmets and all. That sound, that look! “That was my moment.” But it was a moment he was prepared for.
Kenneth Force had picked up the trumpet on his own as a kid and impressed a lot of pros, including Merle Evans (d.1987) bandmaster for 50 years for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Band—the “Toscannini of the Big Top.” Force was offered numerous prestigious positions, among them being first trumpet with the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra. He received his bandsman’s diploma from the U.S. Naval School of Music in Washington, D.C. and after his stint with the Army, including being Bandmaster for the 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division Band, went on to study at the Manhattan School of Music, from which he received a Professional Diploma. Conservatories hate two words, he says with a laugh: “Tschaikovsky” and “bands.”
Unlike other service bands, which include professional musicians, King’s Point Merchant Marine Academy band members are all midshipmen. So what’s so special about British Regimental bands? Better instruments, Force says without a moment’s hesitation, better tone (“400 years of tradition, here”), and a distinctive way of playing. The Salvation Army, he points out, has always been a British band (maybe Jean Simmons, the film star of “Guys and Dolls” knew that).
In 2004 Kenneth Force was elected to honorary membership in the American Bandmasters Association, founded by John Philip Sousa and Edwin Franko Goldman. He serves as president of the Board of Directors for the Goldman Memorial Band at Damrosch Park. And, of course, he continues teaching and composing (check out his CDs!). He’s already at work writing “The First Man March,” he notes, though he wonders, with typical Force humor, if he should call it “The Significant Other March.” #