When the pipes call
Playing bagpipes requires a big investment of time and money.  For these people, the sacrifices are well worth it
By COURTNEY McCANN Staff Writer, 609-272-7219
(Published: Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The piercing whine of the bagpipes is unmistakable.

In the days of the Scottish clans, the pipes were used in battle, sort of the Scotsman's version of "shock and awe." The noise rattled the enemy and helped send signals to allied troops.

Today, local bagpipers replicate that powerful sound in parades as they march in step to "Scotland the Brave" or "Oh Rowan Tree." Or they struggle to harness the noise to blend in with other instruments in the ever-increasing number of Celtic rock bands.

That sound is what lured David Connelly to the pipes 13 years ago when he innocently attended a St. Patrick's Day parade in northern New Jersey.

He was inspired by the marching pipe and drum bands.

"I was always fascinated with military history," the 47-year-old Barnegat Light resident said. "And the idea of being outside, marching, bonding with the men."

Lots of time and money

Finding a guitar or piano teacher in southern New Jersey is easy. A bagpipe instructor - or someone who sells bagpipes for that matter - not so much.

"I can safely say that more people in this country are playing bagpipes than ever before," said Michael Bell, a Galloway Township bagpiper. "Atlantic County is just not a fertile region, you might say."

According to Bell, the best places to find bagpipers in New Jersey are northern Ocean County, Mon-mouth County and in the Newark-Kearny area.

For lessons, it's best to locate the nearest pipe and drum band, such as the Ocean County Emerald Society or the Atlantic City Fire Department Sand Pipers.

Bruce Graves, a bagpiper with Celtic bands Birnam Wood and The Founders, used to teach students on the side.

"The rule of thumb is it takes seven years to train a piper," the Somers Point piper said. "Some people pick it up, and some people just will never get it."

Students start out with a practice chanter, a device similar to a recorder, to practice music theory. Once they've mastered that, it's time for the pipes.

Connelly compares actually playing the bagpipes to learning how to shift a car manually.

"It's awkward. It's a big bag under your armpit. It's the drones over your shoulder," Connelly admitted. "Once you understand how to really blow and squeeze, how to master the synchronicity between the two, you start getting more confident."

In the end, it all comes down to practice.

"I tell (students) that if they don't have 15 minutes every day for the next two or three years to dedicate to it, they're never going to be a bagpiper," Graves said. "It's a long-term commitment."

The learning process lends itself to the expense of being a bagpiper.

A good set of bagpipes can run up to $5,000 depending on the detail work. A practice chanter ranges from $50 to $100, which means less of an investment for someone who finds they don't have a knack for the pipes.

Most pipers order their instruments abroad, a process eased by the Internet.

"With the Internet you can order [bagpipes] directly from Scotland, or anywhere in the world," Bell said. "Believe it or not there are several good pipe makers in the United States."

It was about a year before Connelly was ready to march in his first pipe band parade, though ready might have been an understatement. Practicing alone was one thing, but playing with a group of people and having to keep in step and in tune was something different entirely.

But the nerves vanished as Connelly found himself energized by the clapping bystanders and the music swelling from the ranks.

"I just remember playing and being very proud that I got through the parade," Connelly said. "And every parade after that got a little bit better.

Making occasions special

Bagpipes aren't all about green beer and St. Patrick's Day. There's plenty of other work to keep the musicians busy.

Bagpipers often find themselves sharing the most poignant moments of life with their audience. Weddings. Funerals. Graduations. Retirement celebrations.

Bell's favorite gig is playing weddings, especially on the beach.

"If it's a summer day, there are people lying all over the beach," Bell said. "By the end of the ceremony, the whole beach is applauding."

In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Connelly and other New Jersey pipers were on constant call playing funerals for police officers and firemen.

"The majority (of the pipe bands) were made up of cops and firemen who would do their shifts and then go perform," Connelly said. "They didn't see their families for a month because they were constantly going."

Connelly helped handle the weekend funerals. One Monmouth County service stood out from the rest.

The band had just finished playing "Amazing Grace." The church was quiet as the band prepared to march out.

"The only thing I heard was a boy crying," Connelly recalled. "That got me really upset. I'll never forget it."

The rising popularity of Celtic bands have given pipers another outlet besides parades and solemn occasions.

Nationally-known punk bands such as Boston-based Dropkick Murphys and Canadian band The Real McKenzies have always had bagpipes in their repertoire.

On a more local scale, there are bands such as Birnum Wood and The Founders.

Bell used to play with Birnum Wood's pipe ensemble, macLOUD.

"When you're marching, obviously you stick to marching tunes, so you can't really do the jigs, reals and faster tunes," Bell said. "The fun thing with Birnum Wood is the stuff we did was sort of suites written for bagpipes."

Some of Bell's most memorable piping experiences were the most raucous, such as the time Birnum Wood played at the "Celebration of the Suds" beer festival in Atlantic City in 2007.

The crowd had formed a mosh pit near the stage and the band's drummer, fueled by the crowd's excitement, whipped Bell and the other pipers into a frenzy with a fast beat.

"Three of us pipers went down into the heaving masses and played among the people," Bell said. "It was spontaneous fun stuff."

A family thing

Connelly picked up the bagpipes late in life. But his son Sean, now 13, started early. He was just a baby when his father took him to his first St. Patrick's Day parade to see the pipe and drum bands. Now the teen performs alongside his father in parades and St. Patrick's Day gigs.

"It's amazing where bagpipes can take you," Sean Connelly said. "Now I'm starting to teach my little brother to play. Hopefully we can become a trio."

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