Between playing at Irish pubs and police funerals, a group of musically inclined public safety workers keeps a busy schedule of nearly 10 performances a month.
Wake & District Public Safety Pipes and Drums creates quite a scene – and sound – at its events, sporting kilts and standing in formation. Regardless of the occasion, the presence of the 45-member group “really just takes it over the top,” said band manager Mike Bishop, a Garner fire captain.
The Raleigh-based group has been together only since 2006, but the tradition of piping public safety officers goes back centuries. Fire and police departments in the Midwest and Northeast – where more officers have a Scots-Irish heritage – have always incorporated the sound into official ceremonies, from rank advancements to funerals.
“By starting that here, you’re bringing that tradition into this area,” Bishop said, adding that it didn’t take long for the bagpipe band to catch on. “There’s some events now that it’s understood that we’re going to be there.”
The most important gigs for the group – known simply as Wake & District – are funerals for police and firefighters killed in the line of duty. This summer, the band played at a state trooper’s funeral.
“You see what it means to the family that you’re there and what it means to their colleagues,” Bishop said.
Most members of Wake & District had never picked up a set of bagpipes when the group formed six years ago. The experienced musicians who founded the organization offered to serve as teachers. They continue to provide weekly lessons to new recruits and will be seeking new members at an informational meeting in January.
“It’s a very difficult instrument to learn,” Bishop said. “It’s like taking a five-gallon trash can, popping holes in it and getting it to fill with air. ... For a long time, you’re just playing one drone, trying to keep a constant steady pressure. You’re looking at a year of practicing before you’re playing at events with the band.”
Those with less patience – or just less tolerance for what initially sounds like “nails on a chalkboard,” Bishop says – can join the drum section with about six months of training. And while the majority of the band members are police, firefighters or paramedics, anyone can join Wake & District.
Experienced Wake & District members often moonlight as solo performers, playing at weddings, memorials and Highland Games, sometimes even competing.
Others have nonmusical side projects, such as drum sergeant Patrick O’Leary, a “civilian” member of the group who lives in Clayton. O’Leary runs a new charity called Kids Need Christmas, which collects holiday gifts for needy children. He’s partnering with his colleagues in Wake & District to put on a fundraising show Saturday at Tir Na Nog.
“There ought to be some way that kids can get a little bit of something,” particularly after a natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy, O’Leary said. “In a little kid’s eyes, if Santa doesn’t make it, they don’t believe in Santa anymore.”
O’Leary hopes his group will play Santa to dozens of kids while treating donors to the sounds of Wake & District and other Irish performers.