For Marine Band, History Resonates
"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.
Show tunes, music by George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, and songs from current movies are favorites, Foley said.
Colburn likens the music selection process, in which he participated as assistant director, to designing a menu for dinner guests. The pieces must fit together, he said, but there must be variety, too.
While practicing, the musicians resemble any concert band, sitting two to a music stand with bottles of diet cola and water at their feet. They dress casually, though to adhere to the Marine code the men tuck in their shirts and sport the required fade haircuts.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company