A woman leads `a few good men' in Marine Band

Military ensemble will play at Morgan State

Stage: theater, music, dance

February 10, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Since 1798, anyone attending a performance by the United States Marine Band could count on two things -- first-rate musicianship and male directors. Not any more.

For the first time in the band's two centuries-plus, a woman holds the post of assistant director.

"I'm pleased to have this job," says 1st Lt. Michelle A. Rakers, who will conduct the band in a free concert Sunday at Morgan State University. "I would have preferred for it to have happened to a woman sooner, but it was only a matter of time, once they added women to the band."

That happened in 1973, when the ensemble, dubbed by Thomas Jefferson "The President's Own," admitted its first female musician. Today, women account for about a third of the 150 players.

The Illinois-born Rakers, 36, joined the band as a trumpeter in 1998. "I was amazed at the level of performances," she says. "The intonation was incredible."

Since her college days at Northwestern University, Rakers had been thinking of doing more than playing music. "The thought of conducting had been in the back of my mind," she says. "As a player, my own inspiration would be the highest whenever I had a great conductor."

She got her chance with a baton about five years after becoming a member of the Marine Band's brass section, leading concerts by chamber ensembles made up of band members.

When auditions for assistant director were announced, Rakers decided to go for it. "It's intimidating to stand in front of your peers," she says, "but the flip side is that you are really with your friends."

Rakers, who was commissioned as a first lieutenant upon her appointment to assistant director in July 2004, was already well prepared for entering an arena historically owned by men. "I came from playing a male-dominated instrument," she says. "You do hear people say things, little digs, that can start to wear on a person. I remember how important it was for me to go to a women's brass conference, to see all those incredible players."

Having proved herself as a trumpeter, Rakers is now proving herself as a conductor in her first season with the band. "Gender has not been an issue at all with the individuals I've worked with," she says, "but in the world of professional music, I think it still is."

Marine Band musicians typically enlist for an initial four years, with the option of re-upping. After 20 years, retirement becomes an option. "I am quite comfortable with the idea of making this a career," Rakers says.

Now that she has made history in the Marines, perhaps she will make some more. After all, it's only one step up to director of the band.

"I think it's a reasonable goal for myself," Rakers says. "It all depends on my own development -- and timing."

Sunday's program

For her concert with the U.S. Marine Band at Morgan State University on Sunday, Rakers has put together a program called "Soundscapes," built around diverse cultural influences on music.

Examples range from Native American idioms in Dreamcatcher by Walter Mays and English folk songs in Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy to a traditional black melody in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's The Bamboula and island rhythms in Gershwin's Cuban Overture.

Also on the bill: Aldo Rafael Forte's Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Band and a setting of the classic poem "Casey at the Bat" for narrator and band by Randol Alan Bass.

The U.S. Marine Band performs at 2 p.m. Sunday at Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Admission is free. For information, call 202-433-4011 or 443-885-4440.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

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