Air Force looks for the few, the proud, the accordionists

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

QUINCY, Mass. -- There's a great job out there awaiting an accordion player. The catch: Six weeks in boot camp.

The Air Force has been looking to replace the accordion player of its band's Strolling Strings music ensemble since the musician retired two years ago. So far, the search has been fruitless.

"It is very hard to find the right person for this job, but it's a great job for the right person," said Chief Master Sgt. Jane Bockenek, the Strolling Strings' music director who plays the violin in the band.

So, since the accordion players aren't coming to the Air Force, the Air Force is going to the accordion players.

Bockenek is looking to recruit at the 66th annual American Accordionists Association festival, which is happening this week in and around Boston. She interviewed a half-dozen people Sunday and heard auditions Monday.

She is looking for more than an accomplished musician.

"They have to be under age 35, they have to fit our weight and fitness requirements, and they have to be able to get a security clearance," she said. "We are looking for someone who's not just qualified to do the job, but who fits the parameters of the United States Air Force."

They also will have to endure six weeks of rigorous basic training.

"They'll have to go through boot camp like every other recruit, but they will also be entitled to all the benefits of being in the military," she said.

Those who join the band are unlikely to see combat, she said, but they may be assigned administrative work such as maintaining the band's motor pool or coordinating its performances.

The 22-member ensemble plays state functions at the White House and entertains troops.

"What is so terrific about being in this band is that we are doing something so important from a diplomatic standpoint," Bockenek said. "And keeping up morale for the troops is an important part of our job. Not many musicians can say what they do has the impact that we have."

A case in point is Sgt. Maj. Manuel Bobenrieth, the accordion player in the U.S. Army's band and the military's only official accordion player for now.

"I consider myself lucky that I am the only accordion player out of more than 490,000 active-duty soldiers," said Bobenrieth, who has been the Army's accordionist for 18 years.

The accordionists' festival is expected to draw about 350 musicians, said Frank Busso, the group's comptroller and a member of the governing board.

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