First Person Singular: Col. Michael J. Colburn, 48, Burke Va., Director of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band


“A lot of people are surprised to find out that I’m kind of an introvert,” says Col. Michael J. Colburn, director of "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 17, 2013

I was in junior high, at a summer music band camp on the campus of the University of Vermont. They had a number of guest clinicians there, and one of them was the principal euphonium player for the Marine Band. I was a very young kid with this bottom-of-the-line, basic euphonium, and was clearly in over my head. In meeting him and hearing him play, it was one of the first times it ever really occurred to me that there might be a career in this for me. He impressed me both musically and as a person. That was when the seed was planted. That’s when I thought: You know what would be really cool? If I could get a job playing euphonium in “The President’s Own” Marine Band someday.

I joined the band in 1987. My aspiration was never to direct. I started studying conducting in case after I left the band [I] wanted to find a college job. But the assistant director pulled me aside and said, “Hey, have you ever thought of conducting in the Marine Band?” You really could have knocked me over with a feather.

A lot of people are surprised to find out that I’m kind of an introvert. I’m not really comfortable standing in front of large groups of people and speaking to them, which is what I do on a daily basis now. There are times I feel like I’m playing a part. When I’m on tour with the band and going out in front of thousands of excited people, I will almost pretend that I’m John Philip Sousa walking onto that podium.

I became director in 2004. One of my chief responsibilities is being the music adviser to the White House. I get butterflies every time I walk into the White House. It’s still exciting. You just never know who you’re going to see. I remember turning around and seeing Joshua Bell, the famous violinist, to my left and Kid Rock to my right. I thought, Where else but the White House would you see these two musicians next to each other? But the best part of the job is the quality of the musicians and the people I get to lead on a daily basis. I can’t help but think about all the directors who have preceded me, all the musicians who’ve sat shivering in the cold on an inauguration morning.

This last inauguration of President Obama was truly historic. When you’re involved in one of these ceremonies, you just want to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle that you’re responsible for fit together. You don’t allow yourself to think about the gestalt of the whole affair. So for me, the [epiphany] happened at the end. I turned around and faced the Mall and looked out at this throng of literally millions of people. It was then, and only then, that I thought, Oh, my God.

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