The holidays have always been a busy time for 11-year-old Willa Wensel’s family.
With two parents in the US Army Band, the family juggles rehearsals during the day, performances at night, and additional events, sometimes at the White House or the vice president’s residence. And this year, there’s a twist: Willa and her father will share the stage.
“I think the kids get used to me saying, ‘All right, I’ll see you tomorrow morning.’ Or occasionally, now that everybody’s getting a little bit older, ‘I’ll see you, I’ll see you when I get home,’” Master Sgt. Benjamin Wensel, 46, said Thursday from the lobby of the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, where he and Willa are slated to perform this weekend in the US Army Band’s American Holiday Festival. The festival will be livestreamed on Saturday night.
“But … performing and being down here this weekend, too. It’s really neat. To have kids who also can relate to the performance schedule, because … this time, we get to be in the same place.”
This year’s show, which has been held in Washington, for more than 60 years, began Friday and runs through the weekend. It includes variations from “The Nutcracker,” during which Willa will perform the ballet’s fast-paced, traditional Trepak number, also known as the Russian dance. Just feet away, her father, a cellist in the Army Band’s US Army Strings for nearly two decades, will help to provide the music.
At Thursday’s dress rehearsal, Willa kicked and jumped on stage, balancing a traditional Russian headpiece – a gold kokoshnik – on her head while her white dress and blue apron swayed in time with the music. Her father, a seasoned performer who has grown accustomed to pre-show anxiety, found himself more distracted than usual.
“I was a little nervous, honestly, going through it right now, because I kept on looking over at what the dancers were doing because I wanted to watch more than I wanted to play,” he said.
Willa’s mother, Sgt. 1st Class Christina Wensel, played violin in the holiday festival, with the 2017 performance being her last. She has since taken on a supportive role as a music librarian. The shift, the 44-year-old said, has helped the family balance their duty to the US Army and their duty to Willa and her two brothers.
“We can even come to the performances,” she smiled. “I never got to come to this show for the first 10 years that I was here. So for the last five years I’ve been librarian, it’s been nice to balance having family time and being able to still support the whole organization.”
The couple first met while in the band in the early 2000s. Now, the Wensels make it a point to play music together as a family at their Fairfax, Virginia, home. (“Silent Night” is Willa’s favorite – “because it’s the easiest,” she says.)
Over the years, the Army Band’s holiday festival has emerged as a tradition for the Wensel family.
This year’s show depicts in part the story of a deployed soldier returning home to spend the holidays with friends and family, and features classic holiday songs and a number of musical pieces recognizing different religious traditions.
“The diversity of what we do is also part of what is really meaningful to me, because I love all kinds of music; I love connecting with different cultures and different groups of people,” Christina Wensel explained.
For Benjamin Wensel, his service in the US Army Band ties him to members of his family who served: His father was drafted and served in the Vietnam War, while his grandfather was a bombardier in a B-17 during World War II who performed as a violinist in a prison camp after being captured.
“I think, over the time I’ve been in, I really appreciated being able to serve with music and have that be a main focus of military service,” he said.
As for Willa, she wants to come back and do it all again next year. Though she anticipated a bit of pre-show nerves, she was quick to share that she mostly thinks it will be fun to be in the spotlight with her father.
“It’s really cool during the holidays to spend time with your friends and family,” she said. “And we can do that onstage.”
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