By Katy England
edge staff writer
When you think of all the specialized units that come under the purview of the Maine State Police, musical talent may not be the first thing that leaps to mind. However, for the past 15 years, there has been a group of dedicated souls that make up the Maine State Police Pipe and Drum Unit. The ensemble consists of bagpipers and snare, tenor, and bass drummers.
The unit was formed back in 1996 by Scott Nichols, Jim Jones, Lance McCleish and Rick McAlister with the first performance being held in 1998. Nichols and Jones spent undertook the considerable challenge of learning how to play the bagpipes from scratch.
“I’ve always been a drummer, and I played in bands even when I wasn’t working as a trooper,” said McAlister in a phone interview. “I happened to be teaching a class, and there was a student from the New Hampshire in a pipe and drum unit who invited me down to the graduation. I saw them perform and decided we could put something together.”
McAlister said the group purchased all of their own equipment – which, when you consider that the instruments were between $600 to $800 and the kilt and accessories cost around $300 to $500, is no small investment – and began recruiting people to come and play.
The members of the Pipe and Drum Unit are spread all over the state, making rehearsal time a premium.
But the unit dedicates a lot of time to mastering a small repertoire of music, so when they do perform, they sound great.
And unlike other specializations, not all of the members of the unit are sworn troopers. But there is a tie to public safety, be it the director of Maine Emergency Services or the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Currently the unit is made up of Trooper Trevor Snow, Trooper Kyle Willette, Retired Lieutenant Gerard “Red” Therian, DEP/Senior Environmental Engineer Tim MacMillan, EMS Director Jay Bradshaw, Retired Sergeant Rick McAlister, Trooper William Plourde and Detective Scott Gosselin. There are a few newcomers who are also learning the ropes, but McAlister said it might be a little while before they’re ready for a live performance.
Finding musicians to dedicate the necessary time can be challenging, but that didn’t stop the two sworn troopers who currently play in the unit from picking up the bagpipes – from scratch. Bagpipes are notorious for being a difficult instrument to master, but Troopers Trevor Snow and Kyle Willette, like some of the founding members, met that challenge.
“When I worked at the academy, I was involved in some of the training classes. The pipe and drum unit has historically played for the graduating classes. The pipe and drum unit always interested me and I thought I’d like to learn to play the bagpipes,” said Snow in a phone interview. “I contacted Sgt. Nichols and Director Jay Bradshaw, who has functioned as Pipe Major, and he taught me how to play the bagpipes so I could join the unit.”
That makes it sound incredibly simple, but Snow noted it took him a year of dedicated practice before he played his first event with the Pipe and Drum Unit.
“If you’re starting from scratch it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of practice,” said McAlister. “Maybe it’s just that thing that troopers have; for these guys to pick up an instrument – the bagpipes – and stay committed to it.
“I like it because it’s a unique representation for our agency. I’m able to represent the state police in a unique manner and it affords a nice opportunity to represent law enforcement as a whole,” said Snow.
The Pipe and Drum Unit performs at various functions across state and New England, including all of the Basic Law Enforcement graduations at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy since they combined the school 10 years ago. The unit also performs at memorial services, including the Law Enforcement Memorial that was held on May 19.