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Love of music leads women to play more unconventional instruments

Katie Shaw, left, and Sara Sha both play the bagpipes. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Katie Shaw’s grandfather, who was of Scottish heritage, wanted bagpipes played at his funeral. When her family couldn’t find anyone who could play, Shaw promised at his graveside that she would take up the instrument.

She’s been playing bagpipes now for 14 years and is part of a local bagpipe group called Heather and Thistle Pipes and Drums, which plays at parades, the Celtic Festival and some local churches. While the group includes women, many bagpiping groups do not. In fact, Shaw says she and the other women in Heather and Thistle have to wear men’s uniforms when they perform.

Still, the 49-year-old Fargo woman loves the sound of the bagpipes and she has a passion for playing the unconventional instrument.

“It’s a contemplative instrument,” she said. “It puts me in a certain kind of mood. It really makes me feel close to God.”

Many women who play more eccentric instruments share Shaw’s enthusiasm for playing, though their reasons for picking up instruments most people wouldn’t consider trying to learn are all a bit different.

Sara Sha started learning to play bagpipes seven years ago. Sha, 49, of Fargo, is also part of Heather and Thistle.

She jokes that she took up the instrument because it was the loudest, most obnoxious instrument she could find.

“I’m the youngest in a musical family and nobody had picked up bagpipes,” Sha said.

Even though she played violin, piano, trumpet and banjo, learning the bagpipes was no easy task.

“It’s a complicated instrument,” she said. “It takes patience.

Bagpipers need to practice on a chanter, which looks similar to a recorder, for about a year before picking up their pipes, both Shaw and Sha said.

The chanter is also how they learn a tune or practice indoors.

“It’s not the best indoor instrument,” Shaw said of the bagpipes. “I love to go outside and play.”

The bagpipes can also be an emotional instrument, Sha said.

Both women said they love watching crowd reactions to their playing. Sometimes they will even see the music bring people to tears, they said.

Versatile instruments

Sarah Nelson, 28, of Fargo, has been playing accordion for the past five years.

When she was 12, her family visited Norway and she watched a relative, who was a renowned accordion player, perform.

“I always thought that was cool and sort of a special thing,” Nelson said.

Nelson sings and plays piano, clarinet and cello, but says she’s always wanted to play accordion. Then her father, who is a Realtor, sold the house of an accordion dealer and Nelson got her instrument.

Nelson, who works at the Fargo library, incorporates her instrument into story time and events like pirate week. Nelson says the kids are always excited to see it.

“When I can tell the audience is in the moment with me, or I’m really in sync with someone I’m playing with then it’s a great feeling,” Nelson said. “I usually play in a setting where I want people to sing along and move a little, so, when they do and especially when you see the look of awe on a kid’s face, it’s a lot of fun.”

She has also played during the “Oom Pah Pah” song for a Rural Cass Community Theatre production of the musical, “Oliver!”

Accordions, Nelson says, are very versatile instruments.

“Polkas can be a beautiful thing, but accordion music goes beyond that,” she said. “Accordions can be tender or haunting and fit in all sorts of genres. They aren’t always earsplittingly boisterous, although my neighbors might disagree.”

Cheerful instrument

For Christmas a year ago, Lindsey Bachmann, 30, of Moorhead, Minn., asked for a ukulele on a whim. She didn’t know how to play and didn’t expect to get one, but says she loves how they sound.

“I love that bright, cheerful quality,” she said. “They highlight the optimism in every lyric. It has a happy voice.”

After her aunt gave her a ukulele, she set to work teaching herself how to play. Bachmann says she’d dabbled in acoustic guitar since she was 17 or 18, so the concept was similar, but the ukulele has a different chord structure and fewer strings.

“It helps to know guitar,” she said. “It also hinders to know guitar.”

Bachmann creates her own songs, but says covering other musicians’ music is a good way to learn.

“With the ukulele, it’s fun to bring your own personal spin to a song,” she said.

She also sings and is working on an album with a friend, Patrick Fundingsland. They call themselves The Very Very Famous Love Machine.

She describes her sound as folk and The Very Very Famous Love Machine as sultry acoustic folk.

Bachmann says her goal is to perform live, but it’s something she’s been working on building up the courage to do.

“It’s a big part of who I am and people don’t see it so I’ve been really trying to just come out of my shell,” she said. 

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