Baltimore bagpipes filled with history

Police society band continues tradition of Scottish `war pipes'

July 26, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The skirl of bagpipes breaks the evening stillness in downtown Towson, and the surprise of it slows passing cars and pulls pedestrians out of a nearby ice cream shop.

The centuries-old music of tears and wars is played by the Police Emerald Society Pipe Band of Baltimore, which practices Wednesday nights at Trinity Episcopal Church on Allegheny Avenue. On this evening, the band's youngest piper, 10-year-old Sean Gearhart, has taken time out from practice to play a reel for a family that came downtown for ice cream.

"We went to Moxley's and we heard the noise," said the Rev. William L. Krulak of St. David's Episcopal Church in Baltimore, after Sean's impromptu performance.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly described the Police Emerald Society Pipe Band of Baltimore as the only area group to participate in piping competition. A second group, Na Fianna Irish Pipe Band of Baltimore, also competes.
The Sun regrets the error.

"We heard the beautiful sounds," his son-in-law, Alastair Palmer, said reprovingly.

Beautiful sounds or just noise -- so it goes with bagpipes. But love them or hate them, you can't ignore them, said David Stewart Thaler, drum major of the Emerald Society band.

"When you hear the pipes coming, it's awesome," he said with pride. "It's martial music. It makes people feel patriotic."

The Emerald Society band, which is sponsored by the Baltimore Police Emerald Society, is relatively new. Founded about a year ago, it is one of a handful of bagpipe bands in the Baltimore area -- and the only one that participates in national and international competitions, Thaler said.

It is also one of hundreds that have sprung up across the country since 1960, when New York's Police Department formed the first Emerald Society band.

In 1971, the New York band began playing at police funerals, and the haunting notes of bagpipes have become a fixture at services for officers and firefighters.

The history of bagpipes stretches back nearly 2,000 years.

"It's said that Nero played them, and there are biblical references to them," Thaler noted.

Nearly every country in the Old World has some form of bagpipes, he said, and Scotland has several.

Baltimore's band plays Great Highland pipes, also called "war pipes" because they led Scottish clans into battle two centuries ago, Thaler said.

Bagpipes evoke Scotland's glorious and bloody past -- so much so that a man was executed for playing them in 1745 after the last Scottish war with England, said Thaler, who attends Glasgow's College of Piping every year.

When bagpipes and kilts were banned by the victorious British, one piper defied the rule and was hauled into court.

"The British judge found that the bagpipes were an instrument of war and they hanged him," Thaler said.

Under Queen Victoria, who with her subjects was charmed by writer Sir Walter Scott's romanticization of Scotland, bagpipes regained respectability.

The Baltimore band has about 25 members. Thaler leads the band on the field and musical director Ed Kitlowski directs practices.

The band's goal, said Thaler, is to "sound like a single instrument," no matter how many pipers are playing.

It's not easy.

In addition to precision fingering on the flutelike chanter at the bagpipes' nether end, all three of the hornlike reed instruments -- called drones -- that ride above the player's shoulder must be very precisely tuned.

The Baltimore band has one bass drum, played with the duster-like sticks that produce a rumbling backbeat, and several smaller snare drums.

Band members include a police officer and a firefighter, a chemist, a building inspector, a software engineer and a civil engineer.

Bagpipes are best learned young, Thaler said. He learned to play as an adult 10 years ago, and said that his son is about to surpass him in expertise, thanks to younger and faster fingers.

As dusk faded into night, Thaler hoisted his silver-topped mace, snapped out, "Fall in, pipes and drums! Ten-HUT!" and the Police Emerald Society Pipe Band was on the march again, filling the streets of Towson with sound, transforming an empty parking lot into the Scottish Highlands.

Pub Date: 7/26/99

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