Clayton Vaughn started playing the cello when he was 11-years-old. He is now a cellist in the United States Marine Band, the oldest continuously active professional musical organization in the country.

Vaughn playing the celloMost federal employees didn’t have to work on Dec. 5, a national day of mourning for President George H.W. Bush. Clayton Vaughn (DMA’12) was proud to be among those who did.

A cellist in the United States Marine Band, known as “The President’s Own,” Staff Sergeant Vaughn spent that Wednesday performing in the 41st president’s memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

“I was humbled to be part of that experience,” he said. “It was a very reverent and solemn occasion — a good chance to pay tribute to our commander in chief.”

From the first number, a nocturne from Gustav Holst’s “A Moorside Suite,” to the last, a hymn from “For All the Saints,” the band provided the soundtrack for a remarkable ceremony watched on television by millions.

The Marine Band is the country’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization. Established by Congress in 1798, its mission is to provide music for the president of the United States and the commandant of the Marine Corps.

Vaughn, 34, landed a seat in its strings section in June. His first big performance was the Fourth of July concert on the White House lawn. Prior to that, his only other time at America’s most famed residence was when he was in fifth grade, during a school trip.

He’d started playing the cello a year earlier, at age 11, and he’s never stopped.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cello performance, he thought he wanted to become a professor. While pursuing a doctorate at CU, he studied with Andras Fejer, of the Grammy-winning Takács Quartet, and Judith Glyde. Along the way, he realized his true inspiration was performing, not teaching.

Vaughn played with orchestras in Iowa, Alabama and Nebraska before applying to the 150-member Marine Band. He was chosen following three audition rounds and an interview. Although he is a member of the Marine Corps, he did not have to go through basic training, since his role is strictly noncombative.

“They have such a wide variety of performance opportunities,” Vaughn says of his outfit, which is based at Marine Barracks Washington, about three miles southeast of the White House, and is believed to have played at every presidential inauguration since Thomas Jefferson’s. “It’s a great chance to serve your country.”

Last winter, the band performed at the White House several times, playing holiday standards like “Rudolph the RedNosed Reindeer” and “Sleigh Ride.”

That’s quite a stage for any musician.

“I try to shoot for the stars, but be a realist at the same time,” Vaughn said of his path to the band. “I’ve taken a lot of auditions over the years. Sometimes you come close and sometimes you don’t.”

This time, he nailed it.