From the today's mysterious pianist in Mahan Hall to the midshipman musical clubs of old, music lovers of all backgrounds continue to find a home at the Naval Academy.
When the Naval School’s first opened in October 1845, a beating drum, later accompanied by a fife, sounded reveille and taps and called the acting midshipmen to their recitations, formations and meals. The drum’s importance to academic routine and military discipline quickly impressed the new school’s students. "Demerits are not given for serious offenses,” wrote Acting Midshipman Josiah Beckwith to his mother in March 1853, “but for little trifling omissions such as being late or absent from roll-call when perhaps you did not hear the drum beat.”
In August 1852, Superintendent Cornelius K. Stribling first included in annual appropriations “a bugler, who is much needed for calling classes to recitations” but in November added a petition for housing of a Naval band at the school. On May 17, 1853, twelve musicians comprising the newly formed Naval Academy Band disembarked at Annapolis, quickly gaining a featured place at formal and social functions. Beckwith recalled that the superintendent, officers, and midshipmen officially received Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin at the school’s gates on May 6, 1854 to the band’s sounding of “Hail Columbia,” and a salute of eighteen guns. On New Year’s Eve 1854, Beckwith described a “soiree” held at Superintendent Goldsborough’s residence where “they heard the band for music, and I believe that it came off in very good style.” In a letter to the chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, Superintendent Goldsborough himself admitted that "no one doubts, I believe, that music has a harmonizing influence, and that harmony itself is indispensable to good and efficient discipline."
After the Civil War, Superintendent David Dixon Porter took a unique approach to encourage superior academy music. “No piece of music is to be played on the bandstand without first being submitted to me,” Porter promulgated in official orders for the 1867 band. “Only those musicians will receive allowances of coal who deserve it," Porter continued, "and if the band doesn’t improve I will stop all allowances.” After hearing a musical midshipman’s distasteful practice one fall afternoon that year, Porter eviscerated the young man issuing a public order at evening parade that “Midshipman Thompson who plays so abominably on a fish horn, will oblige me by going outside the limits when he wants to practice or he will find himself coming out of the ‘the little end of the horn.’”
Another musical staple on the Yard - the Drum and Bugle Corps - had a rockier start than the Naval Academy Band. First performing at a 1914 baseball game against St. John's College, the 22-member group's flashing swords, brass buttons, piping horns, and drum-rolls enhanced many spring parades and other social functions for the next seven years. However, in January 1922, Superintendent Henry B. Wilson abolished the corps saying in Brigade Order 3-22 that, after months of observation, “the Bugle Squad is not looked upon by the Regiment as an asset of the academy. At the enthusiastic request of several midshipmen, Superintendent Louis M. Nulton permitted a 45-man, volunteer Drum and Bugle group to reform in April 1926. Not all midshipmen, however, enjoyed the corps’ performances. “The drum and bugle corps are making terrible sounds down in the basement,” wrote Midshipman third-class Richard M. Nixon in May 1927. “They are just about the worst nuisance around. They never are able to pick up the same step … when the band quits playing it necessitates the entire regiment changing step, and their music, if it can be called such, is rotten.” The corps fell out of fashion again soon after but reestablished itself on a permanent footing in March 1946.
Various other midshipman musical groups and the academy band continued to add melody to the school's twentieth century academic routine. With their finger on the pulse of pre-Depression America's Jazz Age, midshipmen formed the Ten Jazz Band in the 1920s. Informally active since the 1880s, midshipmen in Gymkhana combined their athletic and melodic skills to demonstrate gymnastic exercises in stentorian circuslike performances that gained a prominent place in extracurricular entertainment programs until the early 1930s.
At the same time, the academy's band continued to grow and provide music at parades and official academy functions. “I can hear the band playing as they are marching in from drill,” wrote Nixon in November 1928. “It would be rather hard to separate yourself from the academy when you get right down to it. Every time you hear a band play a martial air you would almost instinctively pick up the step and march down the street like on parade. Probably there are certain things which have become so firmly fixed as to never be cast off.”
Present at the school in one form or another since the Civil War has been the midshipman Chapel Choir, out of which grew the Glee Club and, eventually Women’s Glee Club. The choir also spawned the dashing “Skivs” in the 1950s and the dapper Barbershop Quartet of the early 1980s. Myriad other formal and informal midshipman musical troupes assembled during the academy’s 177-years, Some groups, like the Plebe Dance Band appear in official photographs while many others remain lost to history.
C.K. Stribling to Commodore Charles Morris, “Estimates for the Naval Academy for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1854,” August 11, 1852, Vol. 4, Entry 1, RG 405.
Josiah G. Beckwith, “Letter to father,” March 1853. Folder 1, Box 1, MS 425: Josiah G. Beckwith Letters, 1853-1855.
Josiah G. Beckwith, “Letter to father,” May 6, 1854, Folder 7, Box 1, MS 425: Josiah G. Beckwith Letters, 1853-1855.
Josiah G. Beckwith, “Letter to father,” December 31, 1854, Folder 10, Box 1, Josiah G. Beckwith Letters, 1853-1855.
Louis M. Goldsborough to Commodore Charles Morris, "regarding the pay and living conditions of the resident band," January 19, 1854," Vol. 5, Entry 1, RG 405.
Naval Academy Band History. https://www.usna.edu/USNABand/about/history.php.
Richard M. Nixon, "Letter to father," May 24, 1927, Folder 10, Box 1, MS 426: Richard Mueller Nixon Letters, 1923-1930.
Richard M. Nixon, "Letter to father," early November 1928, Folder 3, Box 2, MS 426: Richard Mueller Nixon Letters, 1923-1930.
David D. Porter, “Orders for the Band,” July 9, 1867, volume 310, Entry 48, RG 405.
David D. Porter, “Order relating to Midshipman Thompson’s fish horn playing” October 25, 1867,” Vol. 311, Entry 48, RG 405.
Reference File, “Drum and Bugle Corps,” Reference Files, RG 405.