Peaceful Transfer of Power: The US Marine Band’s Historic Passing of the Baton at the Midwest Clinic

            Embarking on my inaugural year of teaching, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend the 77th Midwest Clinic – a pivotal event in the world of music education and performance. This clinic, revered by countless educators, performers, and composers, represents the pinnacle of professional development in our field. My school’s support in recognizing this as a professional development endeavor enabled me to immerse myself in this enriching experience.

The Midwest Clinic is an event bursting with workshops, performances, and educational sessions, and serves as a crucible for musical innovation and tradition. The array of events was dazzling, but one particular concert stood out as the crowning jewel of the conference.

         “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band’s performance on that Wednesday night was more than a concert; it was a historical event, marking a pivotal transition in leadership. Col. Jason Fettig concluded his distinguished service with the band to embark on a new journey as the director of bands at the University of Michigan. His successor, Lt. Col. Ryan Nowlin, boasts nearly three decades of experience with this esteemed ensemble, marked by significant contributions as a composer and arranger. This concert held personal significance for me, as COVID-19 had made its way into my household and prevented me from attending their performance in Carmel, IN in October.

Interestingly enough, my presence at the concert was almost thwarted by a dinner engagement with my former composition teacher, Dr. Erich Stem. A leisurely meal turned into a frantic race against time, as we navigated the bustling streets of Chicago to reach the venue. Arriving with mere minutes to spare, I was greeted by an auditorium brimming with anticipation, where a colleague had thoughtfully reserved a prime seat for me.

The ceremony of passing the baton is rich in history and symbolism. Tracing back to John Philip Sousa, the 17th director and the “March King,” this tradition reflects the deep roots and evolving legacy of the band. Sousa, ascending to leadership in 1880 with limited military band conducting experience, transformed the band into a symbol of professional excellence. His departure in 1892 to form a civilian band was marked by the presentation of an engraved baton, a token of respect and esteem. This baton, later returned to the Marine Band by Sousa’s daughters, has since been a ceremonial emblem passed to each new director. Witnessing this tradition at the Midwest Clinic was a link to a storied past and a testament to the enduring spirit of the band.

Photo Credit: Angelo Anton, Director of the Shelby Community Band.

This was certainly a moment laden with emotion and history. The sense of reverence was palpable as Sousa’s baton changed hands, symbolizing the transition of leadership and the continuation of a legacy. The audience’s response was a prolonged, thunderous ovation, a collective acknowledgment of the magnitude of the moment.

Naturally, this incredible moment was enhanced with massive expression from both conductors courted by several standout selections during the concert. Some of the highlights I was fortunate enough to witness were as follows:

  • Johan de Meij’s ‘American Prelude’: The world premiere of this piece, a tribute to Col. Fettig, was a masterclass in storytelling and orchestral craftsmanship. De Meij, known for his ‘Lord of the Rings’ Symphony, showcased his ability to weave narrative and musicality, creating an emotionally resonant farewell for the conductor.
  • Percy Grainger’s ‘Lincolnshire Posy’: This staple of band repertoire was delivered with a precision and unity that encapsulated the ensemble’s revered status. The performers’ ability to blend individual artistry into a single, harmonious voice was a testament to their skill and discipline.
  • Jennifer Meyer’s ‘Go Big or Go Home’: This piece was a vibrant tapestry of rhythm and rock influences, culminating in a finale that redefined the concept of a showstopper. Its selection for Col. Fettig’s final concert was a fitting tribute to his dynamic leadership.
  • Lt. Col. Nowlin’s ‘’Let Freedom Ring’: We were treated to an original composition from the new conductor which evoked the innovative spirit of Charles Ives’ own version of the popular British anthem turned American staple, while maintaining its unique identity.
  • Jennifer Higdon’s ‘Aspire’: A modern exploration of melodic interplay and tonal innovation, reflecting the band’s commitment to contemporary music. Also the titular tune on the band’s most recent album.

      The Midwest Clinic was an odyssey of musical discovery and inspiration, particularly for a novice teacher. The US Marine Band concert was not merely a highlight but a profound experience that married the past with the present and opened a window to the future of musical excellence. It was a reminder of the power that music has to connect all of us through not just historical roots but also an ongoing commitment to explore the possibilities and advocate for the advancement of music in our schools and society.


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