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One of "The President's Own" Now Is One of Mars Hill's Own

Professor Fred Lemmons Recalls His Years in the U.S. Marine Band

Spring 2016 Mhm CoverFrom the Spring 2016 issue of Mars Hill: The Magazine of Mars Hill University .

"You can take your time," the proctor told Fred Lemmons, as he prepared to play his second audition piece. Vying for one of the coveted spots on the "President's Own" U.S. Marine Band, Lemmons knew that his strong sight reading ability would be a crucial quality to display, so he chose to ignore her advice.

"She thought I started so quickly with the first piece because I was nervous," he said. "No. I did it deliberately. I looked at the key and I started playing within three seconds. I wanted to show the committee that I could play anything they put in front of me."

The strategy must have worked. Lemmons was accepted to the U.S. Marine Band that day, an honor he would enjoy for 21 years.

As an adjunct professor of clarinet at Mars Hill University, Lemmons can share with students many of the unique memories and opportunities that heady job afforded him. Over his two decades with the band, he played at six inaugurations and performed regularly at the White House for receptions, dinner parties, and other events under five presidents. When not at the White House, the band played at state funerals, ceremonies, and other events in the United States, and throughout the world.

Growing up as a boy in Chattanooga, TN, Lemmons could never have guessed that his love for music would take him so far. He does remember, however, when that particular love affair began, during a fifth grade field trip to see the Chattanooga Symphony.

"I sat there in the audience, and the music to me felt like a warm blanket. It just washed over me and made me feel so good," he said. "That's really what made me want to be in the band."

It would be another year before he would have a chance to actually begin learning band music, but the heart of a musician was born that day.

The following year, Lemmons passed the Selmer Music Survey and joined the band in his Chattanooga elementary school. He wanted to learn the saxophone because it was "shiny and cool." His band director, however, looked at Lemmons' skinny frame and said, "well, you look like a stick; you should play the clarinet."

"So, that's what happened; I started playing the clarinet," he said.

Lemmons grew up in Chattanooga with his grandmother, a "strong, hardworking woman," who ran an assisted living facility for elderly women out of her home.

"I must not have been any good at first," Lemmons said, "because my grandmother would make me go outside to practice on the porch. I think my practicing bothered the ladies in the house."

But Lemmons was determined. He practiced faithfully and he quickly rose to first chair in his junior high school band and stayed there throughout high school.

Lemmons attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on a band scholarship, and received a degree in music education. He began teaching music in a local Christian school even before he graduated, and then went to Louisiana State University, where he earned a master's degree in music and clarinet performance.

At LSU, Lemmons served as a graduate assistant for his long-time clarinet teacher, David Harris, who was a student of Robert Marcellas, principal clarinet player for the Cleveland Orchestra, and "one of the greatest clarinet players who ever lived," Lemmons said.

Lemmons was completing the courses for his doctorate and considering a suitable topic for his dissertation when he heard there was an opening in the U.S. Marine Band. He flew to D.C. for the audition and changed the course of his life.

Lemmons With Bushes
Fred Lemmons, second from left, with former First Lady Laura Bush, President George W. Bush, and fellow Marine Band members

Lemmons' career in the Marine Band began in 1988 and included portions of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Beginning his tenure at the end of Reagan's presidency, he said he never had the opportunity to meet President Reagan personally. He did, however, on several occasions have conversations with George H.W. Bush, a man who he describes as very personable and friendly.

"He would make a special point to come talk to the members of the band, and ask us how we were doing," he said.

Though Lemmons never spoke personally with President Clinton, he said it was clear that Clinton had a particular love for the Marine Band.

"Clinton was a musician himself, and he just loved the Marine Band," Lemmons said.

During those years, Lemmons learned just how important his skill for sight-reading would be. As a member of the band, Lemmons would often be called to the White House with very little notice.

"We used to go over and play for hours at the White House. We didn't have time to practice," Lemmons said. "They'd call you the day before and say, we need the whole band here tomorrow for a four-hour reception. So, we'd go over the next day and play for four hours and not even rehearse."

Membership in the Marine Band offered many perks, Lemmons said. For example, twice, he had the opportunity to escort the First Lady at an event called the First lady's Luncheon. In 2008, he escorted Laura Bush to the event, and in 2009, he escorted Michele Obama. But because band members were afforded top level security clearance, there was no leniency with "messing up" on the job, or being late for work.

"If you messed up, this job turned into the Marine corps real fast," Lemmons said. "For example, I was never late to work in 21 years, and considering D.C. traffic, that's saying something."

The strict attention to ceremony is meaningful for Marines, but it can be a difficult part of the job for band members who must stand at attention for long periods of time, either before or after a performance.

"To me, the physical part of the job was the hardest part of the job, because you stand at attention for hours, in sometimes 100-degree weather, sometimes 20-degree weather," he said.

Band members were required to maintain a "thousand yard stare," no matter what was going on around them.

"And sometimes, you're dying, but you cannot move your eyes, you cannot look around. You're just standing there, for as a long as it takes," Lemmons said. "It's brutal."

Marine Band 20150920 0035The U.S. Marine Band performed at MHU's Moore Auditorium in September 2015 as part of the Presidential Lecture and Performance Series

The hardest workday for the Marine Band is Inauguration Day, Lemmons said, which begins around 7 am, when band members arrive to go through security checks long before the dignitaries arrive. After the inauguration and inaugural parade, the band must play at various balls until the wee hours of the morning.

"I was in the part of the band that played at the last ball of the evening after one of President Clinton's inaugurations," Lemmons said, "and he and Mrs. Clinton did not even arrive at the event until 3 am. That was a long day, and then we had to be back at an event the next morning at 8 a.m."

Though Lemmons and the other band members were surrounded by political figures, in the most political city in America, one of the firm rules of the band was that members were not allowed to take public stands on political positions.

"Our job was to support the president, no matter who that person was. And whatever we thought about politics was not part of the job. There was no talk about politics when you were in the Marine Band," he said.

For the last ten years of his tenure with the Marine Band, Lemmons served in an administrative role. For those years, he was in charge of logistics for the band's performances. Though the job gave him a more stable schedule, it was still full of surprises and interesting opportunities:

He remembers, for example, planning a performance at the first anniversary of the September 11th attack on the world trade centers in New York City in 2002.

"The widows of the firemen who were killed sat right in front of the band, and I remember how touching that was." He said. "It was a very poignant ceremony. And by the end of it, the entire band was completely covered in ash."

Though it sometimes involved "grunt work," Lemmons said he loved it. "You just never knew what the day would bring," he said.

Lemmons retired from the Marine Band in October 2009 and moved to Asheville, NC. The following year, MHU band director Mike Robinson invited him to teach a master class on the MHU campus, and in 2010, he was hired as an adjunct professor of clarinet at Mars Hill University. Today, he continues to teach students both at the university, and privately out of his home. He is a member of Pan Harmonia Chamber Ensemble, and the principal clarinetist in the Asheville Lyric Opera. He also frequently performs with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra.

Lemmons lives in Weaverville with his wife, Heather Masterton.