Two University of Iowa School of Music alumni play at Biden’s inauguration

The alumni, both members of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, participated in the inauguration ceremony of President Joe Biden. The band’s mission — since its formation in 1798 — is to play music for the President and Commandant of the Marine Corps.


“The President’s Own” United States Marine Band performs at the inauguration of President Joe Biden on Jan. 20, 2021.

Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor

While Master Sergeant Chief Librarian Kira Wharton and Flutist Gunnery Sergeant Kara Santos’ roles differ in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, the two share an alma mater — the University of Iowa. The graduates participated in President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

Founded in 1798, the band’s 223-year-old mission has stayed the same; to play music for the President of the U.S. and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Wharton said.

As Chief Librarian for the band, Wharton aides in the music preparation for the band members and keeps record of its performance history. In 1995, she earned a masters of music history and graduated from the UI in 1997 with her doctor of music arts.

Biden’s inauguration marked Wharton’s fifth inauguration performance, though her first as Chief Librarian, she said. Wharton and Chief Assistant Librarian Staff Sergeant Charles Paul stood to the side of the stage during the performance of several patriotic

UI School of Music Alum Master Sergeant Chief Librarian Kira Wharton is pictured in a portrait for “The President’s Own” Marine Band.

pieces. Unlike other years, the music librarian was tasked with preparing the score for the band’s director, Colonel Jason K. Fettig.

“I bind his score all into one big score, which is a bit of a task because you also tape in the script so he can read along and keep his place, know what’s coming up, and keep on track,” Wharton said.

The librarians keep track of which songs are played and when they were played in order to keep an accurate historical record. Once they are back at work, Wharton said, they will also take note of how long the song lasted and who conducted it.

“Washington’s March” was the first song played at the inauguration, followed by four new fanfares and three new pieces, the music librarian said. The band also accompanied artists who performed at the inauguration, including Lady Gaga, who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Flutist Gunnery Sergeant Kara Santos, who graduated from the UI in 2005 with a master’s and doctorat

UI School of Music Alum Flutist Gunnery Sergeant Kara Santos is pictured in a portrait for “The President’s Own” Marine Band.

e in flute performance and is originally from Iowa City, has been a member of the band for 11 years. On the day before inauguration, Santos and members of the band rehearsed with Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks outside the Capitol.

Biden’s inauguration is the third Santos has played for, and she noted that it was similar to the last two, with the exception of COVID-19 guidelines in place.

“We used a smaller group and were more spread out,” Santos said. “And of course, there was no parade, so the overall involvement was a little bit smaller just because the event was smaller. But our support for the ceremony — even down to rehearsing for it — was very similar to what we’ve done in the past.”

The band has not performed public facing concerts during the pandemic. Instead, it’s begun releasing recordings and posting videos on its social media. While the pandemic is a temporary difference, Santos said, “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band’s mission has remained unchanged during her time there.

The music the band plays changes depending on who is the Commandant of the Marine Corps and who resides in the White House. For instance, Wharton said, former President Obama liked jazz music, so the band played jazz. At former President Trump’s inauguration, the ensemble incorporated more guitar and violin into their performances, she said.

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“[It] sounds like an odd pairing, but it actually works really, really well,” she said. “They [the Trump Administration] liked a lot more quiet background music and they didn’t feature as much as some of the other presidents. So, it just depends on what kind of mood they want to set while you’re in the White House.”

While it is too early to know the exact musical route Biden will take during his presidency, Wharton said it will likely be far different than Trump’s. Because Biden formerly held the vice presidency for eight years, however, Wharton added that the band has a good idea where his music taste lies.

“He’s been very open about what kind of music he likes,” she said. “He published the music he listens to so we have a good idea of what he might like.”

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