Ewing residents Patricia Downey, president, (left), Doug Ranson and John MacDonald are all members of Greater Trenton Pipes and Drums. (Photo by Dan Aubrey.)

Nero may not have fiddled while Rome burned after all — he could have been playing the bagpipes, some form of the instrument, anyway.

The bagpipes, so much associated with Scotland and Ireland, are said to have roots in ancient Mesopotamia and North Africa. The pipes made their way to Rome, and it was the Romans who subsequently brought bagpipes to Britain some 2,000 years ago.

However, it was the Scots who added the third “drone pipe” and really amplified the sound. Kind of like Dylan going electric at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1965.

Ewing resident Patricia Downey, president of Greater Trenton Pipes and Drums (GTPD), could tell you even more about the bagpipes: for example, the bag is made of a synthetic fabric, no longer animal pelts or a sheep’s stomach; there are four reeds that need to be in proper condition and place for the instrument to function.

And there are only nine notes available through the chanter or “blow-pipe” of the instrument, so any elaboration or articulation has to be done with a series of complex grace notes.

People used to learn the pipes only by ear, not by the notated manuscripts modern band and classical musicians are familiar with. The GTPD’s oldest member, 86-year-old Jamesburg resident Gordon Fraser, was taught this way in his native Scotland.

Downey, a musician and longtime music educator, is a font of information about traditional Scottish music, the pipes themselves, and her fellow participants in the group, many of whom she has recruited.

She says the group had a little time off over the winter holidays, but now the members of the GTPD are shaking the dust off their kilts and preparing for the busy Saint Patrick’s Day season, which will launch the group into some nine months of activity.

The GTPD will next perform at the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in the seaside community of Belmar on Sunday, March 3, at 12:30 p.m. Closer to home, the group will march in the Hamilton Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Saturday, March 9, at 1 p.m., starting at the Nottingham Fire House.

The actual weekend of Saint Paddy’s, the GTPD will be part of the festivities in Robbinsville, on Saturday, March 16, at noon, with a parade starting at the Foxmoor Shopping Center.

All the parades are free.

A recent frigid night visit to the GTPD at the Carslake Community Center in Bordentown, where the group has been practicing every Thursday for 15 years, opens the door to the behind the scenes of a group usually on public display.

“We started out rehearsing at a school in Springfield Township, but we really needed a larger space. So we started looking around for a rental hall,” Downey says. “Bordentown is a somewhat central location for most of our members, so we decided to call it ‘home.’”

The extreme cold wreaked havoc on the intonation of the bagpipes and delayed the arrival of whoever had the key to the equipment room where the drums are kept.

So the drummers sat around a table and warmed up on practice pads, coached by GTPD member Gordon Bell of Shark River, one of the area’s top percussion instructors.

Among those drummers was George Zienowicz, Trenton’s venerable sign maker, musician, and arts supporter, who first joined the GTPD as a bagpiper, having played the instrument for decades.

Influenced by his Scottish-born mother, Zienowicz was just one member of the extended family that played the bagpipes. He also played the fiddle and spent some 15 years in a Celtic rock band.

Before the GTPD Zienowicz was in the Tir Na Nog Pipe Band based in Hamilton, and in fact became pipe sergeant, second in command of the pipe corps. Downey met him in Tir Na Nog and found him to be a patient teacher.

“I was just a novice player, but George was always very kind, encouraging, and supportive of me in those early days,” she says. “He’s still that way with beginners in this band. Even though he wasn’t a founding member of the GTPD, he is an integral part of the unit.”

Patricia Downey, president of Greater Trenton Pipes and Drums.

Meanwhile at the rehearsal, GTPD’s current pipe major, Tom Fortis, a retiree from Avondale, Pennsylvania, led a sectional at another table, walking the players through “Men of the West,” a familiar march tune. This is the quieter part of the rehearsal, before the pipers attach their chanters to the bag and drone pipes.

Once the instruments are all put together and the drummers have their actual drums, the action moves to the Carslake Center’s gymnasium, and whoa does it get loud. (Full disclosure: years ago, this reporter first heard the GTPD practicing while sitting at a traffic light, blocks away on Route 130.)

It makes sense that they’re loud, since the bagpipes were originally used to scare off enemies on the battlefield, and it is the only Western musical instrument that is/was deemed a weapon of war.

Marking its 16th year, Greater Trenton Pipes and Drums was formed in the early summer of 2003 by a small group of experienced pipers and drummers, including Downey. The band debuted at the 2003 Anchor House Ride for Runaways ceremony at the former Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton.

A 501(c)3 non-profit pipe band, the group has a mission to preserve the music and culture of the Great Highland Bagpipes. (Incidentally, there are many other kinds of pipes, including the traditional Irish Uilleann pipes, but the GTPD plays Highland bagpipes.)

In the last 16 years the group has grown to perform at more than 25 parades, charitable events, and private functions each year.

Current personnel total is 25, ranging in age from 15 to 86 years old, with men slightly outnumbering women. The GTPD is family oriented and inclusive in several different ways, Downey says.

“We even like to have kids in the band,” she says.

In addition to the parades, the GTPD performs and educates within the Burlington County School District, conducting different history and culture assemblies around Saint Patrick’s Day.

They are fixtures in area Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades, as well as 9/11 memorial ceremonies, Halloween celebrations, and Civil War reenactments at Camp Olden and the Abbott House in Hamilton Township.

They have played for the College of New Jersey’s alumni veteran festivities, Trenton Titans hockey games, and Princeton University’s P-rade.

Downey says that the GTPD has also helped welcome home numerous returning veterans from overseas, and that she and other solo players perform at weddings, private parties, senior events, and funerals.

The group’s fee for an appearance at a parade or public event runs from $1,000 to $1,200, but they also make many charitable appearances.

“Charity events would include the Relay for Life at Mercer County Park, Princeton University Ivy League Mental Health Conference, and the ARC Walkathon,” Downey says. “We’ve played at fund raisers for the Hamilton Police K9 unit, including one that raised money to buy bullet proof vests for the dogs.”

“We’re a non-profit. We only want to maintain the group, maintain our needs,” she adds. “We take care of everything for our members, instruments, music, kilts, etc.”

“We’re happy to be part of the community, in fact, that’s part of our by-laws — to give back anytime we’re able, especially when police and firefighters pass away,” she says. “Our mission as a band is to provide musical performances to the public and superior instruction to our members.”

Born in Ohio in 1966, Downey moved with her parents and five brothers to Ewing in 1968 when her father found work in central New Jersey.

After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, Downey’s father graduated from LaSalle University with a degree in chemistry. While Downey’s mother raised the large family, her father worked as a chemist at RCA and Princeton Gamma Tech Instruments in Rocky Hill before starting his own company producing radiation detectors for use in radon monitoring.

The Downey kids attended parochial schools in the area, including Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville.

Along with her brothers, Downey played music throughout her childhood and carried her interest into college, majoring in flute at Trenton State College (now TCNJ). She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education in 1988.

“We were definitely brought up with music in the home,” she says. “My mother is an accomplished pianist with a serious devotion to Chopin. We were exposed to it all (classical, folk, jazz, popular, etc.) and developed a loving appreciation for music as children.”

After graduation, Downey taught for one year in the Burlington County School District as a substitute teacher before returning to TCNJ to participate in a program the college offered for re-certification in mathematics.

“Basically, there was a need for mathematics teachers in New Jersey, so the college created a program that allowed education majors to achieve certification in a secondary subject area,” she says.

She then taught music at the former Harmony School in Trenton and at Springfield Township Elementary School, where she remained until 2006.

Downey received a master of arts in education/curriculum from the University of Phoenix in 2007, and then accepted a position as a math teacher in Burlington City Junior/Senior High School.

Downey calls herself “pre-tired” (not quite retired), and lives with her mom in her childhood home. She has one son, Patrick, a civil engineer at Dynamic Engineering in Belmar.

Reflecting on what drew her to the bagpipes, Downey says it was hearing them at local parades when her high school band was also participating. Since she is half-Irish, there might have been some Celtic spirit stoking her interest as well.

“Playing the bagpipes seemed like a challenge, and I was interested in seeing what it was all about,” she says. “I received a practice chanter (the first step in the learning process) as a Christmas gift in 1989, and after trying unsuccessfully to learn on my own decided to get serious and seek out lessons.”

One of her brothers worked with someone who was taking bagpipe lessons at the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) Msgr. Crean Division 1 on Kuser Road in Hamilton, and he invited Downey to join in on Monday evening rehearsals of that group’s band.

Sitting alongside Downey at the rehearsal, you could hear that she is one of the musical leaders in the group. Her skills in playing the flute certainly have given her a jump on the tricky technique of the bagpipes.

Musical instruction is a cornerstone of the GTPD’s mission, and the group is known for mentoring inexperienced players, like Downey once was.

Trenton’s Wills Kinsley — bicycle artisan, bass player, and arts supporter — is one of those newbies, having only recently joined the group. Zienowicz is not only coaching him in drumming: Kinsley is working alongside Zienowicz in his Trenton sign shop.

“Wills just joined the band and will be marching in his first parade with us in March,” Downey says.

“Our membership could be higher, and we have a few folks in their 70s, so we’d love some ‘new blood,’” Downey says. “Pipe and drum bands ebb and flow, and we’re always recruiting. The band is always looking for new members, and all ages and ability levels are welcome. I like to think that everyone has the right to play the bagpipes.”

  • Belmar/Lake Como Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Sunday, March 3, 12:30 p.m. www.belmarparade.com
  • Hamilton Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Saturday, March 9, 1 p.m. www.hamiltonparade.com
  • Robbinsville Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Saturday, March 16, noon. www.robbinsvilleirish.org.
  • Greater Trenton Pipes and Drums rehearse at the Carslake Community Center, 207 Crosswicks Street, Bordentown, Thursdays at 7 p.m. 609-635-7458 or www.gt­pipeband.com.