Meet the woman behind Colonial Williamsburg’s fife corps, man behind drums

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Larissa Sasgen was tasked with leading a group of young musicians in Colonial Williamsburg’s annual Independence Day festivities after only a month on the job. (Courtesy Joshua Wright)

After only a month on the job, Larissa Sasgen, co-supervisor of the department of The Colonial Williamsburg Fifes & Drums, was tasked with leading the young musicians in the annual Independence Day festivities.

The patriotic celebration included a parade and a concert for the corps, perhaps the most famous symbol of Colonial Williamsburg.

“It was one of the scariest performances I’ve ever done, and also one of the most amazing,” said Sasgen. “That’s when I knew I have the greatest job ever.”

Sasgen has been with the department for six months. She oversees the fife players while W. Stewart Pittman supervises the drummers. Sasgen, a flutist who grew up in Illinois, has been a part of fifes and drums since the age of 16. Most recently, she was a member of the Middlesex County Volunteer Fifes & Drums in the Boston area.

“I saw them perform on TV with the Boston Pops and knew I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.

Sasgen spent nine years performing with the Middlesex County Volunteer Fifes & Drums, taking international stages in Canada, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Australia.

“It was a really huge honor being a part of their Fifes and Drums,” she said. “They are amazing, hard-working, and extremely musically proficient. They have eight or nine CDs, and I am on two of the recordings. That’s exciting.”

Pittman, meanwhile, is an alumnus of the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes & Drums. A native of Williamsburg, he learned to play the snare drum when he joined the program at the age of ten. He stayed with the program for eight years. Pittman worked as a military interpreter at the Magazine during college before he was hired as a drum instructor with the Fifes & Drums department, and never left.

During his time as a musician with the Fifes & Drums, he played for famous individuals including Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1993 and Jiang Zemin, the Premier of China, in 1997.

“I’ve always enjoyed the teamwork with the Fifes and Drums,” Pittman said. “I also enjoyed the drum classes, and the drum maintenance. Those all appealed to me. I am glad they asked me to stay on.”

Roughly 100 students in the Greater Williamsburg area aged ten to 18 are a part of the Fifes & Drums. Joining the corps is so prestigious that the wait list used to begin at birth. Now, students sign a wait list at age eight and become eligible to participate when they are 10 and in the fifth grade.

“There is no musical aptitude required,” Sasgen explained. “If the only thing they know how to play is the radio, that is okay. But they do need to have the right kind of attitude. This is an intense program.”

As supervisors, Pittman and Sasgen provide instrumental instruction, arrange the 18th century military music, schedule performances, and act as drum majors during all the concerts. Students leave the program with an extensive classical music education.

“Teaching is very satisfying to me,” said Pittman. “I am also a fan of our music. I love all the 18th century folk music.”
In addition, the pair are responsible for all the maintenance of the fifes and drums.

“We ensure all the instruments are in good-playing condition,” said Sasgen. “We make sure the students all look sharp and sound sharp.”

The Colonial Williamsburg Fifes & Drums appear in more than 700 performances annually.

“We play almost every day, and, in December, it is every day,” said Sasgen. “Our preparation is extensive. We start preparing for our Christmas performances in September.”

The corps plays mostly in the Historic Area, though they’ve also marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and performed at the Basel Military Tattoo in Switzerland in 2008 for The Colonial Williamsburg Fife & Drums department’s 50th anniversary.

“That was the first time we’ve taken the corps across the Atlantic Ocean,” said Pittman. “That was definitely a unique experience.”

Beyond the Fifes & Drums, Pittman also plays the uilleann (Irish bagpipes) with the local Irish band Poisoned Dwarf. He and his wife are gearing up for the birth of their first child, while Sasgen is prepping for her upcoming wedding.

The two are also busy with plans to celebrate the Fifes & Drums 60th anniversary next year.

“We have big plans for this department,” said Pittman.

And Sasgen is quite happy to be a part of it all.

“Colonial Williamsburg has always been my version of Disney World,” she said. “I always thought this was the coolest place to go on vacation, and now I am lucky enough to be working here doing what I love to do. I love teaching the students about what I love, and I love performing with them every day.”