By Josette Keelor
WOODSTOCK -- A visit to the music building at Massanutten Academy might be surprising to some. During songs and in between, as cadets separate into practice groups or await instruction, a heart-thumping metronome beat sounds every second. It keeps time for the musicians and reminds them of their purpose.
Since losing two consecutive band directors to administrative positions last year and most of the band's members by the summer session, the bagpipe band has had to rediscover its cadence.
With new music director Sean Regan, the band has kept on marching.
Last year when it started, the band had a sizable number even then, according to senior Denis Brooker, 17, and sophomore Schyler Lanphere, 14. For various reasons, most members dropped out, but within a few weeks Regan has rebuilt membership to more than 20 percent of the school's student body.
But they're not there yet.
"This semester, this year really, is a building year for everybody," said Regan, 25, "and the next three or four years definitely and probably longer than that are going to be building years for the music program simply because we don't have that established 'seniors with four years experience,' et cetera, to build a strong, strong program musically speaking.
"But we do have a smattering of other instruments that I'm working to incorporate into sort of smaller ensembles, and actually the pipes go really well with brass," he said.
The group has performed at some school-sponsored parades so far and at September's Edinburg Ole Time Festival. Now they have their sights set on Christmas.
Regan plans to combine pipers with musicians on snare drum, trombone, euphonium, electric bass and a couple of woodwinds for the holiday performance -- something to give musicians outside the pipe band more of an ensemble experience.
It's difficult to offer that kind of variety at a small school, he said, "which is one of the reasons why the pipe band is so convenient, because a pipe band with ten pipers and four snare drummers and two tenor drummers and a bass drummer is a fairly sizable organization."
And that's only 17 members, he said. The full band has 22, out of about 100 cadets at the school.
"So you have 22 percent of the school," he said laughing. "The plan is to recruit for next semester and next fall, as well, within the school, but as we develop a program that really is reflective of a level of excellence that we'll come to expect, I believe we'll attract interest from outside the school."
Most of what the band will play this year is what it played last year, but Regan's teaching methods allow for more experienced musicians to excel without leaving new students behind.
Songs like "Jingle Bells," "Auld Lang Syne" and the school's alma mater offer simple notes for beginners but also allow for flourishes that Regan said will add several layers to the music and a better listening experience for the audience.
"This will give us a solid repertoire from year to year," he said. Even though the band will always have beginners, he intends to help it excel to competition levels over the next another three years or more.
Lanphere, who played saxophone three years ago, took up the bagpipe as a scholarship opportunity and he found he enjoyed it.
Brooker played violin in middle school but admitted it was no help with learning to play the pipes.
Last fall, Brooker said, the band had even more members than it does now. "More and they were all pipers," he said. "It was three pipers and two drummers by the end of the year."
Two pipers remained to this year -- they were Lanphere and Brooker.
"I just enjoy the challenge, I guess," Brooker said.
Lanphere agreed, it's hard in the beginning, "but you get used to it."
Put another way, "Once it sounds good, it's fun," Brooker said.
"And it's like, you got to keep the beat, otherwise it sounds terrible."
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com