Written by Chris Boyle Wednesday, 22 May 2013 00:00
Known throughout the ages for its strong emotional impact upon listeners, the bagpipe has had a prominent place throughout history; innumerable parades throughout America are replete with its unique and stirring sound, and it remains a popular instrument to this very day.
Among the oldest and most-respected players of the bagpipe on Long Island are members of the Amityville American Legion Post #1015 Highland Pipe Band. According to player Joe Heimbauer, the 30-member, all-volunteer bagpipe and drum band is steeped in rich history and time-honored tradition.
“World War II veterans, 23 of them, got together in 1952 and started the band,” he said. “They were all American Legion members, and they had a desire to play the bagpipes due to the military tradition, and they wanted to be a part of that...a living memorial to the veterans that had come before them.”
This one-of-a-kind musical instrument has its roots in Europe, and was originally used as a psychological war tactic before later making its way to the United States...in a much more benign fashion, of course, Heimbauer said.
“The bagpipes themselves go back hundreds and hundreds of years to Scotland,” he said. “In wars hundreds of years ago, bagpipes were used to scare and intimidate their enemies, because they’re so loud and piercing...and I think it worked!”
The American Legion Highland Pipe Band is a constant fixture in New York parades, memorial services, and military and civilian benefits, said Heimbauer.
“We’re committed to representing the American Legion...since the band was started back in 1952, we’ve marched in every Memorial Day parade and most other significant holidays,” he said. “We do a lot of events where we volunteer our services and give back to the community...we play all of the military tunes that were written over the years, and many of them signify great heroes and pride in different nationalities.”
At 27 years of age, T.J. White is the second-youngest member of the band. Raised in Rockaway, Queens, until he was 8, he and his family moved to Levittown, where he has lived ever since.
A driver-messenger for the New York State Court system, White said that playing the bagpipes has been a longstanding ambition of his that, until now, has been difficult to reach.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do my entire life,” he said. “I’m of Scottish and Irish descent, and every year my family and I would go to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Rockaway, and I’ve always wanted to play the pipes myself, but it’s something that’s hard to find...a music store doesn’t sell bagpipes, and middle and high schools don’t teach bagpipes.”
Invited to join by a friend, White has been a member of the band for three-and-a-half years. However, despite having musical training, nothing could prepare White for the rigors of mastering such a complex instrument, even with the training provided by the American Legion.
“I took the saxophone in high school, so I already knew how to read music...even then, it took me about eight months to learn how to play,” he said. “There’s one guy here who learned in six months, but a year is the average.”
The American Legion’s Pipe Major, Chris Beresford, has been a steadfast member of the band for the past 15 years. In his time with the band, the one big problem they’ve faced is with recruitment — or the lack of it.
“What happened was the economy,” he said. “As the economy slowed down, guys had to keep working more and more, and they didn’t have the time to volunteer for things like this. It slowed down the amount of students that we had...drumwise, we’re almost maxed out, but we really need to get the word out to people that we need bagpipe players who have the time to commit to a good cause.”
“It’s not a band...it’s a family,” Beresford added. “You’re part of something bigger than yourself...we have great people here who want to donate their time and go above and beyond. It’s absolutely amazing.”
For White, the sentiments expressed by Beresford ring true; for him, playing in a bagpipe band is a dream come true, and something that he plans to stick with for the rest of his days.
“So far, it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do it, so now that I’ve accomplished it, I feel so much pride,” he said. “But it’s also the reception that you get, playing at each parade. People are always going nuts for the bagpipes...at some of the bigger parades, sometimes it’s hard to even hear yourself playing over the people yelling and cheering. You get goosebumps every time, and being of Irish and Scottish descent, I take even more pride in that now.”
For additional information on the band and its appearance dates, visit amityvillepipeband.com or https://www.facebook.com/groups/59616033522/facebook.