The mindset in the Defense Department of saving money and making do with the proverbial "80-percent" solution has yet to permeate the ranks of military musicians, but it's high time that it does.
Musical instrument purchases for military bands go counter to pretty much any mandate for belt-tightening that defense leaders like to complain about publicly. If the much-bemoaned sequestration cuts represent the "meat-axe" approach to controlling defense spending, as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has famously proclaimed, then the $75,000 Cello for the Air Force, first flagged by Time.com over the summer, is the sweet-sounding antidote to such brutish austerity.
The Navy, on the Air Force's behalf, re-published a solicitation for the instrument on the Federal Business Opportunities website last week. The precision of the requirements is striking, down to the millimeter of the instrument's corpus dimensions. Also, it has to have been crafted by Italian luthier Joannes Gagliano in 1787.
That certainly narrows down the candidates. Somebody really wants that cello.
There are other examples. The Army some years ago ventured to buy a brand new Steinway grand piano for almost $90,000 for the base chapel at Ft. Riley, Kansas. As in the case of the cello, the requirements were crafted so that any, say, $20,000 Yamaha grand -- perhaps even used, as is customary in this class of instruments – needed not apply.
Or take the three handmade Verne Q. Powell flutes sought by the Army last year for the total cost of $34,000. The manufacturer on its website cites one satisfied customer raving about his Powel flute as "home and family, mystery and future. An irreplaceable partner to realize the beauty of music."
That endorsement came not from a military musician, but, according to the maker's website, from the principal flutist of Japan's Kyoto Symphony.
Every musician deserves the best possible instrument, whether in the military or in school classrooms around the country, but a modicum of budgetary moderation should be applied. Good instruments, even great ones, can be often be found for a fraction of the price that the government wants for its inventory of Defense Department bands.
It's worth looking at the justification documentation for the Army's flutes purchase. In essence, the document states, the service regulation governing bands makes it mandatory that only the most exquisite instruments be bought, it states.
"Army Regulation 220-90 is specific in addressing the professional quality of musical instruments," the document reads. "The Commander, US Army School of Music, has determined that these makes and models are necessary for the mission and that no other makes or models will suffice."
In fact, the cited service policy says the only people allowed to certify the "sufficiency, condition, serviceability and quality" of musical instruments are Army band officers, warrant officer bandmasters or band senior sergeants.
If those officials have no interest in moderating the bands' appetite for extravagant equipment fit for the stages of the world's great concert halls, somebody higher up should do it for them.