Vincent Robinson started taking free bag pipe lessons 12 years ago without any idea of how to play the complex instrument.
Since then, the Ridge man’s musical accomplishments include opening for rocker Rod Stewart at Madison Square Garden in 2007 and appearing in the movie “Morning Glory” teaching Diane Keaton to play the pipes.
Robinson owes those experiences to being a member of the Siol na h’Eireann Pipe Band, which continues to offer free lessons every Wednesday night at the Ancient Order of Hibernia in Selden.
He also has been personally invited to Ireland twice to play a set of war pipes recovered from a World War I battlefield that he inherited from his father. The second time he was invited in 2002, it was to play for the Irish president.
“You never know what experiences you’re going to have,” said Robinson, who’s now the pipe band major.
When the band was first created in 1989, said band manager and drum major Phil Sullivan, it was made up entirely of AOH members. But over the years, band members have come and gone. And now, there are fewer band members with an Irish lineage.
Currently, there are about 50 members, he said, including pipers and drummers, some of which have been playing for less than a year, and some of which have been playing for more than 30.
“Just about everyone in this band was a student first,” he said. “We’ve taught everyone.”
Sullivan said when someone first joins the band they spend a year or two learning to play on a chanter, which resembles a recorder. After a piper masters the finger movements and blowing into the chanter, they transition to playing on a full bag pipe.
Rachel Schwartz, a dental hygienist from East Setauket, said despite not being Irish she has wanted to learn to play the pipes since she was in her teens. She said she started to learn in college, but soon realized that mastering the complex instrument would take much more time and dedication. After three years with the band, she’s now just learning to transition from a chanter to a full bag pipe.
“Right now I’m learning to keep air in the bag while keeping the drones going,” Schwartz said. “And then you have to march in a straight line.”
The band marches in about 20 parades a year, Sullivan said, nine in the month of March alone including Manhattan’s parade.
Robinson said there’s nothing like the feeling he gets each year as he turns the corner at Fifth Avenue on the parade route and hears the sound of the pipes begin to play. It gives him goose bumps, he said, but even so, what he really treasures is being a part of the band.
“There’s nothing like the pleasure of learning to play an instrument then playing with the band,” he said. “You can be a solo piper and that’s great, but to get a bunch of pipers together and play and sound like one is terrific.” Check back later for video from band practice and to hear more about where the band performs.
Vincent Robinson, pipe band major for the Siol na h'Eireann Pipe Band, rehearses at the Ancient Order of Hibernia in Selden. (Feb. 1, 2011)