A Marine Corps Band of ‘Brothers’
Every Friday during the summer, the Marine Corps holds a parade at its barracks at Eighth and I streets Southeast.
As the sun begins to drop, a few Marines walk onto the parade decks, a symmetrical grassy field enclosed within the Marine Barracks where the performance will take place.
They explain the history of the barracks to the audience: Established in 1801, it is the oldest post of the Marines and held Marine Corps headquarters until 1901.
The commandant of the Marine Corps has lived in the same house at these barracks since it was built in 1806. And the American flag that flies at the barracks bears 15 stars and 15 stripes — the same as the flag that flew there in 1801.
“We’re knee-deep in tradition here at Marine Barracks Washington,” one of the Marines says.
And then the parade begins.
Begins With Flags
There are a number of moving parts to the kinetic display.
The performance is an hour and 15 minutes long and begins with a ceremonial bearing of the colors at the barracks and ends with a bugler playing “Taps” from the roof of one of the barracks’ buildings.
Between the somber and ceremonial beginning and end is sandwiched a boisterous display of talent from the U.S. Marine Band, the Silent Drill Platoon and the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps.
Each group is steeped in history and tradition. The U.S. Marine Band was declared “The President’s Own” by President Thomas Jefferson and has been present at historic events, including President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, since its establishment in 1798.
The band travels the nation to perform at ceremonies and parades, but its home is Washington.
The Silent Drill Platoon is a group of 25 hand-picked Marines who perform a silent syncopated choreography with 10-pound Garand rifles complete with bayonets. This group, too, is based in D.C., but it represents the Marines internationally.
And the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, called “The Commandant’s Own,” consists of 80 musicians, most of whom are recruited to the Marines for their musical talents. They perform in 300 to 400 events nationwide and internationally each year. Staff Sgt. Joshua Miles, a representative for the Marines, said that although they do undergo basic recruit training, they are held in reserve and only deployed for combat if they request it.
“They have a lot of unique training, and a lot of effort is put into these soldiers to prepare them for their positions” as musicians, he said. This is why so few — currently, nine — are sent into active combat.
But the Drum and Bugle Corps is the only active-duty drum corps in the armed forces, which makes becoming a member highly prestigious — most soldiers in the Commandant’s Own came to the Marines looking specifically to play in this band. Miles explained that this results in extremely competitive auditions for open positions.
“If there’s one bugle opening, 300 people try out,” he said.
And only a few, such as Gunnery Sgt. Keith Martinez, make it. Martinez played soprano bugle for the Drum and Bugle Corps for nine years before moving up to assistant drum major.
The application process for his current position was intense, requiring a 10-page paper, an oral interview with a seven-person panel and a demonstration during which he had to lead a unit around in a small ceremony. Martinez now does much of the administrative work for the band, but he said the 95 percent of work is worth the 5 percent of time spent performing.
“When Marines mess up out in town, it’s not that bad because for every bad thing you turn around and have something good happen. You get to meet somebody famous,” Martinez said. “It’s satisfying.”
He said he counts meeting President George H.W. Bush at the U.S. Embassy in Paris and President Barack Obama and his family here in D.C. as some highlights from his time with the Drum and Bugle Corps.
But the experience is not just glamorous travel and famous encounters. The Marines in the Drum and Bugle Corps practice their music and their marches for eight to 10 hours every day during an average week, but as many as 12 hours a day in the weeks leading up to their spring tour.
Majors and assistant majors, such as Martinez, must know every instrument’s part and all of the possible marches to be prepared for any mistake that might occur.
“It’s kind of like playing chess,” Martinez said. “You have to be five steps ahead of what everybody else is doing.”
Like a quarterback, he studies video of the performances to keep track of all of the different movements and possible mistakes.
For many of the musicians, meeting important dignitaries is just a side perk to doing what they love — playing music. Percussionist Austin Williams said he came to the Drum and Bugle Corps because he wanted to be able to play music and make money doing it.
Being one of the older members of the Commandant’s Own means he had an unusual experience from the beginning.
“Boot camp was a challenge,” he said. “There are very few recruits in their upper 20s.”
Despite a grueling boot camp, Williams wouldn’t give up his experience in the Drum and Bugle Corps. He said it is unlike any band he had ever played in and that the fact it is steeped in Marine history and tradition lends a sense of connection within the band.
“I was surprised by the brotherhood, the camaraderie,” he said. “We call ourselves ‘brothers in music.’”
That brotherhood and the experience performing worldwide with other elite bands and orchestras is what makes the Drum and Bugle Corps so special for Williams, he said. The band recently returned from performing with the New York Philharmonic and also played at the Drum Corps International Finals. The parades will continue until the end of August.
Regardless of where it’s playing or for whom it’s playing, Williams said, every performance, for him, is the same.
“It’s a rush for me, like a legal drug. I get anxious. I get butterflies in my stomach,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable amount of excitement.”