Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

The Man for ‘Taps’

The Man for ‘Taps’

Headshot of Jari Villanueva

It’s a simple song, just 24 notes, one that Jari Villanueva has performed publicly thousands of times. Still, it never fails to move him deeply.

“Taps,” the ubiquitous tune heard nightly throughout the United States, often serves as a “lights out” notification in camps and military bases. Mr. Villanueva (BM ’78, Music Education) plays it in much more somber settings: funerals for military personnel.

Even though there may only be a handful of people present, the setting requires the same focus on the task at hand as a classical violinist performing in a hall in front of thousands. The audience for the music is grieving family and friends, struggling to cope with their loss. “You want to do your best, but you have to put the environment out of your mind as you play,” Mr. Villanueva says. “If you let yourself pay attention to the audience, you’d be emotionally spent very quickly.”

Mr. Villanueva has made “Taps” his life’s work. He played it at military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery for nearly a quarter century as a member of the United States Air Force Band. Now, as director of the Maryland National Honor Guard, he oversees its performance at military funerals for Maryland veterans. The organization averages about 300 military funerals a month, with members sometimes playing up to three funerals a day. And he works with Taps for Veterans, which provides buglers for veteran funerals beyond Maryland.

He’s also become a noted historian on the origin of “Taps,” a Civil War–era composition originally intended only to tell troops to go to sleep. Mr. Villanueva has been interviewed by National Public Radio on the topic. An extensive interview with sound clips and a wealth of detail can be found at

In addition to the emotional demands of performing “Taps,” Mr. Villanueva says he faces environmental challenges unique to the military setting, such as jets flying overhead or honor guards shooting rifles at nearby funerals. Once, he started playing only to be joined seconds later by an unseen military band at Arlington playing the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Once you start, you really can’t stop,” he says. He kept playing as if nothing else was happening. “Later, I happened to talk to some of the band members who heard ‘Taps’ as they were playing the anthem. They thought the combination sounded pretty good.”

— Michael Blumfield