MJC teacher explores bagpipe history in new book

Michael Akard’s day job is to teach English at Modesto Junior College to immigrants from various countries.

In his spare time, he celebrates his own Scottish heritage by playing the bagpipes.

This notoriously loud instrument intrigued Akard so much that he wrote a book about its history. “Music of the Great Highland Bagpipe” can be purchased online from Dorrance Publishing Co.

Akard, 59, spoke about the book and performed a few issues during an Oct. 7 visit to McClatchy Square. The small park provided a bit of a buffer for neighboring county library and farmers market patrons.

Akard said the book examines the classic bagpipe style, rather than the lighter marches and jigs familiar to most audiences.

“I started to ask, ‘What is this music? Where is he from? Why does he have this sound, which is really so different from the sound of those other tunes? ‘ “

The style is called piobaireachd, pronounced “pea-brock” in the ancient Gaelic language of the Scottish Highlands. Akard’s ancestors on his mother’s side are from this country.

Bagpipe-type instruments have been played all over the world since ancient times. They usually have an animal skin bag that fills with player-blown air. The air then passes through various pipes to make music loud enough to rally troops on a battlefield.

The familiar bagpipes of today first appeared in Scotland in the late 1700s, Akard said. They spread to Ireland and England, and to parts of the United States and Canada where these Europeans emigrated.

The bagpipe can be heard today at events such as the Central Valley Highland Games & Celtic Festival. It’s hosted by the St. Andrew’s Society of Modesto, but not this year or last due to COVID-19.

Akard started playing the bagpipe about ten years ago. He is a member of Ripon’s Emerald Society Pipe Band and the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department Honor Guard. It has performed at weddings, funerals, parades and other events.

Akard recognizes that not everyone is a fan. The instrument is suitable for outdoors (although a smaller version can be played in churches and the like). And there is a constant hum in the background of three of the pipes as the melody is played on a fourth.

“It’s on or off,” Akard said. “There is no volume control.”

The musician, of course, wore a kilt for the interview on a partly cloudy Thursday morning. The tartan pattern did not signify any Scottish clan, but was instead created as a symbol of unity after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Bagpipe prices start at a few hundred dollars. Akard’s bag is made of leather, covered with fabric. Each pipe is a hollow piece of black African wood, a particularly dense species, and has a reed to amplify the music.

The larger pipes provide a regular bass, and two more add tenor pitch. The melody is played on a pipe called the chanter, which has finger holes that vary the notes.

Two decades of teaching immigrants

Akard teaches in MJC’s English Teaching Program, commonly known as ESL, for English as a Second Language. He helps people in Mexico, Afghanistan, Iran and other countries prepare for jobs and other aspects of American life.

Akard himself is a graduate of MJC and has been working there full time since 2001. He graduated with an MA in Linguistics from Fresno State University in 1990, then taught at Kuwait University for three years. He then held positions at Merced College, Turlock Adult School and the Military Language Institute in the United Arab Emirates.

Akard also plays classical guitar and trumpet, and enjoys fencing, table tennis, and studying Arabic language and culture.

The 100-page book costs $ 36 for a print copy or $ 31 for an e-book. More information can be found on the website of Dorrance Publishing, based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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John Holland covers news about agriculture, transportation and general assignments. He has worked for The Modesto Bee since 2000 and previously worked for newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and graduated in journalism from UC Berkeley.

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