7 pipers, 5 drummers, 9 active-duty officers: Meet the St. Louis County Pipes and Drums | St. Louis Public Radio

7 pipers, 5 drummers, 9 active-duty officers: Meet the St. Louis County Pipes and Drums

Oct 25, 2015

Go to any law enforcement event in the St. Louis area and you’re likely to see them there -- men and women in kilts, duty pistols at their sides, bagpipes and drums in hand.

The St. Louis County Police Pipes and Drums began a dozen years ago as the side project of three St. Louis County officers who are also life-long musicians. As members of the only law enforcement pipe band in the state, they use their musical talents to honor the work of law enforcement around the state and the country.

How did the band get going?

David Sandbach, a detective with the bomb and arson squad, has been playing the bagpipes since he was 10. When Sandbach joined the St. Louis County Police Department, he met Dan Jackson, also a life-long piper. In 2003, the two hooked up with Francis Gomez, who had been drumming for 20 years in various bands. 

"The motivation is basically the inscription that we have on our bass drum -- honoring the fallen," says Gomez, who supervises the county's domestic violence unit. "It's paying our respects to the men and women of law enforcement who have laid it all out and made the ultimate sacrifice. That is the driving purpose of the band. 

Who's in the band?

Eleven of the band's 12 members are either active-duty or retired St. Louis County officers. The 12th, and the only woman, is a civilian employee in the department. Gomez, Jackson and Sandbach are the longest-tenured members. Andy Kelly, who's also a drummer, is the newest -- he just finished his first year on the department.

Nine of the band's 12 members - from left - Dalen Schmoll, Dave Sandbach, Dan Jackson, Dan Steele, Dan Davis, John Spicer, Francis Gomez, TJ Bakula and Chris Steib - at rehearsal on Sept. 9.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

Where do they play?

Funerals, memorials, fundraisers, conferences -- anything with a tie to law enforcement, says Gomez. They have played at the Bomb Technicians Memorial in Huntsville, Ala., and play every year at the state law enforcement memorial.

The biggest event, though, is National Police Week in Washington, D.C. It was there in 2015 at the National Law Enforcement Memorial that Sandbach got the biggest honor of his career. 

David Sandbach at the National Law Enforcement Memorial.
Credit (courtesy of David Sandbach)

"I was the final midnight piper," he says. "It’s one piper, it was the last night of National Police Week, and you walk in, walk around the walls, throughout all those names, and it was just me and whoever was standing there."   

Gomez always enjoys playing Guns and Hoses, the annual fundraiser for Backstoppers.

"It's a fun time, but there’s still an element of respect that we play, specifically when we play 'Amazing Grace' in the concourse. Everything kind of shuts down, and they know why we’re there," he says.

But his favorite moment has nothing to do with law enforcement.

"I am a -- rabid may be too tame of a word -- Cardinals fan," he says. "So I was honored to play Stan Musial's funeral.

"He's obsessive," Sandbach chimes in. 

Do you have to know how to play the bagpipes?

Nope. 

Five of the band's seven pipers rehearse at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy on Sept. 9. Only Dave Sandbach (second from left) and Dan Jackson (in hat) played the bagpipes before joining the group.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio.

Dalen Schmoll​ had some woodwind experience; and Dan Davis, the newest piper, played bass drum before changing instruments. But only Jackson and Sandbach had played the pipes before the band was formed. Dan Steele (yes, there are three Dans), picked the instrument up in his 50s, after he retired from the department. 

And the bagpipes are about as complicated to learn as you expect. "My father always described it as 'squeezing a cow while stepping on a cat's tail,'" Sandbach says. "It takes a year to learn how to play the practice chanter to get to a bagpipe, and once you get on the octopus, it's another six, eight months before you feel comfortable."

How many pieces can the band play?

About 30 -- "'Amazing Grace' and 'that other one,'" Sandbach jokes. "Scotland the Brave" and "Highland Cathedrals" are two that most people recognize.

To kill time, Sandbach and Jackson have been known to randomly break into covers of songs.

Are they wearing anything under those kilts?

Officially, no comment.

Watch the St. Louis County Pipes and Drums perform "Amazing Grace" with the Greater St. Louis Area Firefighters Highland Guard. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann