David Macdonald

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is write about friends.

Given that you are prone to sound like a sycophant if you get the balance wrong, or offend them if you tell that story about the.... OK, I'll leave it there.

David made me a stunning set of bagpipes, and at the risk of sounding like a sycophant, they are brilliant.

Apart from the acoustic quality of these lumps of hand turned African wood, and the fact that they are one of only two sets, they are special because they are now part of a narrative of friendship.

The full interview is below the spread.

    Contrary to his ubiquitous surname, David Macdonald has no family history of playing, or making, the bagpipes.  His desire to learn them was as much about not having to play the saxophone at school, as it was that the bagpipes were ’cool’. “I convinced my Mum that the bagpipes were much better for me than the saxophone, although my love for the pipes actually came in waves.  I was like every kid who has ever learned - I wanted to be on the pipes straight away, and was a little frustrated that the chanter had to come first.  It took me more than 12 months, but with Mum’s support, I persevered and after getting on the pipes, again went through the usual frustrations most kids have. My Mum would set me small goals initially and that kept the frustration in check.  One of my mates from school, Richard, also played.  Our practice sessions were organised by who ever started playing first.  The sound of the pipes would bring the other into the park that was near both of our homes.  Neither of us really had any idea what we were doing, it just about having fun.” Many pipers have a strong pipe major to thank for their development, and David is no different. Although taught by David Bail at Haileybury College, one of Australia’s top private schools, David credits three women for his career in piping. “I actually have three strong women to thank for my piping career. My Mum, for her encouragement, especially for setting goals for me that kept me focussed. Rebecca Lyons’ (of Lyons Bagpipes) younger brother Sam was in Scouts with me.  It was Rebecca’s encouraging me to to go down and see Ian at Moorabbin City Pipe Band that helped me transition from a school band to the senior ranks.  Dorothy Cowie told me I should apply for West Australia Police Pipe Band (the pipe major of that era, James Cowie, is her son). Dot was very active in the Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association and would tell me what was happening and ‘who was who’ in the local piping scene as I drove the 140 km round trip to pick up and drop her off to pipe band meetings.” David joined Moorabbin City Pipe Band (at that time in Grade 3), where Ian Lyons was a tutor, and began to develop from a schoolboy piper to a professional musician. David would soon be a guest player with WAPOL, competing against 78th Fraser Highlanders in the US Championships at Michigan.  This led to him being offered a full time position in 2001. “I travelled with WAPOL to compete in the US Championships in 2001 when the band was lucky enough to win the Grade 1 competition.  I became a full-time member of the band in October of that year.  It was great to achieve my lifetime goal in piping and to compete in Grade 1 in the Worlds, but the competition in 2003 was gut wrenching.  We missed out on qualifying by one place, having played as good as we ever had in the qualifying MSR.  Waiting for final qualification announcement in 2004 was rough.  The RSPBA announced the places alphabetically, so the first five announcements were torture.  It was brilliant making the cut, but I think a few of us went grey in those final minutes…” After 4 years with WAPOL, a CD recording, two Grade 1 Worlds campaigns and flying back to play with Moorabbin in the Australian Championships; it was time to come home to Melbourne.  Meeting and marrying Sarah, his greatest supporter, could be seen as his greatest success from his time in West Australia; and while his time with WAPOL was fulfilling, the pull of family brought David and Sarah home to Melbourne - and a change of kilt for David.   Never satisfied with going about things the easy way, David had a less than perfect start to his return, but he took it in his stride. “I had the audition with Victoria Police after having had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before.  Luckily, I ignored the doctors advice not to play for a few weeks and performed well enough to get the job.” David did have one last hurrah with WAPOL.  Recalled to play in the first Kremlin Zoria International Tattoo in 2007 was a great way to end to his time with the band from the West.  “I was fortunate to be invited back to the band when a member had to pull out at short notice.  It was a fantastic spectacle performing at a Military Tattoo in Red Square with projected historical images of WW2 tanks and Russian soldiers onto the walls of the Kremlin throughout the performance.  It’s a memory that will stay with me for a long, long time.” David’s playing time with both West Australia and Victoria Police Pipe Bands was outside of the late 90’s dual world championship period (Vicpol and Wapol won the Grade 1 and Grade 2 World Pipe Band Championship on the same day in 1998).  He occasionally fields the question, “Did you win the worlds with Victoria Police?” with aplomb. “While I didn’t play in those days, it’s still a privilege to play the pipes for a living; to work at something you have a passion for.  ” Whether the adage, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts…’, is attributed to an ensemble judge in the beer tent or the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the principle remains the same.  David Macdonald is not only a talented piper, with an excellent ear for presenting a harmonic bagpipe, but is also a 24-hour endurance mountain bike competitor and Gold medalist in the Victorian Emergency Services Games.  He competes in the local solo competitions and has added the role of band tutor to his repertoire.  David has been working with the City of Hobart pipe band from 2009 and has assisted it’s young pipe sergeant to successfully make the step up to the pipe major role.  In 2013, David was asked to guest again with WAPOL under James Murray for their 2014 Grade 1 campaign, including performing in the pre-tournament concert.  Although grateful for the opportunity, David turned down the invitation.  A prior commitment to play and assist a country Grade 3 band with it’s tuning and sound presentation for the Championships took precedence – so you can add integrity to that list. In 2008 David turned his hand to the restoration and repair of vintage bagpipes.  Much of the ethos required to repair or restore a vintage instrument probably came from his father.  A lifelong mechanic, Bruce Macdonald helped David learn about how things work, and more importantly, to fix things that have stopped working. “No-one bothers to try and fix things these days.  The disposability of our modern lifestyle has always bugged me and I guess I get the ability, and the desire, to fix things from both my Mum and Dad.  Mum is an excellent seamstress.  There was virtually nothing she couldn’t rescue or refit from one of my elder brothers to fit me.  Dad is the same, just from a mechanical and manufacturing aspect.  He’s basically been working on the same Hot-Rod for the last 45 years. Everything from rebuilding the engine to designing and manufacturing the panels.” It was only when Ian Lyons acquired a set of WW1 era Lawrie’s in very bad shape, that David started on the bagpipe restoration journey. “The very first set I fixed up had an awesome provenance.  Ian wanted to get them restored but didn't have a local contact. I had no idea as to how I would fix them but thought, ‘I'll give it a go’. It was a bit of a leap of faith on Ian’s behalf.  I took them over to my Dad’s and we sat down to figure it out. My brother had an old metal lathe, so starting with very fine sand paper and steel wool to strip them back, it kind of started from there.  At this stage I had no experience in turning wood.  I didn't know one end of a lathe from the other or even how to use a chisel. So I guess the 'lightest touch' principle evolved from there. Dad and I restored that first pipe together, and I relied on his knowledge and mechanical problem-solving mind as a guide.  Working in the same garage from where my earliest memories came, where Dad fixed everything from our old video recorder to rebuilding my brother’s car was really rewarding.  It was a great start, but I was quite aware of my lack of experience and I did knock back work initially as I didn't want to risk ruining someone’s pride and joy.” David progressed steadily.  Learning to turn replacement tuning pins and repair techniques, combining a natural talent for precision and gathering skill and experience as he went, he quickly developed a reputation for high quality work. Cameron Bell of New South Wales Police Pipe Band has sent several sets to David for restoration, none as historically valuable as the full silver pipes of PM Willie Gray of the Glasgow Police (as featured in Piping Today XX). “I had known David for quite awhile and remember when he first started refurbishing bagpipes. We would often catch up competing at the R U Brown Solo Contest together in Adelaide, and that’s how I came to know of his restoration skills.  When I first purchased Willie Gray’s MacRae bagpipe it was in quite good condition and mostly needed the combing and beading refurbished. Entrusting exceptional vintage pipes like these to another can be daunting to some pipers, but Cameron knew they were in safe hands. “I really didn’t have any concerns at all. I knew David well and his reputation for excellent work and refurbishment techniques made me feel at ease.  Not long after they were finished we happened to be in the same town, so David made arrangements to hand deliver them.  When I opened up the box the transformation was just incredible. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The silver mounts were beautifully polished, the combing and beading was exquisite and the wax finish was up there with the best restorers I’ve seen.  I knew then that David had a special talent in refurbishing bagpipes and I thoroughly recommend him to anyone who needs their prize pipe refurbished.” David has always had very strong principles on restoring and repairing bagpipes. “From my first attempts at restoration, the aim was to have the lightest touch possible.  Having an artefact like the MacRae pipe under your hand, spinning at up to 900 rpm can be a bit nervewracking, but after a while, you realise that trusting your hand only comes with experience, and the only way to get that experience is to work lightly, carefully and steadily.” The most nervous David has been restoring a bagpipe was with his tutors Sinclair’s. David Bail’s pipes always seemed so perfect to David, always harmonic, always rock solid.  Being asked to not only refurbish them, but to see if he could refine the re-boring previously done to McDougall specifications, there was a tiny pause in David’s hand as he started his lathe. “I was a bit shocked when my old teacher asked, to be honest. In my school band I was voted ‘Boy least likely to succeed in piping’ (laughs). When he rang me, I’d just won the Victorian Pipers Association Gold medal on a set of pipes I made from Mopane.  Almost 15 years after he taught me to play, he asked me to restore his pipes.  It was like ‘the circle is now complete’.  To be honest, all I did was refurbish them.  They needed nothing done to them.  His pipes are still better than any pipe I have played – modern or vintage.” David often finds himself in the right place at the right time.  Looking on eBay for old pipes to fix up, he came across a 14 piece African Blackwood Bagpipe kit.  It was at that time that the pipe-making idea was born. “Seeing that kit on eBay sparked the idea of making a set of pipes that our friend Paul Giacometti could play at Sarah’s and my wedding.  It seemed a natural progression from restoration to manufacture.  After working with so many sets from all the big makers; Lawrie, Henderson, MacDougall and Glen, I had ideas of what sound I did and didn't like.  After endless carpooling with Ian Lyons on the way to work, talking at length about what I would make, the overriding feeling was, ‘do your own thing, don't make them to a specific makers dimensions and most of all, don’t just make an exact replica of something’.  For me it became about creating my own aesthetic, my own sound, my signature.” While the craft of manufacturing bagpipes has leapt into the 21st century with the coming of CNC engineering and has led to precisely engineered yet affordable bagpipes made available to the masses; the appeal of a bespoke, handmade bagpipe certainly still exists.  David found it difficult in Australia to find a mentor for both his restoration and pipe making, so turned instead to a master wood turner who taught privately. “I found a guy called Vic Wood.  Seriously, his surname was Wood!  Vic showed me basic turning, beading and combing techniques and how to sharpen my chisels. After that, I taught myself and have developed my own ways of doing things but it was still based on the solid fundamentals from Vic.  There's a point when turning wood that you know your chisel is blunt and you can not only feel it, but hear it's not cutting nicely.  I can still hear Vic saying from across the room, "Your chisel is blunt, David!".  He couldn't see me working but could hear it.  As I went on, I researched ‘guns drills’ online and use them for my bores. On my first set of pipes I decided silver ferrules were ‘the thing’, so I learnt how to silver solder from a silversmith. I also had to learn the different way imitation ivory turns.  I had a few pieces explode on me when I first started…” David had found the people to teach him many of the basic skills required.  The rest would be up to him.  Applying the lessons in wood turning, and silverwork, the principles gained from restoration and some adapted home made tools; David developed his style through experimentation.   That David takes great pride in his work is evident, and this comes in part from his father. “I know where every mistake and every glitch is in my first set of pipes, but also where every lesson is in those glitches.  I can be a bit obsessive with the finish and the final sound.  A lot of that comes from the feeling, ‘Would my Dad be happy with that?’.  A few years ago, Dad resprayed his Hot-Rod - twice. To everyone else, the paint job was perfect, flawless, but to him it still wasn’t quite right. So he did it again.”  Having that passion for perfection is essential when you’re making something you hope to last, however, once the pipe leaves the workshop, it’s out of your control. This is something David understands well.  Says David, “When learning to make bagpipes, understanding the difference between raw timber and the finished product is important.  It’s a bit like pragmatism vs mysticism: Timber is only timber until it’s a bagpipe.  Restoring a vintage pipe is different.  There’s it’s history, the exceptional tone that age brings to some woods and the value of that history to the owner.” It might only be wood, but that wood is becoming significantly harder to come by. Ebony, Cocus and Lignum Vitae have for centuries been regarded as some of the best tonewoods.  These woods worked well across a large range of instruments and all appear to develop tonally with age.  Unfortunately, due to over harvesting, a significant amount of these great timbers have disappeared.  With high quality Blackwood also becoming scarce, especially the more mature stands, David has started to experiment with other exotic woods such as Mopane and Australian woods like Western Myall (Acacia Papyrocarpa), Miniritchie (Acacia Cyperophylla) and River Jam (Acacia Coriacea).  This has the potential for aesthetic development as well, and even though purists swear by Blackwood as the best timber for pipes, there may come a time when Blackwood goes the same way as Lignum Vitae, Ebony and Cocuswood. Making bagpipes is a craft of precision and artistry.  A few thousandth of an inch can make a significant difference to tone and steadiness - that is how certain makers develop their sound, and thus their reputation.  The curing of the timber and how long and how well it has been seasoned also all have an effect, but the final character of the bagpipe comes from the piper.   “Ian Lyons once said to me, ‘no matter what pipes you get, they end up becoming a reflection of you, of your playing and your personality’, and that’s what is rewarding about this process.  I’ve discovered the pipemaking process can be quite fulfilling developing a relationship with the piper, and involving them in the design of their instrument.  Rather than just having them order a set of pipes from a website, their involvement and their setup of the bagpipe at the end, completes the picture.” I have just set up my 2014 David Macdonald Mopane bagpipes with black mounts with gold tuning slides.  Slightly chunkier in the mounts and the bells than his Mopane set, and despite having essentially the same bores as David’s set, they have a character all their own.  In the end, it does come down to the piper on the end of them. David Macdonald makes and restores bagpipes in consultation with the piper, with the final product reflecting the character of both individuals. 

 

 

Contrary to his ubiquitous surname, David Macdonald has no family history of playing, or making, the bagpipes.  His desire to learn them was as much about not having to play the saxophone at school, as it was that the bagpipes were ’cool’.

“I convinced my Mum that the bagpipes were much better for me than the saxophone, although my love for the pipes actually came in waves.  I was like every kid who has ever learned - I wanted to be on the pipes straight away, and was a little frustrated that the chanter had to come first.  It took me more than 12 months, but with Mum’s support, I persevered and after getting on the pipes, again went through the usual frustrations most kids have. My Mum would set me small goals initially and that kept the frustration in check.  One of my mates from school, Richard, also played.  Our practice sessions were organised by who ever started playing first.  The sound of the pipes would bring the other into the park that was near both of our homes.  Neither of us really had any idea what we were doing, it just about having fun.”

Many pipers have a strong pipe major to thank for their development, and David is no different. Although taught by David Bail at Haileybury College, one of Australia’s top private schools, David credits three women for his career in piping.

“I actually have three strong women to thank for my piping career. My Mum, for her encouragement, especially for setting goals for me that kept me focussed.

Rebecca Lyons’ (of Lyons Bagpipes) younger brother Sam was in Scouts with me.  It was Rebecca’s encouraging me to to go down and see Ian at Moorabbin City Pipe Band that helped me transition from a school band to the senior ranks.  Dorothy Cowie told me I should apply for West Australia Police Pipe Band (the pipe major of that era, James Cowie, is her son). Dot was very active in the Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association and would tell me what was happening and ‘who was who’ in the local piping scene as I drove the 140 km round trip to pick up and drop her off to pipe band meetings.”

David joined Moorabbin City Pipe Band (at that time in Grade 3), where Ian Lyons was a tutor, and began to develop from a schoolboy piper to a professional musician. David would soon be a guest player with WAPOL, competing against 78th Fraser Highlanders in the US Championships at Michigan.  This led to him being offered a full time position in 2001.

“I travelled with WAPOL to compete in the US Championships in 2001 when the band was lucky enough to win the Grade 1 competition.  I became a full-time member of the band in October of that year.  It was great to achieve my lifetime goal in piping and to compete in Grade 1 in the Worlds, but the competition in 2003 was gut wrenching.  We missed out on qualifying by one place, having played as good as we ever had in the qualifying MSR.  Waiting for final qualification announcement in 2004 was rough.  The RSPBA announced the places alphabetically, so the first five announcements were torture.  It was brilliant making the cut, but I think a few of us went grey in those final minutes…”

After 4 years with WAPOL, a CD recording, two Grade 1 Worlds campaigns and flying back to play with Moorabbin in the Australian Championships; it was time to come home to Melbourne.  Meeting and marrying Sarah, his greatest supporter, could be seen as his greatest success from his time in West Australia; and while his time with WAPOL was fulfilling, the pull of family brought David and Sarah home to Melbourne - and a change of kilt for David.   Never satisfied with going about things the easy way, David had a less than perfect start to his return, but he took it in his stride.

“I had the audition with Victoria Police after having had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before.  Luckily, I ignored the doctors advice not to play for a few weeks and performed well enough to get the job.”

David did have one last hurrah with WAPOL.  Recalled to play in the first Kremlin Zoria International Tattoo in 2007 was a great way to end to his time with the band from the West. 

“I was fortunate to be invited back to the band when a member had to pull out at short notice.  It was a fantastic spectacle performing at a Military Tattoo in Red Square with projected historical images of WW2 tanks and Russian soldiers onto the walls of the Kremlin throughout the performance.  It’s a memory that will stay with me for a long, long time.”

David’s playing time with both West Australia and Victoria Police Pipe Bands was outside of the late 90’s dual world championship period (Vicpol and Wapol won the Grade 1 and Grade 2 World Pipe Band Championship on the same day in 1998).  He occasionally fields the question, “Did you win the worlds with Victoria Police?” with aplomb.

“While I didn’t play in those days, it’s still a privilege to play the pipes for a living; to work at something you have a passion for. 

Whether the adage, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts…’, is attributed to an ensemble judge in the beer tent or the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the principle remains the same.  David Macdonald is not only a talented piper, with an excellent ear for presenting a harmonic bagpipe, but is also a 24-hour endurance mountain bike competitor and Gold medalist in the Victorian Emergency Services Games.  He competes in the local solo competitions and has added the role of band tutor to his repertoire.  David has been working with the City of Hobart pipe band from 2009 and has assisted it’s young pipe sergeant to successfully make the step up to the pipe major role. 

In 2013, David was asked to guest again with WAPOL under James Murray for their 2014 Grade 1 campaign, including performing in the pre-tournament concert.  Although grateful for the opportunity, David turned down the invitation.  A prior commitment to play and assist a country Grade 3 band with it’s tuning and sound presentation for the Championships took precedence – so you can add integrity to that list.

In 2008 David turned his hand to the restoration and repair of vintage bagpipes. 

Much of the ethos required to repair or restore a vintage instrument probably came from his father.  A lifelong mechanic, Bruce Macdonald helped David learn about how things work, and more importantly, to fix things that have stopped working.

“No-one bothers to try and fix things these days.  The disposability of our modern lifestyle has always bugged me and I guess I get the ability, and the desire, to fix things from both my Mum and Dad.  Mum is an excellent seamstress.  There was virtually nothing she couldn’t rescue or refit from one of my elder brothers to fit me.  Dad is the same, just from a mechanical and manufacturing aspect.  He’s basically been working on the same Hot-Rod for the last 45 years. Everything from rebuilding the engine to designing and manufacturing the panels.”

It was only when Ian Lyons acquired a set of WW1 era Lawrie’s in very bad shape, that David started on the bagpipe restoration journey.

“The very first set I fixed up had an awesome provenance.  Ian wanted to get them restored but didn't have a local contact. I had no idea as to how I would fix them but thought, ‘I'll give it a go’. It was a bit of a leap of faith on Ian’s behalf.  I took them over to my Dad’s and we sat down to figure it out. My brother had an old metal lathe, so starting with very fine sand paper and steel wool to strip them back, it kind of started from there.  At this stage I had no experience in turning wood.  I didn't know one end of a lathe from the other or even how to use a chisel. So I guess the 'lightest touch' principle evolved from there. Dad and I restored that first pipe together, and I relied on his knowledge and mechanical problem-solving mind as a guide.  Working in the same garage from where my earliest memories came, where Dad fixed everything from our old video recorder to rebuilding my brother’s car was really rewarding.  It was a great start, but I was quite aware of my lack of experience and I did knock back work initially as I didn't want to risk ruining someone’s pride and joy.”

David progressed steadily.  Learning to turn replacement tuning pins and repair techniques, combining a natural talent for precision and gathering skill and experience as he went, he quickly developed a reputation for high quality work.

Cameron Bell of New South Wales Police Pipe Band has sent several sets to David for restoration, none as historically valuable as the full silver pipes of PM Willie Gray of the Glasgow Police (as featured in Piping Today XX).

“I had known David for quite awhile and remember when he first started refurbishing bagpipes. We would often catch up competing at the R U Brown Solo Contest together in Adelaide, and that’s how I came to know of his restoration skills.  When I first purchased Willie Gray’s MacRae bagpipe it was in quite good condition and mostly needed the combing and beading refurbished.

Entrusting exceptional vintage pipes like these to another can be daunting to some pipers, but Cameron knew they were in safe hands.

“I really didn’t have any concerns at all. I knew David well and his reputation for excellent work and refurbishment techniques made me feel at ease.  Not long after they were finished we happened to be in the same town, so David made arrangements to hand deliver them.  When I opened up the box the transformation was just incredible. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The silver mounts were beautifully polished, the combing and beading was exquisite and the wax finish was up there with the best restorers I’ve seen.  I knew then that David had a special talent in refurbishing bagpipes and I thoroughly recommend him to anyone who needs their prize pipe refurbished.”

David has always had very strong principles on restoring and repairing bagpipes.

“From my first attempts at restoration, the aim was to have the lightest touch possible.  Having an artefact like the MacRae pipe under your hand, spinning at up to 900 rpm can be a bit nervewracking, but after a while, you realise that trusting your hand only comes with experience, and the only way to get that experience is to work lightly, carefully and steadily.”

The most nervous David has been restoring a bagpipe was with his tutors Sinclair’s. David Bail’s pipes always seemed so perfect to David, always harmonic, always rock solid.  Being asked to not only refurbish them, but to see if he could refine the re-boring previously done to McDougall specifications, there was a tiny pause in David’s hand as he started his lathe.

“I was a bit shocked when my old teacher asked, to be honest. In my school band I was voted ‘Boy least likely to succeed in piping’ (laughs). When he rang me, I’d just won the Victorian Pipers Association Gold medal on a set of pipes I made from Mopane.  Almost 15 years after he taught me to play, he asked me to restore his pipes.  It was like ‘the circle is now complete’.  To be honest, all I did was refurbish them.  They needed nothing done to them.  His pipes are still better than any pipe I have played – modern or vintage.”

David often finds himself in the right place at the right time.  Looking on eBay for old pipes to fix up, he came across a 14 piece African Blackwood Bagpipe kit.  It was at that time that the pipe-making idea was born.

“Seeing that kit on eBay sparked the idea of making a set of pipes that our friend Paul Giacometti could play at Sarah’s and my wedding.  It seemed a natural progression from restoration to manufacture.  After working with so many sets from all the big makers; Lawrie, Henderson, MacDougall and Glen, I had ideas of what sound I did and didn't like.  After endless carpooling with Ian Lyons on the way to work, talking at length about what I would make, the overriding feeling was, ‘do your own thing, don't make them to a specific makers dimensions and most of all, don’t just make an exact replica of something’.  For me it became about creating my own aesthetic, my own sound, my signature.”

While the craft of manufacturing bagpipes has leapt into the 21st century with the coming of CNC engineering and has led to precisely engineered yet affordable bagpipes made available to the masses; the appeal of a bespoke, handmade bagpipe certainly still exists.  David found it difficult in Australia to find a mentor for both his restoration and pipe making, so turned instead to a master wood turner who taught privately.

I found a guy called Vic Wood.  Seriously, his surname was Wood!  Vic showed me basic turning, beading and combing techniques and how to sharpen my chisels. After that, I taught myself and have developed my own ways of doing things but it was still based on the solid fundamentals from Vic.  There's a point when turning wood that you know your chisel is blunt and you can not only feel it, but hear it's not cutting nicely.  I can still hear Vic saying from across the room, "Your chisel is blunt, David!".  He couldn't see me working but could hear it.  As I went on, I researched ‘guns drills’ online and use them for my bores. On my first set of pipes I decided silver ferrules were ‘the thing’, so I learnt how to silver solder from a silversmith. I also had to learn the different way imitation ivory turns.  I had a few pieces explode on me when I first started…”

David had found the people to teach him many of the basic skills required.  The rest would be up to him.  Applying the lessons in wood turning, and silverwork, the principles gained from restoration and some adapted home made tools; David developed his style through experimentation.   That David takes great pride in his work is evident, and this comes in part from his father.

“I know where every mistake and every glitch is in my first set of pipes, but also where every lesson is in those glitches.  I can be a bit obsessive with the finish and the final sound.  A lot of that comes from the feeling, ‘Would my Dad be happy with that?’.  A few years ago, Dad resprayed his Hot-Rod - twice. To everyone else, the paint job was perfect, flawless, but to him it still wasn’t quite right. So he did it again.” 

Having that passion for perfection is essential when you’re making something you hope to last, however, once the pipe leaves the workshop, it’s out of your control.

This is something David understands well. 

Says David, “When learning to make bagpipes, understanding the difference between raw timber and the finished product is important.  It’s a bit like pragmatism vs mysticism: Timber is only timber until it’s a bagpipe.  Restoring a vintage pipe is different.  There’s it’s history, the exceptional tone that age brings to some woods and the value of that history to the owner.”

It might only be wood, but that wood is becoming significantly harder to come by. Ebony, Cocus and Lignum Vitae have for centuries been regarded as some of the best tonewoods.  These woods worked well across a large range of instruments and all appear to develop tonally with age.  Unfortunately, due to over harvesting, a significant amount of these great timbers have disappeared.  With high quality Blackwood also becoming scarce, especially the more mature stands, David has started to experiment with other exotic woods such as Mopane and Australian woods like Western Myall (Acacia Papyrocarpa), Miniritchie (Acacia Cyperophylla) and River Jam (Acacia Coriacea).  This has the potential for aesthetic development as well, and even though purists swear by Blackwood as the best timber for pipes, there may come a time when Blackwood goes the same way as Lignum Vitae, Ebony and Cocuswood.

Making bagpipes is a craft of precision and artistry.  A few thousandth of an inch can make a significant difference to tone and steadiness - that is how certain makers develop their sound, and thus their reputation.  The curing of the timber and how long and how well it has been seasoned also all have an effect, but the final character of the bagpipe comes from the piper.  

“Ian Lyons once said to me, ‘no matter what pipes you get, they end up becoming a reflection of you, of your playing and your personality’, and that’s what is rewarding about this process.  I’ve discovered the pipemaking process can be quite fulfilling developing a relationship with the piper, and involving them in the design of their instrument.  Rather than just having them order a set of pipes from a website, their involvement and their setup of the bagpipe at the end, completes the picture.”

I have just set up my 2014 David Macdonald Mopane bagpipes with black mounts with gold tuning slides.  Slightly chunkier in the mounts and the bells than his Mopane set, and despite having essentially the same bores as David’s set, they have a character all their own.  In the end, it does come down to the piper on the end of them.

David Macdonald makes and restores bagpipes in consultation with the piper, with the final product reflecting the character of both individuals. 

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Seeing life for the first time...

The first time I travelled with a camera was to the UK.  I soon found out that I was actually travelling for my camera.

The light and the difference of everything made me love life more than I thought possible.

People were new and exciting, old and interesting.

The light made them so. It wrapped around them and enveloped them.

There was no such thing as mundane. It was as if the scales had been lifted from my eyes.

Travelling with your camera is different to travelling for your camera.

Fruito, London, 1995

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Playing with Shapes

The eye scans a certain way, and to be honest, I have given up even trying to decipher the how, when and why.

All I know is that it does.

We play with shapes from the earliest age. Blocks, then maybe paper and glue, then looking and daydreaming with no purpose other than to not concentrate on whatever lies inside the periphery, or is it outside? Never mind.

Dancing dust motes are infinitely more interesting when you squint into the bright light.

16.6.1999

Early experiment with C41 / photoshop / worlds slowest scanner


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There is always time to reflect...

I've been fortunate to have people in my life who have passed on knowledge, helped me develop skill and trusted me with information.  Deciding what to do with all of this, this data, this information is a puzzle. Sometimes you cannot hold it all in the air at once, sometimes bits fall, get kicked under the sofa, only to be found again at a later date. 

Like finding a lost toy, discovering these gems of information anew can be like receiving a second chance. They come back into your life when you are ready to embrace them.

Revisiting some photographs and interviews I've done over the past few years is an interesting review process.

If you're interested, read on and comment, or even ask questions. The images that come into this blog may go as far back as the 1990's.

Maybe...

St Kilda Festival, 1999

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John Mulhearn: Providing an Organic Soundtrack to Digital Dreams

 

There are times that phrases like ‘new standard bearer of the tradition’ or ‘next big thing’ must be just as grating for musicians as ‘Destined for greatness’ or ‘Future Gold Medalist’ are for young athletes. When we anoint those with these weighty expectations, do we actually burden them instead of inspiring them?  Music is littered with those that society loads up with expectation, only to have them disappear all together.  I’ve sometimes wondered if all they really wanted to do was just make music, to just sing or play, but the weight of our expectation destroys what makes them love what they do.  Piping might be different.  Massive recording deals don’t exist for pipers, but often, other pressures are there.  The pressure to succeed - to win.  Some decide not to compete, some expand their musical horizons, some evolve into other areas - some end up just making music because they love music.  Success can be elusive and shallow unless you define it for yourself - and John Mulhearn fits into the latter category.

Beginning his piping at the age of nine, John Mulhearn received his early tuition from his father Brian.  Soon after, he went to Angus J MacLellan of Strathclyde Police and summer schools led by John D Burgess at Sabhal Mor Ostaig; their influence and inspiration evident in his early competition years.

“I remember always being quite impressed with the look of a pipe band, and seeing the young kids playing, thinking, ‘I can do that!’  It helped that my Dad played, and he used to say that I wouldn’t go to sleep unless I had a piping record on in the background.  Funnily enough, I think one of the tracks was Desperate Battle from Seamus O’Neill’s album Purely Piobaireachd.”

Did that piece have an impact on John as a child? Who knows, but as a Junior, the prizes followed steadily and by the age of 18 he placed 3rd in the Silver Medal at both Inverness and Oban.  Heady stuff.  Would these wins be the springboard to the top ranks that so many gifted young pipers aspire?  

When I met John in 2010, he had by this time taken a dramatic, if temporary, left-turn from competitive piping.  I’d taken a room at his flat for the week at Piping Live and offering me a lift there from the Piping Centre, the talk was of Piping Live and not much else. I’d heard one of John’s tracks, The Desperate Battle Of The Birds (Featuring Allan MacDonald), a few months before, and without wanting to sound like an acolyte, told him that I liked it – a lot.

What I didn’t say was that I was as moved by the beauty of The Desperate Battle as when I first heard Liberation by Martyn Bennett with the gripping voice of the legendary Michael Marra.  Both tracks left me with a feeling that someone had recorded the soundtrack of my dreams.  Knowing there was more depth to this music than my laptop could provide, I splashed out on a pair of ‘high-end’ headphones.  The reward from my new Sennheiser’s was ten-fold.  There was so much more in it than the epiphany of the first listen.  My understanding of Piobaireachd, in fact traditional music - full stop, had been issued a challenge and it was up to me to take it up.  Where would this brilliant music lead me?

Music should do that for you. If you take the chance to wander the broader piping world (with an open mind), you are guaranteed reward.  It’s all about the music.

I didn’t see much of John during that week; the odd crossing of paths at the Piping Centre and at the flat, but two things stayed with me from that trip.  A winner’s Quaich used as a change jar and a stack of CD’s on the kitchen bench.  I have no chance at obtaining the former, however, John gave me a copy of the latter.  That CD has proven to be one of the most interesting journeys I have had within music.  Three years down the track and I experience it with fresh ears every time I play it.  It continues to lead me in unexpected directions.

Revisiting music that was formative for me has benefits beyond emotional comfort.  I gain a greater understanding of history, culture and narrative every time I listen to albums like Mackay’s Memoirs.  Recorded by the students of the Edinburgh Music School the morning after Martyn Bennett’s passing, the narrative, as well as the music, makes it all the more poignant.

John Mulhearn is a complex musician operating within simple parameters.  The music must be honest and it must have something within its construction that supports a story.  To me, John’s first album was a narrative.  Each of the tunes from his first album has a story in it, albeit a re-imagining of a standard. It is also about the growth of a musician.  The vision of his first album came as he took time out from competitive piping and spread his wings, both musically and geographically.

 “I wasn’t really playing the pipes at that stage for about four or five years.  I was working at the College of Piping, doing a bit of teaching, but I’d been filling my time with rock bands and other stuff.  I’d been spending all these years practising, competing and developing a repertoire, since I was nine.  It was pretty intense, almost ten years and I’d begun to take it for granted.  I ended up getting a bit bored with it all.  I realized that doing half a job of it was not going to work. In taking the time off, I think, it was better that way.  Better than burning out and giving it away completely.”

The success he had in competition as a youth and the rather sharp deviation from them, may lead you to wonder where his passion truly lay.

Playing in rock bands and taking to electronic music as an outlet may have given him license to come back to piping with a different perspective, however.  This perspective grew idea of a new type of piping album. The Extraordinary Little Cough, John’s first album, grew in part while working and travelling in Australia.  The change of pace and climate may have helped give birth to ideas rolling around in his head.

 “In Brisbane, initially at Sandy Campbell’s shop The Highland House, then with the Queensland Police was really the first time I’d worked professionally in piping. The genesis of the album was playing about with The King’s Taxes and Donald MacLeod singing the tune, this grew both in Australia and back in Glasgow, into The Extraordinary Little Cough CD.  That album was really just an experiment more than anything else. I’d been tinkering away with this idea in my head of using electronics to try and approach pipe music.  A few years into the rock band thing, I felt that I was wasting the start I had, but it gave me the idea of moving back into it.”

That time in Australia, and the freedom it gave John to work this ‘treatment’ of light music, gave him enough material to do more than think about an album.  The culmination of this process, working with Allan MacDonald on Desperate Battle and Lament for Owen Roe O’Niall, upon his return to the Glasgow and teaching at the National Piping Centre, brought the experiment to it’s zenith.  These two tracks, the most visceral of the album, show a focus and craft that belies experimentation.

“I was always after an organic sound in essentially a digital medium.  I found a huge amount of samples on the Internet. The web certainly helps your work flow, but it’s recording things yourself in different places which makes the memory of it all the more valuable.”

With Tiree Bridal Song, John recorded ambient sounds from his friend Phil Cowan’s backyard in suburban Brisbane, the melody line of the tune coming in and out, like a lazy memory. One of the most distinctive tracks of the first album, this track is one that requires the listener to step into the environment, and become all the better for it.  You might wonder, as a piper, from where does the tune writer get their inspiration?  GS MacLennan and the genius of his dripping tap in The Little Cascade or the harrowing power of the coda in Duncan Johnstone’s Lament for Alan, My Son; two tunes that stand out amongst a myriad of other great tunes for their simple musical virtuosity.  Truly innovative interpretation of a great tune is a rare thing to find in piping. When you do find it, revel in it.

With Jock Wilson's Ball, John went home, much in the way you might go home to what you know for comfort or for sustenance.  Of all the tracks of the first album, this was one of the standouts.  

“I went into the workshop with my Dad, who runs the Ayrshire Bagpipe Company from home, and recorded all of the percussive sounds I could think of; ferrules in a box, lathe chucks, emergency stop pedals, levers of all kinds, grinding machine, milling machine, tool box drawers. I then started playing about with making beats from all of these samples, which was a lot of fun. The tune is harmonically quite interesting so I spent quite a bit of time arranging the guitar parts and bass lines - and again the mandolin found its way in.” he said.

The idea of disposability of modern music is a common refrain, as is the viciousness of an industry renowned for chewing up and casting aside young hopefuls.  It was ever thus, argues John.  “They don’t make them like they used to… In an interview, back when The Beatles still had mop-top haircuts, Paul McCartney said basically, ‘I don’t expect to be singing Please, Please Me in 10 years time…’ This is so true.  An essential part of music is constant reinvention.”

The need to reinvigorate the music itself is on one hand an economic necessity within the music industry, and again, the expectation of a better, different album each release.  This invigoration also has the benefit of spurring on the next generation. 

The Extraordinary Little Cough received some very good independent press and was very much noticed on alternative music blogs, however, like most recording artists, by the time it came out, John was ready for the next project, almost bored with it.

Says John, “ The basis of the first album was to experiment with the traditional music in an electronic world.  The two final pieces I produced, both featuring Allan MacDonald, were almost the precursors to the idea of the next album, just with my own compositions to the front.” 

The true success of The Extraordinary Little Cough, I believe, will not be in this decade.  My guess is it will act as a precursor to other young artists, who in their own liner notes, blogs and virtual worlds will attribute John Mulhearn as one of their great influences.  What of the next album?

Waulking songs are a fascination for John, as is including guest musicians and vocalists on key tracks.  The richness provided by a signature vocal style to an individual piece of music is a common collaborative theme.  The modern idea of remixes with the ‘feat.’ appellation is not restricted to Hip Hop, House or Pop music, it can just as readily be seen in modern piping albums.  Hello World by Lorne MacDougall is one of a string of albums featuring varied contributors, enhancing the overall album.

John hasn’t restricted himself to solo and electronic production.  He has had The Big Music Society, an 8-piece band project, seemingly the natural progression of the final experiments for the album The Extraordinary Little Cough, as a most successful experimental ensemble venture.  Combining the talents of some of the best young talents in the business and debuting at Celtic Connections, its aim was to be as true as possible to the origins of Piobaireachd.  It received significant recognition and praise from many quarters and interest from other festivals.  The financial strictures placed upon large ensemble projects of professional musicians made it untenable for John to continue with it as an independent project.  There is hope for it to return, however.

“I like being the composer, producer and artist.  That is the way things can be these days.  It can give you a great amount of freedom, infinite sounds, opportunities and control.  The infinite number of sounds available to you can work the other way though.  Your music can get cluttered.  My aim is to keep it minimal and keep a coherency throughout the album.   I was thinking along the way to this interview about trying to explain the creative process; but there really isn’t one.  It just occurs as it occurs.  That is the freedom you get from being in control of the whole process.”

With that freedom, though, comes the obverse of the coin - Money.  Gigging and touring often consumes more money than it produces and musicians are rarely paid what they are worth in talent, experience and hard work.  Funding through arts foundations and collaborative enclaves is often the apparatus that keeps music, and musicians, alive. Having a steady job helps too, but only so much.

“It’s always a problem when funding inhibits your project, but it seems to be the way things are.  Arts funding is available, but the paperwork and hoops you need to jump through make it hard to concentrate on the reason you’re actually there - to make music.  I did want to expand The Big Music Society even further, to have a full string section; to add more texture to the music, but the problems associated with getting a large ensemble of professional musicians together is difficult.  Everyone has multiple projects going on, money is tight.  It’s still there, still in my head, I’ve got all the scores ready.  It’s really just timing and funding it.”

What I like about John Mulhearn is his somewhat diffident approach to commercial success and a clear direction in music.  Influenced by what he was listening to yesterday or last week, as well as last decade; his palette is as rich and varied and his desire to be rich and famous is absent.  He just wants to make music.

John is quite direct about this, “There is no aim. No grand plan. It’s just about making music for the sake of making music.”

The beauty of John’s first album and his follow-up project The Big Music Society is that he may achieve both re-invention and re-invigoration in his new album; both for himself and the seeding in new minds of new ways to appreciate old tunes; and the inspiration of young composers to take a very traditional music idiom and forge a new genre and in a new package.

How important is the whole package of the music?  A limited edition vinyl album and free download defies the disposable market, the package suits the audience.  Vinyl has it’s own qualities that digital can’t provide for many artists.  For mixing and sampling live, vinyl still has it.  It is also the tactile nature of the album, the delicate nature of the disc and the purity of the organic nature of capturing the music onto a medium.  Vinyl can be considered (unkindly) by some to be the ‘this season’s constant new black’, but for John and many others, it seems that both the tactile nature of the physical manifestation of his music is an important part of the process.  It also reaffirms one of the ironies of music.  Musicians and producers spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting the balance and the subtleties of a piece, or even a measure of music, only to have it played on cheap laptop speakers or bud earphones, then discarded.  Such is life, as well as music.

One of the satisfying things about John Mulhearn’s music is his wandering style.  He easily transcends many styles of music, but never loses the integrity in any of the genres he crosses.  The wee taster I had of his musical treatment of Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter for the Scottish Youth Theatre in 2009, reeks of class and innovation, yet maintains the integrity of the original poem and story.  Echoes of Martyn Bennett, again.

Being in the front-rank of a new generation of shape shifting musician-producers, John Mulhearn proves that boundaries are for people without the artistry or the courage to break them. The competition boards are back under his feet (John was runner-up in the 2012 Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering) and the music, big or otherwise, still under his skin.

The depth and breadth of John Mulhearn’s musical experience will again be on display soon.  Keep an ear out for a new download only EP release sometime in 2013 and an album following hot on its heels. 

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FDNY Pipes and Drums

When I was 5 or 6, it was impossible for our family to drive past a Fire Station without stopping for a look.  Or a visit.  I would draw fire trucks all day, copying pictures of some, making up others.  Apparently, it was all I wanted to be.  I didn't remember that particular fact until I was going through the collected pictures and keepsakes of my parents after they passed away.

But the bagpipes?  Dad would regularly drop the most unsubtle of hints, usually around Christmas or New Year, as to how I should 'play the pipes'.  This was often repeated as we sat watching the Edinburgh Tattoo, eating the remnants of another failed haggis experiment, most of which was scraped from the kitchen ceiling.  We always managed to fall asleep in front of the old black and white TV, both of us neglecting in our slumber, the goings on in the kitchen.

The clatter of the saucepan lid would awaken us to another missed Hogmanay.  

I have always loved the bagpipes.  There is something about the constancy of the drones that stirs me. The music, simple but moving, is as much a part of my life now as eating or drinking.  It took my Dad's only request, a lone piper for his funeral, for me to take the plunge; to finally decide to learn.  What a journey it has been thus far.  

It took a while, but these two vivid memories of my early life are now a large part of my life. Piping and fighting fires.  Photography was, is, and always will be, a large part of my life.  It's funny that we think we know who and what we are, only to be surprised that we are forever capable of great personal change...

FDNY - The Fire Department of New York.

The events in the US on 9/11 changed us all. They became part of our collective consciousness.  When the towers fell, I was completing one of the last assignments of my photographic career in Sydney.  I would soon start on a new journey.  

Fighting fire.  

Over the coming months I was left with a lump in my throat many times by the funerals for the 343 fallen fire-fighter from FDNY.  Their pipe band, The FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums piped out all of them. Every last one.

In 2012 I interviewed Tim Geraghty (both FDNY fire-fighter and piper with the FDNY pipes and drums) for Piping Today.  It was a privilege to interview Tim, both regarding the documentary he is making on the FDNY pipe band and his own story as a piper and a fire-fighter.

The images were supplied by Tim, the layout and design strangely matched a picture I had in my head as I wrote, well before I started to work the page design.  Weird.

The typography was by the brilliant John Slavin from Designfolk in Scotland.

Look for the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival - New York and / or read the full piece below.

FDNY Pipes and Drums: The Beating Heart of FDNY

FDNY (Fire Department of New York) firefighters work 24-hour shifts in rotating rosters.  They cover 322 square miles of real estate from over 200 firehouses with over 10,000 uniformed firefighters.  The FDNY attend over 480,000 emergency incidents annually of which 25,000 are structure fires… and they have the largest and proudest Fire Service Pipe Band in the world.

Long before I even started this article, I had thought a lot about the FDNY Pipes and Drums.  My fascination with both firefighting and piping came at an early age.  Most young boys dream of being a fireman and I was no different.  Most grow out of it, some don’t.  Some, like me, just take a while to get there.  When I saw the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on fire from a TV screen half a world away, I had just completed the final assignment of my photographic career, ironically it was for American Express, located in 7 World Trade Centre.  I was soon to begin my new career as a firefighter and I watched in awe as engines from FDNY streamed towards the World Trade Centre, trying to rescue those trapped, in what was about to become the toughest, most tragic day in the history of FDNY. 

What happened that day, the sacrifices made, the stories that came from 9/11 and after are now part of our collective consciousness. FDNY has become legend, and a part of that legend is woven into the fabric of the band.

For months after, one of my most vivid memories was of the FDNY Pipes and Drums, playing at funeral after funeral for their fallen brothers. This role, one that its members hold as the greatest privilege, was never more important than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

They piped their brothers to rest - all 343 of them.

The FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums had a humble beginning.  A few Irish-American firefighters, none of who could play the pipes or drums, got together to form a social society, much like émigrés do the world over.  Most of the original dozen or so members, were good Irish-American boys looking for a way to re-connect with their heritage through music; and as a result, FDNY Pipes and Drums have “Emerald Society’ as a feature of their title.  They are proud of their heritage, their country and their fellow firefighters.  Over one hundred strong, in both parade and Competition bands, the FDNY pipers and drummers are all professional firefighters.  They receive no personal compensation for playing over 200 engagements a year. 

This year, the FDNY Pipes and Drums are both celebrating and reflecting upon 50 years of joy, sorrow and achievement; and Lieutenant Timmy Geraghty, FDNY firefighter and piper, is making a documentary of it. Theirs is a story of Brotherhood, history and honouring those who have sacrificed their lives for others; including 343 firefighters who lost their lives on a perfect blue September morning in 2001. Through Triumph and Tragedy: 50 Years of the FDNY Pipes and Drums is their story, and it is a story every piper and drummer should hear

Tim’s documentary is also a story from humble beginnings.  Asked to produce a 5-minute show for the band’s 50th anniversary dinner dance, Tim knew this project could be so much more.  More than just the reminiscences and snapshot portrayals of 5 decades of bandsmen, St Paddy’s Day parades and the sadness of line of duty deaths; he quickly set about drumming up support for a feature length documentary.

Tim Geraghty’s own story is as emblematic of Irish-American firefighting families as you’ll find and his story almost reads like a TV screenplay. Before Tim became a member of what is universally known as ‘New York’s Bravest’, he was a TV producer and with this in his background, he is eminently placed to tell the story; his band’s story.  As much as the documentary tells of the band’s history, it speaks just as truly of how traditions in piping grow, as they grow in fire fighting.

While awaiting his acceptance into FDNY as a rookie firefighter, he completed his education in TV production, but the burning desire to join FDNY was always there. Tim is clear about his motivations, “When people ask me how I became a firefighter, I always say, ‘I didn’t want to join the Fire Department, I wanted to join the Pipe Band…’ My father was a Firefighter, but he didn’t talk much about the job - all I knew was the Pipe Band. He was a bagpiper, and every weekend the family would go out to a parade or party and I would be surrounded by theses men who were not only Firefighters but played in the band. It was awesome!  I joined the Fire Department in 1998 and it took me almost 10 more years before I became a member of the FDNY Pipes & Drums.  I picked up and put down the bagpipes over many years, starting when I was about 13. I didn’t really take them seriously until after 9/11 and I saw what the band did for the 343 members that died that day. They played every funeral and memorial service for the members we lost on 9/11.”

Being a firefighter may have had something to do with Tim’s delay in auditioning for the band.  Riding the Big Red Truck gets under your skin, it becomes part of you.  The adrenaline, the camaraderie and the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself is common to most fire services the world over; even more so when you are at a busy firehouse and the jobs are running, and Tim’s fire-house was a busy one.  Tim’s first station was Engine 50 / Ladder 19, a mile east of Yankee Stadium.  One of the busier firehouses, off duty often means sleep, and that can certainly cut into your practice time.  When Tim won a promotion to Lieutenant, he finally decided the time was right to take the bagpipes seriously.

He had followed his father into the fire department, now was the time to follow him into the band.  Then came the audition…

Says Tim, “The audition process for the band is a bit like American Idol.  I had to march and play a selection of 20 tunes for five of the senior members of the band. It was one of the proudest days for me, to pass that audition and play in the band with my Dad.  I had the privilege of both working a fire with my Dad as well as marching with him in the band.  I was working on Engine 26, and Dad was on Ladder 26 when that picture was taken.  On his last tour of duty we pulled a few strings.  I was transferred for the night to work with him; he was my Officer and I was his Firefighter, his can-man (junior man on the platoon).” Captain Ed Geraghty, Tim’s father, retired from the FDNY just before 9/11.  Still active in the band, his influence on Tim both professionally and musically is obvious.  The sense of tradition, the rites of passage (in both pipe band and fire service) have been passed down Father to Son. The love of Brotherhood and the understanding of sacrifice are embodied in this relationship.  Father and son, firefighter and piper.

The band started in 1962, mainly firefighters from the South Bronx area.  One year later they were playing in the St Patrick’s Day parade, to the cheers of the crowd.  It would not be until a tragic fire in 1980 in Upper Manhattan that their true mission as a band would be revealed.

Tim tells the story, “It was June 27 1980, and the FDNY responded to a fire in Upper Manhattan.  Firefighter Frisbee working in Ladder 28 was trapped by fire on the top floor of the building. Firefighter Larry Fitzpatrick from Rescue Company 3 was lowered down the side of the building on a life saving rope in order to rescue him. When Frisbee got onto the rope to be lowered down, the rope snapped and both men plunged to their deaths. This was the first time the band would play a funeral for a firefighter that was killed in the line of duty. From that moment forward the band’s mission was clear. ‘To honor, remember and celebrate the members of the Fire Department’ has become the message of the band ever since.  

‘Every funeral would be covered, everyone would be looked after…’

9/11 changed the world.  It also changed the FDNY. Firefighters to whom the Job meant everything, said that after 9/11 they never recaptured the love they had for it. Others just kept on going.  The Pipe Band guys were just as affected. ‘Bronko’ Pearsall, stalwart drummer, with a love of the band that was legend, was famous for saying, “Without the Kilt, I’d just be another fat guy at the bar…”

The band would play at his funeral.  Durrell V. Pearsall Jr, “Bronko”, a member of Rescue 4 and FDNY drummer, died in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Father Mychal Judge was a larger than life figure for FDNY and the band.  Completely supportive of FDNY firefighters and the role the band played in both the high and low times.  Father Mychal was one of the victims of the first tower collapse, killed by debris as he was administering last rights to a victim of the attack. Father Mychal understood the importance of the band to the firefighters and to the families, especially in the event of a Line of Duty Death.

So did Rudy Guiliani, the Mayor of New York during that intense period or disaster and of recovery. He puts it succinctly in Tim’s documentary, “Firefighters are our Heroes.  The Bagpipe is a symbol; an evocation of Heroism.  It is both a very beautiful instrument and a sad instrument; a lot of what the life of a firefighter is like.  I could never have been prouder of the band than when they played at the funerals of their friends; of people they loved.  The world got to see what we all knew…”

Tim’s reverence for his fallen Brothers and the band that honoured them is clear.  “Playing all those funerals has definitely affected each member of the band in a profound way. The loss for the department was so enormous; I still think that members cannot fully comprehend it. It’s still with us every day and anytime we put on the kilt, we are reminded of the supreme sacrifice that firefighters make in order to protect the public.”

I asked Tim if he thought the band could have survived the 9/11 funerals if not for the strength of history and the fellowship of the band?

“I don’t think so. Before 9/11, at the end of a funeral of a Brother, fallen in the line of duty, the band would always play an uplifting tune.  For the firefighters of FDNY, this was often the most emotional part of the service. It symbolised the future; knowing that whatever we as brothers had to endure, we would go on.  The spirit of the Brotherhood would go on.”

The band didn’t follow that tradition during almost two years of funerals and memorials, however, as the last notes of the last funeral of the 343 firefighters echoed in the distance, the traditional end to a FDNY funeral was resurrected. 

As the last of the 343 was laid to rest, the band, almost as one, struck up and played Garry Owen and Atholl Highlanders.  These two tunes that had always marked the end to a funeral service now marked the start of a new day for the Pipes and Drums of FDNY.  Firefighters who had been through so much over almost two years; men who had not allowed a tear to fall in that time, broke down and cried. The symbolism of the last funeral of the 343 firefighters show how much the Pipes and Drums of FDNY are a part of the whole. 

Tim believes that the Chief of the Department, Edward Kilduff put it best when he said, “The FDNY Pipes & Drums is not only considered a part of the Fire Department, they are the beating heart.”

You’d have to have a hard heart to disagree.

Hurricane Sandy hit the FDNY firefighters and members of the band hard.  Many of their homes and neighbourhoods were devastated by the tidal surge and storm damage. At the time of writing this article, Tim and his brothers and sisters in FDNY were working round the clock. Band performances were cancelled as members of FDNY responded with other emergency services, both when on and off duty, to get New York on the road to recovery.

Tim Geraghty’s documentary was funded in part through public fundraising via the social media website Kickstarter.  Tim can be contacted by email: timgeraghty@yahoo.com or through the Kickstarter site:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1139469356/through-triumph-and-tragedy-50-years-of-the-fdny-p

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Writing as a Photographer

Through a great friend, I have had the opportunity to interview and photograph some fantastically talented musicians for Piping Today.  A worldwide magazine for pipers produced in Scotland, this magazine showcases the history, study and music of the Bagpipe, in all it's forms.

This experience has given me great satisfaction and renewed my joy of communicating visually, broadened my horizons and let me meet some great people.

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