With a dented bugle, he brings dignity
Mike McCann, 14, plays taps at military funerals, then goes off to algebra.
HINGHAM, MASS. — On a blustery spring day, when other eighth graders are midway through their morning classes, Mike McCann stands with his trumpet on the steps of the Church of the Resurrection, awaiting the signal to play. The sun briefly shines then disappears. Dressed in a buttoned-down shirt and tuxedo pants, Mike looks cold.
He waits alongside a color guard as the family of Louis Giordani, a 73-year-old former member of the US Coast Guard, assembles at the foot of the steps next to Giordani's casket. Finally Mike lifts his instrument to his lips, and the first somber notes of taps fill the air.
The piece is short, just 24 notes lasting less than a minute, and is soon replaced by the sound of traffic on nearby Route 228. When he plays, Mike says he often thinks of his grandfather, at whose funeral in North Carolina he first performed taps three years ago.
That day, as a flag was draped over his grandfather's casket to commemorate his Army service in World War II, Mike began to play. He'd been asked to do so by his father. The older McCann recalls worrying that given the intensity of the moment, he might make a mistake. But Mike played perfectly, holding his emotions in check until after he'd finished.
"Then I cried," says Mike. "I was only 11."
A bagpiper who was also there urged Mike to begin taking part in other services. There was, and remains, a shortage of brass players to perform taps live at military burials across the country – so much so that in 2002 the Defense Department developed an electronic bugle fitted with a prerecorded version of taps. That bugle is held to the lips, and a button is pushed to release the melody. While preferable to a CD in a boom box, or no bugler at all, it's an alternative that many consider inadequate, even inappropriate.
"There's a big difference between a fake bugle and a real one. They don't sound the same," says Mike.
And according to Tom Day, founder of Buglers Across America (BAA), to which Mike belongs, the authenticity of the experience is as important as the music itself. "Taps is supposed to be a tribute to a veteran's life, not a recorded message," says Mr. Day, a man whose existence centers on taps and all that relates to it. "What it comes down to is the military decided they didn't really need musicians anymore. They thought the [electronic] bugle would get the job done. But we're intent on saving live music."
While the military was testing its electronic horn, brass players across the country marshaled their forces. The shortage was acute: At the time, the military had about 500 official buglers, and more than 1,800 veterans were dying every day. BAA then had several hundred members. It now has 5,000 and is looking for more.
"We're still missing about 250,000 services a year," says Day.
Since joining BAA, Mike has done his part by regularly volunteering to play taps at as many as two funerals a week. On the first Sunday of each month, he also takes part in BAA's nationwide effort to honor veterans by performing taps outdoors in Hopkinton, Mass. Sometimes he uses his bugle, other times his trumpet without fingering the valves. The two instruments are similar but not identical. "In musical terms, the bugle has a darker sound," says Mike. "If you describe it as a person, it would be one of the quiet kids that know a lot of stuff." His own bugle, acquired secondhand, has a lot of bare spots and dents, which is why today he brought the trumpet.
Bugle or trumpet, Mike says he gets a lot out of playing at the services. "These people went out and fought for our country. I don't know if I could do that," he says. "The least I can do is play a song for them."
Historically used as a signaling device by the military, the bugle is the simplest of brass instruments. It has no valves and can only produce notes within the harmonic series. Players make music by blowing into a mouthpiece, controlling both the force of air and the shape of the embouchure to alter the sound. Until they were replaced by the radio, bugle calls such as "mess" and "boots and saddles" instructed soldiers to rise, dress, assemble, eat, fire their weapons, and retreat.
Taps is also sometimes known as "Butterfield's lullaby" after Daniel Butterfield, the Civil War general who either wrote or revised the tune, depending on whom you ask. In 1862, taps replaced the existing bugle call that signaled "lights out." Within months, both Union and Confederate troops were using it. A slightly more mournful version of taps has since been incorporated into military observances around the country, particularly for veterans' burials.
Before Mike picked up the bugle, he played the trumpet, which he initially took on with some reluctance. At first he'd wanted to play drums ("like every 10-year-old," he says), but a trumpet was what his parents had on hand – his sister had given up on it – so that's what Mike got.
Almost immediately, it was clear that he was good. "Mike's a very talented kid, one of the best I've ever had," says his teacher, Bill Moffett. "He has a lot of natural ability, and he works hard." Currently Mike plays in a community band with his mother, a clarinetist, as well as in the band at Nipmuc Regional Middle-High School in his hometown of Upton, Mass. Recently he won first chair in the Massachusetts Music Educators Association Central District Junior High Jazz Band.
Technically, taps is a snap for him. "It's how you play it," Mike says. "If you play it short, like bap-bap-bap, it doesn't sound good. You have to be smooth, use dynamics. You want to start soft, and by about three-quarters of the way through, it should be loud. Then it's a decrescendo or a diminuendo. It's about the feeling."
After Giordani's service, one of the color guard members picks up the boom box with its prerecorded version of taps. They always bring it to services, just in case, says Chief Petty Officer Christopher Lazenberry, although when Mike is slated to play there's really no need.
"Mike is very poised and well-disciplined. An awesome kid. He does a great job," says Mr. Lazenberry, who has attended a half-dozen services at which Mike has performed. Mike is consistent and dependable – no small feat, according to Lazenberry, considering the environment in which taps is usually played. "It's an honor, but it can be emotionally draining, especially at first," he says.
Sometimes when Mike shows up at a service – having been contacted by a funeral director or a veterans' group – he's greeted with skepticism because of his age. About a year ago, he went to perform at a funeral in Hopkinton. A color guard was there, too, and Mike sensed resistance to his presence. "You could see it in their eyes," he says. But then he played a trial tune for them and all was well.
Mike's father is amazed that no matter what the circumstances, his son never seems to have stage fright. In that way, he's different from his two sisters and his brother, and, for that matter, from the older McCann himself: "Standing in front of an audience doesn't faze him at all."
Mike does seem to take things in stride. Sure, he likes the bugle and the trumpet a lot, but he also runs track, hangs with friends, and keeps his eye on a girl or two. Apart from taps, he loves both classical music and jazz: The mouthpiece of his trumpet is signed by renowned jazz trumpet player Chris Botti. Mike also likes to garden. His specialty is tomatoes, although he grows snow peas and cucumbers, too.
And just now, you'll have to excuse him. He has to go back to school, to take an algebra test.