Bagpipes often play at police and firefighter funerals, but they also play at celebrations. And in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes & Drums play everything from "Amazing Grace" to the Rocky theme, to music in concert with The Philadelphia Orchestra.
A bagpiper enters at the end of Maxwell Davies’ orchestral work, An Orkney Wedding, which conjures cold winds and warm festivities on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland. After a night of partying, wedding guests head home at sunrise, and a bagpiper is heard in the distance.
“The melody reminds me very much of very old Scottish music from the middle ages,” says Philadelphia Fire Company paramedic and bagpiper Mark O’Donnell. He’s also Pipe Major and Music Director of the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes & Drums, and one of the three pipers who performed with The Philadelphia Orchestra in An Orkney Wedding earlier this year.
Although bagpipes date from ancient civilizations in Africa, Greece and Rome, in the mid 1800s, immigrants from Scotland and Ireland brought pipes and their traditions to the U.S. They made the music part of their life in America, where many found jobs as police and firefighters.
“This is our standard bagpipe,” says O’Donnell, showing us a beautiful blue corduroy bag. “[It’s] known as a great highland bagpipe.”
It’s a bag with five stick-like protrusions: A blowstick, for blowing air into the bag, three drones that produce a humming tone when the air is squeezed through them with one arm, and a chanter - like a recorder - with holes to play the melody.
There are many things to keep in mind, explains O’Donnell: “ You have to maintain the tone, so you’ve got to keep your pitch up. You’ve got to keep the drones steady so you hear that humming background noise, he says, humming. “You’ve got to keep pressure up on the bag: you don’t want to over-blow which’ll make the reeds sharp, or under-blow which would make them flat, so there’s a lot going on. Plus marching- -making sure you’re on the right step or foot!
But the sound is like none other.
"It speaks to my soul," he says. “It’s an otherworldly sound. Something that’s very powerful. It gets you deep."
The Philadelphia and Fire Pipes & Drums plays locally but also tours the US and overseas. As to repertoire, the group plays music ranging from Scottish and Irish tunes to American patriotic tunes, such as Grand Old Flag, and God Bless America. "Being a Philadelphia Band, we also play the Rocky theme. That's a lot of fun! I think we're the only pipe band in the world that plays the Rocky theme, but you gotta do it!"