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Good set of pipes

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January 1, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

ORWELL — As the town of Middlebury’s director of operations, Dan Werner keeps track of a lot of pipes, from four-inch water mains to jumbo culverts.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Each Tuesday night, Werner makes the long drive from his Orwell home to Montpelier, where he spends a solid two-and-a-half hours with another set of pipes — bagpipes, as a member of the Catamount Pipe Band.

It’s indeed a labor of love for Werner, who took up the bagpipes later in life, during his mid-40s.

“I think it came from when I was a kid,” Werner, now 50, said of his deep-seated love for the odd looking Scottish musical instrument. “My parents took us to parades, and that sound kind of stuck with me. Over the years, I always said, ‘I’ve got to do that.’”

It was around five years ago that Werner decided to give notes to the musical score he had to settle.

He joined the Pipes and Drums of St. Andrews, Vermont, a band based in Essex Junction. There, Werner learned some of the bagpipe basics and how to perform with other musicians.

While they may look primitive to some, bagpipes aren’t a cinch to learn, Werner stressed.

“People say there are only nine notes, but you have to cover a wide range of musicality on a limited scale,” said Werner, who has some Scottish ancestors on his mother’s side of the family. “You have to learn to keep proper pressure on the bag to keep the pipe in tune. And you have to keep the breathing diaphragm in shape, especially in long parades.”

Fortunately, Werner had some previous musical background, albeit with a completely different instrument.

“Mom gave us all piano lessons as kids, and I could read music,” Werner said. “It’s one of those stories your parents tell you when they give you music lessons — ‘you’ll appreciate this when you get older.’”

Werner’s musical odyssey took a big step during the fall of 2003, when he began to take lessons from Iain Mac Harg, pipe major of the Catamount Pipe Band. Under Mac Harg’s tutelage, Werner became proficient enough to join the Catamounts in July of 2004.

He is now one of approximately 50 band members of all ages who perform at approximately eight parades each year, as well as in a variety of state and regional competitions.

Competing bands are judged based on their musical performance and marching prowess. They are also evaluated based on different categories of proficiency, on a scale of five to one, with one being the highest attainable level of skill. Werner began as a skill level of five, and has progressed to a level four. Some of the Catamounts have reached a level three proficiency.

The Catamount Pipe Band last year participated in competitions at the Manchester Indoor Games, the Southern New Hampshire Games, and the New Hampshire Highland Games. The band consistently places in the top five at meets. Members provide their own transportation to performances. They play primarily in Vermont, but also travel to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They are scheduled to make their longest voyage in August of 2008, when the Catamount Pipe Band heads to Glasgow, Scotland, to compete in the World Pipe Band Championships — an unprecedented step for a Vermont ensemble.

In Glasgow, the Catamounts will perform on the same stage with the most outstanding pipe-and-drum bands in the world. They are anxious to see how they measure up with the best of the best.

“We look at it as an experience,” Werner said of the 10-day trip. “I don’t think we expect to win, but we want to do well and take it all in.”

The band will spend the coming months raising money to pay for the trip to Scotland. They’ll earn their fare across the ocean with a series of performances, including “Hogmanay,” a Scottish New Year’s celebration to be hosted by the Middlebury American Legion Post 27 on this Saturday, Jan. 6, at 7 p.m. It’s an event that will also feature performances by the McNeish School of Irish Dance of Essex, and the Middlebury Irish-American trio O’hAnleigh.

Along with the trip to Scotland, Werner’s musical goals include participating in more solo competitions, and making the leap from grade four to grade three in piping proficiency.

He plans to stick with the instrument for years to come.

“It’s one of those things you need to do, as a distraction in life,” Werner said.

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