It’s quieter than one might expect on a recent Tuesday night at the Freeport public safety building, given that the Maine Public Safety Pipe and Drum Corps is here for its weekly practice.

Bagpipers of varied proficiency cluster in different rooms, memorizing the finger positions of songs on small, relatively soft, recorderlike chanters. Meanwhile, drummers standing between the yellow and blue fire engines tap out precise sequences on wooden blocks.

But when they all gather in the main garage to practice together, it creates a wall of sound like nothing Phil Spector ever coaxed from The Ronettes.

The sharp report of the drums is like an engine roaring to life, and the drone of the Great Highland Bagpipes, also called the war pipes, casts a hypnotic spell — for those who are vulnerable to it.

“You like the pipes or you don’t,” says Hap Arnold, a Scottish-style drummer who’s been hooked ever since he saw a massive gathering of bands at Wembley Stadium in 1958 while stationed in England with the Air Force. “Some writer once said, ‘I feel sorry for anyone who can hear the pipes and not be moved.’ “

The Maine Public Safety Pipe and Drum Corps is comprised mainly of current and retired firefighters, police, military and rescue workers. The group’s mission is to honor public safety workers by performing Scottish music at funerals and memorials free of charge, and representing public servants in parades, fairs and competitions.

The group, decked out in kilts, gaiters and Glengarry wool hats, recently marched in Portland’s Veterans Day parade.

“It’s nice to do something for the veterans, the cops, the firemen — any fallen public servant,” says the vice president of the group, Brian Young, who became familiar with bagpipe music when his father, a New York City police officer, took him to ceremonies.

Young’s technique is rivaled by his fondness for self-deprecating bagpipe humor.

“We march to get away from the music. That’s why bagpipers march,” he says, then adds that practice sessions are held far from home “so we don’t chase the neighbors away.”

Then the drummer-piper rivalry kicks in, with bass drum player Kevin Dowling declaring, to a knowing chuckle, that the perfect pitch for bagpipes is when you toss them out the window and they land on a banjo.

The bonds that hold together professional emergency workers extend to the group.

“We are a family,” says Young. “Whenever you walk in, they have you shake each other’s hands and hug the girls.”

There are bloodlines represented as well.

The group’s president, Marc Arnold, a former Brunswick police lieutenant, plays drums in the Scottish style as does his father, Hap Arnold, an Air Force veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Marc Arnold’s wife marches with the honor guard, and his son, Colin, a Brunswick High School student, has joined the pipers’ junior corps. On this night he was given the responsibility of playing the solo in the group’s rehearsal of “Amazing Grace.”

“It really works your brain and your muscles at the same time,” the young piper said. “When you start feeling it, it really flows.”

The bagpipes are unlike most instruments. The musician is not actually blowing through the woodwind but into a bladder that is compressed by the player’s elbow. That bellow squeezes a uniform stream of air through three drones and the pipe’s chanter, where the notes of the melody are played.

The musician needs to exert a firm squeeze against the ribs to get a uniform sound from the drones and to start and end a piece sharply, without the “wounded cat” sound of the drones moaning their way to silence, says Young.

Finding a place to practice can be a challenge for any piper or drummer, and especially challenging for two dozen of them.

Outdoors is ideal for the sound, but can disturb people who aren’t fans. Also, the African blackwood used to make the ornate woodwinds is susceptible to cracking at temperatures colder than 40 degrees.

Young, a merchant mariner who is at sea for days at a time, says his journeys give him a chance to practice in the engine room, where he disturbs nobody.

During practice, it’s blue jeans and T-shirts or maybe flannel. Today, he sports a Guinness baseball cap.

But on parade, the group wears kilts fashioned of the Maine tartan, a blue, green and red plaid signifying the ocean, the land and the blood spilled for their home state.

Bagpipes have become a frequent element at funerals and memorials, especially for public safety workers.

The music isn’t all somber, though. The group plays upbeat tunes like “The Rakes of Mallow,” a traditional Irish song, at Byrnes Irish Pub in Bath. The band performs there the 17th of each month in a countdown to St. Patrick’s Day.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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