In early July of 2018 we received contact information through the Chicago area bagpipe-band grapevine that someone was looking for a bagpiper, or perhaps a piper and a drummer, or perhaps even two bagpipers and a drummer. We got into contact with the requester, and after some discussion, it turned out that one bagpiper would fulfill their need. Every year, they get together and have a family reunion for a few days out West of Chicago, in Elburn, IL. The request was simple: come out and play in our barn for a little while.
Believe it or not, this was bit of a confusing request, and it took some wrapping my head around. Most of the time people ask for a bagpiper to come out and play as a quick novelty as a surprise, or to make some sort of grand entrance. Maybe heritage calls for bagpipes, or maybe they simple love the sound, but it’s truly rare that someone asks for an actual concert. So, driving out to Elburn, where I had never been, on a Thursday after work, I was not sure what to expect.
As I pulled off the main country road, and up the country drag, I approached what seemed like a farmstead on the left. This was my destination. Along the left of the long driveway was a house, and a few outbuildings were to the right, and a large, old barn stood prominently to the left: Mullins Barn. I later learned that the barn was over 100 years old. It has been featured in Chicago publications, had a couple of music videos filmed inside of it, and housed numerous weddings. The light of the setting sun peering in through gaps of the West and North facing walls creates a spectacular ambiance.
After Sharen and I made our introductions, and she explained what this place was, she explained what we were doing here. The family were mostly down in the yard on the other side of the barn, and were presently gathering their chairs and drinks to come into the barn to witness my performance. Dully, I confirmed her request, and then reiterated her statement to be sure: “So we’re just going to go into this barn, and I am going to play bagpipes, and all of you are going to listen?” “Yes.” I was pleased, frankly. We don’t often get the opportunity to play to an enraptured audience.
Which they were, along with being appreciative, inquisitive, and relatively knowledgeable. I took the opportunity to warm up my bagpipes while the family gathered. Sharen turned on the overhead mood lighting, and the family put folding lawn chairs along the sides of the main space, angling toward the West end of the rectangular building: my stage. When I was happy that my bagpipes had reached a state of predictable change (I knew how they would change if at all for about the next 40 minutes), I took my place.
I played nearly all of my active repertoire. After about 15 minutes, I took a short breather as the air was close, and I was sweating. There were children present, and they were encouraged to ask questions. The family, as it turns out, are long-time supporters of Midlothian Scottish, and appreciated discussing the origins of the band. I played some solo competition sets, standards, band sets, part of a piobaireachd, band competition sets. Brief explanations of certain sets were provided, stories about how or where I learned this or that tune were told. Someone said a prayer, and Amazing Grace was requested, and duly performed. Then, after about 45 minutes I explained that my bagpipes would soon begin to change, not to mention become difficult, and the performance was through.
I thanked the group for this rare opportunity to purvey the craft in such a unique and gratifying way, and for being the captive audience they had been.