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Piper Protocols: The Boise Highlanders’ St. Paddy’s Day Safety Plan

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Courtesy Boise Highlanders
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Trying to plan for St. Patrick's Day piper, drum and highland dancing performances in 2021 is not unlike 2020 — under a looming shadow of COVID-19. But there is also a tangible difference. In March 2020, a global pandemic was beginning to rage with no end in sight. And in March 2021, there is reason for cautious optimism.

With all that in mind, Dr. Grant Harbison, pipe major of the Boise Highlanders, the region's largest pipe band, is crafting a unique St. Paddy's Day schedule — with more outdoor performances than indoor shows.

Harbison visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the Highlanders' tentative plans for March 17. Additionally, Harbison, who is a psychiatrist at the Boise V.A. Medical Center, reflects on a year of caregiving on the anniversary of the first cluster of COVID infections in Idaho.

“I've chosen to limit the number of pipers who can play indoors to those of us who are fully vaccinated, which is at least a couple of weeks out from their second vaccine shot ... We're going to have to limit our indoor performances.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I’m George Prentice. St. Patrick's Day…my goodness, St. Patrick's Day is near….it’s next Wednesday, March 17th. And of course, traditionally it is a day full of reverie, drinking, eating, drinking, singing, drinking and a lot of togetherness. But togetherness is extremely rare these days. So, what will St. Patrick's Day look like this year? Grant Harbison is here.  He’s Pipe Major of the Boise. Highlanders - the region's largest pipe band, and a fixture of so many St. Patrick's Day celebrations. They give dozens of performances at restaurants and pubs all across the Treasure Valley each year. Grant, good morning.

GRANT HARBISON: Good morning to you, George.

PRENTICE: So let's get right to it. What will St. Patrick's Day be like for the Highlanders?

HARBISON: I'd say that in many ways it will be a lot like last year's St. Patrick's Day. We did a few gigs,, and then stopped when things started becoming more and more serious. I suppose that this year will be something of a mirror image in the sense that we'll be coming out of a big COVID-19 outbreak. And it seems as though our positivity rates and everything have been dropping as a state and as a city. But at the same time, we will still be doing a limited repertoire of shows. I think what the average St. Patrick's listener is going to be able to hear, for the most part, is a smaller group - maybe four pipes, drummers, like a snare drum and bass drummer, and then maybe a dancer or two. And then most of those performers will be outdoors. So, we probably aren't going to do very many indoor performances. I've chosen to limit the number of pipers who can play indoors to those of us who are fully vaccinated, which is at least a couple of weeks out from their second vaccine shot. And that would be me and one other piper. We're going to have to limit our indoor performances.

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Credit Courtesy Boise Highlanders
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Boise Highlanders

PRENTICE: And again, you have dancers and I'm assuming that a fair amount of them are younger.

HARBISON: That's correct. We have a lot of dancers. It's actually a very large part of our corrps, maybe almost as big as the pipers. Again, the only modality of performance where we really are exposing risk is piping. Because think about it. You take a bagpipe, you blow air into it, and then the air goes out, one, two, three, four different pipes that are stuck into the bag. So, it's really a great distribution tool for moist, exhaled air. We can't really fix that too well. So that's our biggest risk mitigation strategy, is the piping musicians who play the pipes, the pipers. I would also say that our dancers and our drummers can wear a mask. I do feel the most for the dancers, however…their job is the most physically taxing and they have to wear the mask. So, that's kind of what you can expect for how we're going to look. The pipers will not be wearing masks if they're outdoors. We'll try to keep them at least not blowing wet air onto the audience or on to each other or on to the other performers. But again, there will be a little bit of that because we can't fix all of it. And our drummers and dancers will be wearing masks. We'll be trying to have distance between us and the audience wherever we go. And for indoor performances, that distance issue is going to be a little more critical.

PRENTICE: I've got a little piece of audio here that I'm going to bring in. And here we have the Highlander's……music ……And if I could paint a word picture, you are in full regalia and sounding top-notch. Grant, where does this come from for you? What are your roots…what's your attraction to you doing this?

HARBISON: Sure, well, in my younger years, I always wanted to be somebody who was unique. And of all the instruments that I could hear, bagpipes seemed the most unique. And my father had given me a copy of the book, Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott. So, I had certain romantic ideas about  Highlander's wearing kilts and running around with long bows and stuff like that. And then I was able to find out that there was a pipe band here, got introduced to the pipe major of the band, Ron Lopez, who was major for 40 years, and I took lessons for him. But I found out that I had some facility for the instrument and it's taken me all over the country. And I even went to Scotland…new, different people.  That's been real positive.

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Credit Courtesy Boise Highlanders
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Dr. Grant Harbison is pipe major of the Boise Highlanders

PRENTICE: So, can I assume that as we speak, you're still putting together the schedule for St. Patrick's Day?

HARBISON: That's correct, George. Every year we put together a schedule and then we put out another schedule and then another schedule. And it's subject to constant iteration, depending on the desires of our clients who want to book a show and, the availability of the pipers. And in prior years, we would rent a couple of very large vans for each team and we would just go from gig to gig. And we had several teams. So, when you, in your introduction said dozens of performances on St. Patrick's Day, that's absolutely true. We would do upwards of 38, 48, sometimes almost as many as 50 performances. So, we're still putting together a schedule. Yeah, that's true. We've got a few places for indoor performances, a few more for outdoor performances, and we'll see how things go.

PRENTICE: I should note that Grant Harbison is Dr. Grant Harbison, a psychiatrist at the Boise VA Medical Center. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask,  on this one year anniversary of the first cluster of infections of COVID here in Idaho: How are you doing? How are you and your colleagues at the VA doing?

HARBISON: Well, that's a great question, too, George. I think, without trying to speak for all of the VA, I can tell you that I'm very grateful for the leadership of our institution who reacted quickly and decisively to try to do well for us.  As a year has gone by, we have learned a lot. We've managed to roll out our vaccines to a lot of veterans in the Treasure Valley and hopefully beyond. What I've been trying to tell everybody who I have to supervise, whether it's at work or in the Highlander's, is that, “Anything can change at any time in any direction. And that necessitates all of us to be hopefully relaxed and ready for whatever change can come without having too much emotional energy invested in any particular outcome. “ Because life is unpredictable and in no time more so than it has been since mid-March of 2020.

PRENTICE: We are so happy to hear that you and a number of your colleagues will be performing next week. Good luck with that. We will also keep our fingers and toes crossed for good weather for your outside performances. He is Dr. Grant Harbison. Grant, an early happy St. Patrick's Day to you.

HARBISON: Thank you very much, George. Same to you and to everyone listening.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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