Rodger Lee still remembers the day in first grade when a teacher passed him a baton and asked him if wanted to "conduct." The teacher told him he was a natural.
He got hooked on music that day. He's been doing it ever since.
And now he's turned his considerable virtuosity on the trumpet into a thriving specialty business, providing a sense of pageantry to weddings and other special events.
"Music always came easy to me," he said. "I've always wanted to be a musician, and I've always wanted to freelance."
Lee, 47, of Farmingdale, is the owner of The Royal Brass, which provides costumed performers playing trumpet fanfares, processional and recessional music and chamber music for special occasions.
His passion for the trumpet evolved over 40 years into the lucrative business he runs out of his home office. It is a comfortable place filled with walls of CD's, a range of trumpets of various size and pitch and photographic memories from years of playing with great musicians.
Lee manages the business from his home, hiring out a wide assortment of sub-contracted musicians from his extensive network. If you need bagpipers, he's got them. Want a harpist? No problem. You can hire a sting quartet, strolling violinist or a vocalist through his service.
Lee has been in this business for over two decades. His company has performed some 6,000 weddings, roughly 300 per year. Lee plays some of the gigs himself.
He advertises in Long Island wedding publications and on-line sites and works off leads generated from those ads. He puts his work on display at bridal showcases and other events.
Over the years, he said, he's never quite figured a specific market for his work. Some people are looking for pageantry; others want something different than the norm. Many of his clients are taken by the majesty of the costumes as much as the music, he said. "It's a very visual experience," he said.
Given the price tag of the average Long Island wedding, (a recent survey suggested the average cost here is about $50,000) his rates are reasonable. One costumed trumpet players outside the church, inside for the big numbers, and then outside again as guests file out is about $200, he said. It's about $800 to hire two trumpet players for the church and the reception. There's a wide range of services and specific packages available.
Couples can request musicians in various costumes, ranging from colorful Renaissance garb to a cross section of elegant tuxedos. "Royal" flags hang from the bell of the long trumpets as the musicians perform fanfares and classic wedding airs (Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" and Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" are still the favorite processional and recessional, respectively, Lee said.)
Lee, father of two girls and married to a Syosset music teacher, is an accomplished musician who has been a regular with numerous Broadway pit orchestras, including a full-time gig with "Les Miserables" for about three years of the extensive run.
When he plays for you, his sound, his intonation, are flawless, reflecting 2-3 hours of practice daily. He holds a Doctorate of Arts in trumpet performance from City University of New York and teaches music at both Long Island University - C.W. Post and Nassau Community College.
With that many weddings under his belt, it's not surprising he's seen some strange things over the years. One that came to mind was a "Star Wars" nuptials of a couple dressed as Darth Vader and Princess Leia. The wedding party carried light swords. The trumpeters played the famed theme song, written by John Williams.
Lee found that ceremony particularly tasteless.
A more common phenomenon has been watching groomsmen pass out during the service, the fallout of the previous evening's bachelor party.
"You'd be surprised how often it happens," Lee said.
You can hear a sample of the group's performance here.