IWU Alumna Finds Her Calling in "The President's Own" Marine Band
October 12, 2006
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - For the past two years, trumpet player Amy McCabe was living the
typical life of a young musician, "playing weddings and gigs and living paycheck to
paycheck." That all changed this past July, when the 2001 Illinois Wesleyan graduate
found herself in full military dress, performing as the newest member of "The President's
Own" United States Marine Band.
Prior to joining "The President's Own," McCabe earned a master's degree in trumpet
performance from Northwestern University, was a featured soloist in the Tony/Emmy
award-winning show Blast!, and performed with the Chicago Civic Orchestra and Walt
Disney World All-Star Collegiate Jazz Band. But nothing in her experience could fully
prepare her for the intense auditioning required to join the Marine Band. At the John
Philip Sousa Band Hall at Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., she competed against
approximately 80 other musicians through four rigorous rounds of auditions, which
were conducted behind screens to avoid discrimination. McCabe was also interviewed
to ensure that she qualified for the top-level White House security clearance required
for all of the band's performers.
Although all 160 members of "The President's Own" are considered true Marines, traditional
"boot camp" training is not involved. "Instead, we go through a month-long training
program with a drum major, where we learn how to wear our uniforms, who to salute
when and where, and a lot of history about the organization," McCabe said. Not requiring
band members to endure boot camp likely "helps attract a wider variety of musicians,
since some might be afraid of an intense three-month training," she added.
Established by an Act of Congress in 1798, the U.S. Marine Band performed at Thomas
Jefferson's inauguration and for every presidential inauguration since. It has also
been a part of events that shaped the nation, from playing before Abraham Lincoln's
Gettysburg Address to leading the funeral procession of John F. Kennedy. "The President's
Own" also performs at White House state dinners, gives public concerts, and performs
full-honors funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, among other duties. Women were
allowed to join the band in 1973 and now comprise a third of its membership.
McCabe's most memorable performance so far happened this past September. "On September
11, we did a private concert on the steps of the Capitol Building for the senators,"
she said. "As we played God Bless America, all of the senators began singing along,"
as they had previously done on the Capitol steps after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks. "It was a morale booster for the day," said McCabe.
In many aspects, life in the Marines isn't so different from her past jobs. "A lot
of it is very similar," she said, mentioning the large audiences the Chicago Civic
Orchestra also attracted. "But it's very different from working at Disney World as
a musician. That was all cheese and smiles," she said, laughing. "There's no cheese
and smiles in the Marines!" McCabe finds that she is "continually surrounded by better
and better musicians. People in this group come from conservatories and music schools
from all over the nation."
While enjoying her success as a performer, McCabe hasn't given up her roots in elementary
education, which was her major at Illinois Wesleyan. In Chicago, she was a member
of MusiCorps, a program designed to promote music awareness, appreciation, and training
in the city's public schools. She continues to teach private lessons. "There are always
opportunities to teach in music," she said.
She recalled that, as an IWU student, she "did everything," including Titan Band,
orchestra, and jazz band. Music professors Steve Eggelston and Tom Streeter "were
wonderful influences. They both encouraged me, but also warned me that performance
is not always a lucrative career," she said. "I feel very fortunate to have the job
I have right now."
As for her future with the Marine Band, McCabe isn't sure hers will be a lifelong
commitment, as it is with about 60 percent of musicians in the band. "They say I can
retire in 20 years, which is kind of a crazy concept," she said. "But I really haven't
made that decision yet. I'm satisfied and comfortable with where I am. It's definitely
somewhere I want to be for a while."
Contact: Sarah Zeller, (309) 556-3181