Thursday, May 22, 2003

Learning survival scales

NKU percussion student combines his commitment to the Army with his love of music

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Clad in his Army fatigues, Jason Wagner, 21, a percussion student at Northern Kentucky University, plays a five-octave marimba in NKU's percussion room.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
"I have learned a lot of things from being a musician, and from being in the Army," says Jason Wagner, a percussion student at Northern Kentucky University and member of the Army Reserve.

"The one thing that sticks out is the concept of attitude. You may not like that you have to roll out of bed at 5:30 a.m., but if you just say to yourself, 'Today's going to be the best day it can be,' it will be. There's nothing you can't do with an attitude like that."

Wagner is someone with both a positive attitude and musical talent. In March, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra recognized Wagner, 21, as this year's NKU CSO scholarship recipient.

"Jason learns everything I throw at him, brings in pieces of his own that he wants to work on, and asks for more," says Richard Jensen, CSO percussionist and Wagner's teacher.

"I find myself raising my expectations to meet his ambitions. He's advancing by leaps and bounds, not only in technique, but also in expression and maturity. He has a passion for playing music, and he doesn't mind working hard."

'Basic' lessons

Working hard is something Wagner knows well. Last year, the Newport native enlisted in the Army Reserve. One weekend each month, he drives to Fort Knox to play in the 100th Division Band. He earned that position: Wagner underwent nine weeks of basic training in Fort Sill, Okla.

"Most people think that (because) you're in the Army Band, you didn't do anything," Wagner says. "Then I tell them that I sat in a gas chamber for five minutes - one minute without a gas mask on - and I've gotten to throw live hand grenades, shoot many different types of weapons and learn different survival skills."

Weighing 200 pounds when he started, Wagner lost 40 pounds in three months. There were many days when he didn't think he would make it.

"It puts everything in perspective. I learned a lot about how the everyday things that can upset a person are really nothing compared to what military people go through," he says.

At Fort Sill, Wagner also had an invaluable musical experience, spending three weeks with the 77th Division Army Band.

His band duties at both bases have included performing for graduations, dances and parades; playing for change of commands; and giving concerts on the lawn of the commanding general's house.

Although he plays the full spectrum of percussion instruments, from timpani to snare drum, the "mallet" instruments are his specialty: xylophone, vibraphone and marimba. He is also a composer and recently wrote a piece in honor of his NKU composition teacher, Wes Flinn.

Saying he is "overly critical" of himself, Wagner believes his best performance took place at Greaves Hall last year, when he auditioned for a Corbett Scholarship at NKU.

"I just remember walking off the stage and, for once, being proud of myself," he says. Although he didn't win the scholarship, he believes the experience of competing was valuable - and humbling.

"The humbling part was to know that you can always do your best, and still it not be good enough, and make you want to push harder and do it better the next time." This year, Wagner tried again and won.

Keeping a vow

Wagner says the Army has given him the courage, motivation and discipline to pursue his dream of becoming a music teacher.

Meanwhile, Wagner's Army obligation goes to 2010. At least 20 of his basic training buddies are in Iraq. Wagner is prepared to go if called, saying, "We all vowed to do our part. We all said we would protect our country against all threats."

He sums it up: "I know one way or another, music is going to be part of my life, whether I'm teaching, performing, listening or viewing. And so will the Army, because they've taught me a lot of things that have made me the person I am today."


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