The Parking Lot Pipers, seen performing at the Sequim Lavender Weekend in 2023, are a modern trio keeping up a historically rich musical art form. (Emily Matthiessen/for Olympic Peninsula News Group)

The Parking Lot Pipers, seen performing at the Sequim Lavender Weekend in 2023, are a modern trio keeping up a historically rich musical art form. (Emily Matthiessen/for Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Bagpipe tradition forms family on Peninsula

Parking Lot Pipers keep Great Highland music marching on

SEQUIM — Heidi Slack said there is a beauty and connection that comes from knowing the history of the bagpipes and the tunes.

“Each piece of music being played usually has an old, and often tragic, history attached,” said Slack, a Port Angeles resident learning to play the bagpipes.

“It takes seven years to make a piper,” she said. “I’m four years in.”

Slack, Erik Evans and Tom McCurdy comprise the Parking Lot Pipers — a modern local trio keeping up an at least 400-year tradition of the Great Highland Bagpipes.

“The tradition is very rich,” founder Evans said.

“Whenever Erik plays for people,” said Slack, “he describes the story behind each piece he’s playing, which was something that I just loved learning from him.”

Evans often can be heard on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles on Tuesdays, sometimes with the others joining in.

He and McCurdy, a retired optometrist, have played numerous times at the James Center for Performing Arts in Sequim, at large community events such as Sequim’s Independence Day Celebration and Lavender Weekend, with Slack holding the American flag between them.

Slack said this year she may play her pipes at the Lavender Festival.

‘Always had music in my life’

Slack has been a musician since she grew up in a small Utah town.

“I always had music in my life,” she said. “My earliest memories are going down the road to visit my grandfather. He always had a guitar, and I’d run around and dance or sing into a mic he plugged into an amp.”

Slack’s grandfather, Burt Emmett, played bass guitar in Las Vegas for his country western band which included Tanya Tucker’s father.

Slack played clarinet in middle school for two years, and in high school she taught herself to play the guitar and played drums and sang in her own band. She also plays ukulele casually and demonstrated her skills on the Irish drum when the Parking Lot Pipers gathered at her house for an interview.

“I’ve always been open to learning new instruments; it comes naturally,” she said.

But what drew her to the bagpipes?

“There is no mistaking the sound of bagpipe music,” Slack said.

“The joke is that when bagpipes are heard, people either start running towards or away from them,” she said. “To me, they’ve never been anything but awe inspiring, and I loved the sound the first time I heard it.

“I feel that bagpipes have the unique ability to take emotion and amplify it,” Slack added. “The resonance of the deep and layered sound affects your very being.

“I knew how beautifully the pipes affected me, and I wanted to provide that for other people.”

Resonance of history

Bagpipes are a challenging instrument, the Pipers said, both to care for and to play. However, the instrument took a hold on each of them.

McCurdy began his study in 1970 with the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band in St. Paul, Minn.

“But then when I went to graduate school, professional school, I had to slow it down,” he said.

When he moved to Port Angeles, McCurdy said he met a very active piper named Don Alward.

“He was instrumental, no pun intended, in the North Olympic Highlanders pipe band in the ’60s and ’70s,” McCurdy said. “They had an actual pipe and drum corps and marched in parades.”

McCurdy said he took some lessons from Alward, but then he had to put his study on the backburner to dedicate himself to his work and family, returning to more intense practice at age 60, at the urging of his daughter.

“There’s always time for a second act, if you allow yourself,” Evans said.

“You have the advantage as older students of maturity and the understanding that things come slowly but come steady,” McCurdy said. “I think our expectations are more reasonable than when young. Even though it’s harder to find the time, we’ve learned how to manage time better.”

Evans started with the bagpipes in 2003, but then had to stop.

“I hurt my hands,” he said. “I couldn’t play for 10 years and I thought I might never play again.”

Then Evans heard McCurdy playing Christmas songs at the Port Angeles City Pier and was inspired.

“When my hands started feeling a little bit better,” Evans said, “I went to him and I said, ‘OK, I need to start from scratch. But I need to concentrate on learning a different way because my hands just get too tight when I’m playing.’”

McCurdy welcomed him to his office for a regular hour of practice before opening time.

“We did everything slowly with the intention of not having any stress on the hands,” Evans said. “And after a while, little by little, it came back.

“I wouldn’t be as happy a person without it.”

Evans founded the Parking Lot Pipers during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Duo becomes a trio

During the intense early days of the pandemic, Slack was temporarily homeschooling her three children and “looking for some enrichment.” That’s when she heard Evans playing and approached him about learning the pipes.

She said the timing wasn’t ideal because of her responsibilities, but her family was supportive and “the fire was just lit.

“The passion was ignited and I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “I was determined, and I’m in it … I’m playing the long game. You know, every day that passes is a day that’s going to pass anyway. So I might as well be learning and improving.

“It’s an extremely difficult instrument, but I love the challenge and the chance to grow and to have something to continually be working on for myself outside of my motherhood.”

At first, the trio couldn’t practice anything face to face, Slack said, so they did lessons over Zoom, which, “when trying to play musical instrument is a difficult thing,” but they made it work.

“We didn’t even meet under a roof for the first year and a half,” she said. “And then we were finally able to meet in person for the first time out in front of the library. The first time we sat together, it felt like family.”

McCurdy and Evans showed some paternal pride when Slack demonstrated her current abilities on the “smallpipes” — a version of the instrument more suited for indoor listening and practicing.

Slack spoke of the wider bagpipe community as being a “welcoming” family.

“Once you pick up the pipes and you become determined to learn, this entire world opens up to you and you have this amazing network of supportive people that are all on your side,” she said. “And they all want us to succeed. It’s just a little piping family. It’s amazing to a be a part of and to know that exists.”

Evans said he hopes to see a continuous lineage of pipes on the North Olympic Peninsula.

“We can kind of do things a little differently than they might in Seattle,” he said. “We have a little bit more flexibility to create our own rules, play our own music. Learn in our own land. And we’re trying to continue the tradition. We’re always looking for students to bring up.”

“Learning and playing these tunes is literally playing history,” Slack said. “By continuing to learn and teach the pipes, we are keeping this musical record of history alive and are passing it on to the next generation.”

For opportunities to listen to Evans or the Parking Lot Pipers in person, visit facebook.com/parkinglotpiper.

________

Emily Matthiessen is a freelance writer.

The Parking Lot Pipers, from left, Heidi Slack, Tom McCurdy and Erik Evans, meet to play music together. (Emily Matthiessen/for Olympic Peninsula News Group)

The Parking Lot Pipers, from left, Heidi Slack, Tom McCurdy and Erik Evans, meet to play music together. (Emily Matthiessen/for Olympic Peninsula News Group)

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