Few activities can successfully bring teenagers and AARP members together, but the Maine St. Andrews Pipes and Drums bagpipe band has spent nearly 20 years doing just that. Now the 15 members, ranging from 15 to 70 years old, are looking to expand their playing field in the coming months which would allow them to participate in even more events and competitions.
The band was created in 1996 as a result of a merger between two existing bands, the Northern Border Caledonia and Acadian Pipes and Drums. Members hail from towns and cities throughout central, midcoast and Down East Maine.
The group’s unique makeup of beginner musicians and veterans with more than 50 years of playing experience, means lessons about everything from playing tips to life advice go back and forth between members frequently.
“It’s a very challenging instrument to play and it’s nearly impossible to learn from a book so the ability of members to pass on techniques and the art of playing is a great thing,” Band President Jerry Burkard said. “There’s a lot of muscle memory; if you try to think about them, you won’t be able to.”
One of the more unique aspects of playing the pipes is that air flow to the instrument cannot be stopped by the musician meaning notes must be played between pauses in a song in order to provide separation between bars of a song.
“There can be a large learning curve,” Burkard said. With determination and the right mentors, however, a new musician can become proficient enough to participate in parades and concerts in as little as six months to a year. “It really depends on the person, how much musical experience they have and their level of commitment.”
Many band members first come to the group because of either an ancestral connection to the instrument’s Scottish beginnings, or a passion for Scottish heritage. Others are drawn to the instruments haunting sound.
“It’s a very impressive instrument when you hear it,” Burkard said. “It’s very loud and makes an emotional impression, it kind of an overwhelming instrument to hear.”
But it’s that sound that makes Burkard happy, so it’s his instrument of choice.
“The biggest thing for me is seeing people’s reactions to first hearing the pipes,” he said. “There’s a look that comes over their faces when they first hear that impressive sound. Usually it’s an expression of enjoyment when they listen and really start to get into it.”
Aspiring musicians can join the band without any musical experience, and will be paired with a current band member for lessons. Loaner instruments are available and the band provides almost the entire uniform, including shoes, a kilt and a jacket.
The band participated in 14 events last season, including parades and concerts, playing a variety of music, including marches, jigs and a traditional Scottish style called strathspey.
As they prepare for yet another summer of events, Burkhard said he hopes others will find a love for the instrument as he and the other members have.
“Playing the bagpipes is a lifelong enjoyment and we really want to encourage people to come out, participate and spread the art,” he said.