By THOMAS TRACY
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS | MAR 14, 2021
Bagpipes aren’t just for burly boys.
Three women who march to the beat of their own drum have changed the gender makeup of the FDNY’s EMS Pipes and Drums band, making it the only co-ed EMS pipe band in the nation.
After scores of parades, funerals — and most recently, President Biden’s inauguration — pipers Rene Rogers and Virginia Creary, and drummer Althea Redican still draw surprised smiles from the sidelines, giving them the inspiration to march on.
“Other women see us when we are in the parade and they call out to us the most,” Redican, a 34-year-old emergency medical technician told the Daily News. “It’s a liberating feeling to see women surrounded by a bunch of guys doing the same thing that they are doing. It breaks the stigma that that pipe bands are only for men.”
When bagpipes bands were first formed hundreds of years ago, they led soldiers into battle.
The first time women publicly played was 1935, when the Braemar Girls’ Pipe Band performed at the Cowal Highland Gathering in Scotland, an event that celebrates all things Scottish.
Over the next 85 years, more women joined pipes bands or started their own, though their numbers were always small.
But the EMS Pipes and Drums Band is setting the pace for change: Since forming in 2006, pipes band leaders have been eagerly opening their doors to women pipers, even if they don’t know how to play.
“They taught me how to play the bagpipes,” said Rogers, a retired paramedic. “I went into it thinking, ‘it’s only nine notes, how hard could it be?’ It wasn’t quite as easy as I thought.”
Rogers, a mother of three, has been playing with the EMS Pipes and Drums since 2013, and still gets a charge by telling people she can blare out “Amazing Grace” on her McCallum pipes at a moment’s notice.
“I feel it’s a trendsetting thing,” said Rogers, 61. “I love to tell people what I do. I get quite a reaction. They’re like, ‘You can play the bagpipes?’”
Learning to play was a “lifelong dream,” she explained.
“To be able to play ‘Scotland the Brave’ on the bagpipes, a song my father and grandparents played a lot and I danced around the living room to when I was little, it’s a very cool experience for me. I feel honored to be part of the band and be able to give back to people with music. It brings joy to the people listening and the people playing.”
The coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on all parades and performances, leaving the pipes band to do just a handful of funerals.
The band got together in January for a milestone moment in history: They recorded a performance for the virtual “Parade Across America” to mark Biden’s inauguration.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” Redican said. “We hadn’t been practicing together for a year — all we’ve done is played a few times for members’ funerals — and now we have to do the biggest gig in our band’s history.”
When she’s not saving lives, or playing the drums, Redican goes to the EMS academy to introduce cadets to the band and encourage more women to join.
“I like to tell them, ‘There’s women in the band. You don’t have to feel that you’re not welcome’,” she said. “I’ve never not felt welcome in the band and now it’s an extension of my family.”
Rogers feels the same way and hopes that in the future, seeing a woman droning on the pipes won’t come as such a shock.
“I just hope it becomes more acceptable,” she said. “It does put a smile on my face when I see how surprised people are, but by the same token it doesn’t have to be that way.”