Colonel Jason K. Fettig is the 28th Director of “The President’s Own” United States
Marine Band. He joined in 1997 as a clarinetist and soon became a frequently featured soloist with both the band and the Marine Chamber Orchestra. After serving four years in the organization he was selected as an Assistant Director and he conducted his first concert on the 1st of August 2001. He was commissioned a First Lieutenant in July 2002, promoted to captain in August 2003, and became the band’s Executive Officer the following year. He was further promoted to major in August 2007 and to Lieutenant Colonel in July 2014, one week before assuming leadership of “The President’s Own.” He was promoted to his present rank of Colonel in August 2017 in the Roosevelt Room by President Donald J. Trump. He is only the third Director of “The President’s Own” to be promoted to Colonel in a White House ceremony.
As Director, Col. Fettig is the music adviser to the White House and regularly conducts the Marine Band and Marine Chamber Orchestra at the Executive Mansion and at all Presidential Inaugurations. He also serves as music director of Washington, D.C.’s historic Gridiron Club, a position held by every Marine Band Director since John Philip Sousa.
In 2014 shortly after assuming command of the Marine Band, Col. Fettig launched an ambitious project to re-record all of the marches of John Philip Sousa and provide free performance and educational materials online to schools throughout the world.
What has been your most memorable or favourite engagement as Director of Music for
the President’s Own Marine Band?
I have been very fortunate to have a long list of incredibly memorable experiences here, both as a player and now as Director. It’s hard to choose, but I think I can separate my most memorable from my favorite. As I have gotten older and more experienced, my most memorable performances have been the most emotional ones, and nothing was more emotional for me than conducting the Marine Chamber orchestra and Armed Force Choir for the state Funeral of President George H.W. Bush. Being in the National Cathedral for that occasion and playing such beautiful music in honor of the life of a former Commander-in-Chief was a very moving experience.
My “favorite” moment is hard to pin down, but one of the recent ones was while we were on our national concert tour in 2019, just before the pandemic began. We were performing on the West Coast, and while we were in Los Angeles, I invited a good friend of the band, the legendary composer and conductor John Williams to guest conduct during the concert.
He really wanted to surprise the audience, so we didn’t let anyone know that he would be there that evening. We performed his music for the entire second half of the concert, and I was lucky to have the chance to conduct most of that music with Maestro Williams listening from back stage. Then we introduced him to the stage to conduct the end of the concert and the audience went wild. That moment of walking across the stage to welcome 'THE John Williams' to the podium and later taking bows with him hand in hand was one of those moments I will never forget!
Do you ever get nervous before walking out to conduct the band and how do you combat this?
Sometimes I do get nervous, but those nerves have decreased over the years. One of the reasons for that is simply having the experience of having been there before and knowing that everything is going to be OK. Nerves can actually be a good thing if they come from the excitement and electricity of the moment but as we all know, they can get in our way if they stem from a lack of confidence that we can do the thing we are about to do, or if we worry too much about being judged. The best way to fight those nerves is to remember all of the successes you may have had in the past, and take that as a measure of confidence that this performance is also likely to go well. Also, I always try to remember that I am doing what I love to do, and that it is OK to ENJOY the moment, rather than worry if I will do it well or not.
As your role as Musical Adviser to The White House and Director of the Marine Band, what does a ‘normal’ day consist of?
I wear many hats in my role as Director of the Marine Band. One of them is certainly Music Adviser to the White House, and in normal times, I conduct ensembles there many times throughout the year. Part of my duties include choosing the musicians and music that we play for each event at the White House and we carefully curate those performances to match the type of event we are supporting. However, that is just one facet of our job. Since we are also the flagship musical ensemble for the United States Marine Corps, we regularly support all manner of Marine Corps events and ceremonies, including the famous Friday Evening Parades at Marine Barracks Washington and Full Honors funeral nearly daily at Arlington National Cemetery. In addition to my job as the primary conductor of the band in concerts and ceremonies and at the White House, I am also the Commanding Officer of a team of 180 Marines! I have many responsibilities to these professionals that have nothing to do with music including ensuring for their wellbeing, and that of their families, as well as providing opportunities for professional growth. I spend a lot of my time in the office when I’m not on the podium, setting policies and planning the operational and artistic future of the organization.
How do you go about putting together the programme of music for one of America’s biggest events and one televised live to spectators around the world – the Inauguration?
For the Inauguration, I am always conscious that we are representing our nation to the entire world through this special symbol of our democratic process. As such, I want our performance to be a showcase for our traditions and the special qualities of our national musical identity. There are a lot of logistical considerations that go into selecting music for the ceremony, but my primary objective is to highlight great American music, and to try to capture the nobility and pride that is infused into this sacred event.
What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them when rehearsing and performing at this year’s inauguration amidst a global pandemic?
This was an Inauguration unlike any other I’ve experienced in my 24 years in the band. The crowd was much smaller than normal, and we needed to perform right in the middle of an international pandemic. Up until Inauguration, the band had not played together as a full concert band since last March, so the challenges of simply performing in that configuration after such a long hiatus were considerable. Added to that, of course, was the need to keep everyone safe during the rehearsals and performance. Some of the changes we made were to reduce the size of the band we normally use for inauguration from 80 to less than 60. We also increased the size of the performance platform by 50% to add additional space in between the musicians. We installed plexiglass shields in front of all of the directional brass to minimize the aerosol spread and we rehearsed in small segments with longer breaks. Luckily, since the Inauguration is outdoors, that was a much safer environment to perform in. We did also test all the band members numerous times throughout the preparation and before the performance to ensure all were COVID-free.
Out of all the inaugurations you have been part of, whose is the most memorable and why?
The 2020 Inauguration will undoubtedly go down as the most memorable for me for several reasons, not the least of which was the unique conditions I just described. That said, it was also very memorable on a musical level.
It was only my second as the Director, and having the opportunity to lead the Inauguration performance. It was a wonderful experience to collaborate with artists like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks. I also embarked on an additional initiative this time around to commission several short works to premiere at the Inauguration in that effort to showcase American music by living composers, and I was very proud of that effort, and the multitude of wonderful feedback I received for our performance from colleagues and fans all around the globe.
When the President or other special dignitaries are in attendance, does it make the evening a little more special for you and the musicians?
Of course! One of the most amazing parts of our service is the opportunity to perform directly for some of the most famous and influential people in our country. I still find it hard to believe that I have the chance to have a relationship with our American Presidents and First Ladies, and find myself performing mini concerts for them and their distinguished guests in the White House. That part of the job will NEVER get old!
How does it feel to be the successor to one of the most famous and renowned military musicians in the world, the legendary ‘march king’ – John Phillip Sousa?
It represents quite a bit of pressure to follow in the footsteps of one of the most successful and famous musicians in American history. Sousa was really the one that helped make the Marine band famous and catapulted the organization’s artistic abilities and status. It is a big responsibility for us all to uphold that reputation but it is also exciting to know that we are part of a direct historic lineage that includes “The March King” resulting in learning quite a bit about Sousa and his music during my time here.
What inspired you to join the United States Marine Corps as a musician?
It was not a lifelong aspiration for me to join the Marine Corps or the Marine Band. I certainly knew about the band as a very prestigious organization, but I didn’t envisage myself in the military when I was in school, and frankly, didn’t realize that I would even be musically qualified to serve here until I won the audition. That moment was quite a personal revelation, and once I joined the band, I quickly realized that it was exactly the right place for me. Not only did it align with my hopes and aspirations as a musician, I loved the history and traditions and the discipline of the Marine Corps. It has been such a blessing to be able to make music at this level, and to serve the country in such a meaningful way.
What were your main motives to undertake the massive task in re-recording all of Sousa’s catalogue and creating an engaging global music education programme for the band to launch to inspire the next generation?
Sousa’s legacy is so deeply intertwined with the Marine Band and with American music, and his marches are the pinnacle of that legacy. If anyone was to make a new recorded collection of his marches, it should be us! We hadn’t done so since the 1970s and that was a time with less advanced recording equipment so the time seemed right. We made it a multi-year project and presented the marches in chronological order so people could actually track Sousa’s development as a composer as well as have a resource that was easily navigated. Along with the recordings it was very important to me to provide as many of the printed scores and parts as we could, edited in the way that we perform Sousa marches, which is historically informed by his own performances practice. That way, bands all over the globe could use our recordings as a resource to perform these wonderful pieces themselves just as the Marine Band does, and general fans of Sousa could also simply follow or play along as they enjoyed the recordings!
In three words how would you describe your job?
What is the history behind the famous ‘Friday Evening Parade’ at Marine Barracks, Washington and what experiences of the event do you have?
The Parades have been an unofficial part of the Marine Barracks traditions for the better part of a century but the official parades that people know of today were first formed in the 1950s, I believe. These events have since become well known around the world , and it is a “must see”
event for visitors of Washington and admirers of the Marine Corps. The Marine Band has been a integral part of that show since the beginning, and although I don’t march in the parades myself anymore (our Drum Major ceremonially leads the band).
I do have many fond memories of playing my clarinet in the marching band for the parades. It is an incredibly impressive performance under the lights on the historic Marine Barracks parade ground in front of more than 3000 people each week.
If you could pick your favourite Sousa march, what would it be?
I recently hosted a video series that you can watch on YouTube that counted down my Top Ten favorite marches. There are so many great Sousa marches, and I have many favorites, but my number one this year was “Nobles of the Mystic Shrine”. It is such a unique march, both in its tone and orchestration, and I just love the collection of melodies that Sousa invented for this one. In fact, I plan to include this one on the programs that we will take on our National Concert Tour this fall.
To watch The YouTube series counting down my top 10 Sousa marches please click HERE
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self or anyone else hoping to pursue a career in military music?
I am so very glad that I took the chance to audition for the Marine Band way back when even though I didn’t quite know what a career in the military would entail. It was leap of faith that literally changed the course of my career and my life, and all it took was a bit of courage to put myself out there and entertain the idea of something unfamiliar. My advice to anyone who is embarking on their career is to be open to the opportunities that will present themselves as you progress. Our main job is to pick a profession that we love and work as hard as we can to be our best, and then seize those moments when they arise. I found that being a United States Marine and making music in this amazing organization has afforded me opportunities that have been so far beyond anything I could have imagined as a young musician!
Military Bands Everywhere would like to thank Colonel Fettig for taking the time to write such detailed answers to the questions and for working with us to produce this very informative interview! I would also like to thank Gunnery Sergeant Rachel Ghadiali the Assistant Communication Strategy Chief of the band for liaising with myself to make this happen!
To find out more about 'The President's Own' United States Marine Band and their role or to download the online Sousa recourses the band have created, please visit their website:
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