March is an interesting time for gardeners. It’s the month when the first warm breezes begin to melt winter’s icy grip, when the garden begins to stir, when hints of green suddenly appear, when it’s time to get outside and get things ready for the gift that is spring.
At least that’s how my March used to be until about five years ago, when my March literally became MARCH — as in parade. I’m a bagpiper and March is piping season, with each weekend devoted to at least two to three St. Patrick’s Day parades — making this St. Patrick’s Month.
But as the first of the parades gets underway, March is also the time that I reflect on how I came to be a piper and how thankful I am that bagpipes entered my life. This post is that story.
Learning to play a musical instrument was something that I always planned to do — you know, one of those bucket list things, something to do in retirement. My only previous foray into music was the violin in third grade, and that didn’t work out too well. There’s only so much plucking a kid could do.
Yes, I thought, it would be great to learn how to play an instrument, perhaps something practical, like piano or guitar. Never bagpipes.
Which was really odd, since I’ve always loved the bagpipes — an ancient combination of wood and bag and reeds that manages to make a rich and powerful tone, one so resonant that it vibrates my inner core as well as the ground beneath my feet.
The problem, however, was that I didn’t think of myself as piper material. My experience with pipers was limited. As the son of a firefighter, I knew that pipers always played at funerals, their mournful sound bringing people to tears. My other experience was my friend Michele’s birthday party. Her housemate at the time arranged for a piper play outside of her bedroom window, to force her eyes open and greet the celebration of her new year. Later that night, at the actual party, the piper made another appearance, in full regalia, instrument in hand.
These few interactions had one thing in common: the pipers were all big, brawny, barrel-chested, uber-masculine men — adjectives that have never been used to describe me.
That’s the panic that ran through my mind a few years ago when Joe presented me with a rolled up piece of paper tied with a red ribbon. It was Christmas morning, and he was quite excited with his gift. As I unfurled the scroll, my eyes ran through the computer-printed words: “It’s not exactly Christmas in Killarney,” it read, “but you are signed up to receive a free bagpipe lesson at the local Hibernian Hall.”
Joe had learned from his secretary at the time, whose husband was a piper, that our local Hibernian Hall offered weekly bagpipe lessons for free. Once my laughing and excitement died down, anxiety set in. In the movie in my mind, I walk into the Hibernian Hall, which is filled with big, heterosexual, manly, giant pipers. At my entrance, they all turn in choreographed unison, looking down at me through their bushy mustaches. At that moment I say, voice cracking and unsteady, “Um, hi . . . Um, I’m here for a free bagpipe lesson? Sirs?”
In reality, nothing could have been farther from the truth. Instead, I found a ragtag group of people — men, women, young, old, retirees, teachers, salespeople, students, dental hygienists, insurance reps, computer programmers — who gathered in this hall for one main reason: to learn how to play bagpipes and/or drums. My teacher was 19 at the time, tatted and pierced and patient with his new student.
Learning was the main reason for everyone to be there. Black dots on lines became notes, notes became tunes, tunes became ingrained. Through this process, though, other reasons to be here became apparent. Hobby. Tradition. Challenge. Brotherhood. Belonging. As the years have gone by, stereotypes have faded — not only of my initial image of pipers, but my fear that my being gay would be an issue for my Hibernian bandmates.
Before coming out to the band, which was a natural and gradual process, I worried that they would reject me. I thought I had gone through this stage 30 years ago, but here I was again, struggling with the closet. The difference is that when I was younger, it was all about me. Now, I found myself thinking of the band. As much as I didn’t want to change for them, I also didn’t want them to change for me.
I really enjoyed the camaraderie I found in the band — more than I ever could have anticipated. It was a midweek respite from work stress; it was therapeutic, relaxing, great exercise, fun, and funny. I enjoyed their humor and one-liners — especially those that were gay-referenced. Although I was never offended, I didn’t want them to feel they had to censor themselves because I was in the room. I enjoyed them being themselves, as well as they’re including me as a member of the band — and I didn’t want to lose that — or them — if they knew about me.
Standing in a circle, drones resting against our left shoulders, breathing into the bag and then squeezing to maintain a steady sound, fingers using muscle memory for each note, it was clear that the sexuality of the players didn’t matter. Memorizing tunes, perfecting taorluaths and birls and doublings, band cohesion — that’s what mattered. And for the sake of cohesion, there was unconditional acceptance — which makes me believe that other organizations, political parties, states, and nations can learn a thing or two from a band of pipers.
I can go on and on about pipes, but this post is beginning to seem as long as the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade, where I will again proudly play as a piper who happens to be gay. I can add paragraphs that speak of the cultural celebration and the tribute to my heritage, but I would rather devote the final words to the accessories. After all, I’m gay and I happen to play bagpipes.
As much as my March weekends are no longer devoted to yard and garden duties, they do give me a chance to dress up in the uniform of my band: Ancient Lamont tartan kilt, white shirt, black tie, black jacket, hose (socks), flashers (hose accessories), belt, sporran (pouch), ghillies (shoes), glengarry (hat), sgian dubh (knife). The outfit practically encourages a sort of swag and sway — just to get the kilt in motion.
It’s then time to get in the car, making sure my pleats aren’t crumpled, and drive to the day’s parade location. There, I meet my band of brothers and sisters. Tune up. Parade. Play.