Sometimes when 16-year-old Nick Johnson plays the bagpipes it still sounds “like a dying cat” he said.
But the China Spring High School junior is not deterred. Johnson said he has been playing a year and a half and will continue to work with anyone who will help him master the instrument.
His attitude is music to Gatesville resident Bill Herridge’s ears.
Herridge, along with other members of the Waco Scottish Rite group, are offering free bagpipe lessons for people of all skill levels every Wednesday evening at the Lee Lockwood Library and Museum in Waco.
Herridge said he just asks his students one thing: “We just ask once a lifetime, they teach one other person to play the pipes to try and keep it going.”
Love it or hate it
Herridge, 72, has taught others to play the bagpipes for more than four decades and has himself played for 45 years.
“When I joined the Waco Scottish Rite 42 years ago, I looked around and I said, ‘Where’s the Scotland in Scottish Right?’ There was no reference to it at all. It was just a title,” he said of the Freemasonry group. “So I started working bagpipes into some of the events that go on there.”
Herridge said he hopes the group learning and growing together each Wednesday will be able to form a bagpipe band.
“There are actually more pipers in Texas than there are in Scotland. It’s kind of a dying thing over there,” he said. “Anything we can do to keep it alive on this end, those of us who play the pipes tend to want to do.”
The thing about bagpipes though, is people either love the sound or hate it. There is rarely an in-between, Herridge said.
Learning the nine-note, 6-pound instrument is like learning a language with nine words, Herridge said. The bagpipe has no sharps, flats or changes in octave.
“In Scotland, they say that to learn the pipes you have to practice slowly and you have to practice often — learning a tune at a third of the normal speed and gradually working to increase the speed,” he said. “You have to memorize everything because you can’t look at music because of the angle you hold the thing. … You have to learn by feel, and that’s what people don’t like. It takes a lot of repetition to get to where you can play the tunes without looking at the instrument itself.”
Beginners typically start on a “practice chanter,” which allows them to learn the basic finger positions for a bagpipe. Chanters are also important practice tools because they are not nearly as loud as bagpipes, Herridge said.
“It’s just a matter of taking it slow and in steps,” he said. “I’ve taught 10-year-olds to play the pipes and 70-year-olds to play the pipes.”
Finding a reason
Johnson said sometimes he feels awkward at the Wednesday night classes because he is so much younger than everyone else in attendance. But those feelings fade quickly once they pick up their instruments and start having fun practicing.
Johnson, who also plays the saxophone, said he first heard someone playing bagpipes during a church service. The tunes were enough to prompt him to ask his parents if he could take lessons.
“The way it sounded, honestly, you don’t get that sound from a lot of instruments,” he said. “To me, it was just different from all the other ones I played.”
Johnson said most of his friends find his interest “pretty cool.”
“That’s kind of what makes me smile when they say that,” he said.
Every student has their own reason for playing.
Hewitt resident Lee Hamm, 38, plays for the connection to his past. His grandmother emigrated to the United States from Scotland during World War II.
Hamm said he has always had an interest in Scotland, and after visiting twice, found a McLennan Community College bagpipe class a few years ago. The class is no longer offered, and he put down his practice chanter for a few years. Then last summer, he learned about Herridge’s classes at the Waco Scottish Rite and quickly joined.
The instrument is difficult to learn, but after some time, “it just kind of clicks,” and learning becomes easier, Hamm said.
Hamm said he spent 11 years playing the trumpet, including four as part of the Texas A&M University marching band, and the two instruments are vastly different.
“You have to be breathing in and out and keeping yourself from passing out, which can happen. I haven’t done it but I’ve gotten light headed learning,” he said of the bagpipe. “You have to keep the bag aired up and squeeze it at the right time, all while you’re playing the scale or the notes. There’s three or four things going on, whereas with the trumpet it was breathe and play.”
Hamm said his wife is thrilled he is improving at his newfound hobby and “not making the terrible noises I made when I was learning.”
Herridge said he also started to learn the bagpipes as a way to keep his family heritage alive, and he has performed at hundreds of soldier memorials at Fort Hood, as well as weddings, parades and other social gatherings.
“They always seem to bring some calm to the folks that have lost loved ones,” he said. “At Fort Hood, a chaplain one time when I asked him, why ‘Amazing Grace’ at a funeral or memorial service? He said it seems to calm things down. He said, ‘I think it’s, when you play that you’re giving people permission to cry.’ I found that to be the case. I’ve had families come up to me after memorial services and tell me how much that meant to them hearing that.”
Performing at a memorial for a soldier killed in action brings Herridge, a Vietnam veteran, a flood of his own memories.
“When I honor those soldiers at Fort Hood I feel like I’m also honoring friends of mine who didn’t come back from Vietnam,” he said.
Herridge spent four years in the U.S. Air Force and another 24 in the U.S. Army. He retired from military service 20 years ago and retired two years ago as a State Farm insurance agent.
Finding new people to learn to play the bagpipes has not been too much of a challenge in recent years, Herridge said. The release of “Braveheart” in 1995 did not hurt interest in the instrument and in Scottish culture in general.
But playing the bagpipe requires a person be a bit of an extrovert since the instrument tends to draw a crowd, Herridge said.
He invites anyone who wants to join in on the lessons to meet at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Lee Lockwood Library and Museum, 2801 W. Waco Drive, in Waco or go to facebook.com/WSRBT.