Col. Michael J. Colburn directs the United States Marine Band during the inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol for President Obama's second term in January 2013. Colburn is retiring in July. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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When Col. Michael Colburn was a 12-year-old euphonium player at a summer band camp in Vermont, he was in awe of one of the instructors there, Lucas Spiros, a principal in the United States Marine Band.
Colburn said the Marine, a fellow euphonium player, left a lasting impression.
“It was really the first time I thought, ‘Hey, I could do that for a living,’ ” Colburn said. “From that moment on, I pursued my musical studies more diligently.”
When Colburn himself joined “The President’s Own” as a euphonium player in 1987, he had no idea his career path would lead to becoming director of the prestigious band. Now 27 years later, he’s just months shy of his final performance with the band. He’ll retire from the Marine Corps in July, and take over as the next director of bands at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Colburn said he wants young musicians to know that if they work hard and use their creativity, they can still pursue a career doing what they love. After all, his perseverance led him through seven presidential inaugurations, to the former Soviet Union and to the stage of the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
Q. Tell us what has surprised you during your time with “The President’s Own.”
A. In my early days as a conductor [while a member of the band], I had an interesting experience at the White House. I was leading our orchestra and was tapped on the elbow. I turned around and it was President Bill Clinton. He was very interested in the piece of music we were playing and had many questions that I tried to answer while I was conducting the orchestra. I realized that even though we were providing background music for a social event, you never know who’s listening very carefully — it could be your commander in chief.
Q. What’s one of the most rewarding things you’ve done with the band as a Marine?
A. Back when I was a player in the band, we toured the former Soviet Union for three weeks. That was really a memorable experience because it was in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union was really starting to come apart at the seams. To spend three weeks traveling the country and getting to know the people who lived behind the Iron Curtain — who we really didn’t know on a personal level at all — to hear their stories and learn how much we had in common is something I’ll never forget.
Q. After all these years with the band, is there any one song that you tend to feel strongly about when you guys play it?
A. People often ask whether I’m sick of playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” But even after these thousands of performances, we never get tired of it. And there’s one reason for that, and it’s the audience’s response to it, especially if they don’t know it’s coming. The “oohs and aahs” and the cheering make you feel like you’re playing it for the first time.
Q. Most troops do their job without much interaction with the public. What’s it like to carry out your job on a stage?
A. We really do understand that so much of our military indeed works behind the scenes. They don’t have the privilege of being on a stage and receiving applause. It’s especially during our tour concerts when we play the “Armed Forces Medley,” which includes all the service songs, that we remember all the men and women serving in uniform who are in difficult and trying circumstances where no one is offering applause. In those moments, we feel we are representing all those troops when performing for the American public.
Q. As you move into academia, what are some of the things you’re going to miss the most about the Marine Corps?
A. A lot of people assume my favorite part of the job is making music at the White House or meeting politicians and celebrities. That is thrilling, and I’ve loved it. But really the best part has to do with the quality of the people I’ve had the chance to work with in “The President’s Own.” They’re some of the finest people I’ve met. I’m really excited about the opportunity to make music with students, and I hope I can bring the very high standards that I have hopefully developed during my Marine Corps career.