WASHINGTON — Listen up, people.
Marine Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Strong will soon play. Maybe the former Fresno, Calif., resident, who’s a trumpeter in the storied U.S. Marine Band, will blow some classical air. Show tunes are a possibility. Or, perhaps, he’s just going to handle “taps” and break your heart.
“It’s a pretty simple melody,” Strong said, “but because of the weight of the situation, it’s an emotional piece, and it can be a challenge to get through it.”
As a member for the last four years of the band popularly known as “The President’s Own,” Strong has rendered “taps” at countless Arlington National Cemetery funerals. The 28-year-old has traveled the country, entertained at the White House and stirred the spirits of old salts everywhere.
Versatility is key for Strong, who also plays cornet. Depending on the mission, the 130 Marine Band musicians may spin off into different ensembles and configurations. State dinners, for visiting foreign dignitaries, can test their ethnic mettle. Once, Strong said, the Marines had to navigate the Jewish folk music called klezmer.
“Being in this band,” Strong said, quoting a fellow musician, “is sort of like being the president’s iPod.”
Now, Strong and his band mates — with their highly polished instruments and their top-secret security clearances — are preparing for their quadrennial turn in the global spotlight.
Starting his Inauguration Day at 3 a.m., Strong will join in performing at the president’s swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol. Then the band will lead the second division of the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. In the evening, it will perform at several inaugural balls. The next day, the band will play at a national prayer service at Washington National Cathedral.
This will be Strong’s first Inauguration Day performance, but the Marine Band’s 54th consecutive inaugural appearance. Don’t think it doesn’t know it, either: This is a musical organization that’s acutely aware of its heritage.
“There’s a really high standard of musicianship that’s been set by our predecessors,” Strong said, “and we try to live up to that.”
Music is embedded in Strong’s family. By day, his father, Richard C. Strong, is a lawyer in Fresno. He specializes in real estate, the classic rock of the legal profession. For kicks, though, Jeffrey Strong noted, his father plays guitar in an assortment of garage bands. Miles Davis was part of the Strong family soundtrack, and young Jeffrey dug the sound.
“We first suspected some musical talent on the changing table,” Richard Strong recalled. “We would pat him on the tummy and he would sing ‘ah-ah-ah,’ delighting in the vibrato created by tapping on his tummy.”
Strong picked up the trumpet in fifth grade, and in time he began studying with local teacher Joe Lenigan, among others. Another local player, Fresno State’s Ritchie Clendenin, had been in the Marine Band, but Strong didn’t really focus on the possibility until after he’d graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and earned his master’s degree in music performance from Northwestern University. He’d played with a number of civilian ensembles when a Marine Band opening occurred.
Strong’s enlistment started with the audition, a musical crucible.
A single opening for a Marine Band trumpet player attracted 110 competitors. Each was given a batch of music to master. Over two days, with judges listening from behind a screen, the field was narrowed to 10, and then four, and then one.
“Jeff is a great, great trumpet player, and a great person to have in the organization,” said Col. Michael J. Colburn, the band’s director.
A six-week basic course taught Strong military fundamentals, such as how to salute, march and distinguish between his colonel and his gunnery sergeant. He isn’t tactically trained. Strong’s sole job, summed up by the band itself, is to play music for the president of the United States and the commandant of the Marine Corps.
This blend of musicianship and Marine “oorah!” battle cry makes for a unique mix. During a recent pre-inaugural practice at the Marine Corps Barracks Annex, Strong and the other band members were casually dressed in jeans and civilian clothes. Colburn, directing, was the only one with a tie. Their hair was short, but not exactly high and tight. Some quiet joking broke up the practice discipline; a tuba player asked Colburn whether he’d have to sing.
But then, in certain phrasings, came clues that this outfit was, indeed, engaged in a military operation.
“The second to last note, sir,” Strong asked Colburn. “Am I supposed to stay on the G or move to the F sharp?”
Colburn considered the question and issued his order, and then the U.S. Marine Band marched musically on.