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Firefighter has passion for bagpipes

December 11, 2007|By JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN - Rick Conrad is the son of a career firefighter who knew he wanted to be in a helping profession like his father. He also had a gift for music and had to choose between firefighting and going to college to study music.

As the bagpiper for the International Association of Firefighters Local 1605 honor guard, Conrad has found a way to combine both passions.

"It's the best of both worlds. I love my career. When the alarm clock goes off, I look forward to going to work," said Conrad, who lives in Clear Spring. He said his daughter Gabrielle, 7, also loves music.

He has been a firefighter for more than 17 years, most recently at West End Station No. 4. Conrad Court, off of Eastern Boulevard, which is named after his father, Ben Conrad.

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Conrad, 40, grew up in the South Colonial neighborhood in the East End of Hagerstown. He graduated from South Hagerstown High School in 1985.

His exposure to music began on the string bass in third grade at Pangborn Elementary. As a student at E. Russell Hicks Middle School, Conrad switched to brass instruments, from tuba to trumpet to trombone.

As a member of the IAFF Local 1605 honor guard, Conrad said he always got to hold the American flag because he was tall. When the honor guard would attend firefighters' funerals, some honor guards came with their own bagpipers.

Conrad said the sound of the bagpipes could "make you weep" and he thought the Hagerstown honor guard needed a bagpiper. With his background in music, he took on the challenge himself and started taking lessons in 1995 in Towson, Md.

At his first lesson, Conrad learned to play all nine notes on the chanter. What takes years to master is the thousands of combinations of notes that are possible.

The three pipes that come out of the bag are called drones and each has to be tuned to the chanter. Bagpiping requires regular practice to build up and maintain the stamina to sustain the sound, Conrad said.

"You get humbled pretty quick on bagpipes," said Conrad, who learned that lesson with his first bagpipe job.

Conrad's first job, six months after starting lessons, was the opening ceremony for a Working Women of America convention at what was then the Ramada Inn.

He remembers how nervous he was and that when he went to play his first note, nothing came out. Out of frustration and embarrassment, he went backstage and blew up the bag and squeezed as hard as he could to relieve his anger.

At that moment, the sound came out and Conrad went back out playing. He vowed to never let that happen again and gained a few pointers from his instructor afterwards as insurance.

"It didn't go well. It sounded like someone shot a cow and it wasn't dead yet," Conrad said with a laugh.

Now, he's a seasoned piper and has years of successful performances under his belt. He'll play at Rose Hill Cemetery's Candlelight Walk Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Rest Haven Cemetery's Festival of Lights Saturday, with the concert starting at 3 p.m.

"Rick is gracious to play. He's a big part of it. It's very moving," said Jeremy Osteen, family service supervisor at Rest Haven Cemetery.

Besides playing the bagpipe, Conrad also plays guitar in a three-member acoustic band called Paint the Sky.

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