The joy of bagpiping with the Cameron Highlanders

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There is no other sound in the world that can fill me up with an incredible joy and yearning the way bagpipe music can. So when I had the opportunity to meet members of the Cameron Highlanders, who practice at Helix High School in La Mesa, my heart leapt. 

There is no other sound in the world that can fill me up with an incredible joy and yearning the way bagpipe music can. So when I had the opportunity to meet members of the Cameron Highlanders, who practice at Helix High School in La Mesa, my heart leapt. 

But when I parked on the high school campus in front of the building where they practice, I was puzzled as to why I could not hear the familiar heart-tugging strain of the bagpipes. I walked into the building and saw a group of people sitting around a long table with flute-like reeds. 

Band director Charles Rosenberger welcomed me. “We are using the practice chanter,” Rosenberger explained. 

The bagpipers returned to their practice, reading the notes on a sheet of music and blowing on the reed, which made a small hollow sound. As Rosenberger went around and helped them find the rhythm they needed for the song, I snapped a few pictures of them. At another long table twenty-five feet away sat the drummers. They practiced tapping out their notes with drumsticks on a circular piece of wood.

This was not at all what I had pictured—or hoped to hear. So I asked Rosenberger if they could play the bagpipes. They burst into smiles, gathered up their bagpipes and as if on cue formed a circle. On perfect timing, they began playing the rich notes of “Loch Rannoch.”

That familiar feeling of joy to the point of tears moved within my soul. I stood so closely to the bagpipers that I had to get out of the way for the noise from the pipes.

Rosenberger walked up to the bagpipers with a square advice.

“I’m adjusting the pitch of the drones, which is what these pipes are called,” he explained. “You know that constant low sound you hear in back of the major notes?” I nodded yes. “That is a B flat.”

That B flat note is hypnotic, a feature of bagpipe music that simultaneously calms and excites me.

When they finished playing, I told the bagpipers they made it all look so easy. 

“Well, that’s good,” said Kathleen Mars, who has been playing bagpipes for 37 years.  “Believe me, it’s a lot of work.”

Bill Hoover started with the band as a drummer in 1971 when he was attending Helix High School. One evening the drummers did not show and so he asked John Rosenberg to teach him to play the bagpipes.

Now Hoover can play 22 songs just from memory, and he regularly participates in competitive bagpiping.

“I never imagined that I would ever be able to play in front of people. It’s very addictive,” he said.

Mars asked me if I’d like to try playing the bagpipe. “Just to see how it is to hold the pipes, and squeeze the bag and keep the air blowing?” she suggested.

Sure. I could do this.

Mars hoisted the bagpipes over my left shoulder, instructing me to hold and squeeze the bag snugly under my left arm. Then she placed my right hand on the reed and instructed me to blow the pipe until air filled the bag.

I thought I would pass out from the effort.

Place your mouth more fully on the pipe,” Hoover instructed. 

“Now squeeze the bag,” Mars said.

“And keep blowing,” Hoover said.

I blew, squeezed, huffed and finally a trembling note came out of the drone. I continued to huff and puff for about ten more seconds until I finally broke away from the pipe into spasms of laughter.

“Well, at least you got a sound to come out of it. That’s good,” Mars said.

“The pipes are a whole set of skills to learn–blowing the reed, squeezing the bag, keeping the rhythm, and then you have to know how to play the reed,” she said. “I have even more respect now for bagpipers,” I told Mars and Hoover.

The band always receives very high marks in major competitions in California and the West every year. Just a few months ago in August, the Cameron Highlanders Grade 3 band finished 5th in a field of 30 pipe bands in their division at the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.  

“They were one of only two bands in North America to bring home a prize out of 240 total bands in competition,” Rosenberger said.

“Lessons are free,” Rosenberger reminded me.

It was tempting, I admit, but I don’t think I’ll pick up bagpipe playing for a new hobby. Scottish dancing? Just maybe. Anything to be near this music that gets down into my bones. 

The Cameron Highlander Pipe Band will have their 68th Annual Tartan Ball on Nov. 19, with two shows featuring the pipes, drums and dancers of the Highlanders as well as dancing to the music of Hot Pursuit.

Call 619-248-3179 to get ticket information.

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