Kenai native, playing with Navy Fleet Band, performs in visit

KENAI — In some respects, Sterling Strickler followed in his father’s footsteps; in other ways, he found his own path. Like his father, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Unlike his father, he carries a bassoon, tuba or guitar instead of a weapon.

However, the service eventually found them both across the Pacific Ocean in Yokosuka, Japan — Strickler’s father in the 1940s and Strickler himself on his own tour about 50 years later. Strickler played with the Navy Fleet Band there as well as in a variety of other countries scattered around the Pacific Rim during his time in the Navy.

His father had always told stories about the Navy and what he’d seen during his time in Japan, so it was neat to see what he had heard so much about, Strickler said.

“He used to tell stories about the caves, when he went down and explored them as part of his duties,” Strickler said. “I was really psyched to be stationed in the same place he was.”

Strickler, who grew up in Kenai before leaving for college in 1986, is a professional musician with the Navy Fleet Band. This week, he has been with the group visiting Kenai for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s annual Summer Music Festival, playing free concerts around town. The last free concert will be held at noon Wednesday at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center in Kenai.

The band has 13 official groups throughout the contiguous U.S., Hawaii, Italy and Japan, and the players tour the world playing arrangements for dignitaries as well. Strickler said he has played events from courthouse openings to birthday parties for foreign royalty, with a concert setlist ranging from big band jazz on a tuba to marching as a drum major.

He plays a variety of instruments from the tuba to electric bass, but he said he really began with bassoon between the sixth and seventh grades. He’d started on the clarinet, but when his younger brother also wanted to play the clarinet, his mother and music teacher suggested he try the bassoon.

“We got the bassoon home and tried to figure it out,” Strickler said. “I practiced really hard in the summer of sixth grade. I was more or less caught up with the other kids by the time seventh grade rolled around.”

A variety of music camps followed, from a fine arts camp in Alaska to the world-renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts music camp in Michigan, which Strickler said “was a wake-up call” because of the skill level many of the other students exhibited. When he graduated high school in 1986, he attended Washington University in St. Louis for a bachelor’s degree in music. After he graduated from Valparaiso University in Indiana with a master’s degree, he chose to enlist in the Navy and try out for the band.

The auditions for the Navy Fleet Band are notoriously high-level and rigorous. An additional requirement stipulated that many of the players be multi-skilled — for instance, if a bassoon player wanted to be accepted into the band, there not only had to be space for him, but he’d also have to know how to play saxophone.

“You have to audition for them (with) a mixture of prepared pieces, show your versatility and you have to know a lot of scales,” Strickler said. “You have to be good at sight reading. You can’t just walk in there and say, ‘I want to play’ and they’ll train you. We hire a lot of people from conservatories (who have music degrees).”

Because he didn’t know saxophone but did know tuba and bass guitar, Strickler was able to audition on those two instruments and made it in on his two secondary instruments, he said. After a boot camp and training in Virginia, players are sent out to their band assignments. He was sent to Newport, Rhode Island to play in his first band. Strickler played there for 6½ years, often playing tuba and bass guitar.

Over the years, he’s expanded his skills, picking up drum majoring — he learned the moves both from the Navy and from videos of college bands, he said — and even re-engineering and learning a contrabassoon himself specifically for an all-state band when he was later stationed in Hawaii.

Contrabassoon, also known as double bassoon, plays an octave lower than ordinary bassoon and the technique is slightly different.

Strickler’s also had the opportunity to play with a number of different types of groups with varying types of music. He started playing with a woodwind quintet, like the one he has been playing with in Kenai, when he was stationed in Japan. The skill level of the players in the Navy bands allows the group to play very complicated pieces, he said.

Playing all over the world is a chance for the Navy to build relationships with other countries over music, Strickler said.

“It’s a low-pressure way of creating ties with other countries,” he said. “You’re just out there talking to them, getting to know them.”

After 23 years with the Navy, Strickler said he is planning to retire and return to Kenai in May 2017. Although unsure of what he plans to do, he said he doesn’t expect it to take long to plug into the music community.

It’s easy to stay passionate about music in a long career of it if one remembers what it’s like to be away from music, Strickler said.

“All the office jobs I used to do before the band, after you have to sit at a desk for the year and be off your horn, you’re desperate to play,” he said. “And you remember that. Sometimes you show up to a rehearsal and it’s a bad photocopy and there’s multiple clef changes, stuff like that used to make me really annoyed … but you have to take a step back, look at it, learn it. And you go on.”

• Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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