Battle Creek

Midwest bagpipers and drummers skirl and snare together in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

The choice of Battle Creek as a rehearsal site for the Greater Midwest Pipe Band (GMPB) began as a matter of convenience for the musical ensemble and quickly transitioned into its home away from home.

On Saturday (May 18) the 30-member bagpipe and drum group will perform at the Cricket Club to raise money to finance a trip to Glasgow, Scotland, where they’ll participate in the World Pipe Band Championships. Tickets are $20 each for the fundraiser called “Kilts and Kegs” which begins at 6 p.m.

This is one of several fundraisers in Battle Creek and elsewhere the Pipe Band is doing to cover an estimated $80,000 to get them to Scotland. Band members will pay their own airfare which makes up one-third of this total. Ben Peterson, Pipe Major for the ensemble, says their typical annual operating expenses are about $10,000 which is covered through performances, grants, and sponsorships.

These competitions are the focus for the Pipe Band and are for bragging rights, he says of the GMPB which is a Grade Two Band. They play at four or five smaller competitions each year in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada in preparation for the World Pipe Band Competition.

“In the realm of competitive pipe bands, there are five levels. We are one tier down from the premier level,” he says. “There are thousands and thousands of pipe bands all over the world, but those at Grade Two are in the double digits. From a competitive standpoint bagpipe and drumming cost a lot more than what you can get out of it. People want to play with an organization that does well.”

The band is currently made up of 11 drummers and 19 bagpipers.
Formed in 2013, the GMPB participated in its first competitive season in 2014 making 2024 its 10th anniversary. From October to May every year, members representing a four-state area and Ontario, Canada, travel to the Music Center once a month to rehearse for the competitions.

The next closest Level Two Pipe Bands geographically are in Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.

The largest concentrations of GMPB come from Chicago and Detroit, says Peterson, who lives in Lombard, Illinois. They settled on Battle Creek after looking at a map to find a spot between the two cities.

The founders of the GMPB looked for space in Battle Creek that would fit their needs and reached out to representatives of the Masonic Temple to see if they’d be interested in hosting the band. Peterson says the band practiced there for eight years.

“They were like family to us,” he says. “Several of the gentlemen there kind of adopted us. We enjoyed being based out of there.”

When the Masonic Temple began undergoing changes and in a moment of serendipity, they found the Music Center.

“One of our intended weekend practices conflicted with another event at the Masonic temple. Once our calendar is set we have to stick to it,” Peterson says.

He got on the phone with Adam Tardif, Drum Major for the GMPB to figure out what they could do. During online searches, they found the Music Center. Peterson says he was flabbergasted because he had never heard or seen anything about the organization before reaching out to Susan Balbaugh, the Executive Director.

“The Music Center was gracious enough to let us hire the facility for the weekend,” Peterson says. “This location was ideal because it was purpose-built for music.” 

Balbuagh says Peterson called to tell her they “loved our space” and was interested in renting it on a once-a-month basis going forward. 

“That’s how this synergistic relationship started. Since then, we have worked out a partnership and now support their efforts in several ways including funding ideas and promoting their fundraiser. It’s been very exciting having them here,” Balbaugh says.

Because she works most Saturdays she gets to enjoy the music they play during their monthly rehearsals. Having some Scottish ancestry she says she’s always felt a kinship to pipe music and seeing it up close has been very special to her. The musicians are very hardworking and put a massive amount of effort into perfecting their playing. I’m especially pleased to see young players and female players as this is not what most people expect.”

In an effort to expose the Battle Creek community to their playing, she recommended them, something she doesn’t normally do, to perform in the Battle Creek Symphony’s season finale in April which was titled “Celtic Crossroads.

“They are a truly talented group and we heard many, many positive comments as a result of their participation,” Balbaugh says. “Having them march in from the back onto the stage was a great way to add drama while giving audience members a chance to see them individually and then as the whole group together. I look forward to seeing what they accomplish going forward, especially with their upcoming competitions.”

Coming together for the love of playing

When not playing their bagpipes or drums, members of the GMPB work their day jobs which include engineering, sales, technology, sanitation, electrical, and in the past, physicians and lawyers.

“One of the things that’s always fascinated me about pipe bands is that in each one you have a really diverse collection of men and women with a passion for playing. They sit down and engage in each other's lives while we play together,” Peterson says.

The youngest member of the Pipe Band is 19 and the oldest is in his 60s. One of the pipers is visually impaired.

When not performing with the GMPB they hire themselves out to play at events such as birthday parties, funerals, and community events. Some are also solo performers in competitions.

The GMPB doesn’t have a set audition process. The journey to becoming a member begins with a conversation with Peterson if they are a bagpiper or Tardif if they’re a drummer.

“They submit a video or play for us in person,” Peterson says. “If there is a lack of skill we can certainly work with them to get up to the level where they want to be.”

The GMPB also draws members from other smaller Pipe Bands within Michigan and throughout the Midwest.

Much of the time people will work with local bands which are easier to find now than they were 20 or 30 years ago, Peterson says.

“Usually at a local organization they’ll get instruction,” he says. “The (GMPB) is eccentric in that way because our focus is exclusively on preparing ourselves for competition. Typically a Pipe Band will gather once or twice a week and oftentimes will offer instruction around rehearsals. There are also different organizations where you can go to learn.”

Peterson is a bagpipe instructor at St. John’s Northwestern Academies in Deerfield, Wisconsin, in addition to serving as the school’s librarian and archivist. He says there are currently about 25 students in the school’s Pipe Band and Drumming program.

Perseverance and patience are key to mastering the bagpipes which he calls a multi-oriented instrument that requires multitasking.

At age five, he says he told his parents he wanted to learn to play the bagpipes. 

“They weren’t really sure where I got the idea from, but they always kept their ears to the ground about where to find instruction,” Peterson says.

When asked if he worries about a decline in the number of people who take up the bagpipes or the drums, he says, “I am terrified about that.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s he says, “So many people were learning and there was a good number of youth who were strident about it helped along by the Irish dance troupe, Riverdance, and the movies, 'Braveheart' and 'Brave.'”

However, the 2008 recession found many unable to participate, much less purchase bagpipes or drums.

“It’s a costly activity for sure. The financial aspect of it is certainly something that impacts all of us. There are any number of different ways to get support, from an educational standpoint there’s free instruction or loaner instruments.”

A baseline, entry-level set of bagpipes costs about $1,500. With the technological improvements that have been made, Peterson says that instrument will likely last someone the entirety of their playing career.

Despite this, he says there’s far less interest in bagpiping now than there has been.

“I feel very fortunate to have a job that allows me to have some small part in changing that. There is a lot of dialogue about why this is happening and how we can make it better.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.