Senior Airman Alycia Cancel
Yokota Air Base, Japan -- Silence spread throughout the room as all eyes were focused on her. She performed in front of people before, but this time, it was different.
Senior Airman Alycia Cancel, U.S. Air Force band of Pacific-Asia vocalist, joined the U.S. Air Force to gain musical experience prior to becoming a music teacher, and her first performance was singing the National Anthem in front of Military Training Instructors less than two months after completing Basic Military Training.
“I was nervous enough about singing for the first time while serving, but when I found out who I was singing in front of I was absolutely terrified,” she explained. “Luckily I sang the anthem without forgetting the words. A lot of people told me that my first time performing was going to be memorable no matter what it is. My first time singing the anthem was definitely a memorable one, I will never forget that.”
Born into a musical family, it was only a matter of time before Alycia took to the stage. She began singing in church alongside her father, Louis Cancel, when she was eight-years-old.
“It’s a huge part of who I am. As long as I can remember, music has been a major part of my life,” Alycia said. “With music engrained in a part of me, it is a way to express myself, an outlet for energy, emotion and anything that goes on in life.”
Growing up in Newburgh, New York, where her father served in the military at the Stewart Air National Guard base, Alycia developed a strong sense of community from her own family, the military and her church. She would regularly attend church and sing in the choir on Sundays alongside her father. She also participated in many military activities over the years.
“Music has always been an important part of our family dynamic, but as a parent, part of our job is to help develop the gifts our children have been given,” Louis said. “It has always been a pleasure to sing with her, and watching her grow as a musician.”
Even after Louis retired from the Air Force, their family stayed in the same area while her love of music continued to grow. This also strengthened Alycia’s mindset of being in a military community because it is a sense of comfort for her.
“While I felt at ease with the military lifestyle, I thought I couldn’t join because I didn’t know what I would do and I could never survive basic training,” she said. “I also had a lot of questions and figured I could never do that.”
As Alycia journeyed through school she continued to sing in church and choir. In high school Alycia began singing at a music festival that exposed her to a variety of different types of music, such as classical American and Italian which led her to sing in different languages and helped her learn various styles of singing.
“It helped me grow because I was exposed to different styles of music aside from what I grew up singing in church,” Alycia said. “The music I began to sing in high school was challenging because it took a different set of skills to sing.”
As high school graduation came closer, Alycia thought to be a doctor because she knew she wanted to do something to help people and at the time she didn’t want to go into performance.
“I love singing, but I didn’t know if I could pursue a career in performing and teaching wasn’t appealing at the time because I remembered my music teachers throughout school and didn’t think I’d have the patience to do that,” she explained. “I couldn’t see beyond the teachers I encountered in my life until one choir director really challenged me in music and helped me realize that there is so much more than teaching elementary school general music.”
As Alycia attended college, her classroom and personal experiences would slowly, but surely change her future. Not long after entering college, it dawned upon Alycia that her passion for music is what made her love her music teachers. She then switched her major to music education.
Soon after, she was exposed to the Air Force band as they performed in her home town.
“My family and I had never known of the Air Force band prior to this event even though their home station was a few hours south of us,” Alycia said. “I was blown away after finding out that they went through all of the normal steps of joining the Air Force, and that this is the job they get to do. It was amazing to see them perform.”
“I thought for a moment, ‘what if I did that?’ I could actually serve my country and be in the capacity that I have revered my entire life while doing something I love and I know I can do.”
Alycia received an email from the Air Force band audition section shortly after returning to school because her mom signed her up to receive emails and informational updates from their website.
“I began thinking I could deviate from my original plan to join the Air Force for four years to gain some experience to help myself grow as a musician to be a better teacher,” Alycia said.
During that time frame an audition came up and Alycia submitted her resume to see where she stood. She wasn’t accepted, but received valuable feedback from the band members.
At the time, her passion to become a music teacher was growing with an idea that she would graduate college and then be a passionate teacher for the rest of her life.
In her final two years of school, she weighed her options and considered how people immediately start working after graduating while other times people get another job to help them gain more of a well-rounded resume.
No other auditions popped up during that time, so she was able to go through school without being distracted. As time passed, the more she thought about it and considered if another audition came up right after college, then she would give it another try.
As Alycia’s graduation came close three auditions appeared within three months.
“I thought that this was perfectly timed and if I don’t do this now, I’m going to regret it,” she explained. “I had considered auditioning for other bands, but my dream was to be in an Air Force band because it is what I really want to do. It is where I pictured myself at the time and where I’m supposed to be.”
During her first audition, she made it to the end of the day where she was interviewed by the commander. Unfortunately, Alycia did not make the cut, but had been told to audition during the next opportunity in San Antonio. This is where she finally made it into the Air Force band.
Cancel entered basic military training in September 2014 at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where she would also be stationed after complete her initial military training.
Within a month of working in her new career, Alycia began performing for various events on base, within the local area of Lackland AFB and in various areas of the Southeastern part of the U.S. She would perform at military ceremonies such as retirements, awards, graduations, promotions or change of commands, at various schools, parades and sporting events.
“Aside from honing her people skills and or by being a representative of the Air Force, I feel that those who are able to do what they teach are always better teachers,” Louis explained. “As Alycia continues to serve, she will further grow as a musician to help her become a better teacher.”
While each event provided Alycia with a unique experience and helped her grow as a singer, there were some events she felt truly honored to be a part of. Two particular retirement ceremonies where Cancel sang allowed her to receive a first-hand view of the tremendous careers Airmen have.
“A lot of people are able to retire from the Air Force, but sometimes others are able to understand glimpses of their lives and careers as they’ve served,” she said. “I felt incredibly honored to present our national anthem at the ceremonies while the Airmen inspired me and made me appreciate my job.”
She continued to perform at various events for the next year and a half until she moved to Yokota Air Base, Japan, in June 2016. During her time here, Alycia continued to sing at the same military events at her previous base, and performed at various locations throughout Japan and the Indo-Asia Pacific Region.
“As I have performed throughout Japan and this region, I have used my job of performing in communities as a way to thank people for their continued support for having us and being such wonderful hosts,” Alycia said. “I try to represent my fellow service members, who may not have as many opportunities to be involved with our host nation’s citizens, the best way possible, and make sure that the people know what it is that Airmen do.”
After serving in the Air Force for a little over three-years, Alycia has gained much more than just the performing experience she was looking for in the beginning.
“I have become more prideful of being a service member as I have been able to see the sacrifices, dedication and selflessness that you often characterize those who wear the uniform,” she said. “I carry myself differently now that I’ve served in this capacity. When I take that next step of becoming a teacher, I’ll carry that sense of pride and belonging into teaching, and take what I’ve gained from serving into that community.”
Senior Airman Alycia Cancel, U.S. Air Force Band of Pacific-Asia vocalist, stands inside a band studio at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Jan. 19, 2018. Cancel joined the Air Force band as a way to gain experience performing prior to becoming a music teacher.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Owsianka)