Sgt. Alan J. Smith has played Taps in an inactive volcano and a cemetery in the desert.
Smith estimated he had played in front of as many as 10,000 to 15,000 people. Sunday, he played the remembrance for the fallen on the eve of Memorial Day before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which can seat 89,000.
No matter where he plays it, or how many times, or the size of the crowd, the tune still holds the same weight for him.
And it’s still not easy.
“Thinking about the people that I’ve known in the military that have passed and have made the greatest sacrifice for their country, those are the people I think about when I do this,” Smith, a 28-year-old sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, said.
“It’s hard sometimes doing this sort of thing as often as I do.”
An Army brat, Smith moved around the country before his family settled in northern Virginia. His mother, a teacher, passed on a love of the arts, and Smith found his passion for the trumpet in middle school.
“I was conscientious of my family’s expenses,” Smith said. “I found out the saxophone was more expensive than a trumpet and I didn’t want to put that on them. I was like, ‘Mom, it’s cool! We can get the trumpet. It’s not as expensive!’”
Smith’s grandfather and father were in the military. As military dads are wont to do, Smith’s father urged him regularly to join the Army.
Instead, he went George Mason University to study jazz. But three years into school, he hit a pothole while riding his motorcycle and crashed.
With a badly injured his ankle and no medical insurance, Smith, a newlywed, was forced to quit work. That left his wife, Christian, as the family’s only income.
Then they found out she was pregnant with their first of three daughters.
Unable to provide for his family as an injured, starving jazz musician, he took his dad’s advice and joined the Army.
“It’s a great job for musicians, great benefits for family,” Smith said. “And I’ve always wanted the opportunity to serve my country.”
Stationed in El Paso, Texas, Smith first performed Taps at a military memorial at Fort Bliss National Cemetery. He had watched the remembrance video put together for the family of the fallen soldier, and when it came time to perform, Smith was emotional.
“I was choked up and it just got dead quiet and it was just me playing,” Smith said. “I think I had the most vibrato I’ve ever had in music. The only thing I could hear was his mom crying in the background.
“It was my bugle and crying. It doesn’t get much harder than that.”
Since then he’s played Taps at numerous memorials, for fallen heroes from every branch of the military. When he moved to Oahu, Hawaii, he played it the Punchbowl crater, an inactive volcano that is now the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
He can’t practice the song in public, so at rehearsal Sunday he just played it in his head.
“This is one aspect of my job that is highly honored and respected,” Smith said. “It’s not something you put out for the masses. … It’s about respecting the tradition.”
After that emotional first performance Texas, Smith learned how to better handle the situation. He hasn’t become calloused to the song or the experience, despite how many times he’s performed it.
Instead, he learned how to compartmentalize. “I found a place for myself. I focus on the moment,” Smith said.
He has also come to appreciate the job he does, and the solemn occasions he serves.
“I take the time on my own separately to mourn, grieve and think about the weight of what I do in the military, He said. “I love to perform and I love to be in front of an audience. I still put this in its proper place.
“It’s not as much a performance as it is a responsibility.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9