Marching is secondary as city pipers learn to play

Concord firefighters and police officers had long talked about forming a band, though no one could read music or even played an instrument.

Today, the Concord Fire Department Pipes and Drums is a performing, still-learning Scottish band, with two bagpipers and two drummers in full regalia, kilt and all.

"We all practice individually every day and as a band several times a month. It's more fun that way," said fire Capt. Don Ward, one of the band's pipers and founders.

They've become quite good, and in the past year or so they've performed in public 18 or 20 times, as a full band or as individual pipers.

"But we still haven't learned to march and play at the same time," Ward said. That's especially difficult because of the odd requirements of bagpipe playing.

"We've ribbed them a lot," fire Chief T.R. Holloway said. "The sound effect of those bagpipes as they practiced was indescribable.

"But I don't think I could play a bagpipe and march at the same time, either," the chief said. "We're extremely proud of them."

In 2007, when the band's organizational drive began, 31 enthusiastic hopefuls - police, firefighters, everyday citizens - volunteered. But when it became clear how much money and musical training were involved, "our numbers dwindled way down," Ward said.

Among the most difficult

The players had to buy their own expensive instruments. They had to hire a professional bagpiper and drummer to teach them. Their instructor, piper Andrea Jones, plays with another local band, the Celtic Rock, which is not essentially a bagpipe band.

Mastering marching would have to come later.

The bagpipe is one the world's most difficult musical instruments to play. At one point in history, it was outlawed, declared by England - then a longtime enemy of Scotland - to be an instrument of war because its groaning, penetrating wail spurred Scots warriors to fiercer fighting.

Today, the bagpipe is used worldwide for special occasions, from memorial services to weddings and celebrations of all kinds.

When Concord Firefighter Lee Biggerstaff was killed last year in a motorcycle accident, Ward said, Concord pipers and drummers felt a satisfaction in playing at his funeral.

"The most satisfying to us," Ward said, "is when we need bagpipes, we can do it ourselves."

Concord Mayor Scott Padgett added words of praise for the group:

"This bagpipe band gives an air of distinction to our fire department. People who've heard them have been impressed. ... I appreciate the efforts of these gentlemen."

Chanters and sticks

The bandsmen, all firefighters, are Matt Sellers, 36, drum sergeant; Daryll Reese, 37, drum; and pipers Todd Jones, 37, and Ward, 36.

"Sellers says call him 'drum sergeant' because we haven't learned enough yet to call him 'drum major,'" Ward quipped.

The group started learning in July 2007. To learn fingering and reading music, pipers practiced with "chanters" - the hornlike part of the instrument where the fingers select notes - instead of the full bagpipes, Ward said. Snare and bass drummers used sticks and practiced on plates.

They've mastered the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace," as well as "Scots Wha Hae," "Highland Cathedral," "Minstrel Boy" and other traditional Scottish tunes.

"We'll continue adding new music, and we hope to grow," Ward said.

Money is an issue. The fire department supports the band, but it isn't on the budget. Some donations come in, and bandsmen sell T-shirts that read "Concord Fire Department Pipes and Drums" to pay for music and other needs.

They've played at an Easter sunrise service, the fire department's recruiting graduation, the American Cancer Society's local Relay for Life, the county fire association's memorial at the Governmental Center and at the county's remembrance service for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

They've also performed at the county fair, a Concord High School football game, a number of funerals and Crossroads United Methodist Church..

One side effect for Ward has been that he's now a fan of ancient Celtic music.

Ward said the band was hoping to march in Christmas parades that began this weekend with Concord's. "Our instructors will be marching along with us."

And if they still can't play and march, Holloway said, "We'll put them in the back of a pickup truck and drive them down Union Street."