March Q&A: Called to the Pipe




John Patrick Newman, a Northwood resident, may introduce himself as either just John or as John Patrick - it depends on whether he wants to be Irish or Scottish that day. He's not making it up; he does have one Irish grandfather and one Scottish grandfather. What he's doing is accommodating the people who hire him to play the bagpipes. He dresses in Irish regalia, as he has here for St. Patty's Day, or in the feathered bonnet of the Scottish Highlands for, perhaps, Robert Burns Day. Mostly, though, he plays at weddings and funerals throughout New England, along with his daughter Gayle. He does it to help support his ministry at a small church in Barnstead - he also plays for the sheer joy of it. Why bagpipes? They're so funny looking and hard to play. I feel I was called to the pipe. If that's in your gene pool and if God wants you to, you'll pipe. I just love them. What makes them so hard to play? The holes on the chanter, the ones we use to play, you can't see. You have to feel where you are. Plus, you have to squeeze the air with your arm. Too much air and the note will break; too little and the note will skip. And the holes are leaking all the time - it's like blowing up a tire with a rip in it. It's one of the hardest instruments in the world to play. Why not change the location of the holes so the piper can see them? Never. Everything is tradition - the pipe will never change. It's still held together with beeswax and hemp, just as it has been for hundreds of years. Where do you keep your music? Everything is done from memory. There is no music book attached like there is with a trumpet. That's another reason why not a lot of people are taking up the bagpipe. Are bagpipes Irish? People generally think of them as Scottish. They may be more Irish than Scottish, but the Scottish dominates. They both play the same Highland bagpipe, which is made for war. War? Traditionally, soldiers march to the pipes. The sound is enchanting - something about them will set a group marching and make them ready to fight. The octave is set high enough that you can hear them over the cannon fire. You know, it's said that Nero wasn't playing a violin as Rome burned, that he was playing a bagpipe. Where has your piping taken you? I have piped from the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland to Japan. I was asked to come to Washington and pipe the Wall. I have also piped at the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. These opportunities have been the highlight of my piping career. It seems like there's more interest in bagpipes than there used to be. There is. Mel Gibson with "Braveheart" pushed the envelope for us. It caused a revival. We should send him a thank-you note.
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