The Pipers of Philipstown

Lawrence Eaton, James Hartford, Mark Civita and Seth Gallagher during a rehearsal

Lawrence Eaton, James Hartford, Mark Civita and Seth Gallagher during a rehearsal (Photos by M. Ferris)

After nearly disbanding, the kilts are back in formation

The Hudson Highlands Pipe Band almost disbanded during the pandemic, but they’re back in the swing. To recruit members, pipe major James Hartford posted paper flyers around Cold Spring. 

The tactic worked: He got 15 responses and the group is holding weekly practice sessions at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. It also designed a new tartan pattern for their kilts, booked gigs at parades and other community events and spruced up their logo, which features Bannerman Castle and the surrounding mountains. 

The band’s name is a double-entendre: Along with being based in the Highlands, it performs in the Highlands piping style, which refers to the hills of Scotland.

“It’s always a challenge to keep newcomers engaged,” says Hartford. “It can also be tough to keep experienced players engaged.”

To lure members, the band offers bagpipe and snare drum lessons, although both instruments can be daunting. Mastering the bagpipes requires incorporating unusual techniques: Just blowing up the air bag to start things off can be taxing for first-timers. 

“The joke is, ‘Are you seeing stars yet?,’ ” says piper Mark Civita, who has played since 2005, when the group started as the Cold Spring Fire Co. Pipes & Drums. Children as young as 8 and 9 are taking lessons with the goal of joining the band, rather than just carrying banners.

Holly Mentzer and Jim Miller, who moved to Nelsonville in 2016, saw the signs around Cold Spring and answered the call in August. 

“We’ve been obsessed with this band since we moved here,” says Mentzer. “We were having dinner at Cathryn’s [on Main Street] and heard the pipes. My friend said, ‘That would be Seth’ [Gallagher, a former mayor]. I stalked them at that first Memorial Day parade and must have taken 30 pictures. When I saw the flyer, I figured, ‘How can we not do this?’ ”

Mentzer has a degree in flute performance from Juilliard, plays guitar and piano and is a music therapist. Her background provides an advantage while learning the pipes, but “this is a 180-degree turn” from a lifetime of musical training, she says. “Usually, we learn the simple parts first, then build out skill, but with the pipes, you have to learn everything at once.”

She says she is getting over the beginner’s hump. The goal is to keep blowing air into the bag so that the player’s arm can squeeze it up into the pipes while maintaining a smooth flow, similar to accordion bellows.

Ed Howard (right) offers instruction to newcomer Jim Miller.

Ed Howard (right) offers instruction to newcomer Jim Miller.

Beginners learn the proper blowing and fingering techniques, starting with a practice chanter. On a set of bagpipes, the chanter creates the melody, dangles below the bag and resembles a tiny recorder. Players cannot see the holes, which complicates the fingering.

Creating a dulcet tone on a practice chanter also can be challenging because the holes are smaller and players must maintain the proper air flow to make the two reeds inside resonate and stay on pitch. 

“Offering the lessons makes it feasible to recruit beginners,” says Mentzer. “You can’t learn without a mentor, and they’re very generous with their time.”

Miller plays the drums, trumpet and cornetto, which resembles a recorder. He assumed the fingering would be simple to learn. Nope. Pipers use the bottom of the first and second joints rather than their fingertips.

“I had to unlearn everything I knew, but the instinct kept me going back to what I knew,” he says. So he bagged the pipes, picked up a pair of thick, light drumsticks and began learning the intricate, repetitive patterns known as the rudiments for snare drum, which helps the percussionist perform in lockstep with military precision. 

Even the drums are “like learning a completely new skill, but Ed [Howard] is a great teacher,” says Miller.

Playing while marching presents further complications because it takes wind out of the pipers’ sails and the drums weigh a ton. Drummer Lara Denberg Volotto notes that during humid Fourth of July parades it can be taxing to lug the snare drum on a metal holder that flanks the shoulders.

Knowing that a bad bagpiper can create one of the most grating sounds on the planet, the band has high standards. “We always need experienced players to pull it off,” says Hartford. “Enthusiasm doesn’t always carry it through — we have to sound good.”

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