Remembering that first windy blat

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The leader of the Macalester College Pipe Band, Mike Breidenbach, above, remembers that his first attempt to play the bagpipe more than 20 years ago left him wondering where he’d find the air to sustain a tune.

“Aerobic,” is how one of his fellow pipers describes playing the instrument.

You blow, squeeze the bag, blow again, keep squeezing in just the right intervals. Oh yes, don’t forget to play the tune on the chanter with its nine finger holes for nine notes.

Many of us can empathize over an experience with a challenging instrument.

For me, it was my first attempt to play the clarinet as a fifth grader under the tutelage of the wonderfully patient John Varner, our small town school music director. Imagine the bleats, squawks and blats music educators endure as they patiently wait for callow youth with flabby lips and uncoordinated fingers to achieve even a modest level of musical skill.

Breidenbach grew up in hockey land, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and aspired to be a rock and roller, (“didn’t everyone. . . .?”) but not a hockey player.

His matriculation to Macalester introduced him to the penetrating wail of the Scottish Highland bagpipe, and he was converted.

Twenty years later he’s director of piping at Macalester and the leader of the college band. Saturday in St. Paul at Celtic Junction the pipers along with dancers and others put on their spring concert.

By the way, the Mac pipe band is the state’s oldest, officially founded in 1949. How can one resist going to the wonderful Minnesota Historical Society photo collection to look for an image, and guess what? Here’s a 1953 photo, thank you MHS, of some Mac pipers in front of the old Donaldson’s department store in downtown Minneapolis.

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One of the Macalester pipers guesses there are more Swedes playing the instrument in Minnesota than Scots, a bow to the state’s demography. We are, after all, a long way from the Isles.

Even so there’s a world class collection of pipers here. Besides the Macalester group there are solo artists including Laura MacKenzie and Dick Hensold. Check ’em out.

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