In the field of musical endeavors many of us can name great pianists, guitarists and violinists.
A great bugler, however, is hard to come by.
Francis Franqui, a Texas trumpeter and newly formed bugler, currently plays with the First Cavalry Division Band at Fort Hood. In a few weeks he’ll be leaving for a new, permanent position in Washington, D.C.
Franqui has been tapped to blow his horn for the most powerful and prominent people on the planet: the U.S. Army Fife and Drum Corps, the elite unit that serves as the official ceremonial accompaniment and escort to the President of the United States. He says it’s a hard-earned honor he couldn’t have imagined as a kid.
“I actually grew up in Puerto Rico and salsa bands and merengue bands are everywhere,” Franqui says. “I always saw those shiny trumpets playing the high notes and I thought that was something I really wanted to do.”
At the early age, Franqui says his parents weren’t able to afford trumpet lessons, or, for that matter, a trumpet. But soon Franqui’s dad moved to Florida.
“I was able to start in one of the public school programs – the music program there and I picked up the trumpet,” he says. “Ever since it’s been like a great marriage.”
Franqui was 11 when he started taking lessons. He says he stayed in band throughout middle and high school, but it wasn’t until his last years in high school that he saw trumpeting as something more than an extracurricular activity.
“I knew I liked it and [it] was kind of a good hobby,” he says. “But getting to my junior, senior year I started seeing something special about it. Where every time I play it I felt like I was in a whole different place. I didn’t have to worry about homework. I didn’t have to worry about anything, it was just me and the horn.”
Franqui says he listened to everything as a teenager. But he and his horn didn’t get serious about music until after high school.
A five-year touring gig with a broadway show “Blast” infused him with a love for performance, the applause. That bug bit him hard. Studies at the University of Central Florida gave him a love of classical and jazz, a technical sophistication. With that degree came teaching opportunities, eventually as a high school band director.
By his mid-30s Franqui realized something was missing. So he took a career detour that might not occur to many 30-something high school band directors. He made the leap into the U.S. Army.
“My last year of teaching, I was about to turn 35, which is the limit for when you can audition for the Army band program,” he says.
An army music liaison heard Franqui play in small room in the Army recruiting office.
“I played my heart out and I got into the program,” he says. “From there on out was basic training. Shaved my head…. It was funny because when I went to basic training, I had two of my ex-band students in basic training with me in the same company and they still called me Mr. Franqui throughout the whole basic training experience. I was the oldest guy there by far.”
Franqui beat out everyone else auditioning to get into this elite core, without being that familiar with the bugle itself.
“I have heard of the bugle many times,” Franqui says. “It’s a part of the trumpet tradition in history. But I’ve never actually played it other than a handful of time when I just picked one up and messed with it.”
He says at Fort Hood the first Cavalry Division Band has a small, no-valve (meaning no buttons) bugle in their museum. He picked it up and experimented with it.
“[I] started playing some army bugle calls and I figured ‘okay, I think I can do this,’” he says. “Part of the audition is on bugle, and when you get there it’s the first time they give you the one-valve bugle…. We have to figure out on the live round after you get the call-back.”
Call-backs on the audition is the first time anyone gets to play the one-valve bugle. There’s no way to get the instrument in the civilian world because it’s specifically made for the Army.
Franqui says he played some prepared music at the audition and had to do some sight-reading – or having to play music after seeing it for the first time during the live audition.
“So that went well,” he says. “As well as it could’ve gone!”
Franqui practiced for six to eight hours a day for almost six months before he went through the grueling audition process. He got the news on the final day of auditions: he won a spot as a bugler in the Corps.
“It’s actually a very young unit, even though it’s very traditional in its roots,” Franqui says. “The first time… buglers and fife and drum were used in the Army were to call out commands in the battle field. They were the first ones out there, and you heard those charges. So we keep those roots. The unit itself was born during the 60s.”
The mission is to support the troops and the President. They wear elaborate, traditional outfits: a tri-cornered hat, a wig, stockings and red colonial-style uniforms. Despite the garb, the band brings in extremely talented musicians.
“I’m very humbled to be around that type of musician,” he says. “It’s not something that comes overnight. It takes a lot of practice. So many months that I worked on just for the audition is just a scratch in the many years that I’ve put into playing trumpet.”
Listen to the full audio, complete with music from Franqui, in the player above.