BY ELLEN GILLETTE
Legend says that in the ancient British Isles, when old religions flourished, of all the sounds men could make, only the bagpipes could be heard in both worlds.
But bagpiper David Lairson of Tradition has a more modern saying: “There are two types of people in the world — those who love bagpipes and those who hate them.”
Lairson’s love affair with the pipes began at age 13. His mother is a native of Leeds, England, and when his family lived in Dayton, Ohio, they attended an expat club on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base that hosted Scottish country dancing. When the group’s elderly Scottish piper wanted to quit, Lairson’s mother said her son would do it. And he did.
How long does it take to learn to play bagpipes?
“I still have an instructor,” Lairson says, “who is literally one of the best in the world.”
He also has students he meets with every other week over Skype, due to the pandemic.
“I tell them they must always be learning.”
Lairson has learned well. He is ranked among the top five pipers in Florida and the top 15 on the East Coast.
Fingering technique is essential, as is air pressure.
“Once you start playing, there’s no real break,” he explains. “Over the years, you build up lung capacity. It’s kind of a party trick.”
After he underwent gall bladder surgery, a nurse brought in a device to test Lairson’s respiration, telling him to blow into it so that the air would raise the three small balls in their respective chambers. He kept all three at the top for so long, “She called other nurses to come look.”
Because bagpipe gigs typically involve funerals, weddings, parties and restaurant events, COVID-19 definitely hurt business. However, canceled vacations turned into an unexpected economic boost.
“People who’d been planning to travel to Ireland or Scotland booked me for birthday parties instead.”
One year, he played five funerals in four days.
“I tend to get emotional,” Lairson says. “You have to disassociate, not get too close. It was rough.”
The mindfulness he acquired through Buddhism helped.
Lairson says he had anger issues as a child as well as “a weird religious upbringing.” His mother was Protestant; his father, Southern Baptist. As a teen he was not only the sole blonde student in a predominately Italian area, he was also the only non-Catholic and prohibited from receiving communion at the school’s morning Mass.
When he fell into Buddhism during college, it evened things out.
“It’s about what’s going on inside your head,” he explains. “‘Why am I reacting this way?’ I’m calmer now, which helps when you’re dealing with angry people.”
Occasionally, angry people have been neighbors. When the Lairsons moved to Tradition, there were few neighbors near his large rental home. In training for a solo competition, Lairson would practice outside for an hour or more. When they moved to a smaller house with closer neighbors, practice became an issue.
“I get it,” Lairson says. “Bagpipes are 90 decibels, compared to 80 decibels for a lawnmower. An hour of bagpipes can be a lot to handle but for awhile it was a running joke. Every time I played, the police showed up.”
Although Lairson was not breaking any noise ordinances, he agreed to move his practices into the garage — and still gets complaints. At other times, neighbors stop him to ask why he hasn’t been practicing, evidence of that love/hate dichotomy.
The Lairsons’ own love story began in high school.
“I met Beth on my 16th birthday, when I gave her a Robin sticker from my brother’s comic book store,” he says. “We started dating three weeks later and have been together since.”
They joke that the reason they moved to Florida was because of Disney. Even their animals are named for Disney characters. But another shared interest is music. Beth, an attorney, plays drums with one of Lairson’s bands.
Beth is, ironically, allergic to wool, the fabric used for the tartan kilts Lairson wears. A member of the Black Thorne Pipe Band, the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office honor guard and the U.S. Coast Guard pipe band, Lairson also helped start the St. Lucie County Fire District’s Pipes and Drums Band. And each band wears a different tartan.
“I have a walk-in closet filled with kilts,” Lairson says. “My first was Royal Stuart, huge and heavy. Eight yards of 13-ounce wool. We call it The Tank. Beth gave me an Isle of Skye kilt that’s much better for Florida: six yards of 10-ounce wool.”
A traditional piper’s outfit includes kilt, shirt, belt, hose and flashes, hat, ghillie brogues with fancy laces, a vest or short jacket, and the sporran [purse].
Bagpipe music is itself a dichotomy, able to lend festive cheer or ancient solemnity depending on the tune. No wonder bagpiping appealed to Lairson with his Apple watch on one wrist ... and a mala meditation bracelet on the other.
DAVID LESLIE LAIRSON
Lives in: Tradition, Port St. Lucie
Family: Wife, Beth Allen
Education: Bachelor of Arts in American military history from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio
Hobby: Bagpiping, photography
Who inspires me: Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I have most of his books.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I decorate cakes and have a closet full of cake pans. I took Wilton method classes so I can do all the butter cream frosting flowers and write fancy — which is funny, because I don’t write well with a pen.”