The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University George Mason University

The President's Own Maestro

Marine Band director follows in the footsteps of Sousa

By Tara Laskowski

As a kid, hoping one day to play the tuba, Lt. Col. Michael Colburn, MA Music '91, never imagined himself as a conductor nor a U.S. Marine. He certainly never imagined himself serenading the president of the United States and other dignitaries on a regular basis. Yet today, as director of the President's Own U.S. Marine Corps Band, that's pretty much what he does.

Last July, Colburn became the 27th director in the band's 206-year history that is steeped in tradition. He understands the weight of the engraved gold John Philip Sousa Baton that was passed down to him. After all, just 10 other directors have held that baton between Colburn and Sousa.

The Marine Corps Band, the oldest of the military bands, has played at every president's inauguration since Thomas Jefferson's, including George W. Bush's second inauguration this past January, with Colburn conducting. Patriotic music is the standard for inauguration ceremonies, but the band is also progressive in finding new and exciting music to perform. Colburn says he also tries to look for music that fits the event; for foreign dignitaries, the band sometimes plays music from their country.

Colburn attended the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York in Potsdam for two years and earned his bachelor's degree in music performance in 1986 from Arizona State University. After graduation, the Vermont native set his sights on the military bands because he says they were the only places where euphonium (the tenor version of the tuba) players could find full-time jobs.

In 1987, Colburn found his full-time job playing euphonium for the U.S. Marines Corps. He received military training from the drum major, the only band member who goes through basic training. "The Marine Corps Band has wisely decided that to send a band member through weapons training would be a waste of time and money for everyone," Colburn says. No band members ever go into combat.

Colburn received his master's degree in conducting from Mason in 1991, working with Anthony Maiello, professor of music and director of instrumental studies, with whom Colburn had studied at the Crane School of Music. "I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again," Colburn says.

At a party at the White House before a Kennedy Center awards event a few months ago, Colburn realized just how strange his job could be. "I finished conducting a piece and turned about. To my left was Kid Rock, and to my right was [violinist] Joshua Bell. Where else but the White House would you see those two in the same room?"

At that same event, the band played a piece from the score of Schindler's List and afterward Colburn noticed that film composer John Williams and motion picture director Steven Spielberg were watching and listening.

Colburn says that all the presidents for whom he's performed have appreciated the band. Recently, George W. Bush told Colburn that one of the best perks of his job was to be able to hear the Marine Band regularly. Colburn also had a few conversations with President Clinton about some of the pieces the band played.

"Clinton had the most extensive music background of the presidents I've worked with," Colburn says. "Sometimes he and Mrs. Clinton, when they were leaving an event for the evening, would hold the elevator doors open so they could hear the end of a song."

Despite rubbing elbows with famous people, Colburn says the best part of the job is working with the men and women behind the instruments. "Conducting musicians of this caliber is so enjoyable. It's a dream job."


Photo of Lt. Col Michael Colburn

Michael Colburn