Marines Follow Passion for Music Through Enlistment Program

Clarinetist Sgt. Justin Grunes, a musician with Marine Corps Band San Diego aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif., has spent time in the Marine Corps and the Army Reserves. (Photo: Sgt.Taylor Morton)
Clarinetist Sgt. Justin Grunes, a musician with Marine Corps Band San Diego aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif., has spent time in the Marine Corps and the Army Reserves. (Photo: Sgt.Taylor Morton)

SAN DIEGO — The Marine Corps is best known for fighting and winning battles. Yet, although the motto: “Every Marine a Rifleman,” illustrates the Corps’ martial tradition, some Marines may also excel at playing a musical instrument.

The Musician Enlistment Option Program is not only an opportunity for talented musicians to become U.S. Marines, but also a chance for musicians to have a full-time job performing music all over the world. Marine musicians have the opportunity to become part of one of 10 renowned Marine Corps bands or to become a member of "The Commandant's Own" Marine Drum and Bugle Corps based in Washington, D.C.

The MEOP is an opportunity for Marines to travel around the world while playing various styles of music such as classical, jazz, rock, pop and military marches for large crowds in prominent venues.

“You will definitely get the opportunity to perform here. You can find challenges for yourself within the program, and this is really a worthwhile experience,” said Marine Corps Cpl. Nathaniel Hawkins, a University of Northern Iowa graduate with a bachelor’s degree in percussion performance and a musician with Marine Corps Band San Diego.

“You can travel around the world performing music for crowds upwards of 100,000 people, 300 to 400 times a year,” Pellon said. “This is what every musician considers the dream.”


“The Marine Corps is known for fighting battles,” said Marine Corps Staff Sgt Mark Pellon, the musician technical assistant for the 12th Marine Corps District here. “That’s what we do best; we win wars. It’s hard to impress upon someone that this is an extremely high-quality musical organization as well.”

Many Marine musicians are recruited through social media, from established bands, or from universities and educationally sponsored organizations that honor particularly talented musicians, Pellon said.

“I think everything is surrounded at the education level. All of the musicians who are trying to be better are getting some type of education,” he said.

High school students looking to pursue a degree in music or performance know how much time and commitment it takes to get their next level of education. College graduates know how much dedication and devotion it takes to reach their highest potential and have their dream of playing music fulltime become reality. This is what the Marine Corps asks for in their musicians.

“The caliber of what we do has a reputation of being a Marine first and a musician second, but to be a great Marine, we have to be great musicians, so there is an artistic drive in each and every one of us,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Justin Grunes, a University of Delaware graduate with a bachelor’s degree in music and performance, and a musician with Marine Corps Band San Diego.

Classically trained students who obtain a degree in music performance aspire to become part of one of the nation’s most renowned orchestras, but the professional music industry is one of the most competitive fields to work in. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times about the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the life of a musician looking for steady work and a reliable paycheck is not an easy one. Musicians looking for work fly across the country at their own expense for the chance to audition among a vast number of other talented players for just one seat.

Those players who find themselves unable to gain a seat in an orchestra or band typically find themselves looking for temporary jobs or gigs, which can lead to stress and a lack of financial stability.

“Instead of having the worries and insecurities a musician on the outside would have about trying to get a gig or a group together, we are taken care of by the Marine Corps,” Grunes said.

Good Benefits

The MEOP offers a way for musicians to earn a secure paycheck and provide for themselves and their families. Junior Marines can even earn as much as a beginning musician in a national orchestra. Marines also have the benefits of full medical and dental care for themselves and their families. They also have a chance to further their education and improve their leadership skills.

“We’re able to provide the lifestyle of a high-level musician traveling and performing, and that’s just an actual tangible thing,” Pellon said. “The fact you get to earn the title of Marine, and people see you wearing our uniform and representing the United States, that’s something you can’t put a dollar sign on.”

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