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07-06-03, 07:24 AM
President's piano player
Service grad lands lifetime gig at White House

Story by MIKE DUNHAM * Photo by BOB HALLINEN * Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 4, 2003)

Next time you attend a function at the White House -- a state dinner, a reception for a visiting head of state, or just a casual evening with George and Laura -- check out the young lady plinking the ivories with the house band. As the newest member of "The President's Own" United States Marine Band, Alaskan AnnaMaria Mottola may be called upon to play anything from cocktail piano tunes to jazz combo to classical concerts or country arrangements.

It's considered one of the plum jobs in music, performing with some of the best musicians in the world at high-visibility events, employment guaranteed for about as long as she can keep up her chops and wants the position. It's the type of post that a serious piano player might spend a lifetime trying to land.

Mottola will turn 21 on July 16. That's remarkably young to be recruited into the oldest professional music ensemble in America said Marine Staff Sgt. Benjamin Moulden, who handled the local details involving her enlistment after she got the job. "Typically, what they're looking for are people with a master's or Ph.D in music," he said. "They need an extremely well-rounded musician."

When she checks into the Marine barracks in Washington, D.C., Mottola will enroll at the nearby University of Maryland to finish her bachelor's degree. But, when it comes to music, she's already more well-rounded than most veteran pianists.


Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Mottola started piano lessons when she was 4. In fifth grade, her family moved to Fairbanks where, at age 11, she won the local young artists' competition and played the Haydn D Major Concerto with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. At 14, she came to Anchorage and auditioned for piano instructor Dean Epperson.

"She played Beethoven's 'Tempest' (Sonata) and a Bach suite," Epperson recalled. "I knew she had a lot of imagination and passion." He accepted her as a student, even though "I could never get her to practice her scales or arpeggios or any other stuff that's supposed to be good for you."

Under Epperson's tutelage, Mottola began preparing works for competitions, more Beethoven, Ravel, Prokofiev and Liszt. She won the state division in the Music Teachers National Association competition twice and finished second in regional competition.

But there was more in her fingers than Bartok and Brahms. At the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival she met Chuck Marohnic, director of jazz studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, and became intrigued with all styles of the idiom.

Jazz sparked a different kind of creativity, she said.

"In classical music, you're expressing music that's been played millions of times, trying to make it original without leaving the notes on the page. With jazz, you have the ability to make something out of nothing, or take previously written things and find your own voice in the middle of it."

Each style had something to contribute to the other, she said. "The technical demands of being a classical player help a jazz player, and the harmonic concepts of a Bach fugue or romantic melody can cross over into improvisational jazz."

As a high schooler, she ran her own band, the Jazz Cats, hiring and firing musicians, working up arrangements and setting up gigs. Marohnic was so impressed with her talent and determination that he told her, "Come to Arizona, and I'll turn you into a jazz pianist."

She took him up on that offer. When she graduated from Service High School in 2000, she became the youngest performer to ever win the ASU concerto competition and won a full scholarship.

There she was, carrying a double load of classes in Tempe, when an e-mail informed her that one of the three pianist positions with the White House band was about to come open and urging her to try out for it.

In February, she flew to Washington, D.C., and went through two rounds of trials along with six other highly talented pianists from around the country. She played 30 minutes each of classical and jazz numbers from memory, showed of her sight-reading ability, and performed with a string quartet, a jazz combo and a country-western band.

She'd been cramming for this test since childhood. "My goal is to be able to rattle off anything from memory," she said. She said she can hear something once on the radio and play it back, that she even memorizes the improvised jazz numbers she performs. She also said that she has a way of managing time when practicing so that "I can accomplish in a half hour what might take someone else three or four hours."

At the end of the second round, the judges told her she had the job.


The U.S. Marine Band is not only the oldest military band in the country, established by an act of Congress in 1798, it's America's oldest professional musical organization of any kind. The band has supplied all musical entertainment at the White House since music-loving Thomas Jefferson heard it play there at the New Year's ball of 1801, and it therefore carries the title, "The President's Own."

All 143 members, from the conductor to the librarian, are Marines. Taking the job means taking the oath, and that's where Staff Sgt. Moulden with the Anchorage recruiting office comes into the picture. "I had to make sure she was both physically and mentally qualified," he said. "And to make sure she knows what to expect. She may be one of 'The President's Own,' but there are still rules and regulations that she'll have to adapt to."

But she won't have to go through the grueling Marine boot camp. Exceptions are often made for musicians and doctors, Moulden explained.

"The Marine Corps recognizes the value of the talent," he said. "There are accidents that could happen in boot camp that would end a career."

Another difference is the uniform. The band doesn't wear the standard blue, Moulden said, but "all red with gold trim and a whole lot of attachments."

The band's Web site explains that contrasting colors were often worn by drummers and buglers needed to communicate across the din of battle to mark them as noncombatants.

Musicians of "The President's Own" tend to stick with the job until they retire; a notable exception was John Philip Sousa, who resigned his commission in 1892 and as a civilian band leader became a superstar of the era. Moulden believes that the master gunnery sergeant whom Mottola will replace has been with the band for 45 years. "I can tell you, that's an exceptional amount of time to be a Marine," he said.

The last week of June, Mottola was sworn in as a staff sergeant and flew off to Washington. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity means leaving Alaska, her parents and her old teacher. "Dean always was my inspiration to shine," she said, "to be the best. He always had faith in me."

But, she added, "I'm excited about the opportunity to serve the country in this way. Mostly, I'm excited to perform and get heard. I've been blessed with an opportunity to perform for the rest of my life. I think I'll take advantage of that."

Mike Dunham can be reached at mdunham@adn.com.