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Moline Grad Plays for Inauguration

Marine Band

Wednesday, January 20 was a big day for Moline native Elisabeth Plunk and 58 of her musical colleagues in the “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. The 41-year-old principal flutist – and Master Sergeant – played for her fifth U.S. presidential inauguration.

A graduate of Moline High School, Plunk got up at 3 a.m. Wednesday, and arrived with the band at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. by 6:30 a.m. The Marine Band – whose mission is to perform for the President of the United States and the Commandant of the Marine Corps – played an hour before the formal inaugural ceremony started, as well as during the festivities.

“It was a great day. It wound up being in the 40s; it was funny, there were some snow flurries, but then right as the oath of office was happening at noon, the sun came out and it was really shining on D.C.”

Plunk recalled that President Obama’s historic 2009 inauguration was unique not only because of the first African-American president, but the arctic temperatures forced guest musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman to mime to their pre-recorded piece.

“A cello will not stay in sub-zero wind chill. Everything’s pre-recorded just in case it was like that Obama inauguration – very, very cold, to the point, especially when a string instrument would not be able to do that.”

After graduating in 1997 from Moline High School, Plunk earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory in 2001, and in 2003 received a master’s in music from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Prior to joining “The President’s Own,” Master Sgt. Plunk performed with the Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh and as guest principal flute with a state symphony orchestra in Brazil.

Jumping at the chance to audition for a flute opening, she joined the Marine Band in 2004, was named assistant principal in 2009, co-principal in 2015 and principal in January 2020. There are six flutists in the band, and four played for the inauguration. There are about 150 members total in the band, and typically they average 60 for each performance.

Credit Marine Band
Plunk playing in the Marine Band

Plunk says along with the famous guest artists, there's one highlight of the ceremony each year.

“I think my favorite part of the ceremony is playing ‘Hail to the Chief.’ It’s when the president takes the oath of office, and plays ‘Hail to the Chief’ – the first time they hear it is from us and I think that’s very special the Marine Band does that.”

She says it was a treat to accompany Lady Gaga when she sang the National Anthem.

“She was lovely, very appreciative. A very calm performer. She was absolutely lovely.”

“It’s definitely an honor to be part of the Marine Band. There is such history – even a day like today, we’ve been playing inaugurations for over 200 years. That’s just really awe-inspiring to think about.”

“Obviously today, with the pandemic, it’s different. But with the Marine Band, our goal is to have it sound the same – to provide that soundtrack for the ceremony and to make sure that it felt the same to the public.”

The extra security and pandemic this year made the inauguration historic in more ways than one. The Marine Band took a lot of precautions, Plunk says , including having Plexiglas shields that separated rows of the band; using 20 fewer musicians this year than usual, and being spaced farther apart.

“They are all unique. President Obama’s was especially unique because of the crowd size. There were really people from the Capitol all the way back to the Lincoln Memorial. It kind of looked like an ocean of people. That was sort of astonishing visually to see, but all the inaugurations are special and they’re all unique.”

President Biden’s ceremony was closed to the public, with a sea of American flags on the National Mall where people would usually be.

“I saw the flags too, and obviously, we wish there could be people celebrating, but I thought the flags were a really moving tribute.”

Plunk began her musical instruction at age 6, first taking piano and then starting flute at 10, in her grade- school band. She played in the Quad City Youth Symphony for three years in high school.

“I played for musicals at Moline High School. Probably my fondest memory is a bit of a déjà vu memory– my high school band director took us on a trip to Washington, D.C., and we played on the steps of the Capitol.”

The Marine Band was founded in 1798 by an Act of Congress, and is America’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization. On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the first to be sworn in as president in Washington, and it’s believed that the Marine Band was present for this event. During the ceremony, the band is directly below the presidential podium at the U.S. Capitol.

The Marine Band’s last in-person concert was March 1, 2020. Since then, it's held online broadcasts and provided a lot of virtual content, including outreach to schools nationwide. In a normal year, the Marine Band tours every fall and one of Plunk’s favorite memories was playing at the Adler Theatre in 2018. She is married, with a 12-year-old daughter, who plays violin and piano, and an almost two-year-old son.

For more information, visit www.marineband.marines.mil.

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.