E.J. Ramos ’04 still gets emotional when he thinks about the moment he realized how important music is to him.
He was studying with Valparaiso University trumpet instructor, Charles Steck, when it happened. “I was in a trumpet lesson with Mr. Steck,” Ramos recalled. “We were playing through something, and I just put my horn down and said, ‘This sucks.’ Mr. Speck said, ‘What? Excuse me?’ I told him I needed to do what I love and what I enjoy, and I had to change my major.”
Ramos began playing the trumpet when he was in fourth grade but chose to attend Valparaiso University to study engineering rather than music. Then after two years in the College of Engineering, Ramos said, “I loved the engineering department, but I got to a point where I just didn’t feel right.”
It was in that trumpet lesson that Ramos realized his true calling and decided to pursue a meaningful vocation.
Today Ramos is a trumpeter and bugler in Pershing’s Own — the United States Army Band. He is a member of the band’s ceremonial ensemble that plays at the White House and the Pentagon for foreign dignitaries and special ceremonies.
The band’s main function, though, is to play at the funerals of both active duty and retired military members, and as a trumpeter, Ramos has a special distinction. It’s his responsibility to play “Taps”, the 24-note bugle arrangement played in the Army to honor the dead.
Today “Taps” is a standard part of U.S. military funerals — a responsibility that Ramos does not take lightly.
“My job is so important to so many people,” he said. “It’s a true honor to put these soldiers to rest. I know I have to give them my best.”
In addition to performing “Taps” at funerals, Ramos also plays often at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington D.C.
“I get to play right next to the two guards,” Ramos shared. “I get to be there on the platform where they walk and are there 24 hours a day guarding the tomb of the unknowns.”
This distinction is not one that many trumpeters attain. After graduating from Valpo, Ramos earned a master’s degree in music from Indiana University and a doctorate in musical arts with a focus on the trumpet from the Catholic University of America, putting him in a special class of musicians.
But the process to become a member of the U.S. Army Band is long and competitive. Ramos said based on his qualifications, he was one of 60 people invited to audition for just one of two openings as a trumpeter. Only 10 people make it to the next round, and then three are invited back to a final audition.
“It takes a lot of preparation and a lot of hard work. They’re looking for good players and a specific type of player, someone who is confident and has a characteristic sound.” And, of course, Ramos said, “Someone who can play a good ‘Taps.’”
In 2008, Ramos was the focus of a short documentary — also called Taps — that detailed the important role the bugler plays at military funerals and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“Only military buglers are allowed to sound Taps at the Tomb,” Ramos explained in the film. When he plays, Ramos said, he tries “to focus on what I’m doing at the moment and not focus on what is actually happening. I’m there to play as beautifully as I can and honor the fallen soldier being laid to rest.”
While playing in the Army band isn’t a career he ever imagined, Ramos is honored to have the opportunity. “Never in a million years did I think I’d be in the United States Army Band,” he said. “But I wasn’t ever going to turn down an opportunity to do something as important as this.”
And he’s grateful that it all started as an undergraduate at Valpo. “I was very involved on campus, in fraternity and sorority life. It was a great experience.”
Ramos has also returned to Valpo to give back. In January 2013, he joined the University orchestra for a U.S. tour. “They needed a trumpet player, and I was happy to do it,” he said.
“I’ve been so very blessed,” Ramos continued. “I can’t imagine being anything other than a musician.”