Bagpiper marches to a different beat

August 21, 2002 11:00 pm

By ABBY SOUZA

Movies have been known to stir up emotions, give pause for thought or start a cult following. But for 19-year-old Matthew Hirsch of Columbia, one movie changed the course of his life.

"My interest with all things Celtic started with ‘Braveheart,'" said Hirsch, a 2001 graduate of Sonora High School and accomplished bagpiper.

Hirsch saw ‘Braveheart' in the theater when he was 12 years old and still considers it to be his favorite movie.

"There's just something about it," he said.

That something led Hirsch to the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Murphys when he was 14, where he saw a bagpipe band playing for the first time.

"I told my mom that's what I had to do," said Hirsch.

His mother, Lori House, and 23-year-old sister, Tiffany Hirsch, heard through word of mouth that area resident John Bowly played the pipes and set young Hirsch up with lessons.

"I found Matt to have a real flare for the instrument," said Bowly, who began playing the pipes at age 13. "For other kids it was just nostalgia, but Matt had real interest in the instrument. I'm very proud of him."

Hirsch began on a practice chanter, a recorder-like instrument in which pipers learn embellishments to notes played on the actual bagpipe.

"It's much more difficult than people imagine," said Hirsch.

After six months of lessons with Bowly, Hirsch worked on his own and continued playing through high school.

"My parents supported me 150 percent," said Hirsch of House and his father, Douglas Hirsch, a pipe fitter currently working on construction of the new Sonora Community Hospital. "They always told me to follow my dreams."

Continuing to learn about his passion was something Hirsch hoped to do after high school. Starting his senior year, he began looking for college-level bagpiping programs.

"Nothing was happening," said Hirsch of his search for a place to learn and play his pipes. "Even my school counselor couldn't find anything."

There were some small piping programs at colleges on the East Coast, but nothing that had jumped out at Hirsch. Ready to give up, Hirsch was doing one final search on the Internet for a program that fit his needs. Randomly hoping something might show up, he typed www.collegeofpiping.com.

And there it was; the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada.