Inauguration a special moment for Marine Band clarinetist, EHS grad

  • Master Sgt. William Bernier Contributed Photo

  • The Marine Band performs during the 2021 Inaugural Ceremony for President Joe Biden. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. CHASE BARAN

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2021 8:13:55 PM

EASTHAMPTON — When he was playing clarinet at Easthampton High School in the early 1990s, William Bernier approached then band director Brooks Holmes about his desire to pursue a career in music.

“He was extremely supportive,” said Bernier, who noted that Holmes got him into contact with Michael Sussman, who taught clarinet at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Now, Bernier, 45, is approaching his 19th year as a member of the United States Marine Band, where he is a clarinetist and master sergeant.

“It’s really a unique, amazing job,” said Bernier. “It’s really cool to be around history as it’s being made.”

Bernier got to be part of more history this month, when he and the Marine Band performed at President Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. It was the fifth inauguration that Bernier has played at.

“This year’s inauguration was special,” said Bernier.

He noted that while in some previous inaugurations he’d focused more on the playing, this year was more like the first inauguration he played at, in that he was aware of his connection with history as it was ongoing.

“I don’t know how many more of these that I will do,” said Bernier.

As part of this year’s ceremony, Bernier and the band got to play with Lady Gaga, who sang the national anthem at the inauguration.

“We had a rehearsal with her the day before,” said Bernier. “She was really wonderful to work with.”

Bernier noted that the band also performed four pieces of original music commissioned from American composers as part of the inauguration ceremony, in addition to standards that are traditionally part of the ceremony such as “Hail To The Chief.”

Bernier said that the first time a new president hears “Hail To The Chief,” “it’s played by us.”

“That’s always really really cool,” he said.

Smaller contingent

As with many other aspects of American life, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the U.S. Marine Band at the ceremony. While normally 80 band members perform in the sit-down portion of the ceremony, this year 59 did because of spacing. Similarly, the marching portion of the ceremony, which normally sees 99 band members participate, was largely virtual.

In the inauguration, the Marine Band performs below the platform where the president is stationed, with Bernier estimating that he was 15 feet away from Biden.

“During his speech I only had to look up and I could see him right above me,” said Bernier.

Bernier joined the Marine Band in 2002, after successfully auditioning for a position in it and being sworn into the Marines. He is a graduate of EHS and the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, as well as the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he received his master’s degree.

Bernier has a number of family connections to the Pioneer Valley. He moved here from Connecticut with his family in 1988 and attended White Brook Middle School. His father and a grandmother graduated from EHS.

Of playing with the Marine Band, Bernier said that “there is no real day-to-day.”

He noted that the band has a spring concert series, a chamber orchestra at the White House, outdoor performances in the summer, a Friday night parade series at the Marine Barracks in D.C, and goes on tour inOctober.

“The band is very flexible and versatile,” he said.

Bernier played klezmer music with the band at the White House at a celebration for Jewish Americans in 2010. Since then, he’s played klezmer at the White House once or twice a year, and he noted how an older gentleman wrote in a blog about one of his performances that he never expected to hear the traditional Jewish music played at the White House.

Bernier also plays klezmer outside of his performances with the Marine Band.

“It’s been a really neat way to sort of expand my musicality,” he said.

Bernier said that he has played concerts with the Marine Band in all 48 contiguous states, and that he got to play with the band in Northampton in 2017 the last time it went on tour in New England. While he was in the area, he said he got to see the new EHS building from the outside.

Early in his career, Bernier played at the first anniversary memorial for 9/11 in 2002.

“That was a really moving event,” he said.

Bernier also cited Ronald Reagan’s state funeral in 2004 and George W. Bush’s 2005 presidential inauguration, the first Bernier played at, as early career highlights that showed what being part of the band would be like.

Bernier said he would like to continue playing with the Marine Band for as long as they’ll have him. However, when he leaves the band, he said that he and his wife, Dori Delaney, would like to return to New England. The pair met at UMass Amherst, which Bernier attended before transferring to the Eastman School of Music.

“We do miss it,” said Bernier, of New England. “It’s just part of who I am.”

They live now in Springfield, Va., with their 13-year-old daughter, who appreciated that her dad got to perform with Lady Gaga.

Bera Dunau can be reached at


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