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George Mason University

Mason Doctoral Student’s Research Delves Deep into Culture of Marine Drum and Bugle Corps

November 20, 2015   /   by Jamie Rogers

Doctoral student Matt Halligan, a percussionist enrolled in the School of Music, is researching "The Commandant's Own," the United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps., known worldwide as a premier musical marching unit, as part of his dissertation on rudimental drumming style and performance practice in the ensemble. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

A George Mason University doctoral student is blazing trails by conducting one of the few in-depth research projects on “The Commandant’s Own”—The United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps.

Matt Halligan, a percussionist enrolled in the School of Music, is researching the group, known worldwide as a premier musical marching unit, as part of his dissertation on rudimental drumming style and performance practice in the ensemble.

The unit has an extensive history, so Halligan is breaking his dissertation into chapters. The first covers 1798 to 1934, which predates the official formation of the unit and the current name.

He’s uncovered letters in the National Archives, including one from 1798 from a Marine Corps commandant, describing an apprentice program that would train boys to be buglers and drummers.

Handling a letter that old is awe inspiring, Halligan said.

“What you are touching is history,” he said. “It’s like piecing together those puzzle pieces from the past.”

Parents of the boys in the training program would receive a stipend and the boys received tutoring and, when old enough, jobs on ships to perform signals and calls.

The Marine Corps prides itself on its history, but also likes to stay relevant and modern, said Halligan, who was a percussionist in the “The Commandant’s Own”  Marine Drum and Bugle Corps for six years before enrolling at George Mason in 2011.

He’s also uncovered much about the evolution of Marine culture by interviewing dozens of men who’ve played in the “The Commandant’s Own” Marine Drum and Bugle Corps over the years.

“One of my favorite quotes is from a Marine I interviewed named Charles Hawkins who served from 1977 to 1981. He said, ‘The only thing that truly changes is the face of the young marine in the uniform.’”

The interviews have revealed competitiveness is omnipresent in the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, no matter when you served, Halligan said.

“I’ve never been pushed more in my life than I was in the Marine Corps,” he said. “After talking with Marine veterans, I realized even though personalities and the colloquialisms were different, the same competitive attitude has always existed.”

Halligan was able to focus on his research after earning a competitive Summer 2015 Research Fellowship from the Office of the Provost at Mason, which furnished him with a $6,000 stipend.

“The stipend has allowed me to purely focus on my research; I don’t have to be concerned about working a part-time job in order to pay for living expenses,” he said.

John Kilkenny, Mason’s director of percussion studies, is Halligan’s primary instructor as he completes his doctorate in musical arts.

“Matt is a terrific percussionist—he is strongest in the rudimental marching tradition,” Kilkenny said. “He’s had the chance to work with many of our percussion faculty, including Grammy Award winner Joe McCarthy and Washington Opera Principal percussionist John Spirtas.”

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