October 27, 2002
ANNALS OF TECHNOBIA (continued):
Military tests digital bugle for funerals
(ROBERT BURNS, October 27, 2002, AP)
The Pentagon, chronically short of musicians to play taps at military funerals, is going to test a new ''push button'' bugle that can be operated by an honor guard member.
A small digital audio device inserted into the bell of the bugle plays a rendition of taps that the Pentagon says is ''virtually indistinguishable'' from a live bugler. The person using the bugle merely pushes a button and holds the bugle to his or her lips.
''In addition to the very high-quality sound, it provides a dignified 'visual' of a bugler playing taps, something families tell us they want,'' said John M. Molino, a deputy assistant defense secretary who announced the innovation. [...]
With the bugler shortage in mind, Congress passed a law that took effect in January 2000 and allows a recorded version of taps using audio equipment if a live horn player is not available. Molino said the push-button bugle is a ''dignified alternative'' to recorded taps.
It's the freakin' military--order some guys to learn how to play.
Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2002 10:48 AM
Dear Bros. Judd -
Having been a member of a USAF Base Honor Guard and a USAF Recruiter, I'd like very much to comment on your statement, 'order some guys to learn to play.'
First, not that many bugle players have ever joined the service. Secondly, we used to be able to count on those folks who could - except they're deployed a lot these days. (Something about Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan and some other places.)
Third, who gets to pay for these lessons? Most USAF units any more are so badly strapped for funds that they have to ration copy paper. Where are they going to find the funds for it?
Fourth, what happens when all THESE folks deploy or get transferred? Opening music schools at every base isn't entirely practical.
Fifth - and this is a point that has been brought up to Congress and repeatedly ignored - as veterans age and pass away, the demands on base honor guards have become almost unbearable. Here in South Carolina, the two USAF Base Honor Guards - no more than about twenty people each - are asked to serve at more than fifty funerals a week, and the number is going up. In addition, they also have their base Honor Detail duties, plus their regular jobs.
Believe me, nobody likes the idea of a digital bugler. But at the rate things are going there will be no alternative to it - short of simply eliminating the use of a bugler and Taps at vets' funerals, period. (And BTW, it's been quietly suggested. It would enable Honor Details to be cut by one person and create another detail within the limited manning they have)
As an Active Marine who has served on independent duty (where our small 16-man staff supported over 70 funerals a year), I think your "order some guys to play" is right on the mark.
First, playing a recording on a boom box is an undignified way render a veteran his final salute.
Second, bugles, unlike trumpets, have no moving parts. This makes training easier, and purchasing one cheaper.
Third, it's not like the player has to be able to read music or anything. All we need to do is train someone to play one tune, which everyone already knows, on an instrument with no moving parts.
Fourth, in most local communities, there are schools with band directors. These band directors are usually quite happy to teach a semi-musically inclined non-trumpet player how to play a single tune on a bugle. Takes a couple lessons, and after that, it all depends on practice.
Fifth, if we're on a large base, the base band can train unit buglers in minimal time, maybe running a 3 day course every 3-6 months.
The problem is that most people in the military have grown accustomed to the idea that bugle-playing is something best left to military bands, and that we can't afford to have little military bands everywhere.
The Other Brother served in the Old Guard at Arlington, so I'll defer to his judgment.
First, it's hard to describe how important the ritual of military honors is to the family of a deceased veteran. Beyond that, it is incredibly important for the institution of the military that such honors be accorded. In the Old Guard, I participated in funerals for "four-star's" with all the trappings and large crowds, and I participated in funerals for forgotten privates with no one in attendance. After each service, we would discuss if Taps didn't sound exactly right, if our 21 shot salute was not in perfect unison, or if the corner of the flag was properly tucked and tight enough. Why? Because it mattered to us and to the families that we honor the lives of their loved ones and thank them for serving their country.
If this device plays an accurate rendition of Taps and doesn't detract from the dignity of the ceremony, then I support it. It would not be beneficial to have someone flub their way through Taps, just so we can say a bugler was there. I have heard members of "Pershing's Own," the Army Band, screw up Taps. Whether the family noticed, I don't know. But the Honor Guard knew. My worry would be that the mechanical rendition of Taps would lack the emotion that can be recalled by a fine musician playing Taps in a still cemetery as the echoes of rifle shots die away.
Keith is right in his comments. Any person with a smidge of musical inclination (yes, even the bass-drum banging Judd Brother) could learn to play Taps in one or two 15 minute lessons with a local band teacher, and with a few weeks of practice could become quite proficient.
I'm pretty familiar with the sampling technology that's out there to re-create instrument sound...when amplified in an arena or mixed in a studio it can sound convincing, but I have my doubts about what a digitized bugle would sound like at a grave side.