FORT DETRICK, Md. – Despite most recently working as a budget analyst, Clay Beard has always preferred notes over numbers.
“I’m a musician. That’s how I self-identify,” Beard said. “I know my job is basically accounting, but I don’t think of myself as an accountant. I’m a musician with a day gig.”
Prior to joining the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency at Fort Detrick in October 2011, Beard aligned his “day gig” with his passion for music as a member of the prestigious West Point Band for over 28 years.
During his time as a bugler for the nation’s oldest band and oldest active unit at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Beard performed before many large patriotic crowds — some including a couple U.S. presidents — and even a handful of venues around the globe.
The 62-year-old Hagerstown, Md. native, who retired at the rank of Sergeant Major before joining USAMMA as a civilian employee, recalled international trips to Tokyo and Berlin, but his most memorable career highlights came stateside.
One instance happened in January 1991, when the band played the halftime show at an NFL playoff game in Buffalo, N.Y.
It was during the first Gulf War and Beard said they “had no idea what kind of reception” they would get from the crowd of 80,000 people.
He was happily surprised.
“To hear 80,000 people sing God Bless America full-throated while you’re playing, it was like in the teens and I didn’t feel cold at all,” he said. “It was really an overwhelming experience. I never heard that kind of response.”
Beard played with the band at Carnegie Hall in New York, as well as with the New York Pops and Boston Pops orchestras for holiday performances.
The Boston Pops concert on July 4, 2002, specifically, brought out an estimated 300,000 people, “plus the viewership of the A&E Network at the time,” Beard said.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “It’s kind of just like this sea of people, where you don’t even really see the people. You just kind of pull in and do your job.”
Beard’s love affair with music dates back to his childhood years in Washington County Public Schools. The first instrument he got his hands on was his great-grandfather’s cornet, a brass instrument similar to a trumpet.
“I didn’t know how to play it … but when I got to fourth grade, I knew wanted to play the trumpet,” he said.
Music quickly became a focal point in Beard’s life, but after graduating from South Hagerstown High School, he decided to pursue a career in mathematics.
“It’s hard to find work that’s steady,” he said. “And especially as a musician, something that has benefits.”
That was until a friend who attended Shepherd College in West Virginia convinced him to look into majoring in music education there. Beard decided to make the jump and graduated in 1980.
“It’s the kind of decision an 18-year-old makes, changing from math to music, but it turned out okay,” Beard laughed. “I left Shepherd as a good musician, but not really a good trumpet player.”
That all changed after a few months of lessons from renowned trombone player and brass instructor Donald S. Reinhardt at the suggestion of Harry Wacker, the music director at Smithsburg High School when Beard was doing his student teaching there during college.
“Within two or three months of going to (Reinhardt), you wouldn’t have recognized me,” he said. “In multiple ways, that student teaching … changed my life, really.”
As a more polished player, Beard gained enough confidence to try out for the West Point Band after learning about an opening in the band of roughly 75 members at the time.
In addition to the full marching band, West Point also featured three smaller components — a field music group of bugles and drums, nicknamed the “Hellcats” by cadets, as well as jazz and concert groups — when Beard joined following his audition in 1982.
Less than a year later, he entered basic training at age 26 and never looked back.
Beard said he always enjoyed playing patriotic tunes for the military because of what it means for the Soldiers, but also the country as a whole.
“I call it a force multiplier,” he said. “If you’re doing it right, the audience goes away feeling more patriotic. They go away feeling good about the military and their country.”
Today, Beard, a resident of Frederick, Md., continues to play on his own time. He performs with the Hagerstown Municipal Band, Gettysburg Big Band, Market Street Big Band and East Coast Stroke, among other groups around the area.
He also can be found around Fort Detrick playing bugle at events for Army Medical Logistics Command and USAMMA, a direct-reporting unit under AMLC.
Reflecting on his nearly three-decade career, Beard said funeral support for Soldiers and their families was one of the highest honors of his job, even though the most solemn.
He estimated he performed taps for approximately 2,000 services while at West Point.
Beard added that he will always miss the great people he met along the way and the world-class musicians that joined him for the ride.
Watching a nationally televised performance after his retirement triggered a “wow” moment for the humble and soft-spoken Beard — appreciating how rewarding the entire experience was, but also realizing he was good enough to be there.
“When I’m sitting back and watching that, I’m thinking ‘I was in that? Geez, they sound great and I was a part of that?’” he said. “It was like an out-of-body experience.”