Song of honor
At memorial services across the U.S. today, those who risked their lives to defend the country will be honored. This respect will manifest in multiple ways. Flags will be flown. Crowds will gather. Flowers will be placed on graves. Poems will be ...
At memorial services across the U.S. today, those who risked their lives to defend the country will be honored. This respect will manifest in multiple ways. Flags will be flown. Crowds will gather. Flowers will be placed on graves. Poems will be recited.
But most moving for many will be the playing of taps.
"If you're a veteran, it's part of your reward. It's a musical medal," says Perry Kleven, a 47-year-old electrician from Dilworth who plays the dirge at area funerals, often over his lunch hour.
It's also rewarding for the handful of area trumpeters who play it regularly. Few songs are loaded with a higher-voltage emotional wallop than the brief, haunting bugle call traditionally played at funerals of men and women who served in the military.
"It's the one piece you play and everyone gets quiet. You don't see any commotion," says Myron Dybing, 65, who, until 2003, played taps publicly on Memorial Day every year since eighth grade.
The song has a powerful poignancy for families of the fallen, Dybing says. It often elicits tears, sometimes the first that have been shed.
"It's the finality of it. They know it's over when that happens," says Dybing, a retired Kindred (N.D.) High School music teacher.
Ron Lomsdal, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Fargo, agrees the melody is universally stirring.
"It brings tears to most everybody's eyes. How can I say it? It's the end of the end of things," Lomsdal says.
Whether the song's impact comes from its association with soldiers' deaths or it evokes a feeling of loss on its own musical merits is impossible to figure out. Those who play it say it's a little bit of both.
"It's a combination," says Bruce Emmel, a semi-retired mathematics professor from Minnesota State University Moorhead. "We understand what the song means, but it's also quite mournful."
Emmel, 64, plays taps at the occasional funeral and every year at the Memorial Day service at Riverside Cemetery, one of the metro area's largest services.
He says the structure of the 24-note tune has something to do with its power. It starts at its lowest note, usually right after ceremonial gun shots.
"That tends to startle people. In essence, it wakens them to what's happening," Emmel says.
Then three rising notes are repeated four times, leading to the song's climactic crest.
For Emmel, that represents a veteran ascending to heaven.
The melody winds down by once again dropping lower, hitting the same three notes from the song's beginning.
"It's telling you that everything is OK. God is with you," Emmel says.
Depending on how long you hold each note, the song can be as short as 40 seconds or as long as a minute, Kleven says.
Dybing says when he plays the piece he tries to hold each triplet of notes for maximum impact. "You let each phrase fade off before you go into the next one," he says.
All three of the musicians say they play the tune with a trumpet, not a bugle. Emmel and Kleven say the sound is fuller on a trumpet. Dybing just doesn't have a bugle.
Emmel likes to say a prayer before he starts. Kleven says holding the mouthpiece in hand during the service is essential for winter funerals. Dybing will even stash the whole horn under his jacket to keep it warm at a cold service. All three say standing upwind is important.
They also think it's important that actual horn players continue to play the 144-year-old melody.
Emmel was attending a funeral for a friend about five years ago in Detroit Lakes, Minn., when he found out first-hand what a recorded version of taps sounds like.
"All of a sudden, I heard this sound behind me. I turned around and there was a guy with a boom box. I was mortified," Emmel says.
Because it has a hard time finding trumpeters to play at funerals, a few years back the VFW bought an electronic bugle, Lomsdal says. Someone holds the device up to their lips, and it plays a recorded version of the elegy.
"Just about all of our funerals now are done with an electronic bugle," Lomsdal says. "It sounds just like a regular bugle. We don't even tell the family we're using that kind of bugle. They can't tell the difference, unless they're looking at the end of it and can see the speaker."
Kleven says he doesn't think the live playing of taps will die out. He even has a new generation in mind: his 15-year-old son, a trumpet player who is just old enough to start shaving.
"Taps is meant for the trumpet," Kleven says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535