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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

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In Music

The Greater Milwaukee Fire & Police Pipes & Drums at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Downtown Milwaukee.

In Music

Noel Tylla playing the pipes.

Local bagpipers might blow you away


Before introducing three talented and passionate Milwaukee bagpipers, here's a bagpipe joke.

A guy walks into a jazz club with an octopus under his arm and bets the bartender the octopus can play every instrument in the place. The bartender agrees and hands the octopus a clarinet.

The octopus starts playing ragtime. The bartender says, "dang!" and hands the octopus a guitar. The octopus starts playing flamenco. The bartender, extremely impressed, heads to the basement and comes back with bagpipes and hands it to the octopus.

The octopus just stares it at for several minutes. The bartender impatiently asks, "Well, aren't you gonna play it?" The octopus says "Play it? As soon as I get it out of its pajamas, I'm gonna date it."

(Insert droning, groaning bagpipes sound here).

Noel Tylla started playing the bagpipes in 2002, five years after visiting Scotland, where she became intrigued by the instrument. (She has now been to Scotland 14 times.) Today, she is the pipe major (band leader) for the Shamrock Club Pipes and Drums.

"It's pretty rare for a girl to be a pipe major around here as it tends to be a bit of a fun boys club," she says.

Tylla says she was a "failure" as a music major at UWM but has been a musician for most of her life. She has a marching band / drum corps background and played with two AC/DC tribute bands: Billy Bon Scott and Razor's Edge. She is also working on a punk project. Consequently, when she picked up the pipes, she had enough of a music foundation to learn it fairly quickly.

"It was a very short process for me. I was up and playing in a few months time," she says. "There are very few instruments that give you such chills when played properly. It's a very powerful and haunting instrument."

There are only nine notes up and down the scale and no sharps or flats. Bagpipers must learn the notes as well as how to simultaneously and steadily blow the pipes to maintain an even droning sound. After the instrument is mastered, learning to play in a group, while marching, is another challenge.

Getting sound from a set of bagpipes minimally involves air supply, the bag, a chanter (how the melody is created, the part of the instrument that looks like a recorder) and at least one "drone" (continuous sound of a note or chord).

Tylla says she tries to practice a few times a week on her own, aside from band practice.

"It's a really physical instrument and you have to keep up your chops for playing. It's definitely been the most rewarding and frustrating thing I've ever done in my life," she says.

Tylla describes her bagpipes as a "pretty basic set" that runs for about $1,100. The instrument – when new – can range in price from about $700 to $10,000 for a fully-engraved silver set.

Like Tylla, Mark Rooney started playing the bagpipes in 2001. Being of Irish descent, the instrument always interested him, but it was after Sept. 11 that Rooney, a police officer, decided to start playing.

"After watching pipers escort remains recovered at ground zero I knew I had to learn to play and honor the fallen," he says.

Rooney joined the Greater Milwaukee Fire & Police Pipes & Drums. The band plays at memorials, police and fire academy graduations, charity events, 4th of July parades, the Highland Games and more.

"People either love 'em or hate 'em," he says. "They always attract attention and draw people towards them. It stirs deep emotions in many who hear them."

Robert Young started playing the bagpipes when he was 10 years old. He first saw them in the film, "Rob Roy and the Highland Rogue."

"The pipes were blown throughout the movie and succeeded in sending chills up my spine," says Young. "I was 8 years old and the bagpipe has never failed to thrill me."

Young played with the Canadian Legion Band in Milwaukee which later became the Milwaukee Highlanders Pipe Band. Young was elected pipe major in 1968. He later moved to Denver, Col. and became the pipe major for the City of Denver Pipe Band.

He then played in Seattle for a time, but ultimately returned to Milwaukee, suffered some health issues, and took up the pipes again in 2006. He has been playing, teaching and winning competitions ever since.

"When I first began playing, my grandmother asked why I hadn't taken up something useful, like the clarinet. I proceeded undaunted," he says.

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