The death of Grayson County deputy Chad Key was a painful tragedy for the law enforcement professionals who serve in this area. For Sherman Detective Rob Ballew, the death of a fallen comrade was more than a tragedy, it was a motivating factor to do something for his fellow officers.
Ballew was attending Key’s funeral service when he noticed there was one staple of a traditional law enforcement officer memorial missing from this particular ceremony — the bagpipes.
Ballew said with his Scottish heritage bagpipes have always been important to him, but as a police officer they are a symbol as well as a staple at police academy graduation ceremonies. This moved him to take up the mantle and start the county’s then only pipe band, the Sherman Police Regional Pipe Band. Since then the band has grown tremendously, splitting off into two groups as firefighters left the band to form their own unit.
“Three years ago the fire department decided they wanted their own band,” Ballew said. “They split off and we restructured. We opened our group up to active duty and retired plus civilians and since that time we’ve been growing. We will be having five new members in a few months. That brings us up to about 12 or 13 (members).”
Ballew said the bagpipe is a unique instrument that requires a lot of work to learn to play. Unlike learning to play the guitar or piano, Ballew said bagpipes require a lot more than just learning the notes, and that it’s like playing two instruments at the same time.
“Playing the bagpipes is like trying to inflate a car tire through a straw. It takes a lot of time and dedication,” Ballew said. “It is one of the most difficult yet simple instrument you can learn to play. There is a lot of technique to it. You have three individual reeds going at the same time. The air you are supplying into the bag is keeping all those reeds going at the same time. There is a lot going on; it’s not just learning how to blow and squeeze.”
Ballew said bagpipes are a unique instrument, as there is no volume control; it is an “all or nothing” sound. He said with other instruments you can adjust volume and tempo to embellish the sound to create musical styles, but you can’t do that with bagpipes. There is no break in the sound, but rather it is holds and cuts. Because of that the instrument has developed into its own musical genre.
“Learning is difficult,” Ballew said. “We tend to want to play music very traditionally, but it is not traditional. Playing a tune on the bagpipe is not quite the same. You have to learn the instrument and the style, (and) there are a lot of different styles. We play light music, mostly marching band music.”
Ballew decided to start a band to give first responders something to take pride in outside of work. He went a step further and started the Sherman Celtic Festival and Highland Games as a way to do something for the community. Since then, he has been introduced to other pipe bands.
“We routinely play for various city events,” Ballew said. “9/11 is an annual performance for us. We play at the Christmas parade (and) do a lot of events around Veterans Day and Memorial Day. We’ve played different civic events. The Sherman Celtic Festival and Highland Games has also become quite a big deal. This year we did the first Sherman St. Patrick’s Day parade.”
According to Ballew, the bagpipes are as important in Scotland as football or baseball is in America.
“I’ve been to Scotland and I can tell you piping over there is a part of everyday life,” he said. “They’ve held competitions in Glasgow every year. They are grade school kids that have pipe bands compete. It is taught at a very young age.”
Ballew said a love for bagpipes is spreading in the area. The Lewisville Fire Department and Plano Fire Department both have a pipe band, and one of the larger bands in the area is the North Texas Caledonian Pipe and Drum Band out of Dallas, a group that routinely plays across the country. While bagpipes are more popular in larger cities on the coasts, Ballew said, it is still popular in Texas and continues to grow. He even said he can see Sherman becoming a bagpipping mecca.
“It gets in your blood,” Ballew said. “We have a great group of people in our band who share our passion. We play well together as a band and encourage new people to learn and start playing.”