TOPSHAM, Maine — From February to October, bagpiper Jeff Herbster gives his bagpipes a workout, performing at an average of 30 weddings and other events. He has become a mainstay at the Topsham Fair.
His favorite reaction?
“‘Are you the guy who was at the Topsham Fair?’ Yep, that’s me. I can’t tell you how many times, I’ll be standing in line at the store and I’ll have a T-shirt on that says ‘Piobaireachd (the classical music of bagpipes) … If you can’t say it, you can’t play it.’
“I’ve got one that says, ‘I’m addicted to loud pipes,’ and there’s a picture of bagpipes on the front. And somebody will say, ‘Do you play the pipes?’”
Herbster tells them, “Yeah, I sure do,” which brings them to the Topsham Fair question.
The Brunswick bagpiper has made many local appearances wearing a kilt of his ancestors’ MacKay clan tartan, bagpipes sounding. As a bus driver for School Administrative District 75 for what will be his fourth year, he often sees kids who ride his bus at the fair. But just in case they missed him there, the last day of school last year he surprised students leaving class at Woodside Elementary School with a bagpipe performance as they headed for their buses.
The children who ride Herbster’s bus know their driver knows a lot about instruments. Not only can he play several, he can talk at length about the instruments and the music they make.
At the Topsham Fair, Herbster doesn’t stand on a stage and just play for 45 minutes.
Instead, “I get right up there in front of the bleachers and I talk about the pipes. I talk about how they work, the history of the pipes, what the different tunes mean,” and what the songs are really about.
The bagpipes, he said, have been around at least 2,000 years, but not in their present form. The bagpipes are aerophones, air-powered instruments with a drone and a chanter — something with holes to make a melody.
Herbster said there are roughly 30 different kinds of bagpipes. Among aerophone variations are Scottish pipes, the Great Highland bagpipes, the Irish Uilleann pipes, the Northumbrian pipes, the Britain pipes, and the Polish Duda.
Herbster, who has performed in weather conditions ranging from 15 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, plays a set of Polypenco pipes crafted by Dunbar Bagpipes in Canada. The pipes are made of a very dense material called Delrin plastic, which prevents them from expanding in hot weather or contracting in cold weather. That consistency allows the pipes to maintain their pitch.
In 1963, Herbster was in third grade when the school music teacher suggested to his parents he would do well on the violin, the first instrument to grace his resume. From then until he graduated from high school, Herbster took lessons once a week from the same man. He practiced an hour every day.
Playing all those scales over and over paid off when he got to play with the Allentown Symphony Society in Allentown, Pa., where he grew up. He also played in a regional orchestra with musicians from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.
By then his musical repertoire had expanded to include the French horn, clarinet, oboe and a larger oboelike English horn.
Later, Herbster, now 57, took up the sitar after listening to George Harrison, the late Beatles guitarist, play a similar instrument, a dilruba, on the song, “Within You Without You.” He has played the sitar since 1970.
The sitar is one of his favorite instruments to play because it relaxes him. There are 10 scales and, “You’re improvising on an ascending and a descending scale,” he said. Noting that a sitar player need not adhere closely to what’s written on sheet music, Herbster explained that, other than following a set of guidelines, “you’re free to play what you want.”
In September 1971, Herbster was drafted into U.S. Navy. At age 18, he left home and ended up staying in the Navy until he retired from the service in 1995.
“I’ve been around the world twice,” he said.
He never stopped playing his violin and took it with him wherever he went during those 24 years in the Navy.
Rooted in family
Herbster said his ancestors on his mother’s side came from Scotland, which is how he got interested in the bagpipes. He started researching the family line, tracing it back to the 1600s. He doesn’t know if any of his ancestors played bagpipes, but thought, “That might be a challenge. I think I’ll try those. And now, this is what I do. This is how I spend my summer, especially at Topsham Fair,” where he played four shows last week.
Playing the bagpipes requires a mix of physical exertion and tonal precision. He confirmed it takes a lot of air to play the three drones and chanter, which all must be in perfect tune with one another. Meanwhile, the piper must constantly flex his arm and rib area while playing. He can change the pitch of the chanter by adjusting the pressure on the bag as he squeezes.
All the music must be memorized, and Herbster knows between 200 and 250 pipe tunes.
“For somebody to learn an instrument, that’s a commitment they have to make,” said Herbster, who also gives lessons on various instruments, including the bagpipes and violin. “And I still practice when I get the chance now. I’ve got so many instruments, [I ask myself], well what do I practice today?”
He even has gone to the career day at Woodside Elementary School and talked to the students about what it means to have a career in music: “It’s not just sitting there playing three chords on a guitar and having an amplifier. There’s a lot of work involved, and that’s what they wanted to get across to these kids.”
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