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147: Attention Trumpet Players: Do You Love Your Country? Then Charge for Playing Taps.

Happy Fourth of July!

For us Americans, it’s a time for parades, hot dogs, a cursory mention of one of the greatest political documents ever written in the Declaration of Independence – and more or less getting a warm fuzzy about the good ‘ol US of A.

And for us bloggers and podcasters – particularly of the evil capitalist variety, who salivate at the thought of the squeamish among the populace pounding their fists in rage over our latest controversy – it’s a time to fire up the old boat, take a visit to Jim’s Clickbait Shop and get under the skin of those poor souls who can’t accept that there’s a viewpoint other than their own.

Today’s topic is one that in my experience as a (recovering) trumpet player gets people more riled up than anything I’ve ever seen in the music world. I’ve witnessed and experienced literal weeping and gnashing of teeth over it – at least it seemed literal.

The topic is whether or not trumpet players should charge a fee – or even accept one when offered – to play Taps at military funerals.

In military parlance, here’s my BLUF (bottom line up front):

Charging a fee for a service is what makes the world go ’round. Playing Taps at a funeral is a service – an extremely valuable one at that – one that should command top dollar and attract top talent to ensure it’s done properly.

Think about everything that goes into a proper military funeral. You’ve got a facility to do the service, you’ve got flowers, a minister, someone to dig the grave (or cremate the body), and on and on.

All of these people get paid to do these things.

Yet for some reason many people seem to think that the person responsible for the most memorable, the most emotional, the most poignant moment in the entire service isn’t worthy to get paid. What’s more, anyone who believes they should will be criticized mercilessly for their heretical views. And interestingly enough, the harshest of these critics are fellow musicians.

Quite frankly, I find this to be rather disheartening. I think that if these critics were to engage in a bit of critical thinking, to go beyond the emotional responses their hyper-nationalist heart churns out, perhaps they would see how their thinking and criticism of others is really hurting more than helping their cause.

Why Do People Think Trumpeters Should Play Taps for Free?

“Because the deceased has already paid the ultimate price. Shame on you for demanding a fee in light of their selfless service!”

Am I saying anything about being demanding? I’m saying that trumpet players should insist on getting paid to perform the service of playing Taps – and emotions be damned should refuse to do so if the family or organization is unable (more like unwilling) to accommodate.

Yeah, I suppose I can see how some would interpret that as demanding.

Now to be clear, if someone wants to play Taps for a Memorial Day service pro bono, fine. I mean, it’s your skill you’ve worked on, you’re free to share your talents and gifts how you see fit. And if a family is truly in legit need financially and really can’t afford to pay you and you want to do it on the house, I say good for you.

But what concerns me is that it seems to be more or less expected that trumpet players do this service pro bono.

Trumpet players themselves have bought into this idea of playing Taps out of an altruistic sense of patriotism and honoring the “last full measure of devotion,” or whatever sappy song is on your local military band’s latest playlist.

What they don’t seem to see is how this thinking in reality sets a really bad precedent.

Patriotism Doesn’t Put Gas in the Tank

I often hear musicians complaining about losing a gig because someone else was willing to do it for free, or for a fee that is far less than what they were charging.

Or bitching about the coffee shop that wants musicians to play for free “for the exposure.”

Those are both valid complaints, so why doesn’t the same standard apply to trumpet players who are capable of playing Taps? (Which isn’t as easy to play as it sounds by the way.)

This culture of shaming trumpet players who insist on getting paid for performing their service makes performing the service itself very unattractive. Would you want to do something that is going to get you criticism from your peers? (Well, I would, but that’s why I’m writing and you’re reading.)

When you make something unattractive, or undesirable, people are going to stay away from it. In this case, it’s playing Taps for money. And when the good players don’t want to do it, who do you think does it?

You get the mediocre, sometimes truly awful player who’s willing to do it for free – or worse, the recording on a boombox or loudspeaker.

Ready for some tough love, all you haters? Your misplaced sense of patriotism, of duty to your country isn’t helping anything. In fact, it has created a serious shortage of trumpet players who are otherwise ready, willing and able to do it.

Because any serious musician who respects him or herself isn’t going to do it for free! 

Think about all that goes into performing Taps well.

You’ve got a situation where people have just lost a loved one – a highly emotional scene. Now you have one person playing Taps all alone, and exposed. Ask any trumpeter who has played Taps and they’ll tell you it is no walk in the park. I mean, you don’t push any of the buttons on the horn, but the emotional element alone makes it very difficult. Add in the fact you’re playing for 45-60 seconds with no rest, the use (or non-use) of vibrato, finding just the right length of the notes, fading away on the last note…

Put it all together and it’s something that 99.99% of the population is unable to do.

As someone who is able to do it and do it well, you definitely have that scarcity factor working in your favor. And the laws of economics tell us that scarcity = value.

But the Guvmint Says They’re Entitled to It!!!

Yes, they did. The regulations say that all service members are “entitled” to a military burial consisting of a flag team and the playing of Taps. (From what I remember. It’s been awhile since I’ve read them.)

You know what? The government is notorious for turning luxuries into entitlements. They’ve done it most recently with education, housing and healthcare but they did it with music before any of those things when they said that the playing of Taps is an entitlement.

What’s the result of this entitlement mentality?

The quality goes way down.

For one thing, they can’t possibly provide and pay for a living, breathing person to play Taps for every single service member. 

So they do what they can. They get a little speaker that plays Taps, stick it into the bell of a bugle and have someone hold it. Or they’ll play it on a loudspeaker at cemeteries that do a lot of military funerals.

The government has fulfilled its obligation as far as it’s concerned. And so has the family, as far as they’re concerned. Hey, they’re entitled to Taps, and the government did what they say is the best they can do. Who are we to argue?

And it never occurs to either one of them that there’s a better, far more honorable, way to do it.

Bill > Bernie

I’ve been in the Army twice, from 1994-98 and again from 2008-15. Both times I was employed as a trumpet player. And of course, playing Taps at funerals was part of the gig. I played it at probably several hundred funerals in the 12 years I was in the service.

And you know, over time I got kind of good at it. In fact, the best lesson I ever received on how to play Taps was from a Special Forces guy, probably never touched a musical instrument in his life. I had just played Taps for one of their guys and at the after party (this is Special Forces remember) I overhead him describing a guy who had mastered the art of playing Taps. He described how he had the length of every single note timed just right, how it got him and everyone around him choked up.

This was around 1996. I was 19 years old, and even though I never heard the guy he was describing play it, I decided that was how I was going to play Taps. Rather, that was the reaction I was going to get from people when I played it.

So I actually put some effort into it. I had played it a few times prior to this, and it was okay, but nothing more than that. I had to learn some hard lessons about how waiting outside for an hour prior to playing when it’s 28 degrees outside, but I survived them and fought through it.

Now I was ready to take it seriously. Every time I played Taps, I wanted to sound like the guy that SF guy described at the house party in Ft. Myers, FL. By the time I left the Army in ’98, I was the first call for the big time ceremonies. Anytime there was a gig that involved above average tightening of the anal sphincter muscle, I was the guy they called. Why? Because I gave a shit. I flat out played Taps and all those silly bugle calls better than anyone else in the band when it mattered most.

Fast forward about 4 years. I’ve been out of the Army, I’ve finished Bible college, and now I’m kind of in this purgatory, wondering what in the world to do with my life. Music isn’t really a part of it. I play occasionally but mostly as a hobby. I get this idea to visit the national cemetery near Tacoma, WA where I lived at the time, just to see if there might be an opportunity to use this skill I had developed while I was in the Army.

Turns out there was. I met a couple of guys that I remember to this day. One of them was named Bernie. Bernie had that classic attitude that since the government says that all service members are entitled to the playing of Taps, then gosh darnit, they were going to get Taps, no matter how bad the live version might be.

And boy, was he bad.

So bad that I yearned for Woody English’s rendition on the loudspeaker. (Woody is the guy from The Army Band who recorded all the bugle calls – back when rocks were still soft.)

Well, I introduced myself to him, let him know about my background and that I’d be happy to help out from time to time. I was self-employed at this time and was able to carve out time to do things like this here and there.

So I started playing Taps, for free, at the cemetery. It was through this that I met Bill, a veteran of the Air Force.

Back in the day, Bill played trumpet for some of the top big bands, and boy was he good! So good that the Air Force, which doesn’t have a band in the veteran-rich Puget Sound area, hired him to play Taps at their funerals.

He heard me play Taps while I was filling in for Bernie and liked what he heard. He said he would put me on his “sub list.” Yes, there was a sub list even for buglers. (Remember, there was and still is a serious demand for this service.)

So every now and then, I would get a call from Bill asking me to fill in for him when he couldn’t do it, usually because he was double-booked. He paid me half of what he got paid by the Air Force, which was plenty for me. It was a win-win.

Bill even referred me to a lady who wanted me to play Taps for a service that was totally unaffiliated with the Air Force. When they handed me the check, I gratefully accepted it.

Hey, I had bills to pay. As far as I was concerned, I provided a service they wanted, and I had no qualms about taking their money for doing it.

Now I haven’t made playing Taps my main source of income like Bill did. But as someone who put in some serious wood-shedding to get Taps sounding as good as possible, to make the experience for the family a memorable one, which business model do you think I prefer: Bill’s or Bernie’s?

Bernie’s promises a warm fuzzy feeling in exchange for doing an act of service to your country. And when it was all said and done, it didn’t really deliver on that.

Bill’s, on the other hand, provides a means of paying your bills, of fueling your vehicle in exchange for doing an act of service to your country.

Call me a dirty capitalist if you must, but I prefer Bill’s.

It’s proof that people value a high quality performance of Taps and are willing to pay for it. It’s proof that trumpet players who are looking for gigs can actually bring home some bread doing what they were put on this earth to do.

But YOU Know Better

You would never accept payment for honoring a fallen service member.

You priggishly criticize anyone who thinks that trumpet players deserve to be compensated financially for performing this service.

You say you’re “disappointed” in me for writing this article, that I should have a higher regard for people’s service to their country. That asking for money for doing this service somehow pollutes your sense of patriotism.

Know what I say?

I say it’s time for YOU to get off your moral high-horse and quit shaming people who are looking for ways to use their skills to provide for their family, which in itself is rather honorable, wouldn’t you agree?

Trumpet players of the world, listen up. Quit listening to those Crabs on Flakebook who want to drag you back into the pot of boiling water anytime you try to better your lot in life.

Recognize the skill you possess, the ability you have to enrich people’s lives through the act of playing Taps at a high level.

Your country will thank you for it, and it will in turn encourage more of your fellow trumpet players who are looking for work to offer their services to provide this essential task and make those awful canned recordings a thing of the past.

One final thing…

If honoring service members who have passed from this life is as important as you say it is…

DON’T LEAVE IT TO BERNIE

Be Bill. Charge for Playing Taps!

Get out there.

Let the world know the value you provide with your musical abilities.

Decide on a fee you’re willing to accept in exchange for this vital service – and then add 20%.

Just in case the grieving and disoriented family forgets to leave a tip.

About the author, James Newcomb

I'm a full time MusicPreneur. Every now and then I play music. Send me an email at maestro@musicpreneur.com!

1 Comment

  1. Brad Niemi on 07/04/2018 at 2:58 PM

    Abso-f******-lutely correct, thanks for writing this.

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