Alec Brown is a proud member of the Celtic Eagle Pipe Band, a tight-knit group based in the Akron/Canton area that is doing its part to share the unique heritage of both traditional and contemporary Celtic music.
“In this country, we’re so used to country-western, pop and rock music,” says Brown, who is both manager and drum major for the band. “The bagpipe is completely different from that and when you hear a bagpipe playing its melodic sound, you have to stop and listen. There’s nothing that stirs the mind more than hearing ‘Amazing Grace’ being played by 20 bagpipers. It’s a hair-tingling melody that people always relate to the bagpipes.”
The Medina-based band was formed in 2005 by a group of friends who played bagpipes or drums and wanted an alternative to the Cleveland-based competition bands. It’s a group that practices every week and competes regularly, but it also feels a calling to educate both fans and people who are unfamiliar with Celtic heritage about its importance in the history of music.
“In the U.S., there are a lot of Scottish-origin immigrants,” Brown says. “It may not be directly, but certainly in the bloodlines back through the years. We want to educate the community and give them some insight into who we are and what we do and the heritage behind everything we play and everything we wear.
“What we wear has a history behind it too. We want to show people from the Scottish, Irish and Celtic communities that there are people like us still around and that we would love to see people who have that heritage who want to learn how to play the bagpipes and drums.”
No ordinary instrument
Brown spent 17 years in the British military before moving to the U.S. in 2001.
He eventually made his way to Ohio where he met Tim Wiley, the band’s pipe major. Brown explained his background and the two made a connection.
“I went down and practiced with them for a few weeks and I enjoyed it and I’ve been with them ever since,” Brown says. “I started off as a drummer. I’m now the drum major as well as the band manager. The drum major leads the band, gives the orders to march and what tunes to play and keeps everyone in line. It’s a bit like a drill sergeant for the pipe band. That suited me pretty well being an ex-military guy.”
Playing the bagpipes is unlike just about any other instrument you could imagine.
“It’s a progressive training,” Brown says. “You start on what we call a chanter, which is basically the bottom end of the bagpipe. It’s almost like a recorder that fits into the bottom of the bagpipe. You learn on that first. Eventually you progress to the bagpipes, which is a whole new beast.
“You have to blow with your mouth to keep the bag inflated. You have to push with your left arm to keep the bag moving and also remember to play the notes on the chanter that is now fitted to the bagpipe. It’s quite an art just to get that far.”
The band members meet every Tuesday night for a few hours and do so all year, with the exception of a couple weeks they take off in the summer.
“Leading up to competition time, sometimes we start practicing two days a week just to get us ready for the competition and make sure we know all the tunes and how they go and play it together,” Brown says. “It’s all about playing in unison, the pipes and the drums and getting into the competition arena, marching in and marching out. So we have to get that right.”
Ready to teach
The band, which is a nonprofit that funds its own operation, takes its performances seriously. But Brown says he and his bandmates are a tight-knit group, win or lose.
“There has never been a cross word from anybody in the band,” Brown says. “We play for each other. We know what we have to do when we go out there and everybody gives 110 percent when they go to competition. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. When we lose, we pick ourselves up and we move on. We get a scoresheet, we know where we went wrong and we concentrate on those disciplines for the next competition.”
Aside from the competition, the band is always ready to teach a new group of bagpipe enthusiasts with free lessons.
That’s helpful since buying a set of bagpipes can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. When you add in the kilt, the coat, the headwear and other accessories, it gets rather expensive.
Fortunately, Brown says Celtic Eagle has built up some connections to help people ease into learning the instrument without spending a lot of money upfront.
“We work with people to help them get started,” he says. “We have a big community of bagpipers and drummers across the country who we can reach out to if people are interested and we can find something at a great deal to get them going.” ●
How to reach: Celtic Eagle Pipe Band, (330) 721-1841 or www.celticeaglepb.com