Saxophonist Audrey Cupples shares stories about playing for the presidents
By Audrey Cupples
When I graduated from the celebrated Eastman School of Music in 1986, I considered myself an artist with aspirations of making classical saxophone a respected and sought-after platform for musical expression.
I never would have imagined joining the Marine Corps, but 21 years ago I did just that and became the first and only female saxophonist in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band.
I auditioned on my 24th birthday and was a little hesitant to accept the job since I would have to enlist for four years. I worried that the military and I might not mix.
The first rehearsal put my mind at ease. The other musicians were artists and professionals and I felt right at home. I knew this was the perfect place for a career, one that would give me a chance to express my musicality and serve my country.
In more than two decades with the Marine Band, I’ve played for six inaugurations (every one since George H. W. Bush), hundreds of White House functions, hundreds of concerts, and countless funerals, dedications and other historic events. Here are some of my most memorable musical and patriotic experiences with the Marine Band.
One singular sensation
My first big White House event was the taping of In Performance at the White House (which began in 1978 with a recital by pianist Vladimir Horowitz) in August 1988 for the Public Broadcasting Service.
We were conducted by Marvin Hamlisch and backed performances by alumni from the original cast of the hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line, which earned Hamlisch (along with lyricist Edward Kleban) a Tony Award for best score. We also supported entertainer Shirley Jones and comedian/singer Stubby Kaye, among others. The show was recorded in front of the White House with an audience that included President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan.
It was surreal performing outside with the bright lights, glitter and celebrities. I remember getting a photo of the occasion from the White House and being thrilled.
President Reagan was charismatic yet down-to-earth. He always thanked what he called “his” band for performing at events he attended.
He would invite the band to eat at the end of White House events. We were encouraged to partake, and we did!
Standing ovations from comrades
In February 1990 the band traveled to Russia and made history as the first U.S. military band to tour the former Soviet Union. I had a little trepidation about going to a Communist country while the cold war was still being fought, but apprehensions melted away once we met the warm-hearted people.
Soviet military bands greeted us in each city, performing their national anthem and ours, and women dressed in traditional garb offered us bread with salt, a Soviet ritual of welcome. I got tears in my eyes every time. I was so proud to represent my country!
Every stage hung an American and Russian flag. We had a difficult time communicating verbally, but, as musicians, we could sit down with our instruments and perform together.
In Moscow, we were told that performing Tchaikovsky’s booming “1812 Overture” with its anthem “God Save the Tsar!” was frowned upon (since Tsarist rule was long over) and new endings to that piece were passed out. That made me appreciate how free we really are in the United States.
Audiences always gave us standing ovations and threw red carnations (the symbolic flower of Communism) on the stage. The applause was so different than what we were used to. Russian audiences would start clapping at different speeds, then gradually all clap in rhythm together. That was the signal they wanted us to play encores.
At one hall, audience members came onstage and gave us presents. One person fought his way to the center of the band and gave me a beautiful glass vase. I still treasure it.
All sorts of presents
President Bill Clinton threw the band a 200th birthday party at the White House in July 1998. We were allowed to bring guests for the ceremony and picnic. I was excited about showing my family – my dad, stepmother, Aunt Renee, Uncle Joe and Grandma and Grandpa Cupples – around my workplace for the first time, go on a tour of the White House and take pictures.
There was plenty of food and we all ate at picnic tables set up in the South Lawn. How many times had I played music for White House guests while they ate at these very tables?
I got a chance to speak with President Clinton about saxophones, an instrument he plays as an amateur. He asked me which brands I thought were best and told me which manufacturers sent him instruments.
We had a concert the next night at the Kennedy Center and the Clintons were there. As a special treat for President Clinton in a program that included some Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, among others, composer W. Francis McBeth conducted one of his own pieces, “When Honor Whispers and Shouts.” In 1962, McBeth conducted the Arkansas All-State Band. One member of the tenor saxophone section was the future president. McBeth stayed at the White House that night.
President Clinton was so excited about the concert that he woke McBeth up early the next morning to talk about it, McBeth said.
A musical blessing
Pope Benedict XVI came for a visit to the United States and was welcomed on the South Lawn by President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush on April 16, 2008. It had all the excitement of a state arrival and then some because the Pope is a head of state and the head of the Catholic Church, too.
We performed as a concert band for the ceremony, playing religious as well as secular pieces, and I had the perfect view. It was the pope’s birthday, and crowds spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to him throughout the ceremony. (Later, opera star Kathleen Battle led the masses in a refined, unified rendition accompanied by the band.) The audience seemed to love this man and the energy that day was so positive, even for me, someone who is not Catholic.
I felt so blessed to be there.
Conducting a notable farewell
President George W. Bush thought it would be fun to conduct the Marine Band for his last White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner (on April 26, 2008). He wanted to keep this a secret from the press and had the band come over one afternoon for a rehearsal in the East Room.
He practiced conducting us to “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa, the march king and our band’s 17th director (who served 1880-92). I couldn’t help smiling because President Bush was having so much fun. He used facial expressions and hand cues to show if he wanted us to play loud or soft and when an important musical flourish was meant to come in.
After the rehearsal, he asked one of his White House photographers to take a photo of all of us with him and to make sure we each got a copy.
At the performance, President Bush said, “And one thing we all share, whether we’re native citizens or new citizens like (comedian/actor/writer) Craig (Ferguson), is a tremendous appreciation for our people in uniform, an appreciation symbolized by the United States Marine Band, which is celebrating its 210th anniversary this year. I love the band, and so I’m going to say my farewell to you by doing something I’ve always wanted to do, and I do it in the spirit of our shared love for this country.”
The curtain opened and there was the president with his baton ready to conduct “his” band.
I was so proud to be wearing my uniform, one of the most difficult uniforms to earn. For me, that was the most exciting White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner I’ve ever been a part of.
A magical maestro
Famed composer and conductor John Williams (best known for film scores including the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter series along with Schindler’s List, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) led us on our 205th and 210th birthdays. He is soft-spoken, unassuming, gracious, and professional. The composer of music for numerous Olympic Games as well as the former principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra was patient while we got photos taken with him, and he autographed our memorabilia.
He also took time to speak with each of us in the band.
At the concerts, we played, among other things, excerpts from various movies he scored as clips from the films were projected. Williams would watch a monitor that showed the music, film and markings while he conducted. The music had to line up with the action. It was very different playing with a movie. As a performer, you must play with what you see, not what you feel.
I thought the presentation of the clip from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was really effective. The first time the movie clip was shown, there was no music. The movie seemed boring and long. The second time, we played along. The audience’s reaction was supportive of the idea that music can make or break a movie.
An Incredible Inauguration
Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, was one of the biggest events I’ve ever been part of – a reported 1.5 million people were there. Sitting at the Capitol underneath the swearing-in area, I looked out over the crowd and as far as I could see there were people.
I realized that I had one of the best seats in the house and that many people would love to trade places with me. It’s humbling to be a part of an event that huge.
While marching in the 2009 inaugural parade past the president and other dignitaries, we wanted to look and play perfectly, especially since we are “The President’s Own.”
In the evening, we performed for the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball. We played the first dance for both the vice president (“Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?”) and then the president (“At Last”). These moments are always joyous occasions and a pleasure to watch history in the making.
Saxophonist and Master Sergeant Audrey Cupples (University of Maryland) joined “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in May 1988. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in 1986 and both a master’s degree in music in 2000 and a doctor of musical arts degree in 2008 from the University of Maryland at College Park. Prior to joining “The President’s Own,” she performed as lead saxophonist on Wynton Marsalis’ 1987 Carnaval album. As part of “The President’s Own,” she has been featured as a soloist on a number of performances, including Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia, and in 2000 represented the band at the International Saxophone Symposium as a soloist and a member of the Interservice Saxophone Octet, premiering her arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s “String Octet in E-flat, Op. 20.” (Delete as last resort.) Her husband is Gunnery Sergeant Steve Longoria, principal saxophonist in “The President’s Own,” and they have a son Jacob. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.