To Educate and to Entertain

Mike Lawson • Archives • December 12, 2008

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Colonel Michael J. Colburn and “The President’s Own”

The United States Marine Band has been in continuous existence since 1798. Established in that year by an Act of Congress, their primary responsibility is to perform for the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corp and for the President of the United States of America, a distinction that has earned the ensemble the moniker, “The President’s Own.” Today, this unique band performs over 300 times each year at the White House, covering functions both official and private.

In the course of its 210-year existence, there have been 27 directors of the President’s Own. Most famously, John Philip Sousa led the band from 1880-1892. During his tenure, Sousa transformed the group dramatically, bringing in world-class musicians and setting the highest musical standards for the ensemble, standards which have been maintained to this day.

The current director, Colonel Michael J. Colburn, was appointed to lead this prestigious group in 2004. He has been performing with the President’s Own since 1987, when he joined as a young euphonium player. The son of a high school band director, Michael Colburn has been surrounded by music for as long as he can remember.

Musical Beginnings
In a recent SBO interview, Michael speaks about his early introduction to music: “I was the sixth of seven children. I had an older brother who played the tuba and I was always really fascinated by that. When it came time to choose what I was going to play, I had my heart set on my brother’s instrument. But my father convinced me that it might be better to start on a baritone horn because it is smaller than the tuba and much more manageable, with the idea that I could then switch over to the larger instrument when I got older. But playing the euphonium became my first love and I never found an instrument that I liked better than that, even though I tried the trombone and the tuba later on.”

To Catch the Marine Band Live…
For those interested in seeing the Marine Band perform live, the best way might be to travel to Washington D.C., where the group performs a rigorous concert series every year from January through May. That concert series is where Colonel Colburn is most adventurous with his programming, having his ensemble play the latest and most challenging pieces for concert band. In the summer months, the Marine Band plays outdoor concerts at the Capitol and at the Washington Monument. Those are more like Pops concerts, akin to the Boston Pops-style programming. Of course, you could aslo find out when the band will be somewhere close to your hometown during their national concert tour each fall.

Another option is to catch them at music conventions or gatherings of music educators. In recent years, the Marine Band has performed at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago and NEMC national conferences. Next June, they can be spotted at the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) international concert in Cincinnati.

Visit the Marine Band Web site ( and sign up for their electronic newsletter to find out when and where the Marine Band is playing next.

For some people, destiny seems to choose them as much as the other way around. In Michael’s case, he simply never seriously considered a life other than that of a fulltime musician whether as an educator or performer. While still in high school, he decided that he would play professionally, so as a senior, he wrote letters to all the principal euphonium players in the D.C. Military bands soliciting recommendations of the best euphonium teachers. That query produced the name of Daniel Paritelli, who was professor of Tuba and Euphonium at Arizona State University. Michael ended up pursuing his education there.

Upon finishing his undergraduate studies, the young musician set his sights squarely on the U.S. Marine Band. “I hoped that I would win a position with the Marine Band because of an experience I had when I was in junior high school,” recalls the Colonel. “I was attending a summer music camp in Vermont and one of the guest musicians was a gentleman by the name of Lucas Spiros, who was the principal euphonium player in the Marine Band for many years. That was the first time I had had any exposure to a professional euphonium player and I was really impressed. I thought, ‘If this is what it’s like to play in the Marine Band, then that’s where I wanted to be.'”

Opening Night Jitters
Like many members of the U.S. Marine Band, Colonel Colburn jumped straight from playing in a college auditorium to performing for the President of the United States of America. Playing for such a distinguished audience might be enough for anyone to get a little jittery, but for Colburn, there was another hurdle he had to overcome first.

“The first step,” he says, “was just getting over the feeling of playing with all of these great musicians. It had been a lifelong goal of mine to play in the President’s Own, and the first hurdle was getting over the nervousness and jitters of performing with these world-class players. Certainly, whenever we play for dignitaries at a high-profile event, every time I walk into the White House, I get butterflies.

“Anyone who is a student of history, who has any kind of appreciation of American history,” continues the Colonel, “can’t help but be somewhat intimidated by walking through those halls and setting up a stand to offer music in that place, as so many Marine musicians have done before us, for over 200 years. It really is something that I still find to be a very exhilarating experience one that never gets old.”

While working with world-class musicians brings many obvious joys for a player, for the director of the band, it isn’t always easy. “The biggest challenge in my current job is to stay one step ahead of these very talented musicians,” admits Colonel Colburn. “That is also one of the greatest rewards of the job. As much enjoyment we get from playing for these VIPs and dignitaries at the White House, it’s really the opportunity to work with musicians of this caliber both professionally and personally that is really the greatest joy of this job. They really keep me on my toes.”

Inside the USMB
Directing the United States Marine Band is a job that requires a unique brand of resourcefulness. His primary mission is to provide music for the White House and for the Commandant of the Marine Corp but exactly what that entails varies greatly from day to day. A performance at the White House might be something as simple as having a pianist or a harpist playing solo in private quarters, or it might mean having a large-scale band on the south lawn of the White House for the arrival of foreign dignitaries. They often send a chamber orchestra to the White House to provide music for State dinners or other functions, or it may be a string quartet playing in some corner of the room where there’s a social event.

In addition, the US Marine Band also provides music for the Commandant of the Marine Corp. That music may come in the form of a ceremonial group playing for a funeral at Arlington Cemetery, or a ceremonial band playing on the parade deck of a Friday evening parade. “Our job requires that we be very versatile and flexible,” says Colonel Colburn.

To Educate and to Entertain With such a diverse array of performance responsibilities, one would imagine that selecting appropriate repertoire might be no small task. On the other hand, the ensemble has been around for a few centuries, and they’ve compiled a pretty extensive musical library. The director relishes the challenge: “One of my roles as director of the Marine Band is to be music advisor at the White House. That means that I do choose the music for a variety of events that we play there. If we’re playing a State dinner, as we did recently for the Prime Minister of Italy, we’ll try to find music that really is specific to the country that is being honored. Now, in a case like Italy, you’ve got a wealth of options because there’s so much great Italian music. I really had fun programming the music for that evening. But it’s also very closely linked to the social secretary for the White House, who is generally my point of contact for these events. That’s the person we find out these assignments from, and that’s whom I work most closely with in determining what music we play.”

The 27th on the 17th
Although the US Marine Band was established in 1798, it didn’t really mature into its current form until John Philip Sousa became the director in 1880. “Sousa was the 17th director of the marine band,” explains the ensemble’s 27th director. “Many people have the misconception that he was the first because he is the first one who was well known, but Sousa really did put the Marine Band on the map. The way that he did that was through raising the musical standards and expectations, and really innovating. He was the director of the band at the same time that American concert bands were really growing up due to the technical innovations of the era. You had brass instruments that were suddenly able to play chromatic scales and other instruments that had the ability to play music that was much more advanced than the music that bands were capable of playing earlier in the 19th century. Sousa really took the ball and ran with it.

“His innovative style of programming combining marches and overtures and solos is a template that we follow to this day. A Marine Band tour concert that you might hear today bears a pretty close resemblance to what he did back in his day. Many people associate Sousa with the marches that he wrote and the classic band transcriptions that he did, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that he was playing the contemporary music of his day. He was playing music from composers like Wagner and Saint-Saëns the music of his time. In that sense, he was rather adventurous in his programming.

The President’s Own
At a Glance
Location: Marine Barracks Washington, 8th and I Streets, SE, Washington, D.C.
On the Web:
Established: 1798
Directors since that time: 27
Current musicians: 130
Current support staff personnel: 22
White House performances each year: 300
Total performances each year: 500

“I was looking through some Sousa programs just recently and I noted that one of his favorite transcriptions was Strauss’s ‘Death and Transfiguration,’ which is not a work that many people would associate with John Philip Sousa. Although he was adventurous, he was always masterful at balancing new and unheard of music with music that people loved and were already familiar with. He knew that he had to both entertain and educate your audiences, and he couldn’t sacrifice one goal for the other.”

And how does that concept manifest itself in today’s Marine Band? “Well,” continues the Colonel, “that’s exactly what we’re trying to do to this very day. When you look at the music that we brought out for this year’s tour, we have a mixture of wonderful transcriptions, including a piece like Lalo’s ‘Le Roi d’Ys’ an exciting turn-of-the-century overture which we’re playing alongside H. Owen Reed’s ‘La Fiesta Mexicana’ one of the great original works for the concert band. That piece actually was written in the 1950s for, and premiered by, the Marine Band. We’re doing a transcription of de Falla’s ‘The Three-Cornered Hat,’ which is an orchestral work that transcribes very well for the concert band, and we’re doing several pieces by John Williams, who is the person that many people feel is the musical equivalent of the modern day John Philip Sousa music that is both incredibly popular but also very sophisticated; it works on so many different levels. So I like to think that we’re still really following the path that was charted for us by our 17th director.”

On the Road
Every fall, the members of the United States Marine Band hit the road on a performance tour that, in the course of a five-year cycle, takes them crisscrossing around the country. The primary goal of this tour is to share their music with people that rarely get a chance to hear the Marine Band. “This was part of the original justification that John Philip Sousa used when he pleaded his case with the President to allow the band to leave town and get out and play,” explains Colonel Colburn. “Sousa said, ‘Mr. President, the people of our country deserve to hear this band, not just the people here in Washington D.C.’ He made a very compelling case and this is why we go around the country to this very day.

“But we don’t want to just limit our exposure to those audiences that happen to be in attendance at our concerts there are only so many people that we can squeeze into those halls, so one of the things that we try to do on our concert tours is educational outreach, where we send our musicians into the schools in all of these towns both big and small that we travel to in our national concert tour. We provide that intimate context with music students so that they get to know our musicians and realize that even though they may look like intimidating Marines today, just a few years ago they were music students just like the kids in the audience.”

Colonel Michael J. Colburn Oftentimes, Colonel Colburn sends his musicians out to schools alone or in small groups, depending on what will work best in any given situation. Perhaps a woodwind quintet might perform for students at a school and then have a Q&A session or a discussion about their job and about making music. Or one or two Marine musicians might go to a school to play solo or in duet or just to coach some of the student musicians through material the kids might be working on. They might visit a college and help more advanced students with excerpts that the young musicians have prepared for an audition or other performance. In all, this form of educational outreach is generally a mixture of Marine Band musicians performing for students and the students performing for the professional musicians, along with a healthy dose of conversation and discourse.

The reason the Marine Band visits schools is simple. “For one thing,” states the Colonel, “so many of our musicians feel that they owe a huge debt of gratitude to their own music educators. We know that most of us would not be here in the Marine Band today were it not for the hard work of our music teachers. And, of course, my father was a band director, so I have firsthand knowledge of the sacrifices that our music educators make on our behalf. Our educational outreach program is really an opportunity for us to pay back a little bit on that debt that we owe all those music educators. Many of our musicians teach privately they’ve got their own studios and they’re actively involved in teaching on a daily basis, so they are well aware of the benefits and the enjoyment that comes from sharing talent with young students. And we see that so often in these educational outreaches, as well. The thirst for knowledge that we encounter in music students is something that’s very exciting for us to take part in. It’s always very gratifying to get out there and work with kids.

“If there’s anything I really want to keep our focus on going forward,” continues Colonel Colburn, “it’s on really working closely with the music education community. It has been under so much pressure, in recent years especially, with the economic situation and increasing challenges to the importance of music education. We want to do whatever we can to help support music educators and augment their efforts on behalf of music students throughout the country.”

Sage Advice
Perhaps the most remarkable turn of events in Colonel Colburn’s life can be attributed to a simple idea, one which he readily shares: “The greatest advice I have for both music educators and music students is to keep your options open. When I joined the band as a euphonium player back in 1987, I had no aspirations to conduct whatsoever. My goal was to play euphonium in the Marine Band and I would’ve been delighted to have done that for my entire career. But shortly after I joined the band, I started working on a Masters degree in conducting, to broaden my horizons and make myself more marketable, should I ever need to find another job, especially if it were to be a teaching job. It was in the course of that Masters degree that Col. Foley, who was an assistant director at the time, pulled me aside and asked me if I’d ever thought about conducting with the Marine Band, something that had really never crossed my radar screen. I was so surprised you could’ve knocked me over with a feather because I’d never really thought of myself as a conductor. But he said, ‘We think you’ve got real potential to conduct this ensemble if you’re interested.’

“So I went home and talked to my wife about this possibility, and she basically said, ‘Look, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of this. When will you ever get a chance to conduct musicians of this caliber again?’ So I agreed to accept the invitation and never looked back.

Many times, I’ve thought back on that experience and said to myself, ‘You know, if I hadn’t been open to that option, if I had limited myself to the goals I had set when I was a teenager, I would’ve missed this fantastic opportunity.’ Especially for students who are just getting started and think they know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, it is so important to not paint yourself into a corner, to leave options open and to make sure you are ready for whatever opportunity that may knock on your door.”

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