Bagpipes are mostly synthetic nowadays — reeds, chanters, drones; even the bags are rarely fashioned from animal hide any more. But the sound is still primitive, primal: a single octave plus one, the keening whine over the thrilling drone. My blood is not easily stirred, but you can keep your war drums and your trumpet’s charge: this is the sound that makes me want to die gloriously in battle. Even when it’s played by a bunch of teenagers on a swath of smooth concrete at the edge of the Helix High campus, under a chill gray sky, at an hour when I’d rather be sleeping.
Their instructor, Shawn Eccles, knows whereof I speak. He was a student in the program from 2002-2006. Helix is a charter school, “and they had this way where out-of-district kids could get around the lottery system by agreeing to play bagpipes for two years.” But Eccles was in the district. He didn’t need the lottery exemption; he was just curious. The pipes seemed “like a crazy fun thing to do. I like to say that you have to be weird to do band, but you have to be extra weird to do bagpipes.”
“It used to be that we would get three to five new players every year,” says Eccles. Though it was always cool to lead the football team out onto the field, the overall cool factor (and corresponding interest in the program) tended to fluctuate. That may be changing. This year saw 16 newcomers to the pipe band, a huge jump. “I said to the administration, ‘That’s great, but I don’t have the resources. Either put a cap on the program or give me another class.’” Eccles was maybe two-thirds joking, but he got what he asked for, and more besides. “They’re refitting the entire program, Some of these instruments are 20, 30 years old, and the kilts are ancient — we’ve repaired them so many times. Next year, we’ll have all McCallum bagpipes and anywhere from 10-12 new freshmen.”
Even in the days before the boom, legacy families were not uncommon. This year’s pipe major, Anna, is the youngest of four girls. “All three of my sisters were in the program before me,” she says. “I guess just wanted to be like them. And my older sister right above me was pipe major. During your first interactions with bagpipes, it’s kind of a lot,” she grants. “They’re really loud, and there’s a lot going on. But I think it’s a beautiful instrument.”
Beautiful but demanding. Eccles says that even devoted beginners are usually on chanters alone for six months before they fire up a set of pipes — or try to. “The first time I bring them out here with pipes,” says Eccles, “I line them up against the wall and tell them to do the best they can to get a tone of any kind out of it.”
He asks freshman Ian to demonstrate. Ian puffs into the bag, presses it with his arm, and belts out a single, warbling note. “Do a scale if you can.” Ian makes the pipe honk twice, then mounts a halting but successful ascent up the octave. “It’s difficult to keep up the pressure, and it gets more difficult when we add the drones and use a thicker reed,” says Eccles. “We encourage students to always play a difficult reed, so they feel like they’re on the edge of what they can do. They need to build up endurance.”