Some thoughts on Taps

Today, in the U.S., it is Memorial Day. It is a day in which Americans honor those who have died while serving in the military. A lot of trumpeters play Taps today. It’s a bugle call steeped in tradition. The best place to find out about Taps and its history is the Taps Bugler website, which is maintained by Jari Villanueva.

Here is the call. Note the even (non-dotted) rhythm in the third bar:

Taps (from the Taps Bugler website)

Here is a video I did for Colorado State University’s “Rams remember Rams” virtual ceremony. I sound Taps at about 8:25.

I have played nearly 2000 renditions of Taps in my career as a U.S. Navy Trumpeter/Bugler (1998 to 2018). In the Navy Band, we always used B-flat trumpets (open valves), so the call was in concert B-flat. This is pretty standard nowadays, but Taps sounded on different-keyed bugles is also fine. The most common keys of Bugles would be F and G (and also B-flat).

A common feeling when playing Taps is nervousness, because it is an exposed, important piece. Nothing gets the “juices” flowing more than a feeling that what you are playing is “important” and that you are being “judged.” I can suggest that, instead of thinking about you and your performance, embrace the concept that this is a bugle call that people really want to hear, and you are but the humble deliverer of the call. It’s not about you, it’s about the call. We all love the call, so you don’t need to worry. But what if you do miss a note?

The most famous rendition of Taps, at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, the bugler, Army musician, Specialist Keith Clark, missed the sixth note. And you know what? We all cherish that rendition, because of its inherent emotion. So, when you are playing Taps, remember to deliver the call humbly, and, if you miss, know that people still love what you are doing.

In my many soundings of Taps in the U.S. Navy, I discovered that the most common places to “chip” a note were the 6th note, the 19th note or (more rare) the last note. Therefore, it’s important to remember airflow going into those notes. It’s more likely that you will be secure in your attack if your airstream does NOT stop before the 6th, 19th or 24th notes.

One other thing that may happen when nervous, is a lack of control of the tongue, which can cause unintended air turbulence in your mouth when trying to articulate. In this case, instead of articulating with the tip of the tongue (a sharp “t”), allow the articulation to be more of a “d.” This allows for a more secure articulation under stress, because the tongue is in the correct, rounded shape, needed for good use of air (the drawback is that “d” is less clean than a regular “t”). In my experience, trumpeters who “anchor tongue” are a little more accurate on Taps because their tongue is already in this more rounded shape. I don’t anchor tongue, but I will occasionally use this legato articulation (“d”) approach when my tongue feels stiff from performance anxiety.

Of course, the most important concept for a solid Taps is repetitive practice. If you put in many good repetitions of Taps a day for a week in your practice room, you will be more confident when performing.

Here’s another video of my playing Taps on a regulation bugle in F. I talk a little about some good concepts to make this bulge call more confident and solid.

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