“Yeah, I guess it’s a verb,” says JD Ingraham, the Senior Pipe Major of the Charleston Pipe Band. We’re chatting about his position in the band and referring to the act of playing the bagpipe. We settle on the term bagpiping.
Ingraham has been bagpiping since he was a teenager, when he first saw bagpipes on TV during a 9/11 memorial service. “I got plugged into my community of bagpipers,” he says. And how many bagpiping communities are out there? More than you’d think.
Ingraham estimates that there are 100 bagpipe bands in cities from Texas to Maine. Pipe bands are traditionally comprised of five bagpipes, two snare drums, and one bass drum, but bands in larger cities can have 20-30 bagpipers. The Charleston Pipe Band currently has two units, one at a Grade III and one at a Grade V, with a total of over 40 members, including pipers and drummers, on their competition teams.
Grade what? Let us introduce you to the ratings world of pipe bands: There are five possible grades that a pipe band can receive, with V being the worst and I being the best. Ingraham tells us that most bands in smaller cities hover around that V mark, so having a unit rated III is not too shabby.
The Charleston Pipe Band’s ratings have fluctuated over the years, but they bounced back in 2016, going undefeated at Scottish Festival competitions, being named Southern Champions for their grade, and earning the title of grade level champions for the Eastern United States. The band was founded in 1995 as the Charleston Police Department Pipes and Drums by Chief Reuben Greenberg (who passed away in 2014), and led by Pipe Major Sandy Jones, who was among bagpipers who played at John F. Kennedy’s funeral.
In 2015 the band was incorporated as an independent nonprofit to aid their fundraising efforts and to formalize their mission, which includes teaching lessons to students in the area. The band still maintains the Charleston Police Pipes and Drums Honor Band, though. And they do more than march in parades — you can hire the band for weddings, funerals, or maybe even a really musical birthday party.
“Everybody’s story is different,” says Ingraham of bagpipers’ interest in the instrument. “A lot of people have family ties.” He tells a story of one of Charleston’s female bagpipers whose mother asked each of her kids to pick up an instrument in their youth. Thinking her mom wouldn’t be able to find bagpipe lessons, the future Charleston Pipe Band member chose the bagpipe. Needless to say, her mom found those lessons.
Today the Charleston Pipe Band not only competes and participates in events around the country, they also teach lessons to about 25 students in the area. And don’t let the term student mislead you — a lot of these burgeoning bagpipers are in their 40s or 50s, or retirees looking to pick up a new habit.
If you’ve been harboring a deep dark love for the art of bagpiping, but don’t know where to start, Ingraham assures us that it’s not that scary. Beginners start out playing on one pipe, which Ingraham compares to a recorder (you know, the first instrument you ever played in elementary school.) That first pipe will cost you around $80, so dabbling in the art isn’t too pricey. If you’re planning on committing to bagpipe playing, though, start saving — Ingraham says that a bare bones, decent set of pipes will cost you $1,000 and up.
While most people are vaguely aware of bagpipes, having seen them in a St. Patrick’s Day parade or two, most people aren’t familiar with the instrument’s capabilities. Ingraham says that, sadly, the Charleston Pipe Band cannot play “Freebird” for you, since the Scottish pipes they play only have nine notes. “If you were looking at the keys of a piano, it would be nine white keys in a row, and no black keys, which does limit what you can play,” says Ingraham.
Another obstacle to playing the bagpipe? Your lung capacity. A bag, which, depending on how decked out it is, can weigh anywhere from four-10 pounds, holds about two deep lungfuls of air. “You need another lungful every 10-15 seconds,” says Ingraham. For those of you who play instruments you may understand that this bag full of air is more beneficial than burdensome. As Ingraham explains it, “The bag holds that air in and is still supplying it to the reeds.” So you don’t have to worry about circular breathing, a.k.a. breathing in and out at the same time.
We’d be remiss to feature bagpipes without talking about the special gear that accompanies the instrument — namely, kilts. The Charleston Pipe Band has kilts that were designed in 2004, with a tartan pattern that features police blue, gold, and silver. “We certainly stand out. Most people have reds or greens,” says Ingraham. And, we had to ask — is everyone comfortable wearing kilts? “A lot of people can be funny the first time,” says Ingraham. “But if you’re weird enough to play the bagpipes, you’re usually on board.”