Some people aren’t afraid of being unconventional. Some develop great interest in subjects we’ve never heard of. These are people who march to the sound of a different drummer. Or, in the case of Forest Park’s Alice Max, they live life to the tune of a different piper.
Max, who just turned 18, is one a handful of women in the world who play the uilleann pipes. This unique instrument is named for the Irish word for “elbow,” uilleann, because the pipes are elbow-powered. It takes a great deal of strength to pump the bellows with the right elbow, while squeezing the bag with the left elbow to force air into the pipes. During this squeezing, the piper plays melodies on the chanter and accompaniment on one of seven pipes. This includes playing the three drone pipes, which Max has not yet mastered.
Not that Max limits herself to playing this difficult instrument. She’s also an accomplished violinist. These twin talents are on display every Thursday night at Molly Malone’s, where Max adds her fiddle and pipe to the Traditional Irish Session. As its name implies, this is a jam session of instruments playing the stirring, sometimes haunting, folk music of Ireland. Max has been playing in Chicago area sessions since she was 14.
Of course, if she were Irish, Max’s enthusiasm for this music could be more easily explained. Max’s ethnic background is a mix of many nationalities but Irish isn’t among them.
If Max had any nationality to declare, she’d probably pick “artistic,” because she comes from a very creative family. Her father, Mark Krisco, taught at the Art Institute and is an artist in his own right. Her mother, Georgia Kmetz, is an artist and also the events coordinator at Pleasant Home in Oak Park. Her younger siblings, Annie and Chance, must also possess some visual creativity, because the sidewalk art outside their home is positively arresting.
Max and her brother and sister are all home-schooled. Apart from an aborted stint in kindergarten, Max has had no “formal” schooling. Her mother taught Max math and reading, and she in turn helped teach these skills to her siblings. “I was really into reading,” Max said, “And I had plenty of instruction in art from both parents.”
Discovering Irish music
Music didn’t kick in until Max reached the ripe old age of 2½. “I heard a sound from another apartment, and I asked, ‘What’s that sound? I love it.'” This was her first encounter with a live violin, and she later received a toy violin as a present. Max tried to imitate the sound she had heard through the closed apartment door, but the toy wasn’t up to it. “This isn’t a violin,” Max said dismissing it. “This isn’t what I wanted.”
Max’s grandmother honored Max’s request by renting her a violin and paying for lessons. “I started learning the Suzuki method when I was 5,” Max recalled. “Over the years, I had to keep changing violins, renting larger models.” Max endured strict training on the violin, learning to stand a certain way, keep an erect posture and hold the bow in a prescribed manner. The first song she learned was “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Max was aware that her violin produced very unpleasant sounds during these early years. “I tried to imitate songs by ear but my playing was really scratchy, gargly and squeaky.” She persevered, nonetheless, working her way through four books of Suzuki songs. Max had only two problems with playing the violin: she didn’t like to practice, and she wasn’t crazy about classical music. “I liked Mozart a lot, and I liked Bach. But I couldn’t make the music sound like it should.”
Her slow evolution toward Irish music began when Max encountered bluegrass and country music. Her teacher at the time could play classical, bluegrass and Irish. When she heard Irish fiddling, Max immediately thought, “That sounds kind of fun.”
Her next teacher, Louise Brody, said to her, “Irish music”have you ever tried it? Well, I can teach you that.” Brody taught Max three tunes and she was instantly hooked. Brody also introduced Max to some session players. Max was all of 11 years old by then, and she began soaking up Irish music. Her favorite band, Lunasa, featured an instrument that Max had never heard of but she liked the sound.
The haunting sound of pipes
It was the sound of pipes, but they weren’t bagpipes. “It was haunting, not annoying,” Max recalled, “It wasn’t loud like Highland pipes, and it could be played real fast.” Her teacher identified the sound as coming from uilleann pipes and made the comment, “That would be funny if you started to play them.”
As with other subjects that have caught Max’s curiosity, uilleann pipes became a sudden obsession. The origin of these pipes date back 300 years to the pastures of Scotland. The first instruments were constructed from the body of a goat, with the abdomen serving as the bellows and the bladder being used as the squeeze bag. By 1800, the instrument was manmade and had become purely an Irish instrument.
The uilleann pipes barely survived to modern times: Irishmen in Chicago saved them from extinction at the turn of the last century. Though they are technically bagpipes, uillean pipes are quite different from the Highland pipes that most people are
familiar with. The Highland pipes are
martial instruments, meant to be played
outdoors in parades. They are somewhat limited in musical range and are so loud they tend to drown out other instruments. Or as Max said more succinctly, “They’re good for war.”
Uilleann pipers do not march, as the pipes are played sitting down. Their volume is lower than Highland pipes. “They were a parlor instrument,” Max explained, “That could be played without breaking your ear drums.” The instrument’s softer sound would make it a natural for indoor concerts, but, according to Max, “The pipes were not initially welcome at sessions.” It wasn’t until the pipes were tuned to the key of D to blend with other instruments that they were allowed to participate.
Piping up in front of people
Still, the sound of pipes isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some people dismiss them along with other “disreputable” instruments like the banjo and accordion. “I get teased about the pipes,” Max admitted. In fact, her interest in Irish music seems to befuddle people. “They say, ‘Oh I’ve heard that, in Riverdance,'” Max recounts, “or they ask, ‘Irish music, what’s that like?'”
If nothing else, playing Irish music has enabled Max to rise above her innate shyness. The first time she went alone to a session”at the Hidden Shamrock, in Chicago”she was too intimidated to play. One of the session players called out, “I thought I saw a violin case here. Come on and join us.” The players at Molly Malone’s also make Max feel at ease. During a session, one of the men turned toward her wearing fake teeth, which started Max laughing. This was a revelation to the group, Max said. “First it was: ‘Oh she talks,’ then it was: ‘Oh, she’s laughing.'”
Playing the pipes has been a struggle for Max but nothing compared to the financial struggle to buy a set. She finally was able to purchase a broken down, secondhand set of uilleann pipes for $2,000. Because the instrument is designed to be played by men, the bag is not at the right height for a woman’s elbow. Max found it was “killing my shoulder, and I could barely get a note out of it in the beginning.” But lessons from her pipe teacher, constant practice and some light weightlifting have made the instrument a little easier to play. At this point, she can perform 18 tunes on the pipes, to complement the 300 tunes she’s learned on the violin.
Max would like nothing more than to become a professional musician, but as a bumper sticker recently reminded her, “Real musicians have day jobs.” Right now, she wants to become a tattoo artist. “I’ll probably become an apprentice,” said Max, who is already sketching patterns on skin and photographing them for her portfolio. She plans to “see what happens” with a music career, but she’s already off to a good start. The session players from Molly Malone’s are releasing a CD and, on the last track, there’s the sound of a strange set of pipes played by a young woman who is not afraid to be different.