When the bagpipes are played as part of a funeral or memorial service, it can evoke deep-seated emotions.
It’s something that Duane Mohney, 75, of Ebensburg, has experienced time and time again during his 40-plus years of playing the pipes.
Mohney, a retired landscape architect, uses his talent to complement a variety of events – weddings, memorials, parades and more – that are enriched with the performance of a live bagpiper.
While Mohney takes his playing seriously, it doesn’t take long to discover that he has a quick wit and a delightful sense of humor.
He is one who enjoys a little improvisation when called upon to help bring closure to those honoring the life of a loved one.
He recalls doing a funeral in Loretto for a man of Polish-Irish ancestry.
“As soon as the back door of the hearse opened, I saw the most beautiful emerald green coffin being removed,” he said. “I changed the program and started playing ‘Green Glens of Antrim,’ which the family wholeheartedly appreciated.”
At the other end of the spectrum was the funeral of former Summerhill resident Robert Gallardy, an Altoona Fire Department captain killed in 2005 during an academy training accident.
People familiar with such tragedies know that when a firefighter is laid to rest, a last call is broadcast over the scanner in tribute to the fallen hero.
“I’m supposed to play immediately following last call, but when I hear that, it gets to me every time,” Mohney said. “We are all human, and I just have to play through it.”
As he played “Amazing Grace” at Gallardy’s grave site at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church Cemetery in New Germany, Mohney said there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd, including his.
He said comforting hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “Abide With Me” help give assurance of life everlasting.
“Performing on such an occasion has become a ministry to me,” Mohney said.
Having a bagpiper play “Amazing Grace” has become synonymous with commemorating solemn occasions.
“It has become an iconic symbol when honoring fallen heroes,” he said. “Sometimes families have a difficult time accepting a death as a reality, but once I play, that seems to give them closure.”
The bagpipe was not Mohney’s first choice when selecting a musical instrument as a youngster.
Growing up in Stoneboro, Mercer County, Mohney always loved music. When he was 10 years old, he would listen to the Grove City Highland Band tune up and follow along as they marched. He became enthralled with the bagpipes as the band played “Cavalcade March.”
In elementary school, he started taking trumpet lessons, but when he had a front tooth knocked out by a classmate, he no longer could get the proper grip on the trumpet’s mouthpiece with his lip.
It wasn’t until he attended the Stoneboro Fair in 1962 that he became acquainted with Bob Offutt, a pipe sergeant in the Grove City Highland Band, who introduced him to the band’s pipe major.
“They invited me to take some bagpipe lessons when the band met every Thursday to practice,” he said.
Mohney is somewhat cavalier when talking about the difficulty of playing the bagpipes.
“It’s only nine notes played with two hands,” he said with a smile. “You blow and you play, but you must keep an even air pressure in the bag.”
Unlike other marching instruments, there is no place to put sheet music, so each song has to be memorized.
“It’s strange; some of the most difficult melodies are easy for me to memorize,” Mohney said. “It’s the simple tunes that sometimes give me trouble. But what’s nice about the bagpipes is that if I make a mistake, who will know but me?”
He has about 70 songs in his repertoire.
A song such as “Flowers of the Forest,” an ancient Scottish folk tune, can take two to three weeks to learn, he said.
A set of bagpipes minimally consists of an air supply, a bag, a chanter and usually at least one drone. The chanter is the melody pipe, played with two hands.
While bagpipe music is best known as a Scottish tradition, the bagpipes actually originated in ancient Egypt.
Mohney’s garb when performing is that of the Highlands of Scotland. He wears a kilt in the plaid pattern of Clan Gordon, black shoes and white shirt. He also dons a formal Prince Charlie waistcoat, perhaps the most stylish of all kilt jackets. He tops it with a feathered bonnet or the traditional Tam O’Shanter, or Tam for short.
“While performing with the West Virginia Highland Band, we performed in 96 degree heat,” he said. “I was in full formal dress and wearing eight yards of wool. I was sweating so much that it took three weeks for the outfit to dry out.”
Since learning to play bagpipes, Mohney has been a member of three Highland bands in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He has competed and performed in parades and ceremonies throughout the U.S. and Canada.
He also was instrumental in starting Cambria Heights High School’s Highlanders pipe section in 1966.
As a bagpiper for the Jaffa Shrine’s Highlanders in Altoona, he has played for a wide variety of ceremonies and community events.
But it’s funerals that are ingrained in his memory.
He tells of one in Williamsburg where the deceased woman’s son told Mohney that his parents were die-hard Penn State fans.
“He told me his father had passed previously and that his ashes were placed in an urn painted in Penn State blue,” Mohney said.
As the memorial for the mother continued with traditional songs, the woman’s snow-white urn was carried in. Mohney couldn’t resist and began playing the “Penn State Alma Mater.”
“The son’s head snapped upward as I began to play,” Mohney said. “I knew it was all right when he gave me a big thumbs-up as he wept.”
Mohney and his wife, Patricia, have four children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.