Let me introduce my good friend, Staff Sergeant Harry Ong, a clarinetist in the President's Own United States Marine Band. We went to the University of Michigan School of Music together and spent a good deal of time hanging out in Washington D.C. when I lived there in 2003-2004. He still lives in the Nation's Capital and is in his sixth year playing with the Marine Band.
If you’ve been following my blog for a few months, you know that I like to keep up with what my friends and former classmates are up to musically. It’s been interesting for me personally to watch Harry experience this unique job that is more than a “regular” symphony or band gig (my hat goes off to all them as well). Most of his six years with the Marine Band were spent under the Bush Administration and I think for any Democrat or liberal this mere fact would induce an internal struggle (it certainly would for me). I asked Harry about this many times, and he was always very realistic about his role in the Marine Band and the joy that having such a special patriotic job as a professional musician brings him. I wanted to share his experience with you.
Established by and Act of Congress in 1798, the Marine Band is America’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization. Its primary mission is unique – to provide music for the President of the United States. Harry plays at funerals in Arlington cemetery, marches almost every summer night for the tourists, for VIP’s and dignitaries at the White House and inauguration.
Every fall the Band tours a different part of the lower 48 states and this year they passed through the Bay Area. I did a quick interview with him over drinks after a show at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. These are some of the intelligent (and not so intelligent) questions I had for him.
Jamie: Does Obama have you working more than Bush? (Clinton loved the Marine Band and used them all the time, Bush not so much)
Harry: Well it’s hard to tell because it still early on. It takes about a year for a new administration to find out what they musically want from the Band. I’ve played for events that Obama was at.
J: You played at Inauguration, right?
H: When you saw musicians under the ledge where Obama was standing, that was us. We’ve been very close to him. I looked up and it was present Obama. I looked up, and he was right there with Aretha Franklin with the hat! It was great. I played at the Press Correspondent dinner too. We played before the dinner. We do a patriotic opener, a bunch of marches, we help out with the colors ceremony and then we play the Armed Forces Medley that you heard tonight.
J: That was really moving.
H: Yeah. It’s really great to see all these veterans with their families standing up. We had a concert in central Oregon where we had about ten World War II veterans: a couple of which were at Iwo Jima. It’s really cool to have a role where we get to represent the Marine Corps, America and great Americans like them. You sometimes forget when you watch the news that members of our Armed Forces are people too with families. It’s really interesting to get that perspective.
The Marine Band is the longest continually active musical organization in the country. We’ve always been part of the Marine Corps. All the musicians you saw tonight with the exception of the director are all in the marines. We have a non-combatant role; our mission is to provide music for the President and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. It’s a very different experience than Fleet Marine Bands. We all represent the Marine Corps and our country in the best way that we can and we’re all the best at what we do. I competed against fifty other musicians to get one spot. Some other musicians have 100 plus people to compete for one spot. We have a group of fleet marines who graduated in the top five percent of their infantry class and are assigned to our Band to help us out. They are excellent at what they do and we really appreciate them. Each [component of the U.S. military: Army, Navy, Marines] has a premiere band and we are very fortunate have our own stage crew. In some of other bands, the musicians have to be their own stage crew.
J: How did the Band get the name “The President’s Own”?
H: Thomas Jefferson coined the term “The President’s Own.” And that’s stuck ever since. We first performed at the White House in 1801 and then we played at every inauguration since Thomas Jefferson.
J: I notice that there were very few women in the concert tonight. The harpists are usually women and they weren’t playing tonight.
H: The ratio of men to women is 60/40. We only have one harpist and she just had a baby.
J: What’s up with the skirts? (They are long, dark blue and not too stylish.)
H: Well our uniforms are very traditional uniforms from the 1800s.
J: What it’s like to be the face of the military abroad and within the United States?
H: We had a group of musicians that went to Singapore last year to help the Armed Forces Band celebrate their 50th anniversary. In the summer of 2001 the Band performed for the World’s Symphonic Band Conference, it’s sort of like the world cup for bands. When we went there we had such a reputation. It’s an amazing responsibility and it is such a pleasure. I wasn’t there, I was still in college, but I heard we did four encores and the audience wanted more.
J: How do you deal with the political side of being in the Marine Band?
H: When we’re on the job we have to leave our personal beliefs at the door no matter what. We are here to serve for the President regardless of who it is. Personally I have to separate my own personal feelings and what I have to do as a job. Inauguration was a very special thing for me, but I still had a job to do.
If you want to read more about Harry and his background (especially interesting is his take on being born in Indonesia and his relationship to the United States military), check out this interview with him in the Seattle Pi.
To learn more about the United States Marine Band