Firefighters take up the bagpipes to honor fallen comrades

single-meta-cal October 10, 2019

Roque Haines guessed he would get a handful of interest when approached about starting a bagpipe band for members of Huntsville Fire and Rescue.

What he got, instead, was 12 dedicated members of the state’s only pipes and drum band.

“These guys are the go-getters,” said Haines, an engineer by trade, who was a member of the Wake and District Public Safety Pipes and Drums in Raleigh, N.C., before moving to Huntsville. “They’re like, ‘Yeah that looks hard but I think I’d like to try it. Usually, when we start with 10 piping students, after a year we’re down to maybe two. Here, we had two guys drop out because of the time commitment. All the rest have stuck with it.”

The band is composed of eleven men and one woman. Haines is the lone member who is not a firefighter. He joins fellow pipers Mike Mahoney, Tyler Totora, Mike Wolfe, James Guilliams, Reece Howell, Stephanie Pinto, Chris Boster and Jason Gaither. Chris Ragland and Will George play the drums and Hunter Robinson is the drum major.

Merry band of pied pipers

At the bagpipers first practice, Haines quickly assessed the band’s musical training. Some of the firefighters had musical experience. Ragland, for example, played in the marching band since a child and was part of the Alabama A&M marching band. Most of the members, however, had limited – at best – musical experience.

“I’ve never been in a band but I grew up playing piano,” said Howell, a driver based out of Station 12. “I, at least, knew how to read music. I knew nothing about bagpipes.”

Well, he did know one thing about the bagpipes.

“I always wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes,” Howell said. “Back in high school, I actually looked a buying a set to learn on my own. And then I saw how expensive they were and, doing it without lessons, that wasn’t an option.”

Learning to play the bagpipes is not a simple, overnight process. Haines said the process begins by playing a practice chanter, which Howell jokes “sounded like we were back in elementary school when you had to play recorders.” It’s actually an instrument that allows the students to work on finger placement.

“It takes so long to learn and get the finger position right,” Haines said.

Eventually, the band member graduated to playing the bagpipes. Each was responsible for purchasing their own bagpipe, which, Haines says start about $800. “It depends on how much fancy ornamentation you’ve got on it and the fittings,” he said. “$These (eventually) run anywhere from $1,500 up to five to six thousand bucks.”

Most of the members paid in the neighborhood of $2,000 for their bagpipes.

Practice makes perfect

Practice takes place once a week at Station 1 on Clinton Avenue. Sometimes the band practices in the old Johnson High School band room, now part of the temporary headquarters for the Police Academy. Haines said members of the neighborhood occasionally set up lawn chairs to listen to the music. Homework is also necessary.

“I practice about every day,” Ragland said. “I have a wooden pad. I keep it at the station and I practice at home. If not, it gets rough for me.”

The band’s first public performance came in May at the dedication ceremony for the opening of the First Responder Walkway at the Huntsville Madison County Veterans Memorial.

“They were really pleased,” Haines said. “We just did Amazing Grace, a really simple tune. All of the tunes I have them learning right now is anything played at a funeral. Later on, maybe next year we’ll learn some other songs.”

Haines said the plan is for the band to play at a Rocket City Curling Club tournament over the Labor Day weekend. He added the band is scheduled to play an event in Tuscaloosa and could have the opportunity to play in Christmas parades.

Perhaps the most important job, though, is to play at funerals.

“I’ve been on an honor guard, so we perform at retired firefighter funerals,” Howell said. “That’s just something I always thought was neat was to honor somebody who has passed. When they put this out, I wanted to be one of the guys to do that. You can see the family’s reaction when they hear the bagpipes play. You see how much it really means to them and how hits home.”