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Thursday
March 15, 2001

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Amazing grace: Local man plays the bagpipes

By Sheila Pursglove, Staff Writer

If you've heard the wailing of bagpipes wafting over the local landscape, it's likely Tom Kennedy, a self-styled "Stealth" piper.

"Piping is a very nice way to enjoy the scenery," says Kennedy, a Sylvan Township resident. "Sometimes I'll head out to a location in the local area, find a view and practice there. 

"It kind of spreads the culture around to areas and ears where the pipes are never heard.  So, I'll pop up somewhere, play for an hour, then leave."

Kennedy will don his kilt and provide tomorrow night's Celtic entertainment at the St. Patty's McFun-raiser in the Clock Tower building. The Chelsea House Orchestra will join him in entertaining guests.

While bagpipes are traditionally associated with Scotland or Ireland, Kennedy learned to play them in - of all places - East Africa.

After graduating from the University of Michigan and going to work for a university research facility, he jumped at the opportunity for a long-term assignment in Kenya.

"It was there that I met a schoolteacher from Scotland who came over to the house one evening with his bagpipes and put on a very outstanding performance for us all," Kennedy says.

"In response to my excited interest, he graciously offered the loan of his learning materials for the duration of my stay.  These consisted of a tutor book and a "practice chanter," a very quiet instrument which is used to learn on so that the neighbors don't complain."

The electrical engineer's zeal for the pipes gradually died away, remaining dormant for almost two decades, until he happened by chance upon a piping teacher in Ann Arbor.

Kennedy calls the last 11 years a constant learning experience that continues. 

"They are not the easiest of instruments to play well, requiring a combination of light fingered precision and, at the same time, an athletic blowing and squeezing of the bag," he says.

In effect, a piper is playing four-wind instruments simultaneously. The pipes are comprised of a "reeded" chanter that is used to play the tune, and a set of three drones that provide a chord accompaniment, each having their own individual reeds.

"Like most people, I never really had much contact with bagpipes when growing up other than the occasional Christmas or Thanksgiving parade," he says.  "But, like with most people, they made a lasting, albeit a latent, impression on my mind." 

To keep from losing ground, Kennedy practices at least a couple of times a week. His wintertime practice is indoors with earplugs.

"When the air turns warm, the backyard has a much better feeling to it and the sound carries so nicely, especially if there's a fog," he says.

His bagpipes were made in the late 90's by the R.G. Hardy Company in Scotland.  According to Kennedy, most pipes come from Scotland, but there are a number of excellent pipe makers this side of the pond.

The local musician sports the Kennedy tartan, which is mostly green with thin yellow and violet stripes. 

"Although this tartan is of the Scottish Kennedys, it's believed that this clan initially came from Ireland to do missionary work in Scotland," he says.

After reaching a certain level of proficiency, a new piper starts looking for fellow enthusiasts.

"When I first started looking around, I knew of absolutely nothing and no one outside of my teacher and a few students," Kennedy says.

After several days on the phone, following up on leads to pipers, pipe majors and bands across the state, Kennedy gradually became aware of what he calls the "bagpipe subculture."

"I discovered that there are bands and pipers all over, but just so spread out that you don't normally come in contact with them except on special occasions," he says.  "Their neighbors know who they are, though."

Kennedy finds that people either love the pipes or hate them.

"There's no middle ground," he says. "My wife, Debbie, doesn't complain.  It must be the Scottish blood in her.  She's still here, so she must like them."

The couple has called Chelsea home for 25 years and raised their sons, Michael and Matthew, here.

Kennedy's favorite pieces of music are those that most people have never heard of.

"Probably the most requested tune of all is Amazing Grace," he says. "On St. Patrick's Day, a lively tune that everyone enjoys is Garry Owen."

Kennedy has been a long-time member of a Lansing-area band, the Glen Erin Pipe Band. Members wear the Douglas clan tartan, a mix of muted green and blue. 

"This is a Scots and Irish band that plays mostly parades, an occasional concert and generally has a lot of fun," he says. "Most of my playing is done in parades with them."

For a number of years, Kennedy was doing solo competitions at area Highland games, including the Saline Celtic Festival.

"I can usually be found at Cleary's Pub on St. Patrick's Day and one might also hear me at other times playing for a wedding or a party," he says.

Kennedy also played a couple of seasons with the Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums, a group mainly involved in piping competitions at the various highland games that go on during the summer. 

Kennedy found the practice schedule of the Ann Arbor band too much of a demand on his time after deciding this past year to take up the Irish Uilleann pipes.

"I consider the Uilleann pipes to be an order of magnitude more difficult than the Highland pipes," he says.  "Now they are putting a demand on my time."

A couple of summers ago, Kennedy took both his wife and his bagpipes to Scotland and Ireland. 

"I took the pipes with me and played them at every scenic overlook there was to enjoy, of which there were plenty," he says.

"It's a trip I would highly recommend to anyone, with or without pipes.  There's plenty of good folk music, especially in Ireland."

Of course, Kennedy might be biased. His own roots are mostly Irish, but he has a love for Celtic music in general. 

"My ancestors, like many Irish of the mid 1800s, came out of the famine in search of better potatoes, among other things," he says.

The St. Patty's McFun-raiser will be held 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Clock Tower Building. Proceeds will help support the Chelsea Summer Fest.



Staff Writer Sheila Pursglove can be reached by telephone at 475-1371 or via e-mail at spursglove@heritage.com.

 

 

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