March 8, 2004
Reprinted courtesy Burlington County Times
A MIGHTY WIND: ART OF BAGPIPES HANDED DOWN
By Kim Benn, BCT staff writer, kbenn@phillyBurbs.com
Rae Newhall and Kevin Hughes may be separated in age by 59 years, but they have been drawn together by their love of bagpipes. The 77-year-old Newhall and 18-year-old Hughes met two years ago when Hughes’ parents were looking for someone to give their son bagpipe lessons as a Christmas present. Newhall, a Westampton resident, said he met with Hughes at the teen’s Cherry Hill home every weekend for two years starting in January 2002 to teach him how to play the Irish Highland bagpipes.
After using a practice chanter, a melody pipe without the attached bag, for seven months, Hughes got his first set of bagpipes in July 2002. He said it usually takes at least a year of learning on the practice chanter before moving to the bagpipes. “They assumed that after a month or so I would quit, but two years later, here I am,” said Hughes, a senior at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia.
By fall 2002, Hughes played well enough that he could have competed with Newhall in the Philadelphia Emerald Society Pipe Band, Newhall said, adding that Hughes was able to learn the competition tunes in only two or three months. When he first began giving Hughes lessons, Newhall said he didn’t mention anything about the pipe band, which is based in the city’s Mt. Airy neighborhood. “Quite frankly, I wanted to see how he did,” Newhall said. It’s safe to say that Hughes passed the test with flying colors. According to Newhall, after only two years of lessons, Hughes plays better than some people who have been playing the bagpipes for years.
Newhall told Hughes about the band shortly after Hughes stopped using the practice chanter and began playing the bagpipes. Hughes began practicing with the 20-member band that fall. “The big thing was that he had the desire,” Newhall said. “The want to do was there.”
While Hughes no longer needs lessons, the two still get together for about three hours each weekend at Hughes’ house to practice the band’s songs. The pipe band plays in four to five competitions and participates in eight to 10 parades and other events each year, said Newhall, who has performed with the pipe band in Ireland and in several local holiday parades. “Music has been an unbelievably fun trip,” he said.
Newhall, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant, began playing the bagpipes in 1950. He said he played for about 25 years before setting them aside for two decades. He picked the bagpipes up again around 1995 and has been playing ever since. When he started playing, Newhall said there were not many people who did. Since taking them up again, he said he has been surprised by how many people in the tri-state area now play. In addition to the bagpipes, Newhall plays piano, drums, trumpet, bass fiddle, bugle and French horn. The hardest instruments to learn? The bagpipes and French horn. “The first time I played the French horn I was so dizzy I almost fell off my chair,” he said.