It’s pretty quiet for a band practice—especially a band with seven drummers and two different kinds of bagpipe. As I climb up the side staircase of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, I’m expecting the full fury of a highland tattoo to erupt from the windows and doors at any minute.
But pipe and drum comes there none, and a few moments later I’m padding around lost inside the darkened church until the lonely sound of a single pipe leads me down a hall or two and around the corner to the room where 13 members of the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band are bunched loosely around two tables. Practice is over and they’ve put their instruments aside to get down to business of another sort—the logistical intricacies of marshalling all the members to the proper rallying points on Friday. As you can imagine, it’s no easy matter to plan for 20 people at six or seven separate, sometimes simultaneous engagements around town—on Saint Patrick’s Day, no less.
“Try to spread it out a little so you’re not blowing yourselves out by five o’clock,” urges Pipe Major Rob Laing. “Save your best work for the big show. And remember to eat well so you have lots of energy,” he reminds the baker’s dozen of members sprawled around the tables in various states of attentiveness. “We don’t want to hear anyone crying for a nap by four o’clock.”
Laing has presided over the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band since its inception in the early ’90s. The group comprises an interesting cross-section of Missoulians, teenagers to gents in their 60s: businessmen, a lawyer or two, a Presbyterian minister, a Kinko’s delivery driver, a retired university professor. Pipe Sergeant John Minish—a burly wisecracker with a ruddy red head of hair—is an electrical engineer at Stone Container. Looking around the room—drummers tapping away on any available resonant surface with sticks and fingers, pipe players goofing on Italian melodies and the theme from “The Addams Family”—Minish smiles broadly.
“Try not to put in the paper that anarchy is a big thing here,” he jokes, cupping his mouth and raising his voice theatrically above the subdued din.
Friday’s arrangements and individual assignments settled, the band members say their goodbyes and begin to file out. Laing, Drum Sergeant Bill Nese, his wife Heather, and Tom Lanrose stay on to talk at length about the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band’s history, instrumentation, and membership. Lanrose is the band’s newest member; he’s training both on the drums and the Uilleann pipes, a kind of side-mounted instrument with two air bladders, operated by means of a pipe tucked under one arm—uilleann being the Gaelic word for “elbow.” Lanrose’s Uilleann will join the shuttlepipes (a more compact, belly-resting instrument), the more familiar Great Highland pipes, and four kinds of drum in the Celtic Dragon instrumentation. The combined sound may be more immediately reminiscent of Scotland, but Laing says it’s a familiar one in Ireland as well. Quips Nese:
“We Celts just have to stick together.”
The Celtic Dragon Pipe Band plays Sean Kelly’s on St. Patrick’s Day, Friday, March 17. Music starts at 4 p.m. Admission is free.