Does a Bugler Frack in the Woods?

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • August 3, 2018

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Clarity comes in surprising places. This summer I spent a week at Boy Scout camp in the forest of northern Wisconsin. My son is working towards his Eagle Scout badge, with a deadline to achieve that by his 18th birthday next spring when he’ll age out. That meant this would be his final year at summer scout camp, and being an assistant scoutmaster with the troop I wanted us to spend this one last time together at Camp Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan.

It’s a beautiful setting. Our troop campsite is on the lake, with our own private dock. We’re surrounded by massive pine trees. It’s peaceful and tranquil, even with a couple hundred teenagers around. Then again, my concept of summer camp involving teens usually included that many with horns and drums in their hands—so by default this is quieter.

The camp does have a bugler, however. Several actually—in a volunteer combination of camp staff or individuals from various troops who play To the Colors and Retreat at the twice a day camp flag ceremony. Unfortunately, being a Type-A band director…my mind just can’t manage to completely shut it off for a week, and while standing at attention the mental critique begins.

Flat. Missed the partial. Use more air. Rushing. You’re getting faster. The next section’s going to crash and burn. Yep, there it went.

The kicker was we have two camps across the lake from each other – each with separate flag ceremonies, at about the same time, but perhaps 45 seconds apart. So now it’s like chair auditions and I’m comparing the buglers, critiquing each one. Which then brings to mind the great Zen question: If a bugler calls in the middle of a forest, and no one is around to critique it, is it still considered a performance?

This went on consistently at each ceremony the first two days, with similar struggles on the bugle calls. Then came the morning flag ceremony on day three, when out marched the flag patrol replete with….a sousaphone player.

First thought: “You have to be joking.”

Second thought: “Unless this guy is Arnold Jacobs back from the dead, this is not going to end well.”

Fortunately, my presumption was proven wrong by this talented musician. (I would later learn he is a member of a major university marching band in the Midwest.) Still the same issues of starting too fast and getting faster—which led to the inevitable crash and burn section near the end when things get intricate with sixteenth note leaps—but a noble effort from an unlikely instrument. Nevertheless, I decided to go out on a limb and say something at the scoutmaster coffee/staff meeting that morning…presented simply as someone putting his band director hat back on to offer constructive suggestions.

Being a believer of the “praise then critique” model, I opened by complimenting the sousaphone player and admitting my initial reaction when I saw him enter the field…including my aforementioned Arnold Jacobs line. I was greeted with blank, deer-in-headlights stares. (Life lesson: know your audience.) I then shared three things that I thought would be helpful for the buglers to consider.

First: take a deep breath, and then another. When you take the nervous edge off and relax a bit, the odds are you’ll perform better.

Second: slow things down. It’s not a race. Visualize what the difficult parts are going to be like and how you can best handle them, then pace how you start from that. Slower and accurate beats fast and sloppy hands down.

Third: practice. As my flute teacher wife loves to remind her students—practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes better. As an epilogue, I was pleasantly surprised at the remaining flag ceremonies for the week. Each bugler slowed it down, just a little bit, but enough that it sounded cleaner. At one point, I even heard the sound of a couple of practice runs drift across the lake. Each one played more notes correctly with better sound and they didn’t rush at the end, which ultimately meant we were focused on the meaning of the simple ceremony and not distracted by a performance that even the non-musicians would know was sub-par.

But it was after that morning meeting, when I got back to my deck chair by the lake (hey, it’s not all work…), that I realized the somewhat broader lessons of those three points when applied to life in general.

• Take a deep breath. Relax.

• Slow down, it’s not a race.

• Visualize the difficult parts. Then pace yourself.

• Practice. You’ll get better.

Sometimes, a quiet week in the woods is all the reminder you need.

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