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The sound of tradition: Grand Forks woman loves loud, public, ritual qualities of bagpipe music

Sheila Liming, Grand Forks, has been playing bagpipes for nearly 20 years. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Sheila Liming, Grand Forks, was 13 when her Scottish grandmother convinced her to learn how to play the bagpipes. Although it is not an easy instrument to master, she did and loves it. She plays in a group called Callan which has released three albums and performs mostly in the summertime at Celtic festivals.. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Sheila Liming grew up in Seattle playing "normal" instruments, including the piano and flute, she said, until her grandmother persuaded her to take up the bagpipes.

Her grandmother, whose father had emigrated from Scotland, knew an elderly Scottish gentleman who offered free lessons. She thought her granddaughter, who already was involved in Scottish Highland dancing, should try the bagpipes.

In her early teens, at an age when kids are more concerned with fitting in than standing out, Liming wasn't sold on the idea at first.

"I thought it was the worst thing for a 14-year-old person to do, that it would make me very unpopular," she said. "I thought it was a really crazy challenge—even the music is not written like music for other instruments.

"(But) I loved it from the beginning. I loved the history of it. There are a lot of ceremonial aspects to it. It's loud and public—it calls you to ceremony."

Bagpipes set the tone for important occasions, such as weddings and funerals, she said. "People respond to them emotionally. They have strong opinions about bagpipes—they either love them or hate them, nothing in between."

Liming, who now is an assistant professor in English at UND, studied with the Scotsman for four years and played bagpipes in youth bands through her senior year in high school.

"You don't realize how a decision you make as a 14-year-old is going to structure so much of your life," she said.

With the help of a school counselor, Liming learned there were four U.S. colleges that offered a bagpipe scholarship. She applied and won a four-year scholarship to attend Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, which gave her the opportunity to live and study for a year in Scotland.

"There, playing bagpipes is not weird—everybody does," she said.

She went on to earn a master's degree in English and a doctorate in American literature of the 20th century at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. As a side job, she taught bagpipe and played for weddings, funerals and other gigs, including opening with her band for Rod Stewart—"who is Scottish," she said—when he was on tour in the U.S. in 2007.

"Bagpipes are always needed somewhere," she said.

Difficult to learn

Learning to play the bagpipes "is difficult," Liming said. "You blow into a bag—it's like a bellows system.

"It depends heavily on muscle control and coordination. What you're doing with your arms is different from what you're doing with your hands."

The unusual instrument is probably more physically demanding than most.

"It's an instrument you can get out of shape for physically, because of the (required) muscle coordination—more so than other instruments," she said. "You can work up a sweat."

Centuries ago, bagpipe music was taught by ear, with the teacher singing the notes.

"You play notes between notes to separate sounds. You play twice as many notes as the listener will hear," she said.

"With some other instruments, for a staccato note, you can tongue the note to separate it, but that's not true with bagpipes. If you hear a clicking sound, that's the notes between the notes. I couldn't make sense of it initially. The rules kind of go out the window."

It is "a funny instrument to learn—it's so public," she said. "When you're first learning, you make errors, and everyone hears them.

"I felt bad for our neighbors and my parents who had to listen to it," she said. "I don't know if my parents were happy during the learning process, but they were very supportive—they drove me to competitions and festivals."

They bought her first set of bagpipes, which "is a very big investment," she said. "A good set can run $3,000."

After completing their doctoral degrees, Liming and her husband, Dave Haeselin, joined the UND English Department faculty last fall.

She practices bagpipes, wearing earplugs, in the basement of their Grand Forks home, she said. It's a reality that amuses her.

"Imagine an instrument that you have to wear earplugs to play," she said, grinning.

Playing such a loud instrument "helped me to be a more confident teacher—at some point, you just get used to it."

Worldwide popularity

Bagpipes, in various forms, are played in many parts of the world, Liming said. "There are even Scandinavian bagpipes."

She'd love to learn more about the Swedish version, she said.

Liming plays the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes, which have been around for 200 to 300 years, she said. She also plays parlor bagpipes, which are smaller and quieter.

Evidence discovered in Egypt and other parts of northern Africa prove bagpipes have been in existence for thousands of years.

In more recent history, their popularity was tied to the British military which, during the expansion of the British Empire, included Highland regiments. Their use of the instrument led to the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes becoming well-known worldwide.

The surge in popularity was fueled by large numbers of pipers trained for military service in the first and second world wars.

"The British still retain bagpipe units in the military," Liming said.

In the 1990s, the explosion of interest in Celtic music and dance, spearheaded by groups such as Riverdance, sparked renewed appreciation for bagpipes.

Liming has noticed that more females are choosing to play the bagpipes, she said.

"When I was starting out, I'd be the only girl—or one of two."

Active piper

During graduate school, Liming played bagpipes and sang with a band, Callan, which has released three albums and plays at summertime Celtic festivals. The group performs modern Celtic music, using traditional instruments such as fiddle, bodhran (a type of drum), bagpipes, whistle and guitar.

The band plays an unexpected variety of music.

"We play Dave Brubeck, jazz, Rod Stewart," said Liming, who also writes music for the group. "Because it's loud, bagpipes (also) fit into punk (music) nicely."

She's looking forward to getting together with the group to perform at festivals where they have been invited back.

And she's interested in joining a pipe band that gets together regularly in the Red River Valley.

Her greatest joy in playing the bagpipes, though, has more to do with her personal contribution to a centuries-old form of music-making.

"What I love most is being connected to a long history and a historical tradition," she said. "And not letting that tradition die—taking an active role in making that tradition continue."