2015-03-05 / Around Town

Taking Up the Bagpipes

By James Merolla


Michael Martin, 71, does not plan to blow his one big chance to march with the Ancient Order of Hibernian Pipes and Drums Band someday in the Newport St. Patrick's Day Parade. The former Coast Guard construction inspector took up the thorny instrument at age 67. Michael Martin, 71, does not plan to blow his one big chance to march with the Ancient Order of Hibernian Pipes and Drums Band someday in the Newport St. Patrick's Day Parade. The former Coast Guard construction inspector took up the thorny instrument at age 67. Mike Martin hopes to play in the Hibernian band next year. He aspires to be good enough.

He is practicing his difficult instrument five days a week in order to get his marching orders. His tutor is a fair, but tough, whip-cracker who is putting the 71-year-old through his paces every Thursday night.

An unassuming active member of the Newport Zoning Board for the past 12 years and a retired U.S. Coast Guard construction inspector, he is learning how to play the bagpipes.

Martin will march again on March 14 as the head marshal of the 3rd Division in the Newport St. Patrick’s Day Parade, something he has done for 22 other parades, but he will sigh privately as he hears the wailing sounds and the aerophonic pulses of Newport’s Ancient Order of Hibernian Pipes and Drums Band being played nearby.

“I’m a student, I’m just starting out. I’m not ready yet,” said Martin of playing the demanding instrument. “I have carried a flag in the band’s color guard but I have yet to play the bagpipe in a parade.”

Martin retired in 2005 from the Coast Guard’s civilian division. He was a construction representative who inspected projects at stations from Cape Cod and the Islands to the Maine coastline.

Still seeking new oceans to traverse, he graduated in 2007 from the International Yacht Restoration School of Technology & Trades.

As a marshal for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Martin was inspired by the bagpipe bands marching with him. “The bagpipe bands in Division III made me fly high as a kite. I was thrilled.”

But it was another parade four years ago – the one on Columbus Day – that changed mere admiration into hands-on experience. “I was marching with the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Hibernian Band. At the end of the parade, I turned to my brother, Steve, who was president of the Hibernians at the time, and I said, ‘They’re having too much fun. I think I’d like to join the band.” Steve replied: “You should!”

Martin recalls, “A few weeks later I saw Michael O’Connor, pipe major for the Hibernian Band, in front of St. Augustin’s Church. I said, ‘I want to join your band.’ His jaw dropped and he said, ‘Come to the next practice.’ I went to that practice not really knowing whether I could be a drummer or a bagpiper. At the end of the practice, Michael told me, ‘Bring $85 for your chanter to the next practice. You’re going to be a bagpiper.’”

So four years ago, at age 67, the instrumental neophyte (“The only musical experience I had was playing the triangle in kindergarten at Carey Elementary School.”) began wrapping his arms around the thorny bagpipes.

O’Connor noted that learning to play the bagpipes requires an “unnatural breathing technique,” making it extremely challenging.

“The pipes take years to play very well,” he said. “Most people just want to get up and start walking around, wearing a kilt and play – but it doesn’t work that way.”

For much of the past four years, Martin, like most students, has been playing the chanter and not the full pipe. The chanter is a recorder like device – the melody pipe – a reed instrument to help the player master the woodwind aspect of the bagpipes.

It is not unusual for players of any age to take several years to move from chanter to the full instrument. Students attend weekly practices with the band and are tutored by more experienced pipers. Martin also has had weekly private tutors. The first was Joe Mone, a very experienced band leader who taught the Providence Police Band and many other New England officers how to play. His current tutor is Debbie Kane, pipe major for the Rhode Island Highlanders, who works with Martin every Thursday evening. “She is the boss. She’s a very nice lady, but she’s brutal,” laughed Martin.

Martin remains true to his ambition. He has spent $1,500 for a brand new set of pipes, a typical price tag.

“I try to practice every day, but you know how that goes. I practice about five days a week,” said Martin. “Sometimes, I wonder why I’m still doing it. Then I remember: I want to play with the band next year.”

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