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Commanders’ revived marching band will have a new look and sound

Members of the sousaphone section perform with the rest of the band during Washington’s training camp in 2014. The new ensemble will be roughly half the size of the original band. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that music director Jeffrey Sean Dokken graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory. He was a student there but did not graduate. This article has been corrected.

As the maestro and conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia since 2011, Jeffrey Sean Dokken has performed at such venues as the White House, the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. This year, the Los Angeles native and former Shenandoah Conservatory student will add FedEx Field to that list after being named the first music director for the revived Washington Commanders marching band.

“My two great passions in life are sports and music, so when this opportunity presented itself, I said, ‘This is literally a dream,’ ” Dokken said in a phone interview. “Generally football games are on Sundays and classical concerts are on Fridays and Saturdays, so it works out really nicely for me.”

With fans prohibited from attending most games in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL’s oldest marching band — formed in 1937 by the team’s founder, George Preston Marshall — was temporarily discontinued. An 18-member drum line performed at home games last season, along with a coed dance squad that replaced the NFL’s longest-running cheerleading team.

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The new band will look, sound and operate a bit differently than the previous version. Most notably, it will be a 60-person ensemble, and the musicians will be paid, part-time employees of the team. That’s roughly half the size of the all-volunteer band that played at home games through the 2019 season. Members of the former band, some of whom volunteered for decades, must reapply to be considered for the new ensemble, with virtual auditions open through May 23. The band will debut at Commanders training camp.

According to a team news release, Commanders co-CEO Tanya Snyder helped design new uniforms that “blend the team’s iconic burgundy and gold colors with new details.” A “revamped arrangement” of the team’s original fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” which hasn’t been played at the stadium since Washington retired its former name in 2020, is also in the works.

Band leader Barnee Breeskin composed the song in 1937; silent film star Corinne Griffith, Marshall’s wife, wrote the lyrics. The original line “Scalp ’em, swamp ’em — we will take ’em big score” was later amended to “Beat ’em, swamp ’em, touchdown — let the points soar!” In 1959, Marshall, a staunch segregationist, temporarily changed the line “Fight for old D.C.” to “Fight for old Dixie” in an effort to brand his club as the “Team of the South.”

Joey Colby-Begovich, the Commanders’ vice president of guest experience, was coy when asked just how revamped the song will be, but he did note the process will involve a “fan engagement initiative.”

“The fight song has gone through several revisions, not only melodically but also from a lyric perspective over the years,” said Colby-Begovich, who has been heavily involved in the development of the new music program since he was hired in March 2021. “Just like the marching band, our plan is to carry that tradition of the fight song forward. We are going to be sharing those plans early summer.”

Throughout the rebranding process, Colby-Begovich said, countless fans shared how much tradition, including the marching band, meant to them. Team president Jason Wright announced last year that a marching band would return in 2022.

“We can’t just close the door on the 90 years of our franchise’s history just because we have a new name,” Colby-Begovich said.

The team consulted with military and college bands over the past year about how it could create a robust sound with half the personnel of the former band. At home games, the new ensemble — composed of brass, percussion and woodwind instruments — will perform at tailgate events, in the plaza on the main concourse and on the field before player introductions. During games, band members will occupy a dedicated section above the west end zone video board. They will play select halftime shows and, in the continuation of another tradition, lead fans in a go-go get down by Gate A after wins.

As music director, Dokken will work in tandem with new band director Brittney Lynn, who is a music teacher in Prince George’s County and a founding member of the Maryland Marching Band Association. Dokken recalled being captivated by longtime Dodger Stadium organist Nancy Bea as a kid and said he hopes to bring some of the same joy to FedEx Field.

“The energy that comes from live music versus canned music is really palpable, especially in a sports setting,” he said. “I love the mash-up of different genres and of feeding off the crowd’s energy, whether it’s 50 people wearing tuxedos in a small chamber concert or 50,000 people wearing Commanders jerseys. That symbiosis between a live ensemble and the crowd, there’s nothing like that, and I can’t wait to bring that to the fans here.”

Dokken, who adopted Washington as his favorite NFL team when he moved to the area 13 years ago, has experience blending classical music and sports. He has performed at the Los Angeles Coliseum and once arranged a sports-themed concert featuring a 50-piece symphony orchestra and a college drum line. A similar collaboration in his new role with the Commanders would be another nod to the team’s past; at halftime of one game each season for several years during the 1950s, the Howard Mitchell-led National Symphony Orchestra performed at Griffith Stadium.

correction

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dokken graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory.

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