Mike West has been playing the bagpipes for more than six years, but still considers himself an amateur.
“As fire department bagpipers go, I'm OK,” West said. “As bagpipers go, I'm definitely a novice.”
West seasons the reed in his …
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West seasons the reed in his mouth one last time before twisting the chanter into the chanter stock, securing it to the black leather bag. He slips the instrument's loose configuration over his shoulder and tucks the bag under his left arm.
Following a few puffs on the mouthpiece, he strikes the bag with his free hand. The truck bay of South Metro Fire Station 34 in Lone Tree fills with the steady notes of three drones followed by a higher-pitched melody as West fingers the chanter.
West is a charter member of the South Metro Fire Pipes and Drums, which provides pipes and drums for departmental functions. Most noted for its service to fallen first responders, the band also plays at retirements, awards ceremonies and firehouse dedications.
“A lot of times the bagpipers will get called to just help out at a funeral, play either at the church or at the gravesite,” firefighter-paramedic Eric Hendee said. “When we do a funeral for somebody, just that part of it can really add to the event.”
Hendee said that it's not about the piper being in the spotlight but enhancing the service in honor of the family members.
“Many times we get thanked profusely for what we did," he said, "because whatever tune we played, hopefully, had a significant impact on that family.”
The start of the band
The idea for the South Metro Fire Pipes and Drums began six years ago with an email from Hendee to his fellow firefighters.
“So I sent that email out in June of 2010,” Hendee said. “It was right when the Parker Fire Protection District and South Metro were merging. It was actually the first team that got formed between the joint venture.”
Hendee wanted to share the heritage of pipes and drums with the fire service, as well as the music of the Irish and Scottish communities, while promoting the brotherhood that both represent.
“We seek to support our members in their lowest and highest moments by sharing these traditions,” he said. “At the time, neither station had a pipe band. It's one of those things where it's a real honor to be on. It's helped bring together the department.”
By August 2010, the group had hired a bagpipe instructor and a drum instructor, and held its first practice. Members continued to hold weekly practices until the band was ready for its first performance 16 months later, a funeral service for one of the band's own.
South Metro firefighter and bagpiper David “Sparky” Truax died in a car accident three days before Christmas in 2011.
A tradition from the old country
The tradition of pipe bands in the fire service and police departments stems back to the migration of about a million Irish immigrants during the middle of the 19th century. Fleeing the Great Hunger in the years of the potato blight, they came to the United States looking for a new life while holding on to reminders of home.
“For them, it was the bagpipes,” Hendee said. “When they got here, they could only really apply for jobs that were lower-class jobs, which at the time, were the police department and the fire service. And if someone got married, they would play their bagpipes. If somebody died, they played their bagpipes. So it just became ingrained in the fabric of law enforcement of fire service.”
Retired firefighter Jim Drummond is a legacy of that tradition. While his fellow pipers practice in the parking lot behind station 34, he sits in a conference room with sheet music spread on the table in front of him.
The practice chanter in his hands resembles a miniature clarinet without the keys, and Drummond fingers the delicate holes with fingers thick from a lifetime of work. At nearly 70 years old, he is one of the newest members of South Metro's band.
“I love bagpipe music — I always have,” Drummond said. “I'm one-quarter Scottish, three-quarters Irish. The Drummond part of me is the Scots. More than anything, I really like the music; it's stirring. For a lot of people, you either like it or don't. And I do.”
Drummond began his career as a firefighter in May 1983 and retired 30 years later as a battalion chief at South Metro.
“When you do this job, you don't realize how keyed up you are,” he said. “After about two or three months, I could feel myself unwinding. I was pretty wired when I first retired. And I'm really good at relaxing now.”
Drummond still feels a duty to perform community service and occasionally works with Habitat for Humanity. He also traveled on a mission trip to Niger, Africa.
But the restlessness of retirement called him back to the fire station.
“You can get too much of relaxing,” he said. “They say do something different, and this just really peaked my interest. So this is where it really helps out a guy who is approaching 70, cognitive reserve. You kind of get a run for your money as you get older, I'll tell ya.”
'Nothing without effort'
To play with the band Drummond must memorize three songs. Once he has performed to the satisfaction of the band's instructor on the practice chanter, he can begin practicing on full bagpipes with the rest of the band.
“It's like a test. Are you going to hang in here and do three songs?" Drummond said and taps the sheet music to the tune, “Mari's Wedding.” "So I'm learning my third song, but then I have to memorize them.”
The requirement to become a performing member of the band is emblematic of the band's motto: “Nothing without effort.”
Originally, the motto was one of the last things on Hendee's list when the idea struck him to create the band.
“In my original email, I said before we pick the motto, before we pick our tartan, before we strike in for our first tune, we've got to figure out if we're going to get this going,” Hendee said. “The very next day somebody suggested it. It totally fits – because the bagpipes, a lot of effort, trying to play the drums, a lot of effort.”
South Metro supports the band by providing the uniforms, but band members must purchase their own instruments, which run in the thousands of dollars. They also pay for the instructor.
The band is relatively small but growing. It has three bagpipers who are performance ready, and three more who can play partial performances. Another five still are on the practice chanter.
West has been joined by David Healy and a third piper. The trio has moved out of the bays to practice with a tenor drummer and the band's only base drummer, also recently arrived.
And occasionally, residents will stop by the station and pause to listen — summoned, it seems, by the call of the pipes.
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