Greg Duncan-Peters has a Memorial Day tradition unlike most other people.
Instead of barbeques and parades, he goes to Arlington National Cemetery in full Celtic garb and salutes his father, Stephen Duncan-Peters, with his ceremonial playing of the bagpipes.
Duncan-Peters, a Potomac resident, has been playing the bagpipes for over a decade now and is a member of Alexandria Pipes & Drums, the official band of the City of Alexandria.
In an interview with the Arlington Connection, Duncan-Peters talks about how one becomes a bagpipe player and explains what his Memorial Day ritual means to him.
Arlington Connection: How did you get involved in the Alexandria Pipes & Drums? When did you start playing the bagpipes?
Greg Duncan-Peters: I was looking to get involved in a ceremonial pipe band. I saw the band on parade in some of the city's events and was impressed with their appearance, sound and the pride they took in their performances.
AC: How difficult is it to play the bagpipes? Can anyone do it or does it require a certain level of lung capacity?
GDP: It is an instrument that takes a tremendous amount of dedication. Usually requiring six months to a year of preliminary practice on a flute like instrument called a practice chanter before beginning the Great Highland Bagpipe. Most people, preferably in good health and possessing reasonable dexterity [and] having secured a good instructor, can learn to play the pipes in about one or two years if they are willing to dedicate about an hour a day. It takes many years of playing and practicing up to eight hours a day to master a bagpipe. Lung capacity is built up over time. The more you play, the more you can play!
AC: What significance does bagpipe music have in Scottish culture? Why is it so important?
GDP: It has been considered the national instrument of Scotland since the 15th century. It [was made famous] as an instrument of war… by the Scottish regiments. Today you hear the bagpipe played throughout Scotland for many occasions. It is played for dancing, gatherings, weddings, highland games, funerals and really just about any important or festive occasion.
AC: When did you start your tradition of playing the bagpipes at your father's grave in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day? How did it come about?
GDP: I began playing at Arlington about 1994 (it took me five years of practice before I considered myself competent enough). My father served in the famous "Black Watch" Royal Highland Regiment in WWII. Before he died he said that he was entitled to a regimental piper at his funeral at Arlington. When he died in March of 1989, the Regiment flew in a piper to play at his funeral. This was the first time I heard a solo piper play and it had a lasting impression on me. Two weeks later I began taking lessons from Dr. Richard Blair in Oxon Hill, Md. It seemed only logical that a soldier of the Black Watch should have a piper at his grave each year. So it became a lasting tradition.
AC: What did your father do in the military?
GDP: He was a U.S. volunteer in the Black Watch (RHR) of Canada. He participated in the famous raid on Dieppe and was fortunate enough to be one of a handful of men who were not killed or captured! His regiment was then shipped off to North Africa to be part of the British 8th Army under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery. He was in the Battle of el-Alamein, the Siege of Tobruk and then went on to complete campaigns in Sardinia, Sicily, and Italy before transfer to the U.S. 7th Army. Here he came in on the second wave of Normandy and went on to complete the Southern France and Rhineland Campaigns. He was awarded the Purple Heart and left military service, declining a commission as a Master Sergeant.
AC: What brought you to this area? Where are you originally from?
GDP: My father retired here… after 20 years in the Foreign Service. The Washington area was the only place we had spent any time in the United States during those twenty years and I went to Walt Whitman High School [in Montomery County, Md.] for two years. My sister and I loved our parents very much so we never considered living anywhere without them. I was born in Greece, lived in Libya, Finland, Sweden, New York City, and India (during the Indo Pak war of course!) so you might say I from almost everywhere.
AC: Other than playing in the Pipes & Drums, do you have any hobbies or special interests?
GDP: I like to play golf with my son. I am an accomplished skier, fisherman and a very experienced scuba diver. I also keep salt water aquariums.
AC: What is your favorite movie?
GDP: It's a tie: "Dances With Wolves" and "Last of the Mohicans." Great screen play. Great cinematography. Great music. First rate acting. I also liked "The Deer Hunter" [but it’s] too sad to call my favorite.
AC: What is your favorite book?
GDP: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I read it when I was 15. Great storyteller. What imagery! [I] couldn't wait to get to the next one.
AC: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
GDP: A marine biologist or own a tropical fish store. I guess a diver was close!
AC: If you could take a road trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
GDP: I would like to spend a summer diving in the South Pacific, The Great Barrier Reef and the Coral and Red Seas. (Micronesia, Solomons, Truk, Vanuatu, Fiji etc). Some of nature's greatest places and animals are under the surface.