The City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums is an Eclectic Bunch
By James Cullum
What do a scientist at the National Research Lab, an employment lawyer, a data analyst for the Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service and the Department Chair of International Affairs at George Washington University have in common? They’re all members of the famous City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums band!
“Our family enjoys their performances in parades and City celebrations each year,” Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson told the Zebra. “And I hope they play ‘Amazing Grace’ at my funeral when I’m run over in a crosswalk by an errant biker.”
That’s right! That smartly dressed group of bagpipers and drummers who reliably perform the tear-inducing “Scotland the Brave” at the Scottish Christmas Parade in Old Town might sound uniform, but otherwise they’re a diverse bunch.
Take piper Pete Walker, for instance. While his kilt and bagpipes are safely locked away at home, Walker is a mild-mannered instrument scientist at the National Research Lab monitoring the planet’s ionosphere in ultraviolet via an Air Force weather satellite program.
“It’s about precision. To me, the pipe band is 18 people playing as a single instrument,” said Walker, who has played with the band for 14 years. “I can see the zen aspect of it, too, and after a big performance and you’re drenched in sweat and people are applauding, it’s just like getting off that runner’s high.”
Performing Scottish music to audiences creates an excitement unequaled for employment lawyer Ann Reesman, a piper with the band for the last 17 years. But her love of Scottish music and connection to the D.C. metro area goes back further, to 1966, when she and her all-girl fife and drum band, the “Tam O’ Shanters” of Somerset, Pennsylvania, marched in the American Legion Annual parade on Historic Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The best thing about playing with this band is the people. Bagpipers come from all walks of life,” Reesman said. “My favorite thing to do is parades in Alexandria. The community is so supportive. They see us coming down the street with our banner that says, ‘City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums,’ and they just stop and cheer as they recognize their hometown band. It’s thrilling. It’s such a thrill.”
Every Thursday night, the 31-member ensemble practices at the Durant Arts Center, and here’s a piece of little-known news: After practice on the evening of every first Thursday of the month, the band – disguised as ordinary civilians – plays a few sets at Murphy’s Irish Pub on King St. The band is also recruiting and interested candidates should make contact through their Facebook page.
“We also play for public concerts, for funerals for public service officers and city events, and I really love that kind of commitment to service in the community,” said Dr. Charles King, department chair of international affairs at George Washington University, who is also a piper with the band. “We think of ourselves as ambassadors for this historic town, who are committed to the highest possible musical standards.”
Alexandria’s Scottish roots run deep, as the city is named after Scottish landowner John Alexander. The band was formed in 1971, and their kilts are patterned after the tartan of the influential colonial-era Scottish peer Lord Thomas Fairfax, who was also the Baron of Cameron. The group, which is supported by the Office of Historic Alexandria, has performed for presidents, at nationally televised events and parades and private events throughout the east coast. In the city, they routinely play six annual events: the Scottish Christmas Walk, the George Washington Birthday Parade, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and three summer concerts.
Naturally, over time that’s meant some turnover, and the last original band member, piper Homer Babcock, retired two years ago. There’s also a new drum major, Konstantine Gojnycz, who will take over for Drum Major Kevin Donnelly (who is returning to the bagpipes) at this year’s Scottish Christmas Parade on Saturday, Dec. 1.
Gojnycz, a data analyst for the Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service, did plenty of marching as a U.S. Marine for 11 years. He’s spent the last two years developing his style under Donnelly’s tutelage.
“Every time I get in front of the band I consider myself very fortunate,” he said. “When you’re at the front, the band is your instrument and they will react to your commands and you have to be very confident, because they will follow you.”