Katie Helms performs at Church events around the area in memory of a son who passed away
By Dan McWilliams
Bagpiper Katie Helms can be seen playing at many Knoxville-area Church events, and she says her goal is simply to “make a joyful noise.”
“That’s what the Scripture says to do, and that’s my goal,” she said. “In I think it’s Colossians 3:16 and 17, it says, ‘make songs and hymns,’ and then it says, ‘whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’ That’s my disclaimer—I’m trying to do it for Him and His service.”
The parishioner of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus got started playing the bagpipes about 10 years ago when her son, Gabriel Miller, passed away.
“I just needed something new in my life, and something said, ‘Play the bagpipes,’” Mrs. Helms said. “They were giving lessons at the Knoxville Pipe and Drum starting in a few weeks, and I started taking lessons.”
She shares with people the reason behind her bagpipe playing, which has become a lay ministry.
“When I go to parks and practice, people ask me why I started playing. I say, ‘Well, my son passed away, and I believe in the afterlife.’ I wanted to play a new instrument because I was heartbroken. I just needed something new in my life, and I wanted something loud enough for my son to hear me. If you’re going for volume, bagpipes are your best option.
“But my other son said, ‘But Mom, you don’t understand. He’s up there saying, “Be quiet!”’” she added with a laugh. “I share that with people, and it gives me an opportunity to witness a little bit.”
She said playing bagpipes is not really difficult to learn.
“Bagpipers say bagpipes are hard to learn, and I think”—she laughs—“they say that because they want everybody to think that they’re really good. There are only nine notes and no sharps or flats. It starts with the G below middle C and it goes to the first A above the staff, and that’s all there are. No sharps or flats, even though all the notes are a little sharp and a little flat.
“That’s why we don’t play well with others. We can’t typically play well with a band because we’re kind of in a different key. We don’t even really have a key.”
Mrs. Helms explained the parts of the bagpipe.
“You blow into the bag. You have the three drones. The bag is a reservoir for air pressure to keep the drones—there are three drones, the big pipes, they’re drones, they have the bass A and two tenor A’s. They just play background noise. They have a reed in each one of those, and then the chanter, which has the melody, where there are the nine notes, that has a double reed, so it’s like playing four clarinets at one time.
“The whole time you’re blowing into the bag and you’re squeezing, but you’re not squeezing all the way out until the end of the song. You’re just keeping pressure. That’s why when we play ‘Rocky Top’ we can say, ‘Whoo!’ and still be playing.”
She wears “a kilt and all the full uniform” when she plays.
“The reason we wear a uniform when we play is because it makes people think we know what we’re doing—I mean [correcting herself with a laugh] it’s tradition. We wear our kilt out of tradition. We have a kilt and a sporran, which is like a little purse that hangs in front. That’s where the ancient Highlanders kept their cellphones and car keys.
“We have our socks, and most pipers have a sgian dubh. It’s Gaelic for ‘dark knife,’ a knife in their pocket. We almost always have a knife in our sock. That’s a sign of respect. In the old days, if I was traveling through the Highlands, I might have my weapon because there might be wild animals or an enemy, and when I come into your home, out of respect I unconceal my weapon and put it in my sock. So pipers always wear that. Sgian dubhs are very expensive.”
The knife cannot be taken everywhere she plays.
“Sometimes I play in schools, and you’re not allowed to have knives, so I found an antler-handled dog bone at the pet store, so if you see me out there with my sgian dubh it’s really a dog bone. I don’t have to run from the police,” Mrs. Helms said.
Mrs. Helms, 59, was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up in Orlando, Fla. She has been in Knoxville for more than 20 years. She and husband John have one living son, Ben Miller, and one grandson, Oliver, who attends Sacred Heart Cathedral School.
She had been to Methodist, Assembly of God, and Church of God services before joining the Catholic Church. Her journey to the Church started when she saw the Scriptures in a new light and continued when she played the bagpipes at Knoxville Catholic High School
“I’m a new Catholic. I went to RCIA about three or four years ago. I’ve studied the Scriptures—I taught children’s church for 20-some years—and a lot of stuff I saw, to my Protestant friends I would say, ‘Whoa, look what it says,’ this or that, and they would say, ‘No, it doesn’t mean that,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I think it does. That’s what the Bible says.’
“Then when I started playing bagpipes and they needed a bagpiper at Catholic High School, I started piping and I saw what nice young people there are at that school and what nice young men the football players were. Sometimes the nuns would put books out there for people to take, and I took some, and I read one about Catholic virtues, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s great. You don’t read about that in my church.’ I started looking into it, and some of the things that I had believed, it turns out it’s what the Catholics believed, and some of the questions I had about some Scriptures are answered in the Catholic Church. So I was like, whoa.”
Mr. Helms “had been Catholic for years,” his wife said. “He said he was a victim of Vatican II. When it changed off the Latin, he quit going. Then when I started showing interest, he came back to the Catholic Church. I went to the RCIA, and I really love it. It’s just beautiful. A lot of the things I believed through the years and a lot of questions I had are answered in the Catholic Church.”
Mrs. Helms joined the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2016.
“It was very beautiful. When I received the host in my hand, I froze. I wanted to just look at it. I was just totally blessed. Even Father Joe [Reed] had to come and kind of lead me on a little bit, because I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I wanted to pause everything.”
She says that with her bagpipes she “prays for people as I’m playing, and I think the Lord helps that. I arrange music for bagpipes. I have a website, bagpipepraise.com, and I’ve got about 100 songs arranged for bagpipes, and I have got people all over the world writing me and thanking me for it. I say, ‘Hey, we’re supposed to just get His Word out and get His message out.’
“Sometimes I’ll practice in a park and I’ll be playing a hymn, and somebody’ll walk by and say, ‘You know, one of the songs sounded familiar. I’ll think about it.’ And then they walk on, and I just pray and say, ‘Lord, help them to remember how great thou art. Help them to remember what a loving God you are.’ Maybe it was a song they heard when they were in church with grandma when they were young.”
Mrs. Helms plays at different events—and not always alone.
“I feel blessed and honored to be invited to play at things. I have some bucket drums. I have some young adults . . . and they play bucket drums with me. We call ourselves The East Tennessee Bucketeers. We play in parades and lots of events, and they just bang on those drums and I just play my pipes and we just have a good time. I’ve taken the drums to several Catholic churches around—Notre Dame in Greeneville, Holy Ghost here in Knoxville, and Maynardville at St. Teresa of Kolkata—if they have a festival or picnic they’ll invite me to bring my buckets and bagpipes.”
She also plays at assisted-living centers and outside churches before confirmation ceremonies take place.
“One day I was playing and I stopped at the end of a song, and this man was walking up with his daughter. She was getting confirmed. He said, ‘Look over there at that bagpiper. She’s doing this for you. She’s showing you that God loves you, and she’s happy at what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Good. He got it. Somebody got it, why I’m there.’”
She said she appreciates cathedral rector Father David Boettner and director of music and liturgy Glenn Kahler for “allowing me the opportunity to be a part of the ministry.”
Grandson Oliver is 6 years old and was recently baptized, Mrs. Helms said.
“Afterward my son [Ben] said, ‘You know, Mom, what was that class you took?’ I said, ‘RCIA.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about taking that.’ I’m excited. I think he’ll love it.”