Rhinelander bagpiper keeps traditions alive
When Russell Swanson was fighting in the European Theatre during WWII, it was the strident and persistent sound of bagpipes floating over the battlefield that made him realize Allied forces were near and safety was at hand. As a little girl, Stephanie Schroeder listened to these stories and when she was in college, she decided to learn how to play this instrument that is so connected to Scottish and Irish heritages.
“My dad was really the inspiration for me to learn how to play the bagpipes,” she said. “He would tell stories about fighting in World War II and when he heard the bagpipes, he knew the Allies were near and the fighting would stop.”
Stephanie is a familiar face at the Oneida County Department on Aging building where she serves as the activities and volunteer coordinator. But she remembers with fond memories playing the bagpipes while she attended school at UW-Stevens Point.
“We actually had a band called the Wisconsin Kilties,” she said. “We played all over the place in parades, at memorials and at funerals.”
Stephanie is particularly proud of the time the Kilties won second place in an international competition back in the mid 1970s in Alma, Mich., during the annual Highland Festival. Winning this award made her glad she took to the instrument fairly easily. She was already an accomplished oboe and flute player when she picked up her first set of bagpipes.
“The reed of an oboe is similar to the one on a bagpipe, but you really have to know how to breathe correctly,” she said. “It takes a lot of air to blow up the bag and then perform music through the pipes. Within two weeks of picking up my first bagpipes, I was playing with the band mostly in parades. I remember thinking ‘what have I got myself into?’ because it was so hot.”
Bagpipes are one of the oldest instruments in the civilization of man. True facts about their exact origin are sketchy, but for certain they played a big role in the countries making up Europe throughout the ages. It is believed they made it to the highlands of Scotland, England and Ireland when the Romans invaded those countries.
The instrument has seen some modifications over the years. Originally, the bag was made from the skin of sheep, goats, cows and even dog. Black ebony wood, cured for at least 40 years, make up the pipes and the chanter, the horn with the fingerholes that produces the melodies of the instrument.
The bagpipes came to America when the Scottish and Irish immigrated to this country. It is a popular instrument played at funerals, particularly during police and fire fighter memorials. That’s because when the Irish immigrated here, no one was very fond of these dangerous jobs so this ethnic group stepped up. Part of their heritage was to play bagpipe tunes during the funerals of their friends and families and naturally, they brought that custom with them when they came to America.
Bagpipes have also been used throughout the ages to rally soldiers to battle.
“They used to put them in the front of the troops, leading them into battle,” said Stephanie. “Later they moved them to the rear because they kept getting picked off.”
Kilts and ornate garb are often worn by bagpipe players. Stephanie has a complete outfit she dons when marching in a parade or playing at a memorial service. The kilt alone required more than eight yards of cloth to construct.
There are special shoes, coats, hats and shirts worn by bagpipe players and most take great pride in their garb as they swing lightly down the street. Stephanie’s outfit cost her close to $2,000.
“Everything is very specialized,” she said. “And there are different pieces of the outfit worn for different types of ceremonies. For instance, there is a special drape we wear for a funeral and there are different types of hats worn, depending on the heritage of the group.”
The instrument itself requires lots of upkeep. There are numerous reeds that must be kept at just the right moisture level and every so often, all the pipes must be rewrapped with a special type of hemp fiber. Even the bag has to be massaged with a unique type of oil to keep it subtle and pliable.
Stephanie occasionally plays for funerals and other occasions, but her job and family duties keep her pretty busy. However, she is the mascot of the Parrish Highlander ATV Club and plays in the Antigo parade every year. And she does love to play with other bagpipe musicians; however, they are hard to come by, especially in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
“I really love harmonizing with another bagpiper,” she said. “But there aren’t too many around, at least up here.”
With St. Patrick’s Day being celebrated this weekend, many will recall with wonder and sadness a place and time where a bagpiper played the familiar “Scotland the Brave” or “Amazing Grace” at a fallen hero’s memorial.
“When I play my bagpipes, people really pay attention and seem to enjoy it,” said Stephanie. “Playing the bagpipes gives me a real sense of pride, especially when I see people enjoying the music so much.”