For Marine Band, History Resonates
Publicly, band members wear red coats with gold cords as they serenade presidents and state guests at the White House or accompany funeral rites at Arlington National Cemetery.
For some members, being part of the band is the realization of childhood dreams formed after hearing performances in Reno, Nev., or Interlochen, Mich. For others, "The President's Own" was simply another audition in the job search that somehow landed them on White House balconies and marching in military parades.
Nationally advertised through music journals and top music schools, auditions often draw 50 to 100 people, Ressler said. The winner of an audition is enlisted for duty with the Marine Band on a contract that prevents the musician from being transferred to another unit. Band members do not participate in basic training, because they're already highly trained in music, Ressler said.
Because most who enlist join for the music rather than the military service, it often takes time for them to fully understand the organization's history, Colburn said. But the traditions -- which include beginning every concert with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and ending with "The Marines' Hymn" -- slowly become as important as the music. Nearly all the band's members stay until retirement.
"Gosh, in this organization, it's hard to find something that isn't traditional," Colburn said.
And then there's Sousa.
The internationally famous director led the band from 1880 to 1892. The son of a military trombone player, Sousa joined the band as an apprentice musician at 13 and became a playing member four years later. Though he left after three years, he returned to direct the band. During his tenure, Sousa began writing the marches for which he is known, including "The Gladiator," "The Washington Post March" and "Semper Fidelis," which is dedicated to the Corps. He wanted to rejoin the Marines when World War I started, but his request was rejected. Instead, he joined the Navy and trained its musicians.
If there's any question about the place Sousa has in the band's memory, a visit to the director's office settles any doubts. Sousa is immortalized in four photographs and paintings, including one of him in a Navy uniform, and perhaps in a fifth -- there is speculation that, in the front row of a Civil War-era photograph of the band, a young Sousa is hiding between two trombone players.
The baton that Foley passed to Colburn was given to Sousa in 1892 and bears his name in gold engraving. Sousa's Tiffany lamp, with a blue and green stained-glass shade decorated with outlines of fireflies, stands in a corner of the director's office. Across the room, a cabinet holds medals Sousa won for skeet shooting and other outdoor activities. The new band barracks may be named John Philip Sousa Hall.
Another Sousa portrait overlooks the room where band members often practice, an ever-present reminder of the tradition to which band members belong.
For some, it's not easy to forget. Staff Sgt. Michelle Urzynicok, 32, of Bel Air knew she wanted to join the band since she heard it at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where she attended high school.
She was studying in Germany in the late 1990s, after earning a master's degree, when she heard there was an audition for the band, and she flew to Washington to try out. She got the spot and joined in 2000.
As an E-flat clarinetist, Urzynicok often played "Hail to the Chief" on the White House balcony during the Clinton administration's tenure. She made her father proud this summer when she marched in the Reagan funeral procession, she said. She loves the music the band plays, loves being a part of history and is proud to perform with top-caliber colleagues.
"Sometimes I still can't believe that I play here," she said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company