On traditional Scottish instrument, Mercer Island teen is piping hot

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Playing the bagpipes may not be something “normal teenagers” do, but it’s his unusual hobby which 17-year-old Micah Babinski thanks for allowing him to do “normal teenager things.”

“I don’t have a job but I’m able to drive a car, go out to the movies - because of bagpiping,” Babinski says.

For one hour of bagpiping, the Mercer Island High School senior can earn $100 and often more, especially if he is wearing a kilt. He does weddings, special events such as Mercer Island’s Relay for Life, and entertains crowds at local restaurants and bars or golf clubs on St. Patrick’s Day.

Within the last two months, Babinski has taken home two trophies for his piping. He won top honors in the Nicol-Brown Amateur Invitational Solo Piping Championships in Albany, N.Y. on Oct. 7, and was the overall winner of the George Sherriff Memorial Amateur contest in Ontario on Nov. 18.

After nine years of practice and playing, his success is getting him some professional attention. This fall Babinski was invited to join the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, a 23-piece world champion pipe band in British Columbia that has played for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and even opened for singer Rod Stewart.

“When I first moved here, I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be crazy to play with them?” he says. The 11-year-old boy who arrived from Oakland, Calif. in 1998 is now getting his wish.

Babinski plays for at least an hour every day. Practice with the Simon Fraser band is every weekend in Vancouver. Sunday mornings, he wakes up early, picks up his bagpipe teacher in north Seattle and another band mate in Blaine, Wash. They spend the day practicing for the upcoming World Bagpiping Competition in Glasgow, Scotland, which the band has won several times.

He returns the same day and on Monday, it’s back to normal high school life on the Island.

“It’s kind of hard for a lot of my friends to understand why I’m gone and why it has taken over my life,” Babinski says. “It’s interesting living on Mercer Island because no one else here does it.”

Surprisingly, though, plenty of youngsters in North America do. Babinski has taught at summer bagpiping camps, such as the Silver Star Ski Resort in central British Columbia, where interest in the centuries old traditional Scottish instrument is alive and well.

He says that Seattle has one of the healthier levels of interest in the country, partially because of its proximity to Vancouver, where bagpiping is even more popular, and because of the city’s large representation of people of Scottish background.

The name Babinski does not mask any hidden claim the Islander has to Scottish heritage. With mostly Polish and Ukrainian blood, he says his parents were completely confused by his attraction to the pipes.

Although Babinski can’t explain it, he can clearly remember one of the very first times he heard them played. He was 8 years old, visiting his grandparents in Michigan. There he saw a war re-enactment: “The French siege of Detroit, or something like that,” he laughs. The particular battle wasn’t important. What stands out in his mind is talking afterwards to the bagpipers he saw on the field, and how they told him that he could be a bagpiper, too.

“Maybe it’s that it doesn’t sound exactly like everything else,” he says. “There’s a lot you can do with it.”

Babinski plays a lot of traditional Scottish songs, but he also likes to write his own, experimenting with different rhythms and syncopations. “You can make it funky,” he says.

Despite his hobby’s profitability and other rewards, Babinski at this point plans to continue his life as normal teenager. He would like to study ecology, environmental science or perhaps pre-law at a regular four-year college.

As for that college’s name or whereabouts, all he has to say is this: “Somewhere within driving distance to Vancouver.”

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