The guys watching preseason football at a Federal Hill bar this week were skeptical when Ian Coletti took his place by the video golf machine and took out his instrument.
"Does he do AC/DC?" quipped one.
But they shut up as soon as Coletti started playing. They had no choice. Bagpipes in a narrow bar are a little like honking cars in a tunnel. Conversation is not an option.
It's been just a month since Coletti moved from Atlanta to Baltimore to be closer to his band, the City of Washington Pipe Band, the only grade-one pipe band - piper parlance for world-class - on the East Coast. But he's making the city take notice.
About once a week, Coletti plays at Sean Bolan's, a Light Street pub that gives him free Guinness in exchange for piping (a "dangerous" offer to make a piper, he says jokingly.)
The rest of the time, he's traveling the world in search of piper glory. Last weekend, the band played at the North American Championships in Ontario. This weekend, it's at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
For a guy who spent his teens in suburban Atlanta listening to recordings of world piping championships, life is good.
"I always wanted to play in a grade-one pipe band," Coletti said shortly before leaving for Scotland, "and playing in the worlds has been a dream since I was 15."
There are thousands of bagpipers in the United States and more than 100 registered bands in the Eastern states alone. But as in any pursuit, there are levels of commitment. There are the pipers who march at local parades, and then there are Coletti and his mates.
Coletti, 29, joined the City of Washington in 1999 and spent almost two years flying from Atlanta once or twice a month for rehearsals, taking the red-eye back Monday mornings and going straight to work from the airport. When his company offered a transfer to its Columbia office this year, Coletti asked his first bagpiping teacher whether he should go for it, even if it meant moving away from home."[The teacher] said, 'I love my wife, I love my daughter, but if I had an opportunity to do that, I wouldn't want to be 40 years old and say, I could've played in a grade-one pipe band,'" Coletti said. "And I thought, 'You know, he's right. I don't want to be 40 and find myself in a grade-three band.'"
He made the move, and now he's living in a South Charles Street rowhouse, with a downstairs neighbor who says he "digs" bagpiping and so doesn't mind the blare of Coletti's practicing.
Talk to Coletti at any length and you might mistake the genial redhead for a typical rock 'n' roll striver, maybe a heavy metal drummer - certainly not a musician who wears a kilt, plays in a band sponsored by Icelandair and plays tunes like "MacAllister's Dirk" and "The Smith of Chillichassie."
When not performing with the band, he's in black T-shirts and jeans. He talks about his music with the earnestness of a Spinal Tap band member, bemoaning the "politics" that afflicted the two rival Atlanta bands he played with and explaining why he jumped to the D.C. band: "I was convinced the [second] band didn't want to go where I wanted to go."
He even indulges in winking mentions of the attention showered on grade-one bands like his by young women "in the piping community" at competitions like last week's North American Championships in Ontario, where the band placed third.
"You're a big deal, [and] being men in uniforms, men in kilts, doesn't hurt," he said. "You're up getting a beer in the tent and someone says, 'You're in the City of Washington Pipe Band?' and you say, 'Why, yes I am.'"
Piping under pressure
If piping has groupies, it also has drugs, sort of. To deal with the pressure of high-level competitions, Coletti said, he takes beta-blockers before performing, something he says is common among grade-one pipers.
"If you get a knot in your stomach, it really affects your playing because you've all got to be at the same [air] pressure, hitting the notes at the same time. The goal is to sound like one bagpipe," he said. "When you cut off [at the end of a tune], it's got to be dead silent. It can't sound like someone putting a fork in a cow."
Ask Coletti why he puts himself through such stress, why he spends hours a week playing an instrument that he describes as "very brutal and physical," and he shrugs. It's in his blood, he says. His mother is a first-generation Scottish immigrant, and his father, despite his Italian surname, also descends from Scots.
As a child, Coletti was taken to Atlanta's Highland Games, where he performed as a dancer and drummer before taking up the pipes at age 12. His rise was swift: private lessons and summer piping camps had him giving piping lessons of his own by age 15.
At 17, he was spotted by members of the City of Washington band who were judging youth competitions. Since then, the band kept an eye on Coletti .
"There are very few people in the U.S. who can play at our level, and Ian is one of them," said Michael Green, the band's "pipe major," or leader. "We saw him in high school and knew he was an emerging superstar. You can tell right away."
Coletti helped pay for college with piping, playing at funerals and weddings and eventually graduating from Georgia State University. After becoming pipe major of his second Atlanta band two years ago, he called Green and said he was ready to make the jump.
He took an information technology job with a start-up that promised it would move him to the parent company in Maryland when an opening arose. His first commuter practices with the Washington band were tough - playing at the grade-one level, even at rehearsals, had him "shaking and sweating."
Playing in the band
Now, Coletti has settled in. At a recent rehearsal in the rain outside University Baptist Church in College Park, Coletti's playing escaped any remark from Green, a National Security Council staffer who listened for the slightest missteps from the nine pipers present.
"Pay attention to this tune. It's 'hum-bu-da-bu-doom.' Someone over there went 'yabba yabba doo,'" Green barked out in the middle of one song, stomping out the beat in sneaker-clad feet.
At competitions, bands are judged on tunes of only seven minutes duration. But like sprinters taking long jogs to prepare for the 100-yard dash, pipers build up their diaphragms - the key to delivering the needed air pressure - with marathon practices.
At College Park, the pipers and drummers, most of them as young and raffish-looking as Coletti, played for about 90 minutes with only brief breaks. A few days later, the exacting Green would tell several of the band's 18 pipers that they weren't playing well enough to make the trip to Ontario.
Things were more laid-back at Sean Bolan's on Monday night. His introduction from bar manager Ken Krucenski drew hardly a glance, but after the first tune, the crowd was his. Patrons started making requests; one man called friends on his cell phone so they could hear the pipes.
"You got first place in here. Take me to Scotland and you'll get first place there," called out patron Kara Jordan.
Coletti said he would be happy to have the band place in the top 12, considering how strong the Canadian and Scottish competition will be. Only one U.S. band has ever finished that high - the L.A. Scotsmen, one of two other grade-one bands in the United States.
Finishing in the top dozen would mean being included on the CD compilation of the tournament; Coletti likes to think of some young piper being inspired by recordings of his playing the way he was, listening to records as a kid.
"Even if you're only on volume two, you're still on the world championship CD," he said. "Basically, you go down in history."