Please forgive Ron Berndt if he’s a tad nervous for his brief, yet essential role in today’s Memorial Day Parade in Beverly Hills.
Though he’s practically carried a musical instrument like an added appendage since age 4, and performed before local and national audiences several times, getting the opportunity to play Taps before a crowd of veterans, their loved ones and the local communities that support them never gets easy.
“Taps, on paper, it’s easy to play,” the 46-year-old Bloomfield Township resident explained. “But it’s also the most difficult 24 notes anyone can get through.”
Part of it is the raw emotion evoked by the song and the reason it is played — every eligible veteran, by federal law, is allowed to have a bugler perform it at his or her funeral. For Berndt, who has performed at the Memorial Day parade for the past two years, the other difficult part is transitioning to a bugle, from his more comfortable roots with a baritone. Even the slightest over-adjustment or misstep can be recognized during the most poignant moment of the celebration to honor America’s fallen soldiers.
“The emotions come into play, but even when you get past that, if you missed one note, you’re all out there, exposed,” he said. “I’m still a little nervous about being good enough to do it.
A 150-year-old Honor
Berndt, a patent-holding engineer who graduated from Lahser High School in 1984, had little trouble holding his own last weekend among roughly 200 musicians picked to perform Taps at the 150th Anniversary Commemoration of Taps at Arlington National Cemetery.
Buglers and trumpeters from around the country massed on the hollowed ground to perform a synchronized version of the song, first played by Union soldiers during the Civil War in 1862, and formally adopted by the U.S. Army in 1874 to become the standard service for military funerals.
“It was just impressive to be there,” Berndt said. “To switch to a four-part harmony and to be led by the conductor of the U.S. Air Force Band, was amazing.”
The unique performance was only part of the thrill, and their duty. Each musician was also asked to play Taps at a specific gravesite. Berndt, who also lived in Beverly Hills for years, chose to honor Capt. Michael Groves. A member of Birmingham High School’s class of 1954, Groves is the nephew of Wylie Groves, for whom Groves High School is named.
Groves also was the head of the honor guard that accompanied the casket of President John F. Kennedy at his funeral in 1963. Graves, just 27, died several days after the funeral ceremony and was buried at Arlington with full military honors.
Maintaining proper focus
Much like the trappings of the modern Memorial Day (travel, parades, blockbuster movies), it’s easy to get sidetracked from the meaning of playing Taps, Berndt cautions. It’s melancholy tone can be overshadowed by a restful, almost peaceful melody and can help the mind wander beyond sorrow and solace.
Playing Taps on the song’s sesquicentennial is special, but Berndt said he hopes it’s a tradition the community builds on. He envisions a soldiers' memorial that pays proper homage to so many whose sacrifices are felt, but not necessarily remembered by Americans everyday.
That philosophy is part of the reason why Berndt is urging fellow musicians and media to learn about Bugles Across America, a non-profit formed in 2000 that seeks volunteers to play live at the funerals of veterans rather than a tape recorded version of Taps.
Free buglers can be requested in any part of the country through the group's Website.
“This is about saying thank you to somebody that did this so you and I didn’t have to,” he said. “Everyone now thinks that citizenship is about your civil rights and entitlements, but citizenship is a social contract with rights and responsibilities. Defending our freedom is our biggest responsibility, and we get to delegate that to someone else, and they are special because of that.”
The importance has rubbed off on the next generation of musicians.
"I have felt honored to play Taps several times over the last few years as part of the Andover Marching Band, said senior Adam Zureick. “I've played it on several occasions during the anniversary of September 11th and I always feel very patriotic whenever I play this music because I know it has deep meaning for so many people and it brings a lot of emotions to those listening.”
The Beverly Hills Memorial Day Parade starts at 11 a.m. at Groves High School and travels north on Evergreen and then east on Beverly Road to Beverly Park. Participants include U.S. Marines, marching bands, a bagpiper, scouts, Brownies, Little Leaguers, decorated bikes, classic cars, fire trucks, police and sheriff vehicles. The Beverly Hills Lions Club hosts a four-mile Fun Run and two-mile family walk starting at 9 a.m. in Beverly Park, 18305 Beverly Rd. A carnival there follows the parade.