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March 11, 2004
Reprinted courtesy Chestnut Hill Local

By Lauren Fritsky

Even though he is technically retired, Roxborough’s Joe Tobin can’t seem to sit still. Instead of enjoying the easy life in some warm climate, the former Army Reserve and Philadelphia parole officer serves as the pipe major for the Philadelphia Emerald Society Pipe Band. He has been a bagpiper for 23 years and pipe major for nine years.

Tobin, who will be playing in the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade, grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Saint Joseph’s University with a degree in political science and got his masters at Villanova University. His next step was enlisting in the Army Reserves, where he served in the infantry for eight years and then as Command Sergeant Major. During his time in the reserves, Tobin traveled to California, Texas, Georgia and Germany.

Tobin then became a supervisor for the Philadelphia Probation and Parole Department for the next 30 years. It was while doing this taxing job that Tobin found bagpiping as a relaxing hobby. He got more involved as time went on, eventually practicing for one hour every day. “You gotta have something,” Tobin said. “It was always something I wanted to do. It helped me get away from the other stuff I was doing. It’s an escape, something totally different, and it’s good therapy.”

The Philadelphia Emerald Society was founded in 1973 and is the oldest Irish pipe band in the city. The society was originally created for police and firemen, but Tobin says it is now open to people of all ages and occupations.

Tobin, who is 100 percent Irish, has three grown children, Kathleen, Joseph and Patrick. Tobin often brought his children to practices and competitions, which had a positive effect on Patrick, who is now learning how to play drums for the band.

Since becoming pipe major, piping has become a responsibility rather than a hobby. One particular challenge is that the pipe band has gotten several new, inexperienced members over the past few years, which keeps the band in the building stages. “This is a challenge,” Tobin said, “but we are pretty successful. We are progressing well. It’s slow, but sure.”

The pipers participate in local parades and area competitions. They also play at weddings and parties and use the money to buy uniforms and finance transportation to competitions. The pipers have also been to Ireland three times to play in the All Ireland Pipe Band Competition. One of Tobin’s fondest memories is when the pipers finished in first place at the Grade 5 level of the competition shortly after he became pipe major. The band then moved up to the next level, Grade 4. The pipers are planning their next excursion to Ireland for the summer of 2005.

“The best times are the trips to Ireland,” Tobin said. “Everyone enjoyed themselves, we played, brought our families. It’s something to look forward to.”

The Emerald Society currently has 16 pipers and five drummers. Tobin said that the latter are harder to come by because the style for pipe band drumming is Gaelic, which is harder for some drummers. The band is always looking for both pipers and drummers, and Tobin said that while it is nice if people already have experience, they will teach beginners how to play. Tobin actually gives pipe and drum lessons at his home in Andorra.

“I like teaching people,” Tobin said. “It’s gratifying to see people come in and their playing is a dozen times better than when they first started.”

The band is made up of mostly men; there are only three or four women. They practice on Thursdays from 8 to 10 p.m. at the Commodore Barry Club in Mt. Airy. The newer players usually come in early to get in some extra practice during which they learn the basic parade tunes.

“It’s important for new players to gradually assimilate,” Tobin said. “If you can practice five hours a week, it’s good. You have to practice. I realize that many members have families and jobs and sometimes can’t make a 100 percent commitment. Sometimes I have to be willing to give a little bit.”

When he’s not piping, leading the band or giving lessons, Tobin enjoys writing and photography. He is also a volunteer for the Barren Hill Fire Company and is presently researching the history of the Philadelphia Fire Department.