Each Wednesday evening, the hectic hubbub in Central College Presbyterian Church includes a handful of teenagers huddled to quietly learn to play a loud instrument.
Wednesdays mark the weekly rehearsal sessions of the Cyril Scott Pipe Band, and each rehearsal is preceded by a class for young and aspiring bagpipers.
As they meet for a 45-minute session with teacher Glenn Mackie, the students use a chanter, a flute-like instrument, to learn the finger moves involved in making music on a bagpipe. Their sounds are muted in contrast to the band’s bombastic bagpipes and drums, which will fill the church for the next two hours. The band music wafts in the hallways and backdrops the voices of kids playing basketball and meeting-goers coming and going.
Mackie, a bagpiper for at least 20 years, is pipe major of the band, which was formed in January 1997 as a competition group. In 2002, as he was preparing to take over the band, Mackie surveyed the membership and thought, “Holy cow. We’re all 50 years old. This band is going to die.”
The solution: find younger players by giving free lessons and, eventually, organize a pipe band not targeted at national and international competition, as was the original group. Hence, the beginning of the free weekly lessons, the only ones for teenagers in central Ohio.
Mackie backs those with private lessons at his home for $20 an hour, “a bargain for music lessons,” he notes.
Because the band played at Central College’s functions, the former pastor, Richard Ellsworth, invited it to practice at the church. It has since become the band’s unofficial headquarters.
The idea is for students to spend several months learning, gradually increasing their skill on the chanter before playing a bagpipe. Mackie tells new students they don’t need to practice the chanter more than five minutes a day. He’s “old school,” he says, believing that bagpipes should be fun.
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to practice an hour a day,” says Mackie. “Five minutes will turn into 10, and 10 to 20, and pretty soon it will be an hour.”
It can take up to a year until Mackie feels a student is ready for his or her parents to invest $1,200 in a bagpipe, an instrument that’s not available in this area to rent for lessons, Mackie says. He believes that’s enough time for a student to memorize five tunes, also important for a piper who doesn’t use sheet music when playing. Often, students are anxious and get their instrument sooner.
Gabbi Gualtieri, 10, a Westerville resident who is a student at Clintonville Academy, is already playing her bagpipe, though she briefly took the free chanter lessons.
“She started at a really young age (beginning at 8 ½),” Mackie says, largely because her brother, Robbie, a St. Francis DeSales High School junior, had been a student and piper since the sixth grade. He enrolled because his mother wanted him to.
“I didn’t like it at first, but I got to like it,” says Robbie. He’s now a piper and a member of the band, which is Mackie’s goal for his students.
Gabbie Bird, 12, a student at Genoa Middle School, is just beginning lessons at the urging of her mother (who) “wanted me to take bagpipe.”
Charley Goodwin, a bubbly Westerville South High School sophomore, turns 16 in March and is an enthusiastic piper – like Robbie, she takes private lessons from Mackie once a week – and has been part of the band’s 20-22 piper line-up for two years. She took Mackie’s lessons for six months before getting a bagpipe.
She aspired to be a piper because “I’m really Scottish. My grandfather wanted one of his family members to play the bagpipe.” As a pastime and hobby, “I love this,” she says. In high school, she has lettered in soccer, bowling and academics. Next year, she will enroll in the school’s two-year international baccalaureate program to earn a year of college credit before graduation.
She and Robbie expect to keep playing the bagpipe in college should they choose a school that has an active group, as some do.
For public appearances – for which the band is paid $400 to $800 to cover expenses, such as travel, kilts and uniform parts – Mackie expects 12 to 18 pipers to appear along with many of the nine drummers. To teach up-and-comers in the corps, Mackie found a volunteer, Alex Harper, a music and percussion major at Otterbein University, whom he met on a weekly trip to play in a Cleveland pipe and drum corps. His lessons are given weekly as the band practices.
Charley happily describes the band’s busy time. During this year’s St. Patrick’s Day observances – prolonged because March 17 is a Sunday – the band will be in the parade in downtown Columbus. It will split in two, and groups will visit various establishments in Columbus and environs on St. Paddy’s, some more than once.
The band will be quite busy during the July 4 observance period, too, with appearances in parades in Portsmouth, Lancaster and Worthington Hills on the schedule. Mackie expects the band to perform at a bicentennial celebration in Johnstown and to make its annual appearance at the Dublin Irish Festival. And the band likely will go to a half-dozen competitions for similar groups. “They’re like mini-vacations,” Mackie says, because many members take their families for those weekends.
The Cyril Scott Pipe Band, one of four central Ohio pipe bands and probably the largest in the Columbus area, occasionally adds to its roster with audience members who become interested after seeing a performance. Still, Mackie relies on the younger students to help fill the ranks. Five former students have gone to college, and Mackie hopes someday they’ll come back.
For more information on the band, visit www.cyrilscottpipeband.com.
Duane St. Clair is a contributing editor. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.