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For Band, History Resonates

Colburn learned that lesson a few years back while he was conducting the English Folk Song Suite at the White House and felt a tug on his elbow. Expecting to see an usher, Colburn turned around. It was President Clinton.

"Clinton said, 'This is one of my absolute favorite pieces; I'm so glad you're playing it,' " Colburn said. Then the president discussed the piece in detail, naming the movements and recalling particular elements.


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"He couldn't have played that since high school," Colburn said.

Just as the White House staff, decor and image change with each administration, the musical taste of each president must be discerned by the band leaders, Ressler said.

Although Clinton knew band music better than other recent presidents and once sat in on saxophone while he was governor of Arkansas, Ressler said Jimmy Carter may be the "most musically astute" of modern presidents, often standing near the orchestra to listen.

Ronald Reagan particularly liked country and western music, Ressler said. On one of the last nights of his administration, Col. John R. Bourgeois, the band director at the time, gave him a special-model harmonica.

Standing before the orchestra in the Grand Foyer, Reagan blew a couple of notes. Then, after waiting just long enough to give orchestra members the notion that he had finished, Reagan began a rendition of "Red River Valley," to the orchestra's applause, Ressler said.

Jefferson may have taken the most active role in the band's evolution. During his administration, the band played Saturday afternoon concerts in the summer and fall, often on the White House lawn.

Unimpressed by the band, Jefferson, himself a trained violinist, sought to enlist musicians from Italy. By 1805, 18 had arrived, but because of bureaucratic problems with the military, only a few stayed long enough to join the band.

Even musicians who are used to playing at the White House can be impressed by brushes with presidents. Master Sgt. Janice Snedecor, 43, of Crofton, a clarinetist, had been in the band for 11 years when she played in a chamber ensemble celebrating the 200th anniversary of the White House, in November 2000.

Toward the end of the evening, as the ensemble played in the Grand Foyer, Snedecor said, the four presidents in attendance -- Carter, Gerald R. Ford, George H.W. Bush and Clinton -- began dancing with their wives.

"They were right next to us, dancing," she said. "All four of them together like that was something you don't see often."

With performances at a variety of events including bill signings, state dinners, ticker-tape parades and memorial services, the band's musical selection remains a careful process.

For state dinners, Foley said, he tried to select music from a leader's country. That is most difficult for Asian leaders, he said, because most Asian music is performed in different modes and scales than traditional Western classical music. Nonetheless, he said proudly, for a visit from the South Korean president he managed to find Korean folk music that could be arranged for the band.

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