The Military Corner: Interview with John Cradler
by Steven Maxwell
John M. Cradler joined “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in July 1989. Master Gunnery Sergeant Cradler began his musical instruction at age 11 and graduated in 1983 from Lake Mills High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in tuba performance from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a master’s degree in tuba performance from the University of Akron in Ohio. His instructors have included John Stevens of the University of Wisconsin, Tucker Jolly of the University of Akron, and Ronald Davis of the University of South Carolina.
MGySgt Cradler performs with the Marine Band, Marine Chamber Orchestra, and Marine Chamber Ensembles at the White House, in the Washington, D. C. area and across the country during the band’s annual concert tour.
SM: You began playing tuba when you were eleven. Can you talk about your early musical influences before you began playing tuba?
JC: The first instrument that I actually played was the viola. In some circles that’s a pretty well kept secret. I started on the viola in 4th grade and when it was time to try out band instruments in 6th grade I could only choose the instruments that were available to be rented at the middle school. They were percussion, saxophone, or tuba. The first two didn’t float my boat. The band director put a shiny little Holton tuba in my lap, and I fell in love with it.
I stuck with the tuba and viola through high school but it got to be a little too much to keep up with both. Having a little more success on tuba I decided to continue with it into college.
SM: Was your family musical?
JC: Not particularly. My parents liked to watch the Boston Pops when I was young. They went out and bought a piano for my younger brother and I to play on, but they weren’t musicians them selves.
Southeast Regional Tuba Euphonium Conference, 2009. The quartet was doing a TV spot on the local morning news when we discovered the ACC women’s basketball tournament was going on in Winston-Salem, N. C. at the same time. The mascots from Duke, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech were at the station at the same time, so we had to get a photo. The quartet from left to right, John Cradler, Mark Jenkins, Ryan McGeorge, and Tom Holtz.
SM: At what point in your studies did you decide that being a professional musician was the direction you wanted to take?
JC: That came pretty late. I did not have any private lessons growing up in a small town in Wisconsin. There was one violin teacher and one piano teacher. By the time I reached my senior year I had success at contests with the tuba, and I decided I wanted to be a music major. I started off as a music education major, and I did that for a year and a half and then became a performance major.
I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my undergraduate degree. In my first year, Mitch Gershenfeld was the teacher. Ronald Davis took over for a year as the interim professor, and John Stevens was hired my junior year. John and Ron gave me a lot of encouragement and helped me to prepare for a professional career.
To be honest with you, I hadn’t really given much thought to military bands. For my graduate degree I attended the University of Akron and studied under Tucker Jolly who had played with the Coast Guard Band. He really described to me what life was like in a service band. The military bands were sort of a mystery to me until that point. That is what got me pointed toward a military career.
The tuba section at the President’s Inauguration Ceremony in 2009.
SM: When did you begin taking auditions?
The first audition I took was the Jacksonville Symphony (FL) in 1986. Soon after that I took the long drive up to Winnipeg for another audition. I didn’t do very well up there. When I got to Ohio, I auditioned for one of the Air Force Bands; the one at Langley in Virginia. Then finally I auditioned for the Marine Band a few months after that.
SM: How has your playing evolved as you have been a member of the military bands?
JC: As a professional player, overall, I have just gained so much experience. I am so much more familiar with the repertoire and what is expected of the tuba section of a concert band. My time keeping has constantly improved. That is something that you always focus on in the military bands. Rhythm, time and keeping it steady are just so important to the tuba section. The pitch center is also quite important. We are constantly working on keeping our pitch center right on.
SM: Do you have any advice for people that are interested in auditioning for a military band?
JC: We first and foremost are looking for an accomplished musician that has all the standard assets: impeccable time, great pitch, good sound, and generally accomplished in sight-reading. Although sight-reading has become less of a factor over the years but it is still important. You have to also have high-level security clearance to work at the White House.
We are always looking for the best musician we can find that has a great work ethic that is very flexible and can play in many styles. Jazz playing has become more and more valuable.
SM: What type of playing outside of the Marine Band, do you enjoy?
JC: We have a lot of fun with our tuba-euphonium quartet. It is a great outlet for us and we get to pick our own music and really control the group. Chamber music is such a rewarding thing; it is great for us to have that on the side. The chamber music rehearsals are so different. There are often opportunities to work outside the band. There are orchestras here and there that we can play with. But overall, my favorite group outside the band is the quartet.
SM: What would a typical day be for you?
Our days can change from season to season. For instance, right now, half of us are out on tour. That band will go town to town and play a concert every night for a month. Those of us back in Washington might have funerals to play at Arlington Cemetery and various seasonal performances.
Our concerts are typically on Sunday afternoons and those run in the winter and spring months. We usually have four rehearsals a week prior to the concert, usually Tuesday through Friday. The hours of rehearsals often vary depending on what else we have scheduled. In the summer, concerts are on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. We will rehearse Tuesday and Wednesday morning. In the summer we also often have a weekly parade at the Marine Barracks. It is not a street parade but it is on a parade ground. That’s a sousaphone day for the tuba players. The White House also gets very busy around December with all the holiday events and parties.
SM: Have there been some guest artist musicians that you have worked with while you have been a member of the Marine Band that have been really memorable or significant?
JC: Perhaps our two greatest brushes with greatness, if you will, have been John Williams, who came to guest conduct us twice. He conducted our group at the 205th anniversary concert in 2003 and the 210th Anniversary Concert last year in 2008. It was very cool to work with someone with that kind of career and experiences. Another guest conductor we had about five years ago was Osmo Vänskä, the director of the Minnesota Orchestra. He is a very, very accomplished conductor. He was wonderful to work with.
Early in my career we were conducted by members of the American Bandmaster Association, which included all the famous names in band including Harry Begian and other college big shots. We got to say “Oh, this is what it would be like if you attended this college.” So it was fun to experience all their different styles of conducting and leadership.
The U. S. Marine Band Tuba-Euphonium Quartet. L-R: Ryan McGeorge, Tom Holtz, John Cradler, and Mark Jenkins.
SM: As a member of the “Presidents Own” Marine Band, is there a work that you really love to play? One that you are always excited to see on the list of repertoire for the next concert?
JC: One of my new favorites is on our new recording out this winter, Respighi”s Roman Festival. We recorded that last spring and it was a ton of fun to record and to play for an audience. This is a new transcription by our staff copyist Don Patterson.
Some of the old warhorses, if you what to call them that, are great. I could play the Holst First Suite in E-flat on every concert, and I would enjoy it. Another one that comes to mind that I feel the same about is the Shostakovich Festive Overture. There are so many it is hard to name a favorite. Style-wise, I do like playing the Romantic era transcriptions and any Percy Grainger. Lincolnshire Posy is another one that I just can’t get enough of.
SM: Is there a piece of literature that you would be happy to never have play again?
JC: Only one piece? Lets see…there are some pieces that are so bad that you just kind of flush them out of your memory banks right when you finish with them.
I do remember one piece that we played with Colonel Bourgeois in a rehearsal. He went digging in the library and found old scores that had not been played in a long time and brought them to rehearsal. One of the pieces he came up with was a work by Grofé, who wrote the Grand Canyon Suite. This one was, I think, composed for a World’s Fair in the early 20th century, and it was entitle Trylon and Perisphere. [Editor’s Note: This work was written for the New York’s World’s Fair in 1939–1940.] The title represented shapes that were important to that particular fair. The band had never seen it before, and it was just awful. We were playing through it, and the Colonel got a very dour look on his face. You could tell he had given up on the possible musical merit of the piece, and, while the band was playing, he closed the score and tossed it over his shoulder and said, “That’s the end of that one!” I had never heard the piece before or since.
SM: How have audition trends changed since you entered the military (e.g. Equipment, playing style, audition repertoire, etc)?
JC: Over the last 20 years or so, our auditions have moved away from being almost entirely sight-reading auditions. When Pat Sheridan and I joined the band in 1989, our audition consisted of the cadenza from the first movement of the Vaughan Williams concerto and sight-reading whatever was on the stand in front of you. My teacher at the time, Tucker Jolly, had warned me to expect this, and I spent months working on sight-reading beforehand. Our recent auditions have consisted of a solo of the performer’s choice, some prepared excerpts, which we send out to each candidate, and sight-reading. This has evolved over the years and seems to be a bit more like most orchestra auditions. We added the solo of choice to allow people to only bring one tuba to the audition if they so desired. The Vaughan Williams would almost necessitate that players travel with 2 tubas, and the times we use F tuba in a band setting are very rare.
SM: Do you have advice for preparing an audition list for a military band audition? What are typical problems or “bad” habits you have heard in auditions regarding certain warhorse audition excerpts…Stars and Stripes, Oberon, etc?
JC: Preparing for band auditions is much like preparing for any audition. Excellent fundamental musicianship is paramount. Does the candidate have an appealing tone in all registers? Can they count, subdivide, and keep time well? Is their intonation accurate? Do they observe dynamics and tempo indications? Are their articulations clear and in keeping with our style? These are all questions we ask as we listen from behind the screen. Bad habits include inattention to rhythms and tempos (are you playing the Stars and Stripes like it is printed? The committee is not interested in your “personal edits and improvements”). Another bad habit is to try to play too loudly. Candidates should remember that they will be a member of a section and blending is more important than overwhelming the band.
Seven of us from the Marine Band visited the Singapore Armed Forces Band for a joint performance. The other tuba player in the picture is 3SG Low Hui Hiang Julian (November 2008).
SM: Could you compare and/or contrast the band and Colburn with that of Bourgeois and his legacy?
JC: I think that looking through the programs of what the band has played of the past 20 years gives a good indication of the programming styles of the Directors. I also think it’s safe to say that Colonel Colburn values the traditions of the Marine Band just as Colonel Bourgeois did. We are a very tradition-rich organization, and I believe it is important to preserve those traditions.
SM: What trends throughout the years have you see in the military band in terms of playing and equipment?
JC: When I joined the band, the wave of CC tubas replacing BB-flat tubas in military bands was just reaching its crest. There were guys that played BB-flat tuba but they were nearing the ends of their careers. Today most everyone plays CC tuba. This is not to say that there isn’t a place for BB-flat tuba in band, quite the contrary. Many times when we are playing an old transcription that’s loaded with flats, we look at each other and say, “Boy, this would lay really well on a BB-flat!” It’s just that the college environments we all came from focused on CC tuba and that has become our main tuba, for better or for worse. Neither BB-flat or CC tuba is encouraged or discouraged in our section or at our auditions.
As I noted in the previous response, we have traditions in the band and much of what we play stays the same stylistically over the years. Marches are one style of music in which we very rarely explore anything radically new with respect to performance style. We do find that there is more contemporary music being played that calls on a different skill set than the older transcriptions. Often in transcriptions, we are emulating cello or string bass sections. With later wind music, the tuba is not doing that as much, rather it is the low member of the brass section or working in conjunction with the low woodwinds.
John Cradler and the U. S. Marine Band Tuba-Euphonium Quartet will be performing at ITEC 2010 in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, May 29 at 1:00 pm.