Wails of the bagpipes, thumps of the drums

Tunes: On Tuesday evenings in Annapolis, the Chesapeake Caledonian Pipe Band produces some serious decibels in practice sessions in the Anne Arundel courts building.

February 06, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Joseph Stapleton stands in front of the judge's bench, making the kind of squawking noise associated with a tongue-lashing from the judge.

But after hours, the cavernous ceremonial courtroom of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court House has no judge, no litigants, no criminal defendants.

It has a Highland bagpipe band.

Stapleton, 54, an oceanographer and hardware salesman from Alexandria, Va., is tuning his pipes.

So are other members: one bleating at the empty jury box, another stationed at the prisoners-only door like a herald. It sounds like so many ailing barnyard animals.

The courtroom on many Tuesdays becomes the practice venue of the Chesapeake Caledonian Pipe Band, where pipers and drummers rehearse tunes, timing and marching.

Starting at 6: 30 p.m., they trickle in from the Eastern Shore, Northern Virginia, Baltimore and Severna Park to meet court administrator and pipe major Robert Wallace, 60, who took up the pipes 15 years ago.

"It was my mid-life crisis," he said.

Practice begins with pipers commiserating that bagpipes are three-fourths maintenance and one-fourth music-making. In a four-reeded instrument, there's always a reed to replace. Some pipers go through three leather bags a year, depending on how much they play, how much saliva gets in and how well they've coated the inside of the bag with a goop called seasoning.

The courthouse, whose opening in September 1997 featured the pipe band, has a high-ceilinged courtroom with enviable acoustics. On a recent Tuesday, 11 players, about half the band, fill the room with traditional Scottish songs, the wail of bagpipes punctuated by the syncopated snap of snare drums and metronomelike thumps of bass and tenor drums.

Then they take the tunes on the move, pipers in the lead, drummers following, marching past the monitors that during the day flash the court docket. And past the "quiet please" sign. The good part of strutting down the corridor is the 20-foot width. The downside is that in a hallway with a tile floor and glass atrium ceiling, "The Battle of Killie Crankie" could peel the wood trim off the walls.

In a setting better known for hushed tones, one set of Highland bagpipes can blow 100 decibels, real high-volume sound.

"The sound is directed away from you -- and into the person next to you," says John Sprague, 32, of Alexandria, Va., the band's instructor. "I know a lot of people that play with earplugs."

There's only one volume. Unlike musical instruments that modulate the level of sound, the bagpipe is in play or not. Pipers puff into the blowpipe to inflate the bag. Air moving through three drones, tall upward-pointing pipes, makes the constant background chord.

Pipers create a melody by fingering the chanter, a downward-pointing, flutelike stick. Its nine-note scale is so unlike the everyday "do-re-mi" that when Wallace peeps "Lullaby and Good Night" on a practice chanter, the tune is barely recognizable.

"I lived in Argentia, Newfoundland, and I traveled 90 miles each way to practice three times a week," says Stapleton, who has been playing the pipes for three decades. "This is not bad; it's a short hop. This is the nicest bunch of people I've played with."

They range in age from two high school juniors to pensioners, in occupation from FBI agent to kennel operator.

The recent popularity of the show "Riverdance" and the film "Braveheart" (with an air of disdain, the Caledonian pipers say the movie music came mostly from Irish pipes, but Highland pipes were shown) bagpipes have achieved a certain vogue, says Michael Binnie, pipe corporal and Severna Park High School student.

"A lot of people like it, but not too many people do it," says Binnie, 18, who started piping at 10 because his older sister played. His father, Jonathan, plays the bass drum for the band.

Jean Kelly, 71, of Centreville in Queen Anne's County took up the tenor drum only a decade ago, learning the elaborate patterns for swinging the fuzzy mallets.

"I almost knocked an eye out," she recalls.

Though the ensemble enters competitions -- it has gone from also-ran to taking first and second place in local contests -- it is more laid-back than many pipe bands, said diver Robert Murray, 42, who abandoned the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra to become the band's drum sergeant. The band capitalizes on its Chesapeake Bay connection. Where most bagpipe and drum ensembles sport a traditional crest on their hats, this band has a blue crab.

The band gets around. On New Year's Eve, members boast, they were the ones "freezing our bums off in kilts" at First Night Annapolis. They've entertained at events honoring Scottish poet Robert Burns, for St. Patrick's Day and for Celtic festivals. They've also had less traditional gigs -- the Whitbread sailing race's stop in Annapolis and the golf tournament opening at Talbot County Country Club.

Since it formed in 1985, the band has practiced all around the Annapolis area.

It enjoyed Bates Middle School's gym until student athletes took over; the cafeteria, however, was disastrous because pipers marched into the pillars. Practice in a parking lot behind the old county courthouse was short-lived, but not because the music reverberating off three buildings bothered the players. Police told them it bothered people at Anne Arundel Medical Center across the street.

About five years ago, warm evenings set the band playing in the courtyard of the 1823 courthouse facing Church Circle, sending "Blue Bells of Scotland" throughout the city's Historic District. It practiced in the courthouse, too, finding the same problems daytime occupants groused about -- narrow hallways and poor sound.

Passers-by probably will get an earful of the ensemble again this spring and summer. Wallace expects the band to play occasionally in the renovated courtyard and perhaps at City Dock.

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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