Every night at 6 p.m., a sound echoes through a small corner of Rohrerstown.
Occasionally, it harmonizes with a passing train or a far-off lawn mower engine. Sometimes the melody is familiar, but even when it isn’t, there’s still a small comfort to be had from the playing itself.
It’s unmistakable in its boldness – yes, that’s got to be a set of bagpipes.
For roughly 100 nights since COVID-19 became a central storyline of 2020 in early March, musician Michael Luckenbill, 67, has played a short concert on homemade bagpipes in his driveway. There is no stage banter, or even a microphone in which to deliver it. What is there to say that the soft melancholy of the bagpipes couldn’t?
There is only Luckenbill, his bagpipes and an iPad on a stand with a list of songs and musical notes. He plays for 15, sometimes 20 minutes, depending on who and how many passing neighbors stop to bask in the tonal glow.
No one asked him to, and he asked no one for “permission” to play. As a musician, he sees it as a gig to replace many of the lost concerts he would be playing anyway.
“The plan is to keep going until someone tells me to shut up,” says Luckenbill after one such performance.
Across the street, the parking lot of the Salem United Church of Christ provides not just a socially distant vantage point of the show, but also a view of a neighborhood that becomes a percentage livelier when that show begins.
“We can hear him if we’re downwind that day,” says Amy Heth, a neighbor. “We’ll be sitting on our deck eating dinner and hear him and say, ‘Oh, it must be 6 ‘o clock.’”
Along with being a musician for most of his life, Luckenbill is also a retired educator. Originally born in Lancaster County, he was living in California when he first began considering the idea of learning the bagpipes.
After a friend passed away, Luckenbill and a band was approached to play at a wake in a local bar. As is typical for a band playing in a bar, his band played two sets and each of the band members was paid about $25. After the band played, a bagpipe performer played the first two verses of “Amazing Grace,” a bagpipe standard if there ever was such a thing.
“I got to talking with the guy at the bar afterwards and found out that he made $300 for playing two minutes of ‘Amazing Grace,’ says Luckenbill. “I said, ‘For two minutes?’ I’ve been playing the wrong instrument.”
In the immediate aftermath of the wake, Luckenbill, a self-described “rock and roll guy,” ordered a cheap pair and got to learning the ancient woodwind instrument.
That was 20 years ago. In the intervening years, Luckenbill built from scratch the instrument that he plays every night. Taking an electronic version of a chanter – think of the recorders you were forced to play in fourth grade – with a mounted bag and PVC pipe, Luckenbill has solved one of the central problems that bagpipe detractors have with the instrument.
“The nice thing about electronic ones is that you can turn them down,” Luckenbill says. “Bagpipes are notoriously loud.”
The bagpipes alone would be an auditory presence, but Luckenbill has paired it with a small guitar amp and a phone app that adds droning notes, creating a sometimes poignant, sometimes eerie sensation. His set list varies between roughly 50 songs, from familiar Scottish and Irish classics like “Loch Lomand” and “Danny Boy” to movie themes from “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.” Sometimes it’s just a familiar melody. One night, a neighbor passed by the performance and mentioned that it was another neighbor’s birthday that day, so Luckenbill dutifully transitioned into “Happy Birthday.”
With a yellow phase designation that still insists that music venues remain shuttered and large gatherings of 25 or more be prohibited, Luckenbill’s driveway residency is the only place that he’ll be playing. Just prior to quarantining, Luckenbill performed at a nearby senior center, where his performance was captured on video and sent to every room.
Since retiring and moving back to Lancaster six years ago, Luckenbill has continued following his passion for music in every conceivable direction. On his website, mdlmusic.webs.com, he lists a dizzying array of not just different musical styles, but monikers for each style, as well.
There’s “Michael D.,” a catchall name for when he performs solo and as a “full band” with backing tracks. There’s “The Kilt on the Stilts,” for when he plays the bagpipes on stilts at the Renaissance Faire. There’s even “Gronk, the Gorilla,” of which he says, "I wear a gorilla suit and do silly things. Great for surprise parties or floral deliveries.”
When he’s not performing, Luckenbill continues with his favorite hobby, which is creating homemade instruments such as kazoos, shakers and cigarbox guitars. He hopes to take his instrument workshop on the road to local schools when they reopen.
Regardless of when you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that Luckenbill will be playing tonight. That bagpipe sound will continue to echo through Rohrerstown, perhaps to the “green phase” and beyond.
"This is a nice town, I like it here,” Luckenbill says. “Even though there’s crazy, crazy traffic on Rohrerstown Road."
As the unseasonable cold of May fades into the sticky heat of June, that siren honk is there to provide some solace from the continued mental onslaught of social distancing, one note at a time.
“I think it’s kind of encouraging,” Heth says. “You’re home and sort of all cooped up and then you hear him and think, ‘Oh, at least somebody else is out there.’ It gives you a reason to walk around the neighborhood and say hello to neighbors.”