I’ve been a band geek for as long as I can remember. My parents, with incredible foresight, gave me a toy Mickey Mouse Drum Set when I was about 3 years old. I fell in love with the drums immediately. My sisters promptly broke my beloved toy, but to be fair to them, the heads were essentially made of construction paper. But I didn’t care. My world had ended as far as I was concerned; I was never going to be Peter Criss.
I didn’t pick up an instrument again until I was in the 5th grade, which was the earliest my little hilltown school would allow members to join the band. I was fortunate to have a cousin who had given up band - he found it much cooler to become a burnout metal head. This was 1986, so I looked up to his metal head status with great envy. Some day...but that’s another story. Anyway, he played saxophone and since he had an old alto saxophone, I took up the saxophone.
I was so excited when I received my first music book! The world of learning music seemed so magical to my 10-year old self! In the 6th grade, I switched to the trombone, mostly because a couple of my friends played trombone, the cooler kids where in the bass section and the trombone had a slide! I was fascinated by that slide. Sometime that year, I was given the opportunity to jump into the percussion section, as we needed extra body for a concert we had coming up. I was a quick study and had some talent (a word I now dislike greatly, but that will be another rant), so the band teacher asked me to fill in. <3 I never looked back.
I stayed in drums all through junior high, high school and even played in the percussion ensemble in college. I was the heaviest metal drummer to the heaviest metal band in our High School. Our name was Living Dead Beavers, or LDB for short. We were big fans of bands like D.R.I., M.O.D. and S.O.D. so thus the inspiration for a name that could be an acronym. We thought we were so cool. I was the lead stick in the HS band, mostly because I was the only one that practiced (sort of). Some of my most treasured memories relate to the traveling bus trips to the various parades we went to in the Capital District area of upstate New York.
It was there that I had my first run in with the bagpipes. One of the kids in the HS marching band (I think he played trumpet) also played the pipes; his name was Jeff Schenk. We saw him playing pipes at a parade in Rotterdam, NY with his pipe band. I took only a passing interest at the time but the pipes seemed cool.
I gave up music for a couple years after college as I had no reason to play, nowhere to play it, and no one who wanted to listen anyway. It was very sad to me as I had been involved in music most of my life. I tried to do grown up things like work, but that turned out to be wholly unfulfilling. I missed my music geek friends, or at least the idea of them.
I started learning the pipes after a few years of doing nothing musical. I was 25 years old and needed a hobby. I had gone backpacking in Europe a year earlier, and while in Scotland, saw a busker performing in the streets of Edinburgh. That is where it first occurred to me that I could do that! I came home and starting looking into the pipes. It took me a little while to find out how one learns the pipes and to get a practice chanter. I found a teacher in Albany, NY with the Albany Police Band in the summer of 2000. For the 2nd time in my life, I fell in love with an instrument! It started out as a hobby for me, but as anyone that takes up the pipes knows, it rarely stays that way.
In November 2000, I moved to Las Vegas. Without a bit of facetiousness, my first priority on moving here, was to find someone to teach me the pipes. I found Desert Skye and Danny Packer pretty quickly and immediately joined them for group lessons. I met Eric Poleski, Mason McNinch, the Parker family, and George McKenna, all significant to originating piping and drumming in Las Vegas. In an ironic twist of fate, we actually practiced at the pediatric offices of Tony Bakerink after hours. I never once met him while we were there in the year 2000/2001. Now Tony is our Drum Corporal, one of the drum section leaders (You can read more about Tony, our Drum Corporal, in the Inside the Circle interview attached).
Fast forward fifteen years later and I am the Pipe Major (musical director and grand poobah) of the Las Vegas Pipe Band, formerly Desert Skye. Almost all of my closest friends and family are pipe banders. I have music to thank for introducing me to some of the greatest people I’ve ever met. Some of my favorite stories and experiences are due to piping. I may have never had the pleasure of drinking in Glasgow with Graham Gunnion and Christopher Brannan after the World Pipe Band Championships and waking up the next day, snuggled up in a hotel room with a guy named Gary after Graham abandoned us in a city we didn’t know. We had no idea how to get back to the dorms in Stirling! I also probably wouldn’t have ever had the experience of being suspended a hundred feet off the ground in the MGM Grand arena, playing pipes for the Las Vegas opening party of the new James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig.
One of the best things about playing pipes or drums in a pipe band is the fact that you can participate in piping and pipe banding for the rest of your life. I’m not sure if I could have done anything past college with the trombone, unless I was an orchestra player. To be fair to trombonists everywhere, I’ve never looked into it, so who really knows.
I’ve played for literally hundreds of thousands of people. It's been my honor to play for military events, concerts, conventions, and every kind of event imaginable. I played at Kenny Guinn’s funeral (the former Governor of Nevada), at the Smith Center with the Chieftains, and for the Marine Corp Ball for years. I’ve traveled to the UK, Canada and much of the US west coast to play pipes.
A couple years ago, Jeff Schenk (if you remember, he is the kid from my high school that played in a pipe band back when we were in school) contacted me via Facebook. He had just learned that I was a piper and asked if I played pipes back when we were in school together. Turns out, he is the pipe major of the Schenectady Pipe Band back home. That is quite the co-inky-dink - us both being both pipe majors of Grade 4 pipe bands.
I’m very grateful for music in my life, and the fact that piping lets me do many things that aren’t ordinary. My advice to anyone who loves playing music… join a pipe band! Do it today. You won’t regret it. I never have.
Just a thought for my next marketing slogan… “Don’t be ordinary… play in a pipe band” or perhaps “Pipe Band = band geek for life”. Hmmm...
Cheers and Up the Irons!
Andy “Foos-ko” Fusco