North Dakota Supreme Court justice learns to play bagpipes

March 16, 2019
North Dakota Supreme Court justice Lisa Fair McEver has been playing the bagpipes for seven years at mainly private events including church services and burials. McEvers began to learn the pipes in 2011 as a tribute to her Scottish and Irish heritage, but also to honor her late uncle, Earl McKay. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Lisa Fair McEvers blew air into her bagpipes, careful not to be too loud as the drones began to sound.

“I don’t want to be bothering Al Jaeger. He’s right next door to me,” the North Dakota Supreme Court justice said, standing in her office near the wall she shares with the secretary of state at the Capitol.

Music is a joy for McEvers, who, in addition to the bagpipes, plays trumpet and sings as an alto, as she is able, the Bismarck Tribune reported. She considers her musical interest a product of her school years in Minto in northeastern North Dakota, participating in multiple activities.

“I think I was a typical Class B kid who played sports, played music, was in different drama opportunities,” McEvers said. “Whatever there was to do, you just did it because it was fun.”

Music has stayed with her as her athletic pursuits have faded, though she still coaches softball.

“The music is something I figure I can do until I don’t have any breath to blow anymore,” McEvers said.

She’s sung in church choirs and vocal groups. She has played the trumpet since her grade school years, participating in church musical groups and occasionally stepping in as a bugler for taps at military burials, including a Memorial Day service last May in Steele.

With advance notice, she’ll try to accommodate requests, but doesn’t solicit them.

If it’s for the bagpipes, she said she’ll need a bit of practice.

McEvers began to learn the pipes in 2011 as a tribute to her Scottish and Irish heritage, but also to honor her late uncle, Earl McKay.

He learned the bagpipes while stationed as a medic in Europe during World War II, serving with the 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division that liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

“I mostly wanted to carry on the family tradition,” McEvers said. Her uncle’s son also has taken up the pipes.

But the bagpipes are not an easy instrument.

McEvers spent a year learning the practice chanter — similar to a recorder — before transitioning to the pipes, which require practice, coordination and memorizing tunes.

“It’s like keeping four instruments going with the air that you have in the bag,” McEvers said. “That’s the challenge, is to try to keep enough air pressure to keep everything going and not cutting out.”

McEvers enjoys piping in parades and also has performed for the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan church services, always playing in traditional regalia, including a kilt.

But she has to be ready for requested performances. She spent six weeks playing two or three times a day before an event last summer.

“I don’t practice every single day like I should,” McEvers said, but a couple times a week.

She keeps two trumpets and two sets of pipes for practicing at her office in Bismarck and her home in West Fargo.

While a district judge in Fargo, she took lessons through Heather and Thistle Pipes and Drums in Moorhead, Minnesota, led by pipe major Dan Aird. He has played the bagpipes since 1965 and said practice counts, as for every instrument.

But anyone who wants to learn, can.

“You always hear people saying, especially when they’re older, ‘Well, I wish I had learned to play an instrument.’ Well, they should just do it,” Aird said. “It doesn’t matter. You can start when you’re 78 or 90 or whenever you want. If you’re willing to put the work in, you can learn.”

Aird considers McEvers to be a “fine” bagpiper and a “serious student.”

North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said he’s heard McEvers play and considers her bagpipes “a unique instrument” and “a great talent.”

“I’m envious of her,” VandeWalle said. “I have no musical talent. She sings, she plays the bagpipes, she plays the trumpet.”

McEvers considers her music an outlet from the court; and likewise, VandeWalle said he played competitive bridge for years as a hobby or a release.

“It’s a step away from what we do day in and day out, divorces and crimes and that type of thing,” VandeWalle said.

McEvers said she enjoys “a haunting beauty” of the bagpipes and the sense of pride the music evokes for her heritage.

Her favorite tune is “Highland Cathedral.” Most folks would recognize “Amazing Grace” or “Scotland the Brave” on the bagpipes, she said.

Moreover, music is simply a joyful expression for her, she added.

“It’s just fun,” McEvers said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

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