Entertainment profile

Henry Hopkins: German-American Irish piper

Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2000

Playing like mad: Henry Hopkins, 32, loves Irish music. He's been a regular musician on the contra dance scene and an enthusiastic addition to Irish sessions since he moved from Fairbanks to Juneau last summer with his family.

He plays tenor banjo and uilleann pipes, the smaller cousin to the Scottish great highland pipes. He knows of only three other uilleann pipers in Alaska.

``They're incredibly difficult instruments to learn. About 60 percent of my time I spend learning to make reeds, and 40 percent playing like mad until they go out again,'' he said.

The reeds are tricky, and Hopkins carefully whittles the double reed sets out of cane and binds them to brass tubing with hemp.

``To me, the pipes embody Irish music, and all this reed making is a technical challenge I'm willing to take,'' he said.

Unlike the Scottish highland pipes, a loud, military instrument, uilleann pipes are a quieter indoor instrument with a greater musical range, comparable to a baroque oboe. ``Uilleann'' means elbow in Gaelic. Rather than blowing into uilleann pipes, players use an elbow to pump air into a bag, which feeds air into the other parts of the instrument.

Too crowded: Hopkins father is American and his mother is German. He grew up in Bochum, in north central Germany. They lived near a British military base, and young Hopkins used to listen to the Irish music broadcast by the base radio station.

``My dad is a harpsichord player and plays professionally with the Bochum Orchestra. He's also a university professor there,'' he said.

He said he decided to emigrate to the United States at age 20 because Germany was too crowded.

Technology mentor: By day Hopkins is a technology mentor for the Juneau School District.

``I work at all the secondary sites in math and science, and help teachers implement technology in their classrooms,'' he said.

He and his wife, Sarah, have a 3-year old daughter, Emma.

Teen-age rebellion: Hopkins is a self-taught piper, although he grew up playing violin and harpsichord in a musical family.

``I watched old guys play when I was younger. That was the impetus. I started as a classical musician as a kid and switched to folk music. My family is heavily into classical music and that was my teen-age rebellion,'' Hopkins said.

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