- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - In the majestic and magically lit First Presbyterian Church Downtown on New Year’s Eve, Rev. Tom Hall concluded his remarks and announced what the assembled hundreds were waiting for.

“And now,” he said, “the Balmoral Pipes and Drums.”

In the pews, heads swiveled as the cranking strains and percussive thunder of bagpipers and drummers swept down the aisle playing “The Green Hills of Tyrol.” The band formed a line along the transept, with George Balderose at one end, beaming as the crowd cheered.

For more than 30 years, more people have paid this piper than any in the region to accompany their grief and celebration; to help them dedicate and break ground; to play concerts and festivals; for golf outings and corporate pow-wows and to teach them or their children how to play.

In the Balmoral band, five of the 11 pipers are under 21. Four are female. All but two have been Balderose’s students from the beginning. You can tap a chord in the instructor by telling him how thrilling it is to hear the pipes played so well by pipers so young. “I’m very proud,” he said, welling up. “I’ve taught many students, and most of them play because they heard the call.”

The call in this case is a unique sound that is reedy, lush, blood-stirring and dense with harmonics. It is often referred to as a skirl. The skirl got to 14-year-old Paul-Luc Parks when he was 7. He stood beside Balderose that night in the church.

The skirl also got to Lily Cunningham, a pixie of a 13-year-old who stood beside the evening’s emcee, Arthur McAra, clutching her three-quarter-sized bagpipe. It got to Rebecca Seaman and Glenna Van Dyke, both 16, and to 21-year-old Vasilios Akis, who stood beside them.

The bagpipe has existed in various iterations since ancient times, including in Rome, Persia and Ireland before they became associated mostly with Scotland. The British considered the bagpipes a weapon of war in battles with the Scots in the 18th century. Pipers marched into the fray with armed soldiers, and more than 1,000 were killed in World War I.

In 1996, a bagpiper defended himself for playing in a London park where live music was forbidden by using the centuries-old argument, that the bagpipe was a weapon of war. The modern court confirmed that they are musical instruments and fined the offender.

The powerful sound comes from air in the bag, a reed in each drone and a reed inside the melody pipe. Glenna demonstrated during a rehearsal: She flipped her head and her ponytail and hoisted her bagpipe up and under her left arm. The melody pipe is attached to the bag at the piper’s waist. She breathed into the blow pipe, filling the bag with air, then tapped the drones to start them humming. Pushing her arm against the bag, she fingered the melody pipe and cranked out “Scotland the Brave.”

The pipes are somewhat harder to play than the clarinet, at which she is skilled, in part because you can stop mid-tune on the clarinet without scaring people. If you stop playing the bagpipe before all the air is out, it will shriek.

Those who stick with it are patient and willing to listen to their teacher, said Balderose, 70. “The young players who make it are the ones whose parents come to lessons.”

None of his students has competed yet in the Balmoral Classic - an annual event he founded here in 2007, the country’s only pipe and drum competition for players under 21. He said he expects Paul-Luc to get there. Paul-Luc was Piper of the Day at the Highland Games in Ligonier last year.

Balderose co-founded the Balmoral School of Piping and Drumming in 1979 as a summer learning opportunity. It grew to several local sites and ones more distant, at universities that provide dorm spaces. Anyone from anywhere can sign up for Balmoral’s classes, which are taught by affiliated instructors from around the country.

Balderose started the annual three-day Balmoral Classic to shine a light on the school, he said. He formed the band of local pipers and drummers in 2013. The drummers are instructed by Ian McLeod of Delmont.

Grooming pipers

Lasses and lads of any age begin learning without the bag. Their first months of instruction are also drone-free. Drones are the things that look like big, fancy candlesticks over the piper’s left shoulder.

Students learn and practice on a chanter, an oboe-like instrument with the same fingerings as the bagpipe’s melody pipe. The chanter is practical for learning because the neighbors can’t hear it.

People who live near Balderose in Manchester may not know he is grooming pipers inside, with private and group lessons around a table in the parlor lit by the day through an arched bay window.

Among them, Glenna is known as “the girl who plays bagpipes” in her hometown of Aspinwall, she said. She played for the opening of Aspinwall’s Riverfront Park in 2015. “All my life I have been exposed to Celtic music,” she said. “I tried Irish dance and hated it. I begged my mom for (bagpipe) lessons and she gave in.”

“My background is Eastern European and Greek,” said Akis, who drives in from Weirton, W.Va. “I grew up with older siblings playing classical music, but I was more into folk music. I started making kilts out of everything - towels, blankets. My mother finally got George’s number.”

“My family would go to Scottish festivals in West Virginia,” said Paul-Luc, of Vandergrift. “My aunt figured out we were part Scottish. I loved the pipes but I didn’t want to wear a kilt.” He smiled modestly. “Now I wear a kilt.”

Teresa and Lee Cunningham drive their daughter Lily to class from Marshall. When Lily was 9, her grandfather died and a piper played at his memorial service.

“He had prearranged to have a piper play at his service, and Lily was completely fascinated,” her mother said.

She attended a Balmoral school session at Shadyside Academy then began taking private lessons with Balderose.

George gets world class pipers to come to Pittsburgh, and he helps kids become passionate about it like he is,” Cunningham said.

“The power of the sound, physically and emotionally, is magnified when you play,” said Lacey Mahler, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in music performance on clarinet. She was regularly reminded how much she loved the bagpipes when CMU’s bagpipe band played at events. “After I graduated, I went on a mission to find a teacher and I found George” in 2004.

Now a music and band teacher in the Deer Lakes School District, she plays for her students, and several parents have asked about lessons for their children, she said. “I always refer to George. He’s so knowledgeable and inspiring. He cares so much and has a big heart toward everybody in the band.”

Jigs in the kitchen

Balderose was teaching political science at Stetson University in Florida, making and playing dulcimers in his spare time, when he returned to Pittsburgh in 1974 to take a job teaching dulcimer making at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.

He bought a vacant, 3,800 square-foot Second Empire Italianate for $16,500 in the same neighborhood and began circulating among folk musicians. That community encouraged him to open his house for concerts, and it became the original Calliope House of the folk music society of the same name.

At a particular music party in Shadyside, he said, “a piper from Carnegie Mellon showed up. He was playing jigs in the kitchen. My eyes got this big.” He made Os with his fingers and thumbs. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to play.’ “

To learn, he sought instruction from, among others, the world-renowned James McIntosh, whom he would later recruit to help him establish the Balmoral School. In 1990, Mr. McIntosh established the first bagpiping performance degree in the country at CMU.

Balderose has soloed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh and four times was a guest artist with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

While the Balmoral school has some foundation support, he makes the bulk of his living teaching and playing gigs.

“I have a lot of competition out there, too,” he said, “a lot of it from people I’ve trained.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2jKTGLD

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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