In what might be described as a series of “drive-by bagpipings,” the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band is going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Twenty-four times.
With pipes blaring and drums pounding, the band will march into a pub and play a set before marching out and hopping on a bus that will shuttle them to the next appointment — where they’ll do it all over again. They’ll begin at 10:45 a.m. Saturday and end at 9:45 p.m. Sunday. What will they do Monday?
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I plan to sleep,” chuckled Jim Tarbox, the group’s staff major (drum major, for laypeople).
They are the busiest bagpipers in the area, with appearances ranging from pub crawls in Duluth to parades in Iowa. St. Patrick’s Day is their Super Bowl weekend.
The St. Paddy’s schedule is hectic because the band has a hard time saying no. Bagpipes are such a celebrated part of Irish tradition that band members try to accommodate every establishment that invites them.
Each set will last only about 15 minutes, mostly because the pipes are so loud.
“There’s no volume control on these things,” Tarbox said. “They’re permanently set at 11. We get calls for corporate functions saying, ‘We want to have a piper stand in the corner and play for three hours.’ And we say, ‘No, trust us, you don’t want that.’ ”
The music can be piercing, but “there’s something hauntingly attracting about the sound,” Tarbox said. The bagpipes have been measured producing as much as 110 decibels, the same as a chain saw. The pipers in the band wear earplugs.
On game day, the band probably will be running behind schedule as the evening arrives, Tarbox warned. Oftentimes, bar owners and customers want to salute the band with a round of beers, and it would be rude to pipe and run, especially when someone else is buying.
You don’t have to trace your family tree to Ireland to join the band, but most of the members have at least some Irish heritage — and they’re very proud of that.
So don’t ask them why they’re not wearing tartan kilts. Those are Scottish. Their uniforms are modeled after traditional Irish military bands that wore saffron-colored kilts. Keeping with the military heritage, the uniforms also include rank insignia and ceremonial daggers.
One question they don’t mind: What are they wearing underneath? R-rated answers abound, but for family audiences, Tarbox’s standard reply is: “It will cost you $5 to look, and there are no refunds if you’re disappointed.”
The band’s namesake, Brian Boru, was an 11th-century king who drove the Vikings out of Ireland. “But there are no hard feelings,” Tarbox deadpanned. “We’ve actually played at several Vikings games.”
The band’s size has fluctuated over the years, but with a current roster of 20 pipers and seven drummers, “we’re running out of uniforms, which is a good problem to have,” he said.
Not everyone is built to play the bagpipes.
“The statistic is that out of every 75 who try, only one ends up being a piper,” said piper Mike Faricy. The first year is spent primarily playing a practice chanter, which resembles a simple recorder. It can take another year to master control of the bag, which forces air past the reeds in the chanter and into the three drone pipes.
Endurance is key. Pipers must constantly replenish the air in the bag, a process akin to blowing up a thick balloon. Failure to maintain a steady pressure with one arm squeezing the bag can cause a change in sound. It’s not unusual for beginners to last only a few minutes before they’re winded, with arms aching.
Those who make it onto the squad are greeted by a fraternity that’s a half-century old. In fact, later this year the band is releasing a CD in celebration of its 50th anniversary.
“It’s a great organization,” Faricy said of the band. “And you get to run around town wearing a dress.”
The band currently rehearses in a church where one of the players is a member, but they’ve moved around a lot, mostly because of the din created by the massed pipes. One bagpipe is loud; 20 of them might rival a jet engine.
“We have to practice in a different ZIP code every time,” quipped piper Jimmy Sherman.
A self-deprecating sense of humor is not a requirement to join the band, but a few minutes of conversation with the members might indicate otherwise. They love to tell stories, almost all of them ending with a laugh at their own expense. For instance, during one pub crawl, Tarbox marched the band in the front door before turning into what he thought was a dining room, only to end up leading the band through the kitchen and out the back door.
He laughed as he told the story. “This is too much work not to have fun,” he said.
What’s in the bag
Bagpipe prices “start at $1,000 and go up fast, especially when you start adding things like inlaid ivory and silver,” Faricy said. Many of the pipers have two sets of bags, one with a traditional casing made from animal hide and a second constructed from manmade materials, such as Gore-Tex, which work best for playing outdoors in the rain and cold.
To ensure uniformity in the sound, the band buys reeds in bulk, all made from Spanish Cane bamboo.
“The goal is, no matter how many pipers are playing, to sound like one bagpipe,” Sherman said.
The uniforms also cost about $1,000, with the kilt being the big-ticket item at $600. The band owns the uniforms, with the exception of the hats. The members had a tendency to forget them in bars during pub crawls, a pattern that got worse as the night went on. Now “if you lose it, you buy another one,” Tarbox said.
The band, which is registered as a nonprofit, offers free lessons. The members are all volunteers and any money the band earns goes toward the nonprofit’s expenses. Of course, sometimes they simply get paid in beer — one of their favorite forms of remuneration.
The members come from all walks of life, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-60s. Their professions vary, too, from housepainter to clinical psychologist to cable TV installer to magazine editor. Some have been around a lot longer than others: Tarbox joined the band in 1975, while drummer Rachel Clarkin counts her time in days.
“What’s the date today?” she said when asked how long she’s been a member. “I joined Feb. 26.”
She won’t be a rookie for long, though. By the time the weekend is over, she’ll be able to say that she has made more than 20 appearances with the band.
“They tell me that I’m going to become an instant veteran,” she said.