A recording should accomplish these two things

When I graduated from the U.S. Navy recruit training command (a.k.a. “boot camp”) at Great Lakes, Illinois, in 1998, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (John Hagan at the time), gave a speech to the graduates. In the speech, he advised us to take advantage of the educational and financial benefits the Navy offered. But the words he used were for us to “not leave the Navy dumb or poor.” It was a catchy phrase that stuck in my mind for the next 20 years, and I think I was better off by keeping his advice in my mind.

A recording project like the one I just went through this week is a major undertaking for a performing musician. It’s on a par with writing a book for a humanities professor or completing a research study for a science professor. It’s expensive and time consuming. Sadly in today’s market, there is no real monetary gain to be made in the short term from such a project.

But I would like to repurpose MCPON Hagan’s advice: don’t leave a recording project dumb or poor.

Let me explain. I was very lucky to have in my recording engineer a fantastic producer. Christian Amonson is a great musician and can get to the heart of a score as well as bring out the best in the musicians. During the 25 hours of recording for this album, I realized some fundamental things that I need to work on (more quality control, response, some elements of articulation technique and a more expressive sense of direction). These happened over and over, and I am glad that I became so aware of these issues. I have a renewed interest in getting better in these areas. I am not leaving the recording session “dumb.”

The last project I did with Christian’s company, my album “Refracted Light,” did not really earn any direct money for me, but it did open a lot of doors. Most important, it provided some solid evidence of my performing and creative abilities to the CSU trumpet search committee to hire me. And this latest project will provide equally-strong support for when I come up for tenure and promotion. And, in general, I am able to connect to lots of other artists and prospective students with good recordings to share with them. I am pretty sure I’m not leaving the recording session “poor.” Use your good recordings for marketing. Maintain relationships with your recording collaborators. The revenue may be “downstream,” but it’s revenue!

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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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