Tom Palmer, of North Wildwood, remembers hearing live bagpipes for the first time at age 11.
Palmer was attending Boy Scout camp that summer. One of the other troops at the campsite was led to the parade site every morning by their scoutmaster, who was a bagpiper.
Those processions made an impression.
“You could hear them all over the camp, and it was that eerie sort of sound, and I thought, ‘That’s such a cool sound,’” Palmer said.
Years later, when the Cape-Atlantic Police and Fire Irish Pipe Brigade formed in 1994, Palmer finally learned how to play the bagpipes. The 63-year-old has been a member of the Irish Pipe Brigade ever since.
St. Patrick’s Day is one of the few times during the year when fans of the bagpipe can hear the instrument played at parades and other events. In many cases, the music is performed by police officers and firefighters who carry on the bagpipe tradition.
Southern New Jersey has a trio of groups kept busy this time of year: the Irish Pipe Brigade, the Atlantic City Fire Department Sand Pipers Pipe Bandcq and the Ocean County Emerald Society Pipes & Drumscq. Even though members move away or die, these groups have been able to keep going either through active recruitment, word of mouth or both.
Captain Norm Wilson, president of the Atlantic City Fire Department Sand Pipers, is responsible for teaching those who want to learn the bagpipes, so they can join his group.
“Out motto is ‘We honor our fallen.’ We play for guys killed in the line of duty,” said Wilson, 56.
The Sand Pipers has 25 members, and just about all of them show up for big events, such as a St. Patrick’s Day parade, Wilson said. For smaller events, they may attract 10 to 15 members.
Members do not have to be firefighters or police officers. The group has a 13-year-old bagpiper, who Wilson says will eventually be better than all of the current members and probably take over the group.
Bagpipes have a limited musical range, but they can take years to master because of the multiple things happening at once when playing them: fingering the chanter or melody pipe; blowing a steady stream of air into the bagpipe bag; holding the bag, which weighs a few pounds; remembering the tune; and doing all of this while marching.
Before a player goes near a bagpipe, he must learn how to play the songs on the chanter. Fitted with a mouthpiece, the chanter is relatively inexpensive and lets novice players master the fingering needed to perform songs before also dealing with the complexity involved in manipulating the pipes’ airbag.
“Your melody reed is a lot like an oboe reed, but you also have three additional reeds, so it would be like playing three clarinets at the same time or four saxophones at the same time,” said Palmer, a musician, who couldn’t make a sound come out of his bagpipe when he first assembled it. “What you have to do is you have to learn to put air inside your bag, and then you strike that bag, and it opens up the three background sounds, the drone sounds.”
The objective is to keep that pressure constant, so the drones sound like they should, and with a little bit more breathing pressure, the melody reed opens up, and the bagpiper can start to play the song’s melody, Palmer said.
“The breathing technique is extremely important, but if you don’t play for a while, you will notice when you pick up your pipes and start to play that you do feel like you are struggling some. For example, last week, at practice, knowing that we had these two big weekends coming up, we didn’t have chanter practice. We went right to the pipes and played straight through practice,” said Palmer, who runs on a treadmill to keep up his endurance.
Playing the great highland bagpipes, the type used in pipe bands, is different than playing the uilleann pipes, the type usually featured in Irish folk music by bands such as the Chieftains. Two of the biggest differences is that the uilleann pipes use a bellows to maintain the air pressure and the fingering of the chanter is different.
Besides being difficult to play, bagpipes are not cheap, either.
A nice-sounding Scottish Highland bagpipe can cost $1,000. The uniform and accessories, including the kilt, woollen sock hose, Ghillie brogue shoes and a belt with an ornamental buckle can also be expensive. How much of the accessories members wear varies by pipe band.
Some groups make the members buy their own uniforms and accessories. Others raise money through public appearances to buy members their outfits. The Irish Pipe Brigade does about 40 events annually, Palmer said.
Both the Irish Pipe Brigade and the Sand Pipers have weekly rehearsals. The Irish Pipe Brigade works with its chanter students for an hour before its regular Monday rehearsals. Wilson, a retired firefighter, works with Sand Pipers trainees weekly at his Northfield home.
Currently, Wilson is teaching Ryan Kampmeyer, of Ocean City, and William Martin, of Dennis Township, who are Ocean City firefighters.
Wilson is happy to teach new people the bagpipe, but because it is not easy to learn, he asks students not to waste his time if they aren’t willing to commit to it. One of the first things he does is instruct students to ask themselves, “How bad do you want it?”
Kampmeyer, 38, first met Wilson at a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“It’s very much tied to the fire service. It felt right to do that, to honor the guys that we work with. God forbid that anybody got hurt or passed away in a fire,” Kampmeyer said about his interest in learning how to play the bagpipes.
Kampmeyer has been playing the chanter for a little more than a year. He hopes to graduate to bagpipe training by summer.
Martin, 37, saw Wilson and the Sand Pipers perform on several occasions in Atlantic City, and it made him want to learn the bagpipes. During one St. Patrick’s Day parade in Atlantic City, Martin was with his fellow Ocean City firefighters, who were marching with the Brigantine, Ventnor and Margate firefighters and the Sand Pipers.
During every St. Patrick’s Day parade for at least the past six years in Atlantic City, the Sand Pipers stop on the beach block of Elberon Avenue, which was renamed Seedorf Lane, in honor of John A. Seedorf, 30, who died there in 1979 fighting a fire in a vacant office.
“They played ‘Amazing Grace’ at the fire (scene) where he died. It was very well received, and I was really amazed,” Martin said.
Martin had never played a musical instrument. He has been playing the chanter for about a year and tries to practice 20 minutes daily. He is working on moving from the chanter to the bagpipe.
About 20 percent of the people Wilson starts training make it to playing the bagpipe, Wilson said.
When Wilson learned the bagpipes, he had no musical training. He was a member of the Irish Pipe Brigade before he founded the Sand Pipers in 1997.
All of the time and expense is worth it when a person is out with their fellow bagpipers entertaining audiences, Wilson said.
“The crowd loves you. They usually get whipped up in a frenzy, especially when we stop and play something circled up for a crowd, or if we stop at one of these restaurants that we stop at afterward (after a parade). They are just in a festive mood,” Wilson said.
Contact Vincent Jackson: