The Omaha Pipes and Drums is a non-profit ensemble that teaches people how to play bagpipes and drums for free. The organization offers scholarships to help folks attend workshops nationwide and learn the instrument that calls to them.
With nine pipe players and five drummers currently in the group, the Omaha pipe band has competed twice (2004, 2017) in the annual World Pipe Band Championship in Scotland with about double those membership numbers. While most pipe bands dissolve after a few years years, the humble size represents another transition period for Omaha Pipes and Drums.
Many cities forget about their pipe bands until spring. On top of that, “Most people’s perception of bagpipes isn’t great because they heard their crazy uncle play the bagpipes at a wedding once, but for me, it’s a very serious instrument,” says Dr. John Brady, the pipe major and musical director of the Omaha Pipes and Drums Band.
Brady recalled his first show with the group, which took place in Kansas City during the late Nineties. He lived in South Dakota and had about three years of experience playing, deciding to mirror his wife’s decision to learn. When asked if he was nervous about his first regional competition, John confirmed, “I didn’t want to be the guy that screwed up.” Two decades into his tenure at Omaha Pipes and Drums, not only did John become appointed musical director, but his daughter, Katie, currently plays in The Twin Cities Metro Pipe Band (MN). Clearly, things worked out.
The night before our annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, John informed me that Omaha Pipes and Drums would not participate like in years prior due to the 30-degree weather. But Pride Lynch, who I spoke to a few days after the parade at his suggestion, confirmed that the band kept busy and had a blast anyway. Their first gig was at 11 a.m., and the last performance started at 8:30 p.m. The pipe band split into two groups for a total of 28 stops, and each group changed locations about every 20 minutes.
Now in her seventies, Pride has played with the band from almost the beginning, joining alongside her late husband, George, in 1975. She was born in rural Alabama and has played music since she was three years old, performing in bands since age five since there was “not much to do.” She, her sisters, and her cousins were raised as multi-instrumentalists.
Tony Smith, a former Canadian Cameron Highlander Cadet much too young to be a part of the Canadian army (where he also started a pipe band), created the Omaha pipe band in 1970 after his underage status got him kicked out of service. At first, Tony charged members one dollar per month to incentivize people to stick around. After dissolving within a few years like most bands, Smith quickly reorganized the group in 1975 with a new goal: teach the pipes and drums for free.
Pride joined the re-organization efforts after seeing an ad in the paper. Aside from Tony, “George and I were the only other ones when we started,” she said. Tony dedicated himself to the band, the drums, and securing gigs for the group. According to Pride, “nobody didn’t know him.”
Performing an indispensable, dual role as a seamstress for the band, Pride made roughly 30 kilts in addition to galoshes. Meanwhile, Tony’s brother, belonging to Cincinnati Caledonian Pipes and Drums, sold and donated drums to the Omaha pipe band. To pick up a bass drum, Tony convinced a trucker to help with transportation; the bass drum rode in the back of a refrigerated truck and got delivered on a meat hook.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Omaha pipe band took off, gaining visibility and more members. Part of their early success involved a solid high school drum core. Several drummers joined to learn the unique Highlander drumming style, which is more complex than traditional marching band drum work.
In her early experience with the band, Pride performed at a parade and broke the gender gap at an Offutt Air Force mess hall dine-in ceremony, where outsiders, let alone women, were scarcely allowed inside the base. As a former saxophonist and flutist, she wasn’t nervous.
We rarely recognize the impact we leave during our lives, but people may remember someone they see in a parade. As such, a widow, at the request of her late husband, asked Pride to play at a funeral ten years ago due to her presence in the Omaha Pipes and Drums. All because she marched in a parade in 1978 with a brace on her leg, and he remembered her.
The band has practiced at the VFW in Florence, Creighton Prep, and Barrett’s Barley Corn before ending up at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church off 84th and Pacific for the last two decades, where they practice and teach lessons weekly. In exchange for rent, the pipe band performs an annual concert for the church.
Omaha Pipes and Drums want to set new members up for success. To start learning the bagpipes, don’t buy a set of bagpipes. The organization recommends finding a practice chanter, which is significantly quieter than a set of pipes, takes less energy, and sells for under $100. According to Brady, if you practice diligently, in 3-6 months, you can learn some simple songs before teachers consider transitioning students to bagpipes. To get started on drums, they suggest buying sticks and a practice pad.
To join the band, visit omahapipesanddrums.org. The organization practices and give lessons on Saturday mornings, but if people need other times, the group will work with them.
As a musician, I can only dream of playing music when I am 70 like Pride Lynch. And I wonder how many future musicians are out there with a story like John Brady’s waiting to unfold, who unexpectedly found their instrument later in life.
As I stood in my old high school’s band room on a Thursday night, observing two bagpipers practicing with the Nebraska Brass Band to prepare for a stacked, sold-out show days away, it was hard not to feel blown away. It’s clear that anyone who joins Omaha Pipes and Drums will have a bright future and a good time should they tag along for the ride.