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Here is a post by Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Uhl, who will be performing Taps for General Schwarzkopf at his funeral tomorrow. Bryan does a fantastic job of giving a real sense of what it is like to perform Taps for a funeral. For more information on Taps, watch this video we put together.
I don’t think any aspiring musician carries an ultimate goal of performing at funerals and ceremonies when he or she is in music school, practicing orchestral excerpts, rehearsing with ensembles, and learning music theory. Yet, in my career as a military trumpet player, it is these funerals and ceremonies that require more of my musical training than I would ever have imagined, and they comprise the most honorable work I believe I’ve done for the Army.
When I’m preparing for any funeral, whether it’s for the young PFC who was tragically killed in training or one of the most famous commanding generals of our time, I try to find out something about him. Sometimes, all I’m told is his name and where he’s from, or where he died. Of course, for General Norman Schwarzkopf, the details of his service are not difficult to find. I was in college when the first Gulf War began and “Stormin’ Norman” was a household name. Here at West Point, even though he retired years before I arrived to the band, there has been obvious pride in this general and the contributions he made as a member of our Army.
With the “who was this Soldier” question answered, my mind wanders to the family I’ll be playing Taps for. I have played Taps at enough funerals to know that hearing the bugle call is what reminds the family of the service of their lost loved one, and stirs emotions for them like pride, sadness, and loss. Those simple notes have to be executed precisely, so as not to disturb the listeners – the family of the lost loved one – from their meditative moment of emotion.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy, any time I have to do it. I’d also be lying if I said it isn’t harder when the funeral is as public and high-profile as General Schwarzkopf’s is going to be. For this particular funeral, I have to play on my cold-weather equipment, which is less than ideal – my mouthpiece is made out of acrylic, making it less painful to put against my lips when it’s time to play (usually after standing for a long time out in the cold), but it’s also a little bit less responsive, and because it’s not the mouthpiece I play on regularly as a trumpet player, it’s not the one I feel most comfortable with. My trumpet is my marching band trumpet, which I enjoy playing on because it’s a really nice instrument, and I’m comfortable with it.
I will go through all of the uniform preparations my colleagues also do – choosing appropriate layers for the weather, making sure my medals and shoes are polished and my coat and pants are pressed, and having a fresh haircut. My musical preparation is separate from the band, however. A snare drummer and I will go up to the cemetery separately from the rest of the funeral band, waiting until all of the other components (the band, the Honor Guard, etc.) have taken their places before we position ourselves in consideration of the wind and other factors – so that Taps sounds distant, yet present. If the wind is really strong, we’ll stand closer to where the funeral party will congregate. On a still day, we’ll stand further away.
There is often a lot of waiting involved for funerals, and it can be unpredictable exactly how long we’ll have to stand in the elements. Even as the ceremony unfolds, the Taps bugler is still waiting from a distance. I don’t get any cues from our drum major, I have to watch the funeral director and the Honor Guard firing party. When the Honor Guard is preparing for their rifle volleys, I know I’m up next. I come to the position of attention, lick my lips and make sure my embouchure is ready to play, and wait to hear the three volleys from the firing party. On the command “Present Arms,” they put their rifles to that position and I bring my trumpet into playing position. The snare drummer beside me begins his drum roll, and I start playing Taps.
Taps probably doesn’t seem like a difficult or technical piece of music to perform, but it requires a great deal of focus. I can’t allow myself to think now of the family and their emotions, because that could stir emotions in me that can upset my focus. For this particular funeral, I need to consider the feelings of an entire proud nation before I begin Taps – if I wait until the moment I’m playing, I may become overwhelmed with emotion. Thankfully, I’ve practiced and performed Taps enough times in my 15+ years here at West Point that it is, for the most part, second nature. I know when and how deeply to breathe, I know what I need to do to phrase the melody appropriately, and I know how to keep the tempo steady, even if I’m feeling nervous. Again, the cold weather is my biggest obstacle. It can be difficult to “feel” where to place my mouthpiece on my face when I’m too cold to really “feel” anything at all, but this will not be the first time I’ve had to overcome low temperatures. I trust my experience and I have confidence that comes from having been successful a number of times. When the moment comes, just like for a big solo in the concert hall, I know my training has prepared me and I’m ready to do the job I’m there to do.
When Taps is over, I lower my trumpet and render the hand salute. We remain at the position of attention while the flag is folded and presented to the next of kin. When the Honor Guard departs, we follow them.
Words by Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Uhl
Image by Sgt. 1st Class Willie Calohan