A brotherhood of pipers

May 07, 2006|By Julie E. Greene

You've probably seen at least one of them at one point - dressed in a kilt playing a mournful "Amazing Grace" at a memorial service or the traditional "Scotland the Brave" at a parade.

They are Washington County's bagpipe players - there are at least five living here.

Two were drawn to the pipes to honor fallen colleagues, one grew up playing the pipes in a Scottish-Irish family in a Scottish town, and two learned to play later in life out of a love for the sound and curiosity concerning the instrument.

Some of them knew each other and others just met when four of the five got together at The Herald-Mail recently to get their picture taken.

It was as if there was a brotherhood of the pipers for the four soon took to one another, gabbing about the events at which they had played, the sources of their instruments and regalia, and the beer that seems to inevitably accompany the pipes.


"It's a beer-related activity," said Chris McClain, 62, who lives northeast of Boonsboro.

He recalled a time when a few pipers and drummers were sitting in an Alexandria, Va., bar on St. Patrick's Day, McClain said. They received a request to hear them play. The musicians said they would oblige in exchange for beer.

"Immediately we had a dozen, 16 pints sitting there," he said.

McClain first heard the pipes at age 4 at a Canadian parade. He was intrigued by the pipes, but ended up taking the "obligatory six years of piano lessons."

His interest in the pipes didn't wane as he traveled to see regimental bands featuring pipes tour the United States.

At age 45 he decided to stop being a spectator.

"I'm tired of looking at this stuff and I don't want to be 70 years old watching these parades and say 'Gee, I wish I had done that,'" McClain said.

For a year, he learned how to play the chanter, to get an idea of whether he had the wherewithal to play and was interested enough to spend $1,000 on a set of pipes.

The chanter is like an oboe or bassoon. It contains a reed and has eight holes that a piper fingers to play nine notes.

A piper does not blow into a chanter however. Ernie Girardin, 49, of Hagerstown, said that to play the pipes, one blows into the blow stick to fill with air a bag made of elk, sheep or calf skin or a synthetic material.

A piper holds the bag under the left arm with the drones - resonating pipes - resting on the left shoulder. The chanter, held about waist level, plays the tune. A reedy, droning sound is made when the bag is squeezed and air passes through the three pipes on the shoulder (two tenor and one bass).

Girardin has been learning the pipes for more than two years, inspired by memorial services for several firefighter friends killed in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

"'Mist Covered Mountains.' That's the song when I get good enough, I will go up to Ground Zero and play that for my friends," he said. He's already performed at 9/11 ceremonies in Hagerstown and at some funerals.

The pipes are part of his heritage and he likes the challenge of playing. He also finds them relaxing. They help alleviate stress from the job. He often practices outside Phoenix Color before his shift as a pressman.

As an honor guard for the Hagerstown Fire Department, Rick Conrad often traveled to funerals for fallen firefighters and heard the pipes played.

"I would stand in formation and every time I would hear the bagpipes play at my fallen brothers' funeral I would be very emotional," said Conrad, 38, who lives near Clear Spring.

The career firefighter thought it would be good for the honor guard to have a piper and he had experience playing a variety of instruments so he took lessons from a man in Towson, Md.

David Madock, 48, of Smithsburg, grew up in the Scottish town of Dunedin, Fla., where there are bagpipe bands in elementary, middle and high schools.

He is the Band o' One bagpiper, a business he operates to play his pipes at weddings, funerals, birthday parties, Scotch-tasting parties and other events.

Madock has competed throughout the United States and Scotland, going to the world championships of bagpipe bands in 1974 in Stirling, Scotland, where he was one of more than 4,000 pipers.

At the end of the day they all played together, Madock said.

"It was immense," said Madock, who was still hearing pipes in his ears long after the playing had stopped.

Scott Schneider, 30, of Hagerstown, is helping to start a bagpipe band in Leesburg, Va., where he's been taking lessons for seven years.

He was inspired by a piper at a Frederick, Md., air show.

While the pipes' somber tone makes it fit well with occasions such as funerals, Schneider said he prefers the pipes for their ability to "rise a sick man from his bed" ... in a good way.

McClain has been in the John F. Nicoll Pipes & Drums band, based in Towson, Md., for 14 years.

The band has performed at the Apple Butter Festival in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., and the Mummers Parade in Hagerstown.

"We like to say our audience changes every 300 yards. If you screw up in front of one, you have a brand new audience (and) they won't know," McClain said.

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