Location: Galena, IL.
Contact: [email protected]
GALENA, Ill. — When Bill Spivey was learning to play the bagpipes 20 years ago, his instructor told him the instrument would take over.
Spivey didn’t believe him at first, but now, as a professional bagpipe player, he believes his instructor was up to something.
“It really opened a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I’ve played everywhere and been given a lot of unique opportunities.”
Spivey is the man behind Spivey Bagpiping, a business based in Galena.
Since 2010, Spivey has been hired to play bagpipes for funerals, weddings, parties, festivals and special events.
For all these performances he must wear a kilt.
“I believe you have to respect the instrument,” he said. “That’s the right way to play the bagpipes.”
Spivey first began taking bagpipe lessons in Chicago in 2002 with a player from Dundee, Scotland. At that time he was 45 years old.
“I told him I only wanted to learn three tunes so I could go to a bar and play a little and get free drinks,” Spivey said. “He said to me, ‘It’s not just the bagpipe that gets caught. At some point you become a bagpiper.”
Spivey said he was drawn to the idiosyncratic nature of the instrument, the clothing the players wore and the cultural impact the bagpipes had on people of Scottish and Irish descent.
What struck him most was that, despite the bagpipe’s familiarity, very few people played it.
“Looks like a mysterious instrument to me,” Spivey said. “You really don’t see that too often from people.”
Although there are few people who know how to play the bagpipes, Spivey said there is a high demand in the area to hear them play. He is often booked to play several events a week, sometimes driving up to 100 miles to events.
“People always come in and want to know how it works,” Spivey said. “There’s a lot of curiosity and interest in bagpipes when you’re actually there playing them.”
Spivey credits much of his success to the many people living in the tri-state area who claim Irish heritage.
Patrick Leonard, owner and operator of Leonard Funeral Home in Dubuque, said he often gets requests to play the bagpipes at a funeral from people who want to feel closer to their Irish roots.
In those cases, Spivey is his contact.
“It’s something you see a lot with people of Irish heritage,” Leonard said. “At the end of the funeral, he’ll keep playing and start walking away from the family and you can hear the music die down. It’s really special how he does it.”
Spivey said being close to people of Irish heritage is essential to the success of his business. When he spent a year in St. Louis, he had almost no reservations, which he attributes to the area’s penchant for celebrating German heritage.
“They didn’t want bagpipers,” Spivey said. “They had accordion players there.”
Along with the funerals of people of Irish blood, the bagpipe is especially popular for the funerals of ex-policemen, firefighters and military veterans.
Tom Walsh, commander of Dubuque American Legion Post 6, said military-style funerals have long included bagpipes in their ceremonies. This tradition continues today.
“It was definitely something carried over by the Irish and Scottish immigrants,” Walsh said. “You’ll still see people asking for bagpipes at funerals.”
Spivey said his bagpipe business has largely relied on word-of-mouth referrals, but his services have gained popularity over the years.
In addition to playing at events, Spivey also offers bagpipe lessons for people of all ages.
Spivey said he has no ambitions to expand his bagpipe business. For now, he’s happy that there are people who want to hear him play.
“It was my first musical instrument that I learned,” he said. “I know it was a weird choice, but I’m glad he did it.”