“Blue Bells, 4/4!”: Bagpipes Set The Pace

Allan Appel PhotoPipe major George Martin called out the tune, and New Haven’s bagpipers were off.

If you were among the estimated 50,000 watchers taking in the Irish airs at Sunday’s jam-packed 57th annual Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade, you had Martin to thank—and the hard work he has put in over the years to master the instrument and lead his Gaelic Highland Pipe Band in the march.

Before Sunday’s parade began, Martin adjusted the reeds, chanters, and drones on his musicians’ bagpipes as the band prepared to venture onto Chapel Street for the biggest gig of the year. Then he jammed a little with his wife Ann Marie Abril on a tune called ““caber feidh,” Gaelic for “stag head and antlers.”

She did a dance while carrying her 17-pound bass drum. By the time the parade was over an hour and a half later, the drum would feel like it weighed 120 pounds.

In between start and finish, their band filled downtown with traditional Irish airs and received lots of applause.

And the marriage survived.

Martin and Abril and their 15-member Gaelic Highland Pipe Band of New Haven were among the estimated 3,000 marching participants and tens of thousands of enchanted and sometimes goofy-looking onlookers in Sunday’s parade.

“It’s in my blood. I’ve been playing 40 years, been marching 36,” said Martin, who joined the group in 1989 and became its musical director and pipe major in 2010.

Other players such as Richard Mount (pictured) have decades of experience, but the Gaelic Highland Pipe Band is a work still in progress, according to Martin. It had a spectacular performance a day earlier in Milford’s parade, he said. But every parade is an adventure. And an hour before kick-off Martin had some concerns.

As the 1:30 kick-off came and went, Martin plunked his ear close and adjusted the double reed on some of the chanters,  the nine-note pipe where the melody is played. He checked the single reed-ed three drones, the pipes that stick up and out of which comes the synchronized thrumming sound, the brisk military notes that discomfit and rouse and charm all at the same time.

The Gaelic Highland Band’s drum line is relatively new: Drum major Jack Lotko was recruited only a year ago and primarily because he works with Abril. And because at six-four he looks good carrying that ceremonial mace.

It was Martin’s job to call out the the groups of three or four tunes (pictured) for the group to play, as well as the meterss: 4/4, 6/4, and the toughest to keep up with, 6/8. The music from the bagpipes is steady, without pauses. So timing and playing together are everything

At 1:55, Lotko called out “by the center quick march.” The band took its place in front of the top-hatted New Haven Football and Hurling Club, one of the organizers of the parade. Then the musicians, stepped out.

“Scotland the Brave!” Martin called. And they were off.

This offered parade-watchers the classic sound of the drum and pipe bands, which get their timbre, incessant, percussive drive, as well as organization and terminology, from the military.

Martin even wore a small sword dangling from his right side as he marched on the right.

In front of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s St. Raphael campus, the parade paused. The pipes died down into silence. The drums played ten seconds more of a roll, went briefly silent. The players had a chance to catch their breath.

Then back to blowing. The musicians kept their eyes straight forward, no waving to the kids as other units do. One got the sense that the pipers were soldiers of music.

At 2:20 the parade lurched forward in front of the band. Lotko raised his mace. “Blue Bells, 4/4!” Martin called out. But this time the drum line couldn’t hear him amid all the noise.

Martin re-yelled his instruction at the top of his lungs. This time the band launched into the song with big-time pace and meter.

It takes talent, but also stamina and grit to play what Martin estimated to be between 40 and 50 different tunes, all memorized, during the course of the parade. That’s a lot of air.

One of the band’s pipers was a doctor, retired Hamden radiologist Raymond Osborne. During a pause in playing he traced the creation of the sound: “You have to purse your lips around the blowpipe to keep the air in. That inflates the bag. Then you squeeze the bag back between your arm and chest. That forces the air out through the drones and chanter. The air blows past the reeds, like Benny Goodman’s clarinet, and makes the noise. You have to have a strong diaphragm and abdominal muscles.

“And it helps not to have emphysema.”

Piper Eileen Saunders, whose dad Fred was one of the group’s founders, doesn’t have emphysema. But she was having some problems getting enough air. When the band paused at Day Street, she told Martin as much.

“We’ll get you another bag,” Martin told her. Meanwhile, he said, you can’t do anything in the middle of the street but keep on as well as you can.

Martin called out to get ready to resume with “Blue Bells” at 4/4. “On the mark!” he cried.

Abril suddenly moved out of her place in the drum line. “I can’t hear you,” she told him.

He shouted again, and they were off. By the time the band reached Rudy’s waves of applause carried them along. Martin called out “Garry Owen, 6/8!”

The band’s playing grew crisper as the crowds grew. On they went playing past people in twinkling green bow ties and top hats, past statues of liberty with green styrofoam crowns that bent in the breeze, past the Green. They marched and re-played “Scotland the Brave,” which Ann Marie Abril said was for one day being called “New Haven the Brave.”

Dylan Demagistris, a North Haven 11-year-old, watched the Gaelic Highland Pipers as he sat under a tuft of green hair. He pronounced the band’s sound completely “awesome.”

Click on the play arrow to hear the band as it marched past the Green.

The band approached the corner of Church and Grove with the enthusiasm of a horse nearing the stable. Members picked it up as they made the turn where the line of yellow buses awaited them and a place to unburden.

Abril lay down her drum by the entryway to Ted’s Cleaners. “My back is killing me,” she declared. “How about a scotch?”

Martin, meanwhile, offered a critical assessment of the performance: “The weather was bad for the [reeds of the] drones. The stop and go [of the parade’s pace] kills a pipe band. The drum line is new. Always a work in progress.”

“We’re overly critical,” noted head drummer John Moynihan. “Some spots we couldn’t hear the pipes for the crowd noise. [But] we’ll take noise any time.”

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posted by: Brewski on March 11, 2013  11:12am

Great parade and great story. I love to hear reports from the front lines.

Sorry to be picky, but 4/4, 6/4 and 6/8 are not “tempos”. They are “meters”, and can be played at any tempo.

[Ed.: Thanks for the correction!]