For 50 years, the pipes have called Bill Munro.
The longtime bagpiper with the Schenectady Pipe Band knows the notes, steps and fashions that come with the musical outfit.
The band has spent a busy spring, will be active this summer and host its annual party this fall. Colonie resident Munro, 73, who has been a board member during his long tenure with the band, said his tartan associates with pipes and drums are already preparing for next year’s band centennial.
Munro answered questions about the band’s history, upcoming events and those warm woolen outfits, during a Daily Gazette Q and A.
Q: Does the band have a busy summer schedule?
A: It really starts in May. From May on, for instance, we played Union College, Skidmore, Albany College of Pharmacy, Albany Medical College and Clarkson commencements and also many of their alumni days. We marched in parades in Scotia, Gloversville, Rensselaer, Johnstown, Lake George. In the summer, we start to focus more on our competitions and get ready for the Scottish Games in Altamont we put on Labor Day weekend.
Q: How about upcoming summer things?
A: We’re going to be at the Pruyn House in Latham, their Irish night, on August 3. We’ll be at the games on Labor Day weekend and we’ll be at Irish 2000 on Sept. 16. We’ll be at the Syracuse Scottish Games on August 10 and there will probably be one or two performances in there we haven’t heard from yet we’ll be doing. In addition to that, we’re celebrating our centennial year next year. On October 9, at the Mabee Farm, were going to be kicking off our Centennial celebration with a Scottish picnic. And on November 27 at the GE Theatre at Proctors, we’re going to be doing a live CD recording. All that stuff is going to keep us pretty busy.The centennial is tremendously important to us. Number one, just for the pride of the organization. We’re one of the oldest bands in the country. There are maybe two bands that are slightly older than us. During the centennial year, we’ll be going to Scotland to compete in the world championships and we’ll have a gala to round out the year at the Mohawk Golf Club and a whole bunch of other events strewn in between all of those. We’re hoping to raise some funds to make sure the band is healthy for the next hundred years.
Q: Got a quick history lesson? How did the band form in 1917?
A: GE and Clan MacRae, which is a clan association that resides in Schenectady, offered to support a pipe band. GE offered to pay a leader, offer him a job, if he would recruit and lead this pipe band. Isaac Riddell, who was a stone cutter in Barre, Vermont, came over and started the band for the first two years. According to our history, we were playing a lot of bond drives for World War I. That picked up during World War II. We played for presidential inaugurations, gubernatorial inaugurations. We were the first band to play at SPAC during their opening ceremonies. We’ve been around for a while.
Q: Why is this style of music so popular?
A: The pipes and drums have a very emotional content. They can raise the hairs on people’s neck. People just love the sound or they hate the sound, but most love it. If you’re a well-rehearsed band like we are, if you’re a well-tuned band like we are, you can really knock the socks off an audience. It’s tradition, it’s great music and if you’re Celtic, of course it’s in your blood.
Q: How important is the band’s appearance for the overall effect?
A: It’s absolutely important, the visual effect is always part of the music. We dress in the Gordon Highlanders traditional.
Q: The dark jackets, the green and blue kilt, the tall wool socks — isn’t that a pretty warm outfit on a summer day?
A: With the sun on it, and being black, it really absorbs the heat. Actually, the kilt isn’t bad at all. It’s open and you get a lot of air.
Q: How about the black shoes?
A: They’re called Ghillie Brogues. They’re the most uncomfortable shoe man has ever made. We’re always glad to get them off.
Q: Is it hard to sign up people for the band?
A: Piping is very popular. In the Capital Region, there are probably eight pipe bands within 50 miles of Albany. We’re one of the largest and the oldest, founded in 1917. We have presently about 48 members. We’ve been as high as 60. It varies, depending on peoples’ employment and whether or not they’re going to school, things like that. We can generally field a pretty large band.
Q: How important is precision for a pipe and drum band?
A: Let’s say in a competition you have like 20 pipers. Your goal is to make it sound like one big pipe. There’s a large set of movements called embellishment on each note and all the embellishments need to be played exactly the same by every pipe. That’s why it takes hours and hours of practice. Typically our band members spend well in excess of 500 hours a year to learn these tunes, play them, then perform and compete.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.