How Bagpipes Changed My Life


Bagpipes

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.

Bagpipe

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.”

Bagpipes

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.

One of the three drone reeds.

One of the three drone reeds.

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.

Sporran

Sporran.

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.

Kilt

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.

Kilt Pin

44 thoughts on “How Bagpipes Changed My Life

  1. How wonderfull that you play the bagpipes! My parents are scots, and we lived in the bordersfor part of my childhood. My sister lives in Fort Augustus. I love going home to visit her. Every morning a piper plays outside her window. Never fails to lift my heart! I live jn NYC. I will be at the parade this year to hear you play!

    • Hi Lesley — if you see me in the parade, wave! 🙂 It’s such an amazing feeling to march up Fifth Avenue and to see so many enthusiastic people. It’s uplifting. Be well!

  2. Kevin, I got goosebumps reading this post. LOVE that you are keeping what could have become an ancient artform alive and well. Thriving in fact. So glad you have fun with it too; isn’t that what life is all about?

    • Hi Laura. I’m so glad you enjoyed it — and yes, life is all about having fun. I’m so glad you mentioned the idea of keeping alive an ancient art form. The history of the pipes is so amazing — probably a post unto itself. Be well.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. I love to watch Highland dancing — it usually makes an appearance at the Highland Games that are held in my area. It’s so different than Irish step dancing — but just as beautiful. Be well.

  3. “…a rich and powerful tone, one so resonant that it vibrates my inner core as well as the ground beneath my feet.”

    Wow. Direct hit. Do you suppose there’s something in Celtic blood that responds to that particular sound?

    • Hi Ann. Hmmm. That’s an interesting idea. I rather like the idea of having it in the blood — kind of like something at the genetic level. At one point, bagpipes were considered an instrument of war, the only musical instrument to receive that distinction. It’s incredible that one instrument can move people to tears or make them tremble with fear. Glad that you were moved. Be well!

    • Hi Cheryl. Every so often, especially when I’m learning a new tune, I have to remind myself to breathe. I’m so focused on what my fingers are doing I forget to keep the bag full. Two parades down — and too many more to go. 🙂

  4. My great uncle was known for his participation in The Highland Games. He was a great Scottish singer also. His name was Kenneth McKellar. Thank you for your post. It reminded me of him and his memory. Alesia

    • Hi Alesia. Thanks for sharing your memories. I’m familiar with your uncle’s music through iTunes and YouTube. I’m glad I was able to bring you on a walk down memory lane. 🙂

    • I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this experience — from making new friends to meeting new challenges. It’s better than therapy. 🙂

  5. This is so cool! I love bagpipes, and for several years seriously thought about taking lessons. I still have the little “practice” pipes my mom gave me a few years ago trying to encourage me. 🙂 Good for you for following up on something from the Bucket List! It’s a lot of work to keep up with musical practice, but so rewarding! Very nice, Kevin!

    • Hi Debra. Go for it! You’ll have to start with a practice chanter, which is like a recorder — and look for a pipe band in your area. If they offer free lessons, take a chance. In about a year, you’ll be ready for the pipes — and that feels like learning a whole new instrument. It’s all about breathing — and you like that. 🙂

  6. That piper outside my bedroom window scared the living daylights out of me. That is a sound one does NOT expect to hear that early in the day , or so close!! It does however go down as one of the funniest days in my life thanks to all my devious friends. 🙂 Hearing you play the pipes so many years later was such an unexpected treat. The sound bounced off the dunes, the hills and the water. Unique….just like you. Happy March. Happy piping to you.

    • LOL. I will always, always look back on that day and night with a smile, as well. And I enjoyed the chance to play at the beach — I love the way bagpipes sound outside. But now, the pipes are calling . . .

  7. I love that you play the bagpipes! I recently saw a performance of the Scottish Royal Guard. Amazing! I agree with Girrl-Earth: post a pix of yourself in your full regalia! Your a gardener and a piper! How cool is that? 🙂

  8. You guys are just so gorgeous – loved reading your post. I grew up next door to a Scottish family when I was a kid in Queensland. St Patrick’s Day is big here too – enjoy a pint with us!
    Flavia

    • Aw shucks, Flavia. 🙂 I imagine St. Patrick’s Day would be a big deal in your part of the world — and I may take you up on that offer if I’m ever in the your neighborhood. 🙂

  9. What a wonderful story, not many people would consider taking up bagpipes or think it a manly thing to do. Glad to hear this positive take on the instrument and the people playing.

  10. Yay! Great post! I long for a world where everyone realizes that in politics, in school, in all areas of life – not only “in the band” – sexuality is just an aside to the human-ness of all of us, and really doesn’t matter.

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  14. Kevin,

    I am inspired! I have a bit of Scottish blood in me and a desire to play the pipes. Your story resonates in many ways.

    I have signed up for lesson and hope to join a band this autumn.

    Thanhs for the draw!

    • Hi Mark. Go for it! Don’t get discouraged. First step is the practice chanter and finger movements. That can take up to a year, with some tunes thrown in. When you get on the pipes, it’s like learning a whole new beast — it just takes time. Slainte!

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