Maj. Michelle Rakers talks inaugural cermonies, glass ceiling

“It can be a long day, but it’s still an exciting time,” Maj. Michelle Rakers of the Marine Corps Band said of last week’s inaugural ceremonies. “It’s a very busy time for us.”

“The Marine Band has a unique situation in that we are the only band that provides the soundtrack for the inaugural ceremony. We provide prelude music before the inauguration, and then we play through the ceremony including playing honors for the current President, and then once the President-elect is sworn in, we play honors for our current president then,”  Rakers told Women of Washington hosts Aileen Black and Gigi Schumm.

The band, which is often called the “President’s Own,” has played at every inauguration since Thomas Jefferson’s in 1801. Last week, in addition to being the accompaniment for the inaugural ceremonies, the Marine Band marched in inaugural parade and played at one of three inaugural balls that night.

Rakers is the first female assistant director of the Marine Band, which only started accepting female musicians in 1973. Rakers joined the band in 1998 as a trumpet player and now conducts the band. She talked Women of Washington about her journey to becoming a double “first,” both the first female assistant director and the first female commissioned officer serving in the Marine Band.

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“It’s a much easier road to go down when somebody has paved it for you. Not that my path has been necessarily challenging externally, they’ve been mostly internal challenges,” Rakers said of her journey.

She said that creating role models for young women is imperative to breaking the glass ceiling in music, as in the corporate world.

“Seeing women in that role, I can’t even describe how valuable that is, and how much that means,” she said.

Although Rakers has conducted for years, she is one of only a handful of women conducting professional symphonies in the U.S. The vast majority of orchestral conductors are still men; out of the top 100 professional orchestras in the country in 2013, only 12 were conducted by women.

Part of the problem is explicit discrimination, but Rakers said that the stress of being the first woman in a role such as conducting can present its own challenges.

“Our cultural conditioning plays into that a lot, into my own self-doubt, and how willing I am to embrace the challenges and put myself out there,” she said.

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Rakers described how her self-doubt was an obstacle she had to overcome.

“It’s easier to let somebody else do that or feel that they’re better equipped for this job,” she said. “So for me the internal challenge is to say ‘No, you really have a talent for this, and you deserve to be up there as much as anybody else.’”

When asked to give advice to her younger self, Rakers shared, “Be less critical — just go for it. Shrug off the judgment of what you’re doing, and just go for it. Do it.”