By Mary Ann Bourbeau |
LINCROFT – Brother Frank Byrne is Irish through and through. His family came to the United States from the Emerald Isle in the 1840s. Byrne grew up in Shrewsbury and after graduating from Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in 1975, he studied at the University of Notre Dame and Fordham University before heading to work in Manhattan College’s admissions office.
That’s where he learned to play the bagpipes and soon joined the prestigious Manhattan College Pipes & Drums Band. The band performs at various events throughout the year, including New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“I’ve been playing with them since 1990,” said Byrne.
In 2009, Byrne came back to his high school alma mater to accept the job as president of CBA, where he also teaches one class a year.
“My students knew I played bagpipes and they asked me if they could start a pipes and drums band,” said Byrne.
He agreed, and during the 2011-2012 school year, the CBA Pipes & Drums Band was formed. The school purchased a few bagpipes and some uniforms, which include traditional kilts. But the students don’t learn on the bagpipes themselves. Instead, they practice on a bagpipe chanter, similar to a recorder, and learn 10 different patriotic and Irish tunes.
“Once they get the tunes down, they get a set of pipes,” said Byrne. “There are only nine notes on a bagpipe, compared to a piano, which has 88 keys. It’s not that difficult to master. You just have to learn to build up your wind.”
Their first performance was at the 2013 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Amboy. The band consisted of nine students and Byrne.
“We had to hire three pipers to fill in the sound,” he said.
But the kids apparently knew their stuff because the next day, at Rumson’s parade, they won the award for Best Junior Band.
“The kids love it, they really do,” said Byrne.
The CBA Pipes & Drums Band is one of the few high school pipe bands in the nation. The members meet weekly during the school year and practice three times a week during the February and March performance season. They play 15 to 20 events each year – for other schools, in parades and at receptions. They have also received awards in the Freehold Memorial Day Parade for Best Overall Parade Band in 2014 and Best High School Band in 2014 and 2015.
“The best part is marching in the parades,” said Byrne. “These kids are from all different towns so they hear their friends and families on the sidelines and they’re so proud.”
The band welcomes all students, even those with no experience. There are now 25 members who played this year in St. Patrick’s Day parades in Belmar and Rumson. Upcoming performances include St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations in Little Silver, South Amboy and Keyport and Memorial Day Parades in Freehold and Farmingdale.
While CBA will provide the bagpipes, Byrne said some students opt to purchase their own.
“A couple of the guys play in weddings and funerals,” he said. “It’s a good way to make money. The pipe pays for itself.”
Shane Hanney, 18, purchased his own bagpipes and learned to play at a young age because he wanted to attend CBA.
“I got a head start,” he said. “It seemed like something unique that would open up a lot of opportunities for me. And it definitely has its rewards. I’ve played at a lot of different gigs and made friends in the band. My family can’t get enough of it.”
Hanney, a senior at CBA, hopes to continue playing in college and eventually start his own pipe band.
“It’s been an incredible experience, like no other type of band or after-school activity, and it attracts a good group of guys,” he said. “I enjoy seeing people’s faces light up at the parades.”
On the last day of school each year, parents and students gather outside the building as the seniors walk out for the last time. The students line up in two rows and the seniors file through between them.
“The band plays them out of the building,” said Byrne. “It’s a great tradition.”
Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the March 15-22, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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