"She used to tie her hair up in ribbons and bows, sign her letters with X's and O's," sang Sgt. 1st Class Erica Russo as she smiled and swayed in front of a small group of backup vocalists.
As her strong alto voice belted out the familiar notes of Trisha Yearwood's "X's and O's," the 65 members of the United States Army Field Band played along behind her June 23.
Russo's fatigues blended in with the green upholstery and wooden floors of the large practice room at Fort Meade.
The Catonsville resident will be part of the 29-member Soldiers' Chorus that will accompany the field band on a national tour that include a July 4 performance in Boston with the Boston Pops Orchestra.
The show will be broadcast live from 10-11 p.m. from the Charles River Esplanade by CBS and will feature Lionel Richie as a guest artist.
Russo has performed all over the country with the field band and chorus, which travels thousands of miles a year during three national tours.
From country and Motown to more traditional pieces, the band performs a wide variety of music on tour and during a summer concert series open to the public at 7 p.m. Saturdays in August at Constitution Park.
"It has been such a remarkable opportunity, every day," said Russo, who has sung with the choir for 10 years.
"My grandparents both served in World War II and I still have most of my grandfather's medals and awards, and I have his dress jacket," said Russo, referencing her maternal grandparents, the late Marvin and Dorothy Pike — the latter of whom worked on decoding projects for the Department of the Navy.
"It's so great to be able to think that I have this opportunity to serve my country, and to do something that I love and know that I'm continuing a family tradition," she said.
Growing up in Florida, Russo started singing at age 9 — performing in school choirs and children's theater groups.
"My favorite movie in the whole world is 'The Sound of Music'," said Russo, remembering how she would watch it each year as a little girl whenever it was on television.
"I would watch Maria on that mountain top and I was like, 'I want to do that when I grow up.' " she said.
After graduating from high school in 1990, Russo attended Florida State University, where she got bachelor's degrees in Russian and Music.
She received a master's degree in Russian musicology from Ohio State University, where she met her husband, Technical Sgt. Tadd Russo, a member of the U.S. Air Force Band, in a conducting class.
The couple have one daughter, Rachel, 3.
After graduation, Russo sang in various choirs and taught music at a private girls' school inColumbus, Ohio.
But after receiving an email from a former college roommate about an opening in the Soldiers' Chorus, she flew to Maryland to audition.
"I was like, 'You know what? I think going to basic training is going to be so much easier than parent-teacher conferences.' " she said.
And in some ways, it was.
"It's like you get into the mindset of, 'I'm here for 10 weeks. I can do anything for 10 weeks, anything at all.' " she said. " And the drill sergeants, well, it's their job to yell at you.
"So you think of it as, he's not yelling at me as a person, he's yelling at me as a concept."
At each performance, Russo said she is touched when the field band does an Armed Forces salute that includes the theme songs for each branch of the military, and she sees elderly veterans standing.
"You look out in the audience and you think, this is what this is about," Russo said. "That is why I am here."
Support at home
Sgt. Major Janet Hjelmgren said the best part of her 26-year career as a soprano in the Soldier's Chorus has been a "sense of serving.
"Serving our country, serving soldiers," the Catonsville resident said. "That is really our mission and to thank our country for their support of the soldier.
"And every night we get to experience that," she said. "Every performance."
Hjelmgren said she finds being a "soldier musician" a wonderful combination that carries with it a special motivation.
"We're always rehearsing, always practicing, always making ourselves better so that we can represent those amazing soldiers that are out there, all across the world, doing the tough jobs," she said.
Originally from Minnesota, Hjelmgren sang her first solo in church at age 4.
She sang in various church and school choirs while growing up, enrolling at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., after graduating from high school in 1976.
She had planned on becoming a nurse or an artist, but decided to double major in art and music after a choir director asked why she wasn't majoring in music.
After graduating from college, she lived in Florence,Italy, for a year, where she took private voice lessons and studied Italian.
Moving to Washington, she had a mix of jobs as she tried to make it as a musician — performing, waiting tables and teaching music at a parochial school.
Hjelmgren said she was "absolutely thrilled" when she was accepted to the Soldiers' Chorus.
"It's that moment of my life is changing and this is something so deeply good," she said.
"And prior to going to basic training, you know that this good thing is going to happen and you're going to learn a lot," she said. "And really expand yourself.
"And basic training definitely did that for me," she said. "I found out really how much I could do."
While singing in the chorus, Hjelmgren met her husband, Army Sgt. Maj. (ret.) Douglas Cox, a tenor and conductor who still performs in the area.
As the couple tours the country performing, Hjelmgren said her neighbors in Catonsville were instrumental in helping to watch their home and pets.
"That's something that we've all found in Catonsville and Arbutus," she said. "I think the roots are just deeply patriotic, deeply aware of the freedoms that we are all so fortunate to have. And they're deeply supportive of the soldier and of us as soldiers."
Westminster native Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Sarangoulis, who plays euphonium in the field band, moved to Catonsville about a year ago.
Sarangoulis traces his professional music career back to the fourth grade, when his family's dog bit his lip and he had to get stitches.
"I was in a small elementary school and I wanted to play an instrument in the fifth grade and the only thing that was left was this rusty old baritone in the closet," he said, describing how the other kids had already chosen their instruments.
"Everyone already took the saxophones," he said. "Because everyone wanted to play the saxophone."
He found the instrument came easily to him and he played throughout middle and high schools, eventually earning his bachelor's degree in euphonium performance from the University of North Texas.
It was there that he met his wife, Lindsey, who at the time was a flute player in one of his college bands.
They now have two children, Kate, 4 months, and Will, 2.
In the fifth grade, Sarangoulis had seen a poster of a military band that had a euphonium player in it.
"And I was like, 'That's so cool,' " he said. "I'm good at doing this. That's what I want to do."
In January of 2003, during his senior year of college, Sarangoulis auditioned for the field band, returning to finish his degree before entering basic training in July of that year.
"Once I won the job, it was such a relaxing feeling knowing that I had a job waiting for me right out of college," he said.
"It's been amazing," said Sarangoulis, who has been in the band for eight years and since visited "every major city in the United States twice" while on tour.
"It's been a dream come true," he said. "Being able to play an instrument and just connect with the American people like we do when we go on tour, I couldn't ask for anything more."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun