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Local man found his calling playing Irish pipes

St. Patrick's Day was a very busy day for Hastings native Ryan Behnke. As someone trained to play the Uilleann pipes, he spent the day playing music at several St. Patrick's Day celebrations including everything from a performance at a nursing home to one at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.

The Uilleann pipes are an Irish instrument. "Uilleann" is Irish for "elbow," making the instrument aptly named, because they are played with the elbow, Behnke said.

"When people hear it, they picture the Scottish pipes, but it's the sound that's in every single Irish themed soundtrack," Behnke said.

Behnke first became interested in the pipes when his friend was gifted Scottish bagpipes from his grandparents. At 14 years old, Behnke ended up getting his own bagpipes shortly after and his love of playing the pipes continued to evolve.

 He practiced with the pipes and said that he must have very understanding parents because the instrument is very loud. He even had the police called on him once because the sound carried throughout his neighborhood. The officer asked if he would "pipe down," Behnke said, so now he always practices indoors.

Behnke would travel to the Twin Cities every Wednesday when he was still in high school just to play with the Macalester Pipe Band in St. Paul. It wasn't until college that he discovered the Uilleann pipes, but he immediately fell in love with the sound.

"I just thought it was a magical sound because they are so different in comparison to other (pipes)," Behnke said.

The Uilleann pipes are quieter than the Scottish bagpipes, Behnke said. He said that they have more of a full sound and are very "rock n' roll." The ornamentation of the instrument is something that he enjoys, as well as the incredible sound and variety of ways you can play it, he said.

Behnke went on to graduate with a master's degree in Irish music performance from the University of Limerick in Ireland in January 2017. He is now teaching the pipes, flute and whistle at the Center for Irish Music in St. Paul, a school dedicated to handing down traditional Irish music to the next generation.

Behnke also hopes to create an album before the end of summer. He really wants to create material "where I'm just working with the tunes and arranging them," he said. Every piper has their own micro style, Behnke said. There is the American style that is very tight and closed, which would allow the instrument to go completely silent. The traveler's style is a bit messy, but completely in control. As for Behnke's style, "It's completely me," he said.

In addition to teaching and work on a future album, Behnke is involved with several other local musicians. He is planning to play in Texas this month at a festival and some other local venues in the state. He will be playing with a group called Three Pints and a Glass which includes the pipes, fiddle, bouzouki and drum.

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 with a degree in journalism and web design. She worked as a web content editor for a trade association before coming to the Hastings Star Gazette in 2016.

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