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Mahopac Tenor Drummer Enjoys Stepping in Place with Bagpipe Band

Bagpipes aren’t just about the party.

Photo by Donald Judge 

The Blackthorn Pipe Band can usually be found ascending 5th Avenue every March 17 in New York City, where they proudly march to the Irish spirit of St. Patrick.  They also answer the call for a number of other parades and celebrations in Yonkers, Peekskill and White Plains throughout the calendar year. Either way, each piper knows how off they sound if going without practice for a week or so. That said, everyone else in listening proximity is well aware if the lapse lags past a seven day stretch, according to the band’s tenor drummer, Cathleen Benson of Mahopac, New York. But there’s more involved in being part of this type of band than just having the pipes to make this ancient Irish instrument sing triumphantly.

The first among the challenges is marching in line without bumping into anyone else and keeping pace with the beat. “If you can’t chew gum and walk at the same time, being in a bag pipe band is probably not for you,” joked Benson.

Even so, the 20 member strong band always needs time to get back in step after winter closes down all the local parade routes. “As the season comes around, we’re always practicing marching,” said Benson.

Beats, Braces, and Just Plain Fun

For her part, the tenor drum is harnessed over the shoulder, rests at the waist, and is secured to her left leg by a metal brace. “All the pressure is on your leg,” she said, “and then it’s a matter of keeping time with the beats and performing the various routines.

Benson originally took bagpipe lessons about a decade ago because it sounded like a fun activity. Later joining Blackthorn, she realized she couldn’t keep up with the rigors of instrument’s practice requirements. Instead, she opted for the drums. “There the ones with the long drumstick that looks like it has pomp pomp’s on the end of it,” she said.

Otherwise, Blackthorn stays in tune as they practice in place every Tuesday night at the Rambling House in Yonkers. “We always stand because we go into a small back room to play,” she said.

Nonetheless, Benson understood the payoff very early on. “The first time you march up 5th Avenue—St. Patrick’s Day—you cry,” she said. “It is amazing.”

The age ranges from teenagers to retirees, and the group is always looking for new members to join the marching beat. Unfortunately, that is always a challenge—especially when it comes to hanging on to the younger members.  “Students join us and then go off to college,” she said. “Those young adults end up having kids and can’t keep up with the time commitment.”

Bagpipes are not about the beer.

For those who have remained over the last 30 years, the party that often goes along with bag pipe playing is always saved for later. “We’re not allowed to have a drink before we start—ever,” she said.

The reasoning is simple. Blackthorn has been around enough players who put the party before the music. “They don’t realize how horrible they sound when alcohol comes into play,” she asserted.

That said, the after parade drinking is usually pretty light. But this doesn’t mean the good feelings aren’t always in flow around the traditional Irish music they play. “You don’t realize when you’ve had a couple of days off how much you miss everybody,” she says.

It then follows that Blackthorn doesn’t get caught up in the competitive playing nature that the culture sometimes encourages. In contrast, this means the good times are always in the bag. “We’re just there to have fun and enjoy each other’s company,” she concluded.

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Mahopac Tenor Drummer Enjoys Stepping in Place with Bagpipe Band
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