SHARPSVILLE — When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, nothing compares to the feeling of kicking in the door of a pub and walking in while playing the bagpipes.
Sharpsville resident and piper Ross Williams might stop by three or four different places throughout the holiday with a jig or an upbeat song. Each stop is about an hour long, but a live piper can really bring a party “alive.”
“When they see you come in and hear the music, everybody really goes nuts,” Ross said.
Ross played guitar as a kid before he picked up the bagpipes. Playing mostly by ear, he wasn’t much into reading music – not that it would have prepared him for bagpipe music anyway.
“The way it’s written is totally unlike anything else,” Ross said. “It’s not like you could take piano music and play the pipes music.”
When he and his wife Jolene began preparing for their wedding about 32 years ago, the couple — both fans of bagpipe music — decided they wanted to have a piper perform at the wedding. Though his wife’s family is Slovenian, Jolene’s father was a “big fan” of bagpipe music while Ross, who is of Scotch-Irish-Welsh descent, said he always loved the sound of bagpipes.
During a Bavarian Fun Fest in Sharon, the couple met the Grove City Highland Band, whom Ross initially approached about performing for the wedding.
“I was just going to ask a couple questions and see if anybody was interested, but the next thing I knew, I ended up becoming friends with them, and they eventually got me to play the bagpipes,” he said.
Even though he now plays Highland bagpipes – a Scottish set of bagpipes with three drones – learning to play was a “difficult” process due in part to the physicality of playing them, but also because Ross compared playing bagpipes to playing “four different instruments at once.”
The chanter, or flute-like part of the bagpipes, and the three drones, or the pipes, each have their own reeds, making four individual reeds. When learning to play the bagpipes, prospective pipers may start by “corking off” the other reeds so that the student can start by learning the chanter and “uncorking” the rest of the pipes as the student progresses.
“You’re going to want to invest a good year in learning how to blow that chanter,” Ross said. “If you can stick with it for about a year, then you can move on to the bagpipe.”
Eventually, Ross ended up joining the Grove City Highland Band, and later went on to join the Allegheny and District Pipe Band, the Veterans Memorial Pipe Band, and the North Coast Pipe Band from Kent, Ohio.
Two of his sons have also taken up music. Sean Williams also became a piper, and Connor Williams is a drummer. Both play with Ross in the North Coast Pipe Band.
Fortunately, Ross said his wife has been supportive through the years of people in her home learning to play bagpipes and drums.
“She loves it, but she’s probably responsible for making me learn,” he said. “When we were looking for a piper, she told me ‘You ought to learn how to do it.’”
Aside from performing at events such as weddings, funerals and the Primary Health Network’s “Shamrock and Run” 5k, Ross said he and his sons will be traveling to Glasgow, Scotland with the North Coast Pipe Band in August for the World Pipe Band Championships, where more than a hundred pipe bands participate.
“The most enjoyment that I get is actually competing with the band,” he said. “I absolutely love marching into a circle and playing the best you can and sounding the best you can.”
Even though people may only think of bagpipe music during events such as funerals or St. Patrick’s Day, Ross said there are many more pipers out there than people may realize.
“Sometimes people come up to me and say, ‘What a dying art,’” he said. “But I totally disagree.”
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