By teaching young to play, band director aims to keep passion alive

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

The beginner's bagpipe sounds less like a song and more like a siren -- screechy enough to require earplugs and to make dogs go crazy.

For Glenn Mackie, though, it's music to his ears.

The 25-year bagpiper is determined to start what will probably be called the Central Ohio Junior Pipe Band but for now is more often tagged "the kid band."

Bagpipers aren't exactly abundant in the area: Five years ago, Mackie's adult band was popular enough to be invited to perform during halftime of the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona; today, it struggles with participation and without drummers.

Which explains the idea of teaching children to play when their torsos match their instruments in size.

"If I keep educating kids, there's always going to be this reserve of new pipers coming up," said Mackie, 57, of Dublin, musical director of the Cyril Scott Pipe Band, an adult group of 12 bagpipers.

"Hopefully, Columbus will get a reputation for being a piping center."

Two years ago, he began advertising in newspapers, offering free lessons to ages 9 to 16 at Central College Presbyterian Church in Westerville.

Still, a kid band isn't easily formed.

Children must dedicate a year to practicing the chanter (a recorderlike instrument attached to the bottom of the bagpipe set) before parents shell out more than $1,200 for the full instrument.

And, at some point, Mackie must ask the inevitable of teenage boys: to don kilts in front of thousands of people at the Dublin Irish Festival.

Much to his surprise, though, his students -- the budding band stands at eight pipers, six drummers and two chanter players -- have embraced his passion.

Scot Curran, 11, of Dublin wears a "Bagpipe Hero" T-shirt to lessons and has taught himself to play the themes from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Come Christmas morning, he plans to awaken his family with Deck the Halls.

His 15-year-old brother, Alan, practices almost daily on his great-uncle's bagpipes, having been pressured by his Scottish family to begin lessons.

"We were iffy at first; no offense, it's kind of weird," he said, looking to Mackie. "But it's really fun."

In other families, the kids welcomed the chance to play -- seeing the instrument as unique and, therefore, cool.

"We've had to twist their arms for other things but not for the bagpipes," said Tom Jacobs, the father of bagpipe students Luke, 11, and Josh, 16, of Hilliard.

Patrick McBride, 12, of Bexley recently picked up chanter lessons in addition to playing piano and violin. His ancestors are Chinese and either Scottish or Irish (he isn't sure which).

"It was a big surprise when he came to me and said, 'I want bagpipes,' " said his mother, Bonita Fung. "I don't know how he was inspired; I honestly don't."

Last month, the kids united on their bagpipes for the first time -- after about a month of private lessons with Mackie (and a year for the Curran brothers) since graduating from chanters.

Mackie tuned each instrument to his own, adjusting reeds and chanter holes in an attempt to make the practice a little less shrill. He joined the group for a few songs, then set them loose to play Amazing Grace.

"Let's see how this goes," he said.

Alan Curran stepped in to start the count, tapping his foot.

With some gratuitous notes and plenty of off-pitch ones, the rendition probably wasn't respectful enough for a parade or funeral. One boy's bagpipe, still full of air, kept whistling after he had stopped blowing it.

Yet the song sounded unmistakably like Amazing Grace -- like music.

And that was enough to make Mackie smile and tell the kids they'd be a nice unit in only a couple of months.

"I'm very, very pleased," he said after the lesson. "This has been the most exciting thing I've ever been involved in."

A Primer

  • A traditional Scottish pipe band consists of bagpipers and a drum corps with snare, tenor and bass drummers.
  • Pipers begin their musical training with a chanter, a woodwind instrument similar to a recorder.
  • The chanter, which sounds like a bagpipe but is much quieter, requires less air.
  • After about a year of experience on a chanter, the student starts playing the full set of bagpipes.
  • The set includes a blowpipe; drone pipes, which rest on the shoulder; a bag, which is held under the elbow; and the chanter, which is attached to the bottom of the bag.
  • The musician blows into a pipe, with the air traveling through the bag and into the chanter, on which the melody is controlled.

Source: Dispatch research