More than just musicians: Heartland of America Band on Tour

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Carly A. Costello
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
Heartland of America Band members do more than just perform, these Airmen are stage crew workers, operations team members, and public affairs specialists who plan, publicize and perform the shows they produce.

The band recently finished up its Salute to Veterans Tour Nov. 9 after spending five days on the road. The tour consisted of five stops in Northeast and Central Nebraska to include the cities of West Point, Wayne, Norfolk, Blair and Wahoo, reaching more than 2,500 people.

There are a lot of factors that go into setting up and performing these kinds of tours, according to U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Dan Bragdon, Heartland of America Band guitarist, bassist, pianist, drummer and NCO in charge of publicity.

In addition to planning a set list and rehearsing, the band needs to decide where to play and when, according to Bragdon. The band looks at where they have played in the past and tries to visit communities they have not been to in a while and locations that were successful in past tours.

Once the band has an idea of where they want to play, they reach out to those communities for support.

"There are two vital ingredients needed to make these shows happen," said Doug Roe, Heartland of America Band director of operations, "a place to play and publicity to let the community know about the concert."

In order to get these two ingredients, Bragdon or Roe reaches out to the local newspaper in the communities the band would like to play in and works with a venue in that town. 

"I was the conduit between the squadron and the sponsors," Bragdon said. "I work with getting them the materials that they need from us to do the appropriate advertising to get people to the venue. We will contact a venue to make sure it's available then we contact the local paper to see if they are able to provide us with free advertising, ticketing, and doing the legwork to get people out to the show."

Matt Peterson, Systems Manager for the Norfolk Daily News was the sponsor for the Norfolk show, which was held at the Johnny Carson Theater.

"We've had the band here six or seven times," Peterson said. "[The band] contacted me, we got ahold of the school and I did all the ads, made sure we had the theater available, and accommodations for [the band]."

In conjunction with nailing down locations and dates, the band decides on songs and begins rehearsal.

More than 25 hours of practice and countless more hours went into transcribing music for this tour, according to U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Birkenmeier, guitarist and NCOIC of the band. Birkenmeier also oversaw the programing for the tour.

"We choose music that will hopefully evoke the era that they were popular during," Birkenmeier said. "In this case, we wanted to concentrate on specific war-time eras. It's a very democratic process. I query the team about what they would like to do and thus begin the filtering process."

Even though the band has done a Veterans Day themed tour in the past, they always come up with a different show each year.

"The fun thing is that every time we have the [band] it's a different show," Peterson said. "This one was what I felt more contemporary than what we've seen, and it's neat because we did have a few younger people in the audience, so to be able to relate across generations and have something that everybody likes is big."

In addition to picking songs, publicizing, scheduling and practicing, the band's operation members work on generating orders, securing travel funds and booking hotel rooms.

"I was in charge of personnel," said Senior Airman Alena Zidlicky, operations Airman and French horn player. "I put together the itinerary and made the hotel reservations.  I was in charge of getting people from point A to point B."

When the band is on the road, each day consists of 7 to 10 hours of work, driving to the location, unloading the equipment, setting up, performing, tearing down, and driving home or to the hotel. Each member is assigned a role when it comes to setting up and tearing down the equipment for each performance. Not only are they responsible for their own musical equipment, some are assigned to setting up sound equipment and others are assigned to stage set up. Everyone knows their job, making set up and tear down a quick process.

Once the show gets started, the band performs a mix of popular, historical and patriotic songs over a 75 minute period.

"This was really, tremendously patriotic and stimulating," said Ivan Svoboda, U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Korean War. "There were several very good songs and a very nice presentation."

From a public affairs side, these shows are a great tool for community outreach and bringing a piece of the military to small towns across Nebraska, according to Bragdon, but he says that performing is not the most important aspect.

"The performance aspect is always fun but you can sometimes take that for granted," he said. "The crowd reaction more so after the show and we are out there interacting with the audience members for that 10 to 15 minutes, when we are giving handshakes and the stories of family members in the military, it gives them a momentary connection to an individual in their life or in their past who they might not have thought of otherwise, but coming to our show created that moment for them, and I think that's the best part of what we do."

Katie Knox, a music education major and trumpet player at Wayne State College attend the show in Wayne and said she is biased to military bands because her father served.

"I have always liked coming to different military bands," Knox said. "My dad actually served in the Air Force and I always like listening to military bands perform. I really liked the march at the end and I always like when they recognize people who have served, that is one of my favorite parts, too. Overall it was really good and I liked all of it."

If you weren't able to catch the band on the Salute to Veterans Tour, you can see them this December during their holiday tour, which is sponsored by Suburban Newspapers and supported by Offutt leadership. For more information and for tickets to the holiday concert series, visit the band's website and click on a link that goes to the band's page on Ticketleap.com.