When people are out reveling on St. Patrick’s Day, listening to traditional Celtic music usually doesn’t top their list of party essentials. However, at a bar in Hollywood on one such day, Eric Bernard endeared himself to the rowdy crowd, playing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” on bagpipes.
“It was a bit of a challenge,” the self-described “Elven Bagpiper” says, remembering the night. “It’s very difficult to fit most pop songs on the bagpipes, but I was able to put together an arrangement for that song. Everyone was singing along and it was a really good atmosphere.”
Born to Christian missionaries, Bernard moved from town to town as a kid before his family settled in Los Angeles. A longtime fan of medieval culture, Bernard started taking bagpipe lessons in 2008 after spending some time dabbling with guitar.
Bernard says that he’s more skilled at the Scottish Highland bagpipe, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing his preferred Irish uilleann bagpipes. which are better suited to modern music like pop songs and video game and movie soundtracks.
After a stint at Pasadena City College, Bernard moved on to CSULA, where he first gained notoriety by playing Scottish Great Highland bagpipe during a campus-wide fire alarm. Since then, he’s become a popular figure on-campus, probably because he’s the only known player there.
“The thing about the bagpipes is that anyone can pick it up, but no one thinks of it as an option because it’s so unusual,” the 20-year-old says. “There are actually a lot of bagpipers hiding everywhere, but you just wouldn’t know.”
Though he’s had fun playing pop music like at that St. Patrick’s Day party, Bernard generally sticks with more traditional music. But he says he does enjoy experimenting with different styles because it gives him the opportunity to jam with musicians he wouldn’t usually play with. So far, he’s played with cellists, harpists and flute players in order to further his musical education and challenge himself as a traditional player.
While there isn’t much demand for bagpiping at traditional L.A. rock clubs, that doesn’t mean Bernard hasn’t been able to find shows. He will play events on the CSULA campus along with memorial services, weddings, Renaissance fairs and private parties. He even gets in the spirit by dressing up in “Ren Fair” attire.
“As long as I can fit a song on a bagpipe, I’ll try to play whatever I’m asked to,” he says.
Outside of his solo work, Bernard is in a Scottish bagpipe band called Pasadena Scots, which does competitive bagpiping at Scottish festivals. They’ve performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and appeared on the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack — but a particular thrill, says Bernard, was playing at the 2011 World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow.
With the growing number of bagpipers popping up in metal and Celtic punk bands, Bernard won’t rule out crossing over into more mainstream music.
“I actually have a friend who was in Pasadena Scots who plays in a bagpipe rock band,” he says. “As for becoming a career for me, I don’t see that happening as much at this point, but depending on how much time time I have, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep playing on the side having fun.”