From Marine Band Concerto Competition Winner to Audition Winner

SBO Staff • America's MusiciansFebruary 2024 • February 19, 2024

Horn player Staff Sgt. Shawn Zheng, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., is one of the newest members of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band – he just joined the ensemble in August 2023. He’s also a former winner (2017) of the Marine Band’s annual Concerto Competition for High School Musicians – the first of which to later become a musician in the Marine Band.

“I remember discovering I was a finalist and feeling so motivated for the opportunity to compete in DC,” Zheng said. “I entered a handful of competitions in high school mostly as fun goals. These were mostly local competitions, but also a few with a national scope, such as the Marine Band’s Concerto Competition.”

“These, along with summer program auditions, led me to always have something tangible to practice toward,” Zheng continued. “As a bonus, they allowed me to meet a lot of young musicians (many of whom I still keep in touch with) who were on a similar journey as I was—that communal aspect of making music remains important to me.”

Zheng mentioned he was less interested in the “competition” aspect of these events, and more in witnessing himself make demonstrable progress because of his own preparation. His progress was real, and back in 2017 his musicianship impressed the judges during the final round of the Marine Band Concerto Competition enough to award him the $2,500 scholarship and opportunity to solo with “The President’s Own” in concert, commensurate with first prize.

“I was of course elated and so grateful for the opportunity to perform my winning selection with the Marine Band, but I was also very nervous,” Zheng said. “It was the first time I ever soloed in front of an ensemble, and the fact it was with such a well-respected ensemble made it that much more nerve-wracking and exciting.”

Zheng went on to study horn performance at Rice University in Texas, where he also gained experience subbing for the Houston Symphony and guest performing with the Houston Ballet Orchestra.

Fast forward to 2023, and he found himself back in John Philip Sousa Band Hall in Washington, D.C., this time auditioning to be in the very military ensemble he performed with six years before. On that day, the Marine Band’s audition committee also saw him as the perfect fit to join as its next horn player.

Zheng explained what appealed to him about auditioning with the Marine Band: “Due to my positive experiences as a Concerto Competition participant in high school, I knew that ‘The President’s Own’ was a world-class ensemble with excellent musicians. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned more about the unique nature of the job and the day-to-day experiences of being in a premier military band. During the last year of my bachelor’s degree, I started taking professional auditions for ensembles that I felt would be a good fit for me in terms of quality of ensemble, organizational culture, and location. While many of these auditions were for orchestras, the Marine Band also checked all those boxes for me. When the opportunity to audition arose, I knew I couldn’t pass it up!”

“I’m very fortunate to have won the audition,” Zheng added.

When asked about what he had to work hardest at as a young musician, he responded that it was the technical aspects of the horn which challenged him most.

“While I think I had a naturally good ear and intuition for phrasing due to the sheer quantity of music I listened to, the physical aspects of horn-playing itself did not come particularly ‘easy’ to me,” Zheng explained. “There were many instances of having musical ideas I wanted to express that I couldn’t do effectively, due to technical limitations. Though, over time as I became more adept, my focus shifted to improving my mental game and cultivating belief in my preparation, abilities, and career.”

As a professional musician, Zheng continues to make sure the “nuts and bolts” of his horn-playing are kept in good condition daily, but now he faces new challenges. “I’m constantly trying to make my personal practice more efficient,” he said. “If I can have the same net result after one hour instead of three, I’d rather spend less time physically practicing.”

For now, Zheng continues to get acclimated to his new working environment in a military setting, learning more about the organization through first-hand experience.

“I am surprised that an extremely important part of the job is on personal presentation, making sure my uniform is neat and decorum is appropriate,” Zheng shared. “In my position, I am not just a regular musician, but a very public-facing, active-duty Marine representing not only the Marine Corps, but also the United States as a whole.”

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