Written by Lt. j.g. Katie Braynard
Fifty-five members of the U.S. military clad in matching navy blue peacoats, red aiguillettes and spit-shined black shoes climbed the stage at one of the nation’s largest holiday celebrations. These members weren’t just a backdrop and they weren’t being presented any awards. As they sat down behind their music stands and picked up their instruments, they kicked off the holiday season alongside celebrities, special guests and the President of the United States at President’s Park in Washington, D.C.
For the past several weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard Band has been rehearsing and preparing for the National Christmas Tree Lighting, a 93-year-old ceremony in which the nation’s capitol kicks off the holiday season.
The lighting ceremony, co-hosted by both the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation, helped kick off the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service on the evening of Dec. 3, 2015. Each year, a different service band is featured during the performances This year, the Coast Guard band was center stage, providing holiday music and instrumentals for various performing artists throughout the evening. While the band regularly travels across the nation and plays at prestigious venues, something about the tree lighting ceremony stood out to the band members– both veteran-Tree Lighting Ceremony performers and those experiencing it for the first time.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Mark McCormick, the band’s bassist, has been a part of these performances four separate times over the course of nearly 20 years.
“The first time was with President [Bill] Clinton,” recalled McCormick. “It’s been a wonderful experience every single time.”
McCormick was most excited about sharing the holiday spirit with the special performing guests and the viewers across the nation. During these performances, everyone is in a great mood which makes it even more fun, said McCormick.
For Petty Officer 1st Class Laurie Baynard, a flutist, this experience was like none other – and it was her first time participating in a National Tree Lighting ceremony.
“We don’t typically get to do events like this where there are a lot of celebrities and people that everybody knows, so it’s a really cool opportunity,” said Baynard. “It’s great exposure for us.”
McCormick said these performances differ significantly from other performances the band normally participates in because of one thing: the attendance of the commander-in-chief.
“The Coast Guard Band has always been supported wonderfully by the American public,” McCormick said. “But it’s not very often the president is front and center as we’re playing.”
The band provided Christmas instrumentals for the entire show, including back-up music for singer-songwriter Tori Kelly, Andra Day, Aloe Blacc and Bellamy Young. They also played with trombone and trumpet player Trombone Shorty. In particular, those performances are a favorite of the band members.
“Playing backup for the artists that are here to light the National Christmas Tree is a blast,” said McCormick.
The band’s performance came after extensive preparation and behind-the-scenes work to ensure they were ready for all aspects of the show.
“We spent about a week or two rehearsing the music, just going through and rehearsing any type of scenario that would happen with the singers when we came in,” Baynard said.
Baynard, who has been with the band for four years, hopes the performance will help showcase the talent and abilities of the Coast Guard Band.
“I think we’re probably the least heard of as far as military bands go, but it’s an awesome group and we’re like a big family,” Baynard said.
The Coast Guard Band is back home at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, after leaving an indelible mark on those who had the pleasure to witness the ceremony, while the National Christmas Tree, adorned in elegant, bright gold and silver lights stands tall in front of the White House, a symbol of hope and joy for millions of Americans across the nation
If you missed the live ceremony, PBS is scheduled to air the ceremony throughout the month. You can check your local listings here.