A Conversation with Jeff Herbster

Jeff, looking musical as ever.

Jeff Herbster is an expert bagpiper, Scottish Smallpipe player, and fiddler who has performed throughout New England and Pennsylvania. In addition to playing music, he composes, teaches, publishes instructional books for musicians, and sells instruments for those looking to buy bagpipes.

It is a pleasure to introduce you to one of our wonderful subscribers, Mr. Jeff Herbster.

Mary:

Now, tell me please, first of all, where you grew up. 

Jeff:

Yes. Well, I grew up in Pennsylvania, or I should say, I grew up when I left Pennsylvania.

I mean, I grew up when Uncle Sam needed me.

Mary:

So, you left Pennsylvania to go in the service.

Jeff:

Yes, I did. I went in in 1971, and I stayed in until 1995, when I retired.  I was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy.

Mary:

While in the service, you must have travelled a lot?

Jeff:

Most of my time in the Navy was onboard ships. We definitely moved around. We went from one country to another ocean, just back and forth. I’ve been around the world twice. And I’ve set foot on every continent, at least once. Some of those places I would not want to go back to, but some of them were pretty good.

Mary:

What made you settle in Maine?

Jeff:

I was living in Arizona, up in the mountains in Williams, Arizona, and I was trying to decide, what am I going to do? I’m thinking, “I’m bored up here. I’m at 8,000 feet, I need some oxygen.”

One day, I got a call from my sister who lives in Richmond, Maine. Her husband had Alzheimer’s. She had a lot of stuff around the house that needed to be fixed, and she knew I was Mr. Handyman because I worked at a hotel for a while. She asked me, “Can you come to Maine for a month or two and fix the electrical stuff and fix the carpentry stuff?”

I said, “Yeah, okay, I will.” I was only going to stay here for four or five months, until the snow disappeared, and then I was going to go back in the mountains. I’m still here.

Mary:

How long has it been?

Jeff:

Me and my wife are always laughing at this. I got to Maine in January of 2002, and I said, “Well, I’m going to go ahead and go on this Match.com thing, and just look around.” And I thought, “Well, I got 15 days free, and then I’ve got to pay. I’ll find someone, a match, in 15 days and I’ll be good.” All these people all send their pictures, you know. One of them wrote that she didn’t have a picture—she wrote, “I have a horse, and I have a Corgi.” I didn’t know what a Corgi was and that fascinated me. If I don’t know what something is, I’ll look it up. (It was really a Corgi, the British dog, but I was pronouncing it wrong in my mind.)  Anyway, we emailed back and forth. We went out on a date, and I’m still in Maine. We got married a year later.

We got married in July of 2003 at Skyline Farms, in North Yarmouth. It was a carriage museum, and we had a little wedding there, with just a couple of family and that was about it. We went down the day before and set everything up. Yes, and we’ve been happily married ever since.

Mary:

Is she a musician also?

Jeff:

She loves listening to the pipes, and she loves listening to the banjos. And just about anything I play, she likes to listen to. She really likes the Scottish smallpipes.

Mary:

How did you start playing the instruments that you play?

Jeff:

Well, I started in elementary school. In 1963 a music teacher called me, and he said, “You want to learn how to play an instrument? I got violins here.” I said, “Yeah, a violin sounds kind of good. I’ll try it.” And I still play violin.

I did the typical electric bass in high school in the bands, and when I went into the military I played around with different instruments. There, on and off I played guitar and bass, periodically, and for the military, only cornet and bugle.

But I didn’t make a big thing out of it because I was busy. I was having too much fun traveling, trying to stay out of trouble.

After I retired, I discovered bagpipes. I thought, “Oh, this is great. How hard can it be? There’s only eight holes. There’s only nine notes. It can’t be that hard.” Was I wrong!

Other than that, I play the clarinet, oboe, cornet, French horn, the smallpipes, banjos, and a dulcimer, which I built.

Mary:

What’s your favorite?

Jeff:

Fretless banjo. That is my absolute favorite thing to play. The two that I have, I built myself, but they’re based on a design of a banjo from the early 1800s.  On a regular banjo, you’ve got five strings, and frets. On what they call a minstrel banjo, or a fretless banjo, there are no frets, nylon strings, and you don’t play with picks on your fingers. You play what they call stroke style, which is a method of playing a minstrel or a fretless banjo that they used back in the mid-1800s.

I have two of them. One that I built is just a regular banjo head, and the other one is from an early 1800s—maybe 1820 or so—banjo that’s made with a gourd instead of a round banjo head. That one has got a regular gourd on it. And then there’s goatskin stretched over that really tight. I think that’s my absolute favorite instrument to play.

Mary:

Do you play by ear or by reading music?

Jeff:

Well, on the pipes, I mean, of course all the music that I play is all written down, but you have to memorize it. If you ever watch bagpipers, they’re never standing with music in front of them, like an orchestra musician would. Everything has to be memorized, so that’s what I do. I pick a tune that I want to know, and I memorize it. Some of the tunes on the pipes are two minutes long, and some of them are 20 minutes long. So, I’m full of hot air.

Mary:

Where do you mostly play now, professionally?

Jeff:

Prior to COVID? Anybody that had a wedding, I would play. Anytime somebody would contact me, “Hey, I’ve got a wedding, and is it possible that you can come and play?” And I’d say, “Yes, for food.” Sometimes I would get lobster dinners at the wedding receptions.  I gone all the way from Northern Maine, to Southern Maine, to New Hampshire—I’d been all over, playing the pipes. I was doing, on average, 25 weddings a year. But I’d really cut back on that amount because that’s a lot of traveling and a lot of time.

Mary:

What types of songs do you play? Do you write some of your own music?

Jeff:

When I would be in contact with people about playing a wedding, I’d say, “Look, everybody always wants to hear the same thing.” Like, “Here Comes the Bride.” No kidding. When I started playing, they know the bride’s coming. And I would always talk to the bride before. I’d say, “You don’t want that. Really. You want a traditional Scottish wedding. Let me play a song.” So, they would look at me kind of funny, and I’d explain what that was. I didn’t have to play “Here Comes the Bride.”

As for writing music, I would ask them, “I can write a special tune, two minutes long, just for your processional, all right?” I’d be happy to do that. I wouldn’t charge them anything for it. I would just write a tune for that occasion. Once I play it one time, I normally would jot notes down about it, and I’d never play it again. Because it was a song specifically for that wedding. That used to be fun.

Mary:

Once you retired, did you do other work, other than playing music?

Jeff:

I was a school bus driver. That’s what my wife did too. I started one year, and she started the year after me. She absolutely loved it. And I loved it, too. I’m still in touch with some parents. If they have something going on, I go and play. For one of the mothers, I play every year at her grandparents’ grave site on the VA Cemetery in Augusta. I’ll go down there with the cornet and play Taps, and whatever else they want me to play.

Mary:

What part of Maine do you live in and how do you like it?

Jeff:

I really like it here. We live in Belgrade Lakes. That area. Especially in Mount Vernon. But you say Mount Vernon, and people think that’s in Washington. We’re right on the Belgrade, Mount Vernon town line, which is about 20 miles or so northwest of Augusta. Or “Auguster,” I guess they say here.

There’s a few things I don’t like about Maine. I don’t like the fact that there’s more than four seasons, that kind of bugs me. When I lived in Arizona, we had four seasons. Well, we actually had three seasons—two seasons really. We had winter, and we had July.

Then I came to Maine, and then I find out they got the four seasons, then they got mosquito season, black fly season, now we got tick season. We got mud season.

This morning, we got up, we had the generator, but we didn’t have power, we didn’t have internet, and I opened the door, and the temperature was 70 degrees. December, in Maine, and it’s 70 degrees. Come on now.

Mary:

What are you working on now?

Jeff:

Right now, I’m in the process of trying to record every pre-Civil War banjo tune that I can find and recording them. I’m up to about 50 now.

And I’m working on a dulcimer, but normally I love the pipes. This time of year, it’s kind of cold to play them, so I play the small pipes, the shuttle pipes. A real quiet version of bagpipes. Indoor version of bagpipes. I play those in the wintertime.

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