Friday, September 21, 2007

'Taps' may be the easiest difficult song in the world

I played a little trumpet back in the day ... not well, but maybe well enough to do this with some practice:

While a federal law requires a flag detail for every veteran's funeral service, buglers are optional. With too few military buglers available, some veterans' cemeteries, including Houston's, are turning to recorded or a digital version of taps played over a loud speaker.

Kirby's group helps provide buglers at funerals for U.S. veterans and active duty service members. Every fallen vet and service member, he said, deserves the honor of a live bugler, not a recorded song or a digital bugles.

"We feel every veteran should have a 21-gun salute and a live bugler," said Kirby, a disabled Navy veteran.

But of the group's more than 170 members, only about 40 are able to play taps. The rest are either taking lessons from volunteers or are awaiting the resources to buy instruments they can play.

Kirby learned taps in only four months, but he said it's still a difficult song to perform.

"At a funeral there are no redos," Kirby said. "It's the emotional side of it and getting through the actual song, the tradition of what taps means."

I'll bet that last bit is right about getting through the emotional side being the hardest part.

Taps in one sense is an easy song to play, in another sense a difficult one because of its musical purity. When you play Taps on a trumpet instead of a bugle, you simply don't push down any keys. One changes notes entirely by adjusting your embrochure, or how you purse your lips and how much air you blow through the instrument.

Bugles can only play a given set of notes in a single harmonic series by making your embrochure smaller for higher notes and slightly more open for lower ones. A trumpeter can use valves to switch to a different harmonic series.

In other words, when you hold down the valves on a trumpet to create a different note, you're not creating a single different note but shifting the instrument's tubing length to access an entirely different harmonic series, which itself can be adjusted higher or lower by changing one's embrochure and the velocity of air pushed through the horn.

So on the one hand, Taps is "easy," because it's simple. It explores the notes in a single harmonic series. You don't need to know how to use the valves on a trumpet, read music, or really understand anything about musical theory at all - the song basically uses the only notes the instrument (a bugle) can play.

On the other hand, its simplicity also makes Taps difficult because it's entirely about the purity of the notes, their tone, the performer's smoothness of transition - all of these are highlighted more because so much else has been stripped away, leaving pure harmonics and the musician's skill as the only featured elements.

I imagine Taps is most difficult, though, because of the pressure - the emotionalism of the moment and the fact that screwing it up in the middle of such a significant ceremony is really NOT an option. You'd really want to practice long and hard before showing up to perform, but I'll bet it's a rewarding thing to do.


Daniel, USMC said...

When the day comes that they drop me in the ground; I hope that someone is around to properly bugle it for me. I would prefer the bugler performed his task with respect vs. absolute perfection... but I had no idea of the mechanics involved.

M1EK said...

I played Taps a number of times in high school (Memorial Day and a few other times). It's easy to learn - I can't believe the guy said it takes 4 months. A competent high-school trumpeter can do it - and those are always in good supply.

fenderguitar123 said...

I am great at playing taps. Although it is easy for me to play, some other kids in my class can't get high enough to play it. I checked out many different websites trying to find the correct note for taps. I looked at about 6 different websites and found about 6 differnent ways to play taps. I am in the 7th grade and I can almost not play your version of taps. It's really high. I'm the only on in the class that can play it. I know your version is right because that is the version that was played at my grandfather's funeral.