Don and Donna McCammon said they’re lucky to have neighbors who don’t mind the sound of Scottish bagpipes emanating from their living room as they began practicing at 9:30 a.m. Saturday with their piping instructor Geoff McMillion.
The McCammons and McMillion were scheduled to perform the song "The Battle’s O'er" by the Doughboy statue on the Missoula County courthouse lawn at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, joining thousands of bagpipers across the world who are playing the song in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice and the end of World War I.
The trio stood in the McCammons' living room in southwest Missoula as Don explained that bagpipes have a long history of leading soldiers in and out of battle.
“They’re all old famous traditional tunes and they’re all played at the end of the battle as you’re walking away wounded, so that’s why it’s slower,” Donna said.
McMillion, the Pipe Major, tapped his foot and signaled to the group to begin playing the retreat song, “The Battle’s O'er” against a backdrop of snow falling onto pines and the McCammons' patio.
Don explained that the Sunday Veteran’s Day performance holds extra importance to him and reminds him of his sister who was killed in the U.S. Air Force in 2003. He pointed to a shadowbox containing a flag, pins and patches that belonged to his sister, and then a Celtic symbol signaling his family’s Scottish heritage.
Although Don has Scottish heritage, it was his wife, Donna, who first became interested in the bagpipes when the couple lived in Colorado. She took lessons before taking a brief hiatus until they moved to Missoula and saw the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band perform at the First Night event in Missoula on New Year’s Eve.
Donna approached the group after the show and asked about lessons. She and Don have been playing for about five years now, with McMillion as their teacher.
McMillion’s history playing the bagpipes is a bit more extensive. He’s been playing for 36 years, starting at age 12 when he lived in South Carolina. The Scottish influence on the East Coast permeated his life. His family frequently attended the Highland games that celebrated Scottish and Celtic culture.
McMillion started taking bagpipe lessons from a Cadet from The Citadel Military College and then attended the North American Academy of Piping in North Carolina, which he described as a “bagpiping band camp.”
Eventually, he settled in Missoula and joined the Dragons. The group performs regularly, with about 16 pipers and 10 drummers in total, along with Highland dancers who sometimes accompany them.
McMillion also teaches bagpiping. He said it’s not always exciting for beginners who start with a small instrument called a practice chanter that looks like a recorder and mimics the bottom piece on a bagpipe, which is also called a chanter.
Donna said the practice chanter is less intimidating and helps get the notes and finger movements down. She said the practice chanter is also more “family-friendly” and easier to play at home.
“It’s not so much the blowing than the arm pressure as what struck me as one of the things you never think about when you start out,” Donna said.
She explained that when she's not blowing into the pipe, she has to use her arm to lightly press down on the bag to control the airflow to the reeds.
McMillion contrasted the bagpipe to a trumpet, pointing out that the sound stops when you stop blowing into a trumpet. “But with bagpipes, it’s ongoing the whole time,” he said. “It just keeps all the reeds going constantly without stopping.”
McMillion said he has to coordinate practice time with his family during the winter and likes to practice at Fort Missoula in the summer, where he said runners tend to enjoy the background music.
The trio agreed that although bagpipes can be a difficult instrument to practice, the performances and sense of camaraderie are worth it.
McMillion and the McCammons are the only three members of the Dragons who will be playing near the Doughboy statue on Sunday.
“It’s cool to commemorate the war to end all wars,” Don said, referring to the group’s performance of “The Battle’s O'er” by the Doughboy statue on Sunday.
“I think the last verse really says a lot; that peace is here now and will be there forevermore and then you realize it wasn’t and it isn’t. I think it’s a commitment worldwide that we need world peace and I think that’s a neat message.”