Meet the Colonel from Capital City

In December, the School of Music announced that its next director of bands would be Col. Michael J. Colburn of the United States Marine Band.

He will begin serving upon the retirement of the current director, Robert Grechesky, after the spring 2014 semester. This week The Butler Collegian spoke with Colburn over the phone from his office in Washington, D.C.

The Butler Collegian:

Can you tell us about your life before the Marine Band and where you grew up?

Col. Michael Colburn:

Sure. I’m from St. Albans, Vt., which is a small town way up north in the state, almost to the Canadian border.

My father was a high school band director. In fact, he was my high school band director, and he was very influential in my decision to start playing the euphonium. Now, I always thought he perhaps had an ulterior motive because he never had enough euphonium players. I always kind of suspected that he had other goals in mind when he started me on that horn, but I started in fifth grade.

And while I enjoyed playing other instruments, I really fell in love with the euphonium.

As I made my way through high school and started achieving more and more success on the euphonium, I started realizing that, possibly, this was a career path for me.

So I started college at the Crane School of Music in upstate New York. I transferred to Arizona State  University as a junior to study with Dan Perantoni out there.

I studied at Arizona State for three years. I took my first audition in December of 1986, was lucky enough to win a position with the Marine Band and started playing here in June of 1987.

The Marine Band has taken you all over the world. Is there an experience that particularly stands out to you from your years with the band?

Well, in terms of traveling, I would say the experience that stands out the most is a trip we took to the then-Soviet Union back in 1991. We were there for three weeks as part of an exchange program.

We had a few days in some of the major cities, and it was really just an amazing cultural experience. Not only did we have opportunities to play concerts in halls and for audiences that we never would have imagined, but the chance to go there and spend time with people of that culture, to collaborate on this international language of music was fantastic.

There were many myths that they had been told about Americans that we were able to dispel, and we ended up having a fantastic cultural exchange. It’s one that will always stand out in my memory.

As director of the Marine Band, you are in an interesting position with the president. Have there been any interactions with a president that were particularly interesting to you?

Well, I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting all the presidents that I have served—with the exception of Ronald Reagan—and I’ve had some interesting personal encounters, especially with Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

One of the first and still one of the stand-out memories for me was back in 1996. I was leading the orchestra in the Grand Foyer of the White House for a social event, and I felt a tug on my elbow.

I turned around, expecting to find the chief usher or one of the staff, and it was President Clinton himself. We were performing Ralph Vaughan William’s English Folk Song suite, and he said “Oh, this is one of my favorite pieces of music. Now, this movement is ‘Seventeenth Come Sunday’ but the next movement is ‘My Bonny Boy,’ I think. And in the band version the oboe has the solo, but in the orchestra version, is it the violin?”

He just had all these questions and comments about the music that he couldn’t have played for more than 30 years.

He contemplated a career in music before he decided to go into politics, and it really amazed me how much he remembered about this music all these years later and how much that music meant to him.

So that’s really a great reminder for me that you have to be careful when you’re playing at the White House—or any place, really—when you think you’re just playing background music and you assume that no one is paying attention to you, because you never know who is listening or how closely they may be listening.

Can you tell me about how you came to be involved with Butler University?

Well, I’ve been aware of the program at Butler for many years. I’ve known Dr. Grechesky through our mutual membership in organizations like the College Band Directors National Association and, more recently, the American Bandmasters Association.

I also know Dr. Dan Bolin quite well. Dan’s been a friend of the Marine Band for many, many years and was close with Col. Dale Harpham, who was one of my predecessors as director of the Marine Band.

2014 will mark my 10th anniversary as director, and I really feel like that is a sufficient amount of time. For the health of the organization, it’s best if no director really stays for too long.

Dr. Bolin and I talked about the possibility of coming to Butler, and I came out and did a residency on campus for about a week where I allowed the students and faculty to get a sense of what I had to offer.

Dr. Bolin also wanted to make sure that I had a good sense of the school and the program.

I’ll tell you, it was really love at first sight. It’s a wonderful program. I was so impressed with the quality of the students and the talent and attitude of the faculty. It seems like a very collaborative environment.

Dean (Ronald) Caltabiano really impresses me as someone who has great vision for growing this program.

Not to mention that it’s a beautiful campus and neighborhood. My wife and I were both really taken with the beauty of the architecture and design on the campus, and the whole Butler-Tarkington neighborhood seems like a really nice environment.

What things about the band program are you hoping to build upon, and what, if anything, do you plan to change?

Well, I don’t really see that there’s much that needs to change. As I’ve said before, I’ve been good friends with Dr. Grechesky for many years and have great respect for his musicianship and his teaching.

I mean, he is just such a kind and generous and musical person. I can’t imagine how anyone could have a better experience than  playing in one of his ensembles. I just want to see the program continue to grow and prosper.

I am really excited about the challenge of recruiting. That’s something that I’ve never done before. And I’m eager to get out into the high schools in Indiana and in the surrounding states to try to convince students that Butler is really a place where they can have a very positive musical experience and one that will really enable them to enjoy great success in music throughout their life.

And I think with the really talented faculty that I’ll be working with, it will make it very easy to make that argument.

How will your experiences in the Marine Band color your directorship here?

I’m hoping that my considerable experience with making music at the professional level will influence the way I do my job and hopefully the results that I can achieve with the students.

I’ve found in my experience conducting high school and college-level students that when I treat them as I treat members of the Marine Band—and that is with the greatest respect and consideration for keeping the whole collaborative process as positive as possible—I’m able to achieve really good results.

Do you have a musical philosophy that you’ve carried with you in your work?

In one word it would be that word “collaboration” again. Because I began my career as a performer and played for nine years in this organization, when I picked up the baton and was conducting the same people that I had been playing with shoulder-to-shoulder for those nine years, my feeling was, “I respect these people so much. I don’t feel like I need to dictate how the music needs to go.”

If you allow your players to realize they are contributing to this process, that they are collaborators, they’re going to approach it with an entirely different attitude, and I think they’re going to be more open-minded if you’re open-minded as a conductor.

Anything else you’d like to add?

To reiterate, my wife and I are very excited about this move to Butler. We really look forward not just to having a new job but also kind of a new professional family. That’s really the way we felt about the Marine Band for 27 years, that it has been part of our family, and we are looking forward to making Butler part of our family as well.

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