Illinois State Trooper Performs Taps out of Sense of Service

tapsIt's a service that takes less than one minute to perform. But the memory Mike Atkinson creates by playing taps at memorial services and funerals is far more lasting. "They call it the 24 most difficult notes for a trumpeter," said Atkinson, 48, who lives in Urbana with his wife and three children. He is one of five trumpeters employed by the Illinois State Police who volunteer their musical skills to pay honor to others. "It's all volunteer. I do it on duty, but it's based on operational need. If I'm in the middle of a case, I can't," said Atkinson, a 21-year veteran of the state police. A master sergeant, Atkinson supervises the general crimes division and the methamphetamine response team for the state police zone based in Champaign. "Our unit concentrates on violent crimes, public integrity and major cases," he said. It's Atkinson who is among the first called if an area police officer shoots someone or is shot. "The Illinois State Police is really good about letting me do it if I can. When I retire, it's something I want to do much more often," he said. Atkinson grew up in Bethany and first picked up the trumpet when he was in fifth grade. His chops must have developed quickly because his father, who was an honor guard commander in the American Legion, and his mother, in the Legion Auxiliary, persuaded him as a sixth-grader to play taps at veteran funerals in town. "I can remember in junior high practicing taps out the bedroom window when the opposing football team would walk from the high school to the field. That was inappropriate, I'm sure," he said, chuckling at the memory. "I got into trouble for that from my dad." In high school, he was a member of the marching band and credited "the world's greatest band teacher, Marty Lindvahl" with helping to hone his craft. He continued to play for funerals while in high school and occasionally when home from college at Eastern Illinois University. As a teen, he was aware of his contribution. "It was remarkable being out there in a cemetery with Legion members doing honor guard, a rifle volley, and then playing taps," he said. After graduating college, Atkinson began his foray into law enforcement as a telecommunicator and auxiliary deputy for the Moultrie County sheriff's office. After a year there, he became a police officer for the Illinois Commerce Commission, holding that post until 1994 when he joined the state police. "I put my trumpet in the closet. I just got too busy," he said. Several years ago, his attendance at a service where a recording of taps was being played got to him. "I saw one of the Legion honor guard members using an electronic bugle. It looks like it has a mute in the end. But it's a speaker that plays a perfect rendition of taps." "Honest to goodness, I was ashamed of myself because I had left my trumpet in a closet. I could have volunteered to do that had I only kept up my playing," he said. "That's when I fast-forwarded to my midnights master sergeant who was on the trumpet team and I thought, 'I should look into that.'" His good intention to get back into playing taps at funerals didn't happen immediately. In 2014, he was carting his children to the Community Center for the Arts in Urbana for music lessons on their stringed instruments when he got involved with a fun adult group there called "The Marvelous Cretaceous Band." "The leader, Tom Faux, for some reason, let me play the trumpet. I played in that band and I got my embouchure back," he said of the facial configuration needed for a brass mouthpiece. "They call it getting your chops in shape. I had had roughly 25 years without playing so it took me a while to get it back. After I did that for a while, I thought, 'I'm going to see if I can play in the state police.'" Atkinson is one of five state troopers from all over Illinois on the honor guard trumpet team. He's been performing since June 2014, averaging eight to 10 ceremonies each year. "There's me, a patrol lieutenant from District 9 in Springfield, a crime-scene investigator from the Champaign office, a special agent from the division of internal investigations from Springfield, and a patrol trooper from Joliet," he said. They play for state police events like recruit or cadet graduations but also at statewide memorial events for fallen police officers or a veterans event that Secretary of State Jesse White hosts at the state library in Springfield. "Peoria, Carlinville are the farthest I've traveled. The most I've done in a day is two services in Peoria. This is a big time of year because of the Illinois Police Memorial" held in early May, he said. There may be one, two or three trumpeters at a time depending on the event, the music played and their availability. Getting away from work is not always easy. Besides taps, they also play the Star Spangled Banner, which has three parts. It's not until they arrive at the event that they decide who will play which part. "With 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' it's always a three-person team. We can use music on that," he said appreciatively. "Memorizing three different parts is difficult for my old brain." Asked what he likes to play best, Atkinson said without hesitation that it's taps. That's because of the solemn nature of the events where taps is performed. "It's normally chaos for me with cases and callouts," he said of his daily grind. "With taps, I have to completely unplug from investigations, calls, callouts, and be 100 percent in the moment. That is absolutely the only time my phone is not on my person, except when I'm sleeping but it's within arm's reach." And while his taps performance takes only 48 seconds, it is preceded by hours of travel and practice, often done outdoors. "If it's really cold outside, brass instruments are affected. It helps to play in a lower key because if it's really cold, it can get really, really sharp and their tuning goes haywire," he said. He also has to worry about wind taking his dress uniform hat. Mostly, he frets over the undivided attention. "When it's time to sound taps, it's usually after three rifle volleys and it's just silent. You are totally exposed," he said. "There is no band behind you, no percussion, no rhythm section." Performance anxiety kicks in. And it's difficult and emotional if he's playing at the funeral of someone he knows personally. "In a solo at a band performance, you want to do good for yourself. For me, I'm always afraid I'm not going to do good enough for the person. That's the nerve-wracking part." And when the performances are over, there are usually grateful groupies. "Folks thank us for doing this," he said. "I feel just the opposite. I'm flattered that people ask me to do this. It is my honor."