Smithsburg teen embraces heritage with bagpipes

August 26, 2011|By MEG H. PARTINGTON |
  • Patrick Willock, 14, practices his Scottish bagpipes in the front yard of his Smithsburg home.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

SMITHSBURG — Patrick Willock is so proud of his Scottish/Welsh heritage that he shouts it from the hilltops — through his bagpipes.

Patrick, 14, is the oldest of Becky and Brad Willock's seven children. He has been playing the Scottish bagpipes for about two years, an instrument to which he switched after playing piano for a long time.

"I was pretty little when I started (playing piano)," Patrick said.

When his piano teacher retired, he was ready to try something new. Because his family has always celebrated its roots —  his father's side of the family is Scottish and his mother's is Welsh — the bagpipes seemed like a logical choice.

On Sunday evenings, he treks to the hilltop home of Chris McClain in Boonsboro, where he takes lessons at the top of McClain's long driveway or on a deck.

McClain, 67, has been playing bagpipes since 1989, and is a member of the Towson, Md.-based John F. Nicoll Pipe Band.

Patrick's practice sessions are an outdoor affair, as well, with the backyard of his Smithsburg home being his studio of sorts.

"I just practice when I can, here and there," said Patrick, who has been home-schooled since first grade.

He said his siblings — three boys and three girls ranging in age from 2 to 11 — often line up by the windows that overlook the backyard to observe and listen to his rehearsals.

"I like to play by myself, but I also like playing for an audience," he said.

Among his audience members are those who have attended weddings at which he has played, those who heard him perform during Smithsburg Pride Days in May, and those who listened to his performance and oral presentation June 23 at the Smithsburg Library.  

Ashley Hutson, branch manager at the Smithsburg Library, said Patrick and his maternal great-grandmother stopped by on St. Patrick's Day and asked if he could play some music there that day. Hutson happily accepted the offer, letting him play outside the library, which is situated on a hill in Veterans Park.

She invited him to come back in June, when he not only performed but discussed the history of bagpipes, shared some Scottish history, explained the outfits worn by bagpipers and fielded questions from the attendees.

"The presentation was very informative," Hutson said. "There were people of all ages in the audience and I think everyone was impressed. He seems like a natural performer."

A different language

Like most musicians, Patrick not only had to learn the language of music but the terms specific to his instrument.

The bagpipes have a nine-note range from a low "G" to a high "A," though they don't span a conventional octave, he said.

He clarified that there is a difference among different types of bagpipes, which he said can be found in the Middle East, Scotland and all through Europe, among other places. The number of drones — cylindrical tubes with reeds inside — varies with the area of origin of the bagpipes, as does the manner in which they're played.

For instance, Scottish bagpipes are played with the drones over the shoulder, while Irish uilleann pipes rest on the player's lap.

He is a dedicated student of the instrument and enjoys sharing his knowledge with others. Some vocabulary he shared with a reporter includes:

  •  Chanter —the melody pipe played with both hands
  •  Blowpipe — the pipe through which the bag is inflated; the bag is a reservoir that can hold air and regulate its flow while the player keeps it inflated by blowing into it
  •  Grace note — a short musical embellishment played up a step from the note it's enhancing
  •  Doublings — a category of grace note in which a note is repeated for emphasis
  •  Grips — a percussive musical embellishment in which the player drops to the lowest note

Working his way up

Patrick learned to play on a practice chanter, which is similar to the recorder on which many budding woodwind players learn.

He played it for nine months, then started playing a small set of bagpipes, lent to him by McClain. Three to four months after that, he progressed to a full-sized set, also loaned to him by his instructor.

"Patrick kind of jumped on it right away," McClain said of the teen's dedication to his instrument.

McClain said adults who take an interest in playing the bagpipes often mistakenly believe they will master them in two weeks to a month, then give up playing when they discover how much work is involved in mastering it.

"At this age, you don't force them to do anything," he said of younger students like Patrick. In fact, his teaching philosophy is very laid-back: "I'll teach you as long as you want to learn."

About eight months ago, Patrick said he "lucked out on eBay," where he bought a well-cared-for set of Scottish bagpipes for $1,200. A new instrument can cost about $3,000, he said; McClain said some can cost as much as $10,000.

The body of Patrick's bagpipes features African black wood, fake ivory and nickel. The bag is made of leather, which he has to treat with a sealant on occasion to prevent air leakage. Over it is a decorative black velvet cover with white fringe.

Patrick said there's no tuning fork to test the pitch of a set of bagpipes.

"It's a very feel-as-you-go instrument," he said. Players "shoot from the hip" when it comes to tuning their drones, he said. "You have to know what you're listening to."

Dressing the part

Patrick owns two Scottish kilts, one more formal than the other.

His wool tartan kilt with pleats was worn by his father the day he married Patrick's mother. That kilt, which he wears for more formal occasions, is from the Ayrshire district in Scotland, from where his paternal great-great-grandfather hailed.

For less-formal occasions — including around the house or when he's out and about — Patrick has an olive-colored kilt made of canvas that he got during a Celtic Fling at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire grounds in Manheim, Pa. He can wear that kilt with a T-shirt.

Each kilt has a pouch called a sporran — "it's basically your pocket" — in which he stores the corks used for tuning his pipes.

He also has a sgian-dubh, a knife he said the Scots used to wear in their long, woolen stockings in case their swords were lost or damaged in battle. Patrick's is a dull version of the real thing.

Both kilt ensembles are completed with a kilt pin and wide belt.

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