Pipe band carries on Celtic tradition at parade, competitions
St. Patrick's Day is a time for Celtic pride to shine. One of the local organizations doing its part to keep alive the legacy of that culture is the Laurel Highlanders Pipes and Drums.
The band has maintained an annual tradition of marching in downtown Indiana's St. Patrick's Day Parade and will return for Saturday's 22nd installment of the colorful procession.
The group's performances are built around the skirling notes of the Highland bagpipes. It's a sound that more than two decades ago drew in Clarksburg resident Jim King, the band's current leader in the role of pipe major.
A retired steel mill worker originally from Latrobe, King discovered an affinity for the distinctive tone of the pipes when his wife, N.J. — now the band's bass drummer, persuaded him to lead a family outing to the Ligonier Highland Games. Though he and his wife can both claim Scottish roots, he admits he'd previously been unaware of the gathering of Scottish clans, musicians, dancers and athletes held each fall at Idlewild Park, between Latrobe and Ligonier.
“I stopped and I was just in awe. Pipers everywhere,” he recalled. “Instantly, in a heartbeat, I got the fever.”
That same day, King stopped at one of the event's booths and purchased a practice chanter — a small pipe with holes that are fingered to create the bagpipes' melodic line — as well as an instructional guide for the instrument.
At the time, he vowed, “I'm going to be back here in three years in a kilt.”
It was an ambitious goal, as he now points out: “Playing the pipes is not for the faint of heart. It's a struggle to learn. To be proficient you have to practice every day.”
His wife arranged for him to take bagpipe lessons with the late John Duxbury Jr. of Slickville, who established the Laurel Highlanders in 1975. The band name borrows that of the region — distinguished by the ridges east of Ligonier where Pennsylvania's state flower, the mountain laurel, can be found.
After six months practicing on the chanter to learn the fingering, King graduated to the full bagpipes. He said he would often practice on the hills behind his home as a way to build up his lungs. The piper must continually blow into the instrument's bag to supply air for the chanter and for three larger drone pipes.
“You have to really be disciplined and you have to practice at least 15 minutes a day, at least, for that six months before you even blow into the pipes,” King said. “And blowing into the pipes takes so much lung power to get one little squeal out of there. It takes a lot of work.”
Duxbury urged King to join the Laurel Highlanders, and after a few years honing his skills on his instrument, King began participating with the band in various civic and competitive appearances. In the process, he became very close to Duxbury.
“He wasn't my teacher anymore, he was like a brother,” King said.
When Duxbury fell ill, he asked King to take over leadership of the band for a competition in Canada. That leadership role soon became permanent, growing to include the responsibilities of pipe major.
“The pipe major, you'd compare it to the manager or director,” N.J. King explained. “He's responsible for making sure everybody's tuned up, all of the setting up of the band, scheduling the band.”
The Laurel Highlanders' membership has fluctuated over the years. Numbers currently are down, including six pipers and six drummers who hail from Indiana, Westmoreland, Allegheny and Somerset counties. The band has weekly rehearsals, alternating between sites in Indiana and Delmont.
The Laurel Highlanders are part of the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, which monitors and sanctions various competitive piping events over a large region.
Surgery for Jim King and work and family obligations for other members recently have curtailed some band activities. But, up until two years ago, the Laurel Highlanders were taking part in as many as five competitions per year, traveling to four neighboring states and at times into Canada.
The band last competed at the Ligonier Highland Games in 2009 but is looking to return to that event, King said. The group had the prominent role of “duty band” during the Ligonier games' 50th anniversary, five years ago. The band played for various participating clans as they marched onto the field to open the event.
Pipe bands are grouped into five different levels for competitions, with only a few bands throughout the country qualifying for the top level, Grade 1. According to King, the Laurel Highlanders are in Grade 4 but could move up if they obtain enough points through competitions and by completing a challenge for each grade level.
Each competition is manned by four judges — two piping judges, one drum judge and one ensemble judge. They listen and watch carefully for mistakes.
“You have to sound like one pipe when you're playing,” King noted.
The Laurel Highlanders' six drummers also must stay in unison.
Coming from a background in piano, N.J. King took up drumming for the pipe band when Duxbury suggested it eight years ago. She noted it took her a year to get the knack of the specific technique — swiping the mallet against the drum head instead of hitting it straight on as would a drummer in a traditional marching band.
“I have the best position in the band, because the bass drummer is in the center, so all of the pipers and drummers are around me. And the volume — it's just like an umbrella. It's beautiful,” she said.
Acting as drum sergeant for the Laurel Highlanders is Chris Welch, an Indiana County resident who works as an attorney and has Irish heritage on his father's side. He played the drums for most of his life but took up Scottish drumming just in the past few years.
When he learned that the local pipe band was in need of drummers, he took over a snare drum in 2011 and brought along remaining members to fill help the band's percussion section — his nephew, Zeke Welch, and the youth's friend, Jordan Bellman, both drummers with the Marion Center Area High School Band; and his stepdaughter, Emily Vojtek, and her friend, Abby Spiaggi, who both attend Penns Manor High School.
“It's been fun,” he added, but he noted, “I still have a lot to learn.”
Last summer, Chris and Zeke Welch both spent a week immersing themselves in Scottish drumming through the Balmoral School of Piping and Drumming, based in Pittsburgh.
Compared to American-style drumming, Chris Welch said, “The playing technique is different, and the music is written in such a way that I would describe as non-linear, with second-line grooves or rhythms.”
To help cover the cost of the training, both received funding from the band. Zeke Welch also was awarded a scholarship through the St. Andrew's Society of Pittsburgh.
Each piper in the Laurel Highlanders is responsible for purchasing his own instrument — representing an investment of about $1,000, according to Jim King. But he noted the band does supply drums and most of the uniform for new members.
Members of the Laurel Highlanders don a kilt of the Douglas tartan. King indicated Duxbury chose that tartan pattern because he thought its blue, green and white hues represented the Laurel Highlands. Each member also wears a glengarry hat, vest and white shirt accessorized with decorative shoes known as ghillie brogues, knee hose and a sporran — a pouch worn at the front of the kilt.
In addition to attending competitive events, the Laurel Highlanders have marched in many local parades and they've performed at the annual Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival. The band can also be hired for private performances.
“We're a very forward-thinking band, even though we're traditional in our piping,” N.J. King said, noting Power Point presentations are used during rehearsals to help improve playing.
“I think being a family band is very nice because you don't have parents worrying about their kids coming in and us being rowdy, drinking and cussing. It's very clean fun,” she added.
The Laurel Highlanders' aim now is to grow the band, attend more competitions and. maybe someday, advance to the World Competition in Scotland.
“We're looking foward to putting this band back into the field competitions soon,” Chris Welch said. “And we are still actively looking for bagpipers, as well as a few more drummers.”
Jim King said anyone who has an interest in learning bagpiping or Scottish drumming, or who already plays and would like to join the Laurel Highlanders, can reach him through the band's website, www.laurelhighlanders.com.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.