Jack Lee Comes to Town

In an admirably far-sighted move, my band (the Wasatch and District Pipe Band) decided to forego the usual early-season trip to the Las Vegas Highland Games. Instead, we booked Jack Lee and Duncan Miller to come to Salt Lake and conduct a piping and drumming clinic. The rationale behind this decision was to build the two bands’ piping and drumming skills, so that we can go back to games like Las Vegas in the future and give an more excellent account of ourselves.

Naturally, our expectations were high since Jack Lee is one of the best solo pipers of our generation, and is also the Pipe Sergeant of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band – the current World Pipe Band Champions. We were not disappointed. In a remarkably intense weekend, Jack retooled both our Grade 3 and Grade 4 performance sets, and set us on the road to possible success in Scotland at the Worlds in 2010.

Friday evening, Jack started out with a solo piping session, where he showed us how to set up our pipes for the best sound. We all use the same type of chanter reeds as Jack and the SFU Pipe Band, so he knows his way around them. After that, we switched to piobaireachd, and Jack coached us through The Desperate Battle (complete with crunluath-a-mach variations) and then The Munros’ Salute, a simpler, but very beautiful tune.

On Saturday Jack evaluated our two performance sets and modified our Quick March Medley to make it flow better. The set now opens with a MAP tune, and next year will switch entirely to these tunes. (MAP stands for Musical Appreciation and Performance and are tunes approved for Grade 4 bands competing in Scotland under the rules of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association. They are all 2-part 2/4 marches.) By Sunday, we had learned the tune and played the new set on pipes, with the drum corps. In 24 hours we had completed a process that normally takes weeks in the Fall. Making these kinds of changes just a few weeks before the beginning of the competition season is quite risky, but our confidence is currently at a reckless high under Jack Lee’s tutelage!

It was a fantastic weekend. Jack is a wonderful blend of kind, funny, intense and disciplined, and I know we’ve benefited immensely as a group and as individual pipers.

The summer just flew by…

It’s hard to believe it’s almost October. The last time I wrote anything here it was just after the Salt Lake Highland Games, and our new Wasatch and District baby – the Grade 4 Band – had just had its first competition. Well, it was indeed a busy summer. Here’s the synopsis:

June was wet. It rained prolifically on the Salt Lake Games. The following weekend I marched for the first time playing bagpipes in the Utah Gay Pride Parade. It rained cats and dogs at that parade, too! The organizers of Utah Pride had never had bagpipers and I always thought that the parade could use some (couldn’t all parades?) I put the word out but, this being Utah, most pipers were reticent about attaching themselves to anything having to do with gay rights. Still, one other piper (who is out and open about it) joined me. We played for the interfaith church service, the march from the church to a rally at the Salt Lake federal building and then the following morning for the parade itself. The parade was intense; despite the rain, the crowds turned out in huge numbers and it was like marching through a tunnel of people. Afterwards we got a lot of very positive comments – we will surely be doing it again next year, and perhaps we can gather more pipers and some drummers. I think when pipers realize the sky won’t split open and strike them down, or that they won’t be “turned gay” by marching in a Pride Parade, they’ll begin to warm to the idea! I liked the peculiar irony of marching that Saturday morning in the Eagle Mountain parade (possibly Utah’s most conservative town) and then driving straight to play for the pride events that afternoon.

In July, the Wasatch and District Grade 4 band had its second competition. We took second place! We knew we had improved, but this was still a surprise to us. You can see our performance here: At the end of July we traveled to the Enumclaw games near Seattle. Up there we compete against the overachieving canadian bands, so we couldn’t repeat our second place! Still, it was a good experience. Also during July (on the 4th, actually) I marched in a parade in the morning and then drove 4 hours to central Utah to play for a funeral. That was a long day!

In August, the World Pipe Band Championships take place in Glasgow. Two of my band members joined the Grade 1 band Triumph Street this year and went over to Scotland to compete. What made the competition even more compelling was the live feed provided by the BBC this year. I got up super early (2am) to watch the qualifying rounds and then the finals. A fellow Utah piper (John Miner) did the same and we compared notes by Facebook chat as the competition progressed. Triumph Street qualified for the afternoon finals and it was very exciting to see my friends Justin and Ross broadcast on worldwide TV as they played a wonderful couple of sets with their new band. They’re back now, and ready to help Wasatch and District again during the off-season.

September has been a quieter month. My band traveled to a Highland Games in Colorado at Estes Park as the duty band. I wasn’t able to attend but it was a very successful trip and the band got a lot of praise for its professionalism. I started a new full time job in late August, so my mid-weekly piping gigs are now a thing of the past. At our band AGM we confirmed that we plan to travel to Scotland ourselves (to compete at the Worlds) in 2011, so exciting times are ahead.

Next week we begin rehearsing our new music for 2010. Our Grade 4 band will add a Timed Medley this coming year, and it’s going to be good! I’ll update you all as we get to grips with it!

Happy piping new year!

Salt Lake Highland Games – WDPB Grade 4 Inaugural!

Yesterday was the Salt Lake Highland Games, organized by the Utah Scottish Association – it’s the biggest highland games in Utah. It was also the first time out for the brand new Wasatch and District Grade 4 band, and we turned in a very creditable performance – 4th place! We are currently in the midst of the wettest spell I’ve encountered since moving here 3 1/2 years ago, so weather was always likely to be a contributing factor to the games this year. It turned out to be quite a feature!

Solo Piping

The morning started out dry(ish), but very overcast for solos. I felt really good in the piobaireachd. The humidity and cool air helped my pipes, and I played a tune I was happy with. I came in fourth, which was a little lower than I thought the performance merited, and I’m usually pretty modest about these things. I suppose the judge (and fellow Finn) John Partanen, must have spotted a few note errors of which I was unaware, and weighed them more heavily against me than the tenor of the conversation after my performance suggested at the time.

As we chatted after I finished playing, he complimented my pipe and my performance. He did mention that my dropping 2 notes from the ground was a version not officially approved by the Piobaireachd Society. [This despite the fact that the past president of the Society plays that tune (Lament for Captain MacDougall) sans the extra notes!] It’s possible he decided to push his point home by dropping me down the placings for that reason. If so, I suppose I should be flattered that he decided to get that tough with me! I was wearing my Piobaireachd Society tie, so perhaps he held me to the stricter (some might say irrational) standard that I’ve supposedly embraced by joining! In any case, I had as much fun playing that tune as I’ve ever had, so I wasn’t at all unhappy with my numeric placing!

I added marching this year to my 2/4 March (optional in Grade 4, but required if I move up a Grade next year). This is trickier than it ought to be. Despite marching in countless parades, the back and forth marching required in a competition 2/4 March feels very awkward to me. I will try to get more comfortable with it as the season progresses.

My slow march had a few note errors that I don’t usually make – I play the tune all the time at funerals. Perhaps it’s time to replace it for competitions. I forgot to bring the music with me, which is customary for more obscure tunes. The judge said he thought he knew it. I told him I thought it might be on one of Gordon Walker’s CDs in the “World’s Greatest Pipers” series. The judge offered to give Gordon a call, and get him on the line while I played.

Band Competition

After lunch, it was time to get ready for the inaugural public performance of the Wasatch and District Grade 4 band! We formed the band during the 2008 season, but were not quite ready to perform last year. This year we are now up to about 10 pipers, 3 snares, 2 tenors and a bass. We have a nice, straightforward Quick March Medley and it was time to compete. We were drawn first to play in the competition, which seemed a bit daunting at first, but turned out to be a big plus later! I thought we played really well. It was a little ragged as we marched into the competition circle, but we soon settled down and played a steady set right to the end. We had a clean strike-in and a clean cut-off, which always leaves a good impression. We stuck around after our set to listen to the next band play, but the gathering black clouds suggested we ought to take cover. We retired to our band tent just in time for a monstrous rainstorm to hit. We hung on to the tents to prevent them from blowing away (a couple did) and watched the other bands, who had drawn later playing times, tune up and march off into the downpour.

When it was all over, we discovered we had taken fourth place – a very creditable performance, considering we were an unknown quantity even to ourselves. We missed third by just one point and discovered later that our lower piping score was due to one of our pipers starting out playing the wrong tune! He was very contrite, and promised not to do it again!

The sun was back by the time of the closing ceremonies to cap off a wonderful day’s piping. Next highland games – the Payson Scottish Festival in a month’s time.

Radio Degrees of Separation

This week’s BBC Radio Scotland Pipeline show is definitely worth checking out, particularly if you are a piobaireachd fan.

In the middle of the show is an archive segment from 1971, when the show’s forerunner was presented by Donald MacLeod, himself a piobaireachd legend. During the segment Donald introduces part of a beautiful performance by Jimmy MacIntosh of the tune Tulloch Ard, recorded at the Northern Meeting in Inverness that year. While attending the Meeting, Donald met and recorded an interview with Angus MacPherson, who was 95 at the time, and had been to every competition there since 1894. MacPherson’s grandfather had been a competing piper going back to the mid 1800s. MacLeod asks him about the influence of the “new” pipers coming to Scotland from Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, and MacPherson talks clearly and enthusiastically about these “up-and-coming” performers from the early ’70s, many of whom are now retired!

It’s amazing to hear a clear voice from so long ago talking about competitions that go back generations further. I wonder how many such interviews the BBC has in its archives?

The David Barclay Memorial Competition – Year 2!

Yesterday the Utah Pipe Band presented this excellent indoor piping and drumming competition for the second year.

Just as it was last year, this competition is a welcome addition to the piping scene in Utah. It’s timed perfectly, since most bands have yet to begin the serious work of preparing for the next season, the previous season’s music is still relatively fresh in most players’ minds, and the Fall is often a quiet time in piping.

This year the venue moved to the Hidden Hollow Presbyterian Church in Draper, a quiet neighborhood of this suburb of Salt Lake. Last year’s early-season snow storm was absent, and present were two new faces to Utah in the form of the piping judges – the husband and wife team (also Pipe Major and Pipe Sergeant team) of the Triumph Street Pipe Band, David and Shaunna Hilder. Two of the pipers in my band joined Triumph Street this past season, so they were able to arrange the inclusion of these prestigious names in piping.

The event went off without a hitch (as far as I could tell) and I even played half-decently! I competed in the 2/4 march, the slow march and the piobaireachd. It was my final outing this year with my piobaireachd, “The Rout of the MacPhees”, and I played it as well as I ever have done. The piobaireachd competition was held in a large room with a high ceiling and a wooden floor. The acoustics were big, and it sounded as if I were playing in a baronial hall somewhere. I closed my eyes and pictured the stag’s heads and shields on the walls. David Hilder gave me some excellent comments and I even took second place – a wonderful end to the 2008 season.

Thank you Utah Pipe Band, for organizing this wonderful event. Long may it continue!

I abandon my pipes…temporarily

Last night my band, the Wasatch and District Pipe Band played its annual fund-raising concert.

Our usual MC, Jeff Mann, was unable to be present, since he had to travel to California for meetings connected with ANAPBA (the Alliance of North American Pipe Bands Associations), of which he is currently Chair. Someone in the band (don’t remember who) suggested I replace Jeff. I’m assuming this is because of my affable manner and cool British accent, not because I’m the most dispensable piper in the band.

Anyway, the evening seemed to go pretty well and, although I felt fairly wooden in places, people said nice things about my hosting abilities after it was all over.

The sound of the final tune had barely died away when some members of the band rushed, Le Mans-style, to their vehicles to begin the overnight drive to Pleasanton, California. (The band is competing in the final Highland Games of the season this weekend in this suburb of San Francisco.)

I test a new way to update this page

Rather an unusual post this time – I’m testing a new way to update this page.  Assuming that it works, you will be reading about the Enumclaw games last weekend.

My band traveled to Washington State (the Tacoma area) last weekend to compete against some big hitters in the piping neighborhood.  Although the competition took place in the U.S., it is administered by the BC association, so my band ended up competing against a bunch of aver-achieving Canadians.

Considering that, they did pretty well (6th out of 8) and plan to return next year, presumably with the newly-minted Grade 4 band in tow.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Payson Scottish Festival

Yesterday this fun and compact festival celebrated its 25th anniversary, and my band (the Wasatch and District Pipe Band) was there to help celebrate by winning the Grade 3 Timed Medley.

The Payson Games is always a really good day. The games are held in the city’s little park, which is old. This means that it is stuffed full of mature trees, so there is plentiful shade. There is a playground right in the center of the park, so the kids have a lot to do, all without leaving eyesight from the band area. The park is small enough that you can get all round it in just a few minutes, which make the logistics of getting bands and soloists to the performance a breeze. You may gather that I like the Payson Games!

That said, this year didn’t start out too well for me. I neglected to send in my solo application forms and missed the deadline. The organizer was very nice, but just couldn’t fit me in as a late entry. Still, when life (or your own carelessness) gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? I decided to volunteer as a steward, since my only commitments during the day were to play in massed bands and the little parade-let up the main street outside the park in the morning. So, while the kids entertained themselves (and the dog) (and other band members’ children) I ran back and forth wrangling soloists and bands in the various competitions. I had a great time and got to talk to far more people than I usually do.

My sheep dog act turned out to be so efficient that the Slow March solo judge finished his competition early, giving time for a couple of us to play our piobaireachd tunes for critique for him. So, I did get to play after all. The Rout of the MacPhees got a second outing this year and I got some helpful advice from Bob Mason, the judge.

On the band side, the Wasatch and District Grade 3 band won their competition, and sounded very good doing so. The local Payson band (White Peaks Centennial Pipe Band) won both Grade 4 competitions and they really did sound good. Our new Grade 4 band will be competing for the first time next year and we clearly have our work cut out, if we are to put in a good showing next to White Peaks.

I had a great day. No sunburn this games, and the cherry on top was buying fresh cherries from a farm stand on the way home. Yum.

Salt Lake Highland Games

The Utah Scottish Association Highland Games took place yesterday and Friday.

I was competing solo, but have a year off from band competition as we get our new Grade 4 band established. This was a good thing, because it enabled me to focus on my solo stuff and I think it paid off. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I elected to play The Rout of the MacPhees for my Piobaireachd. We had a beautiful evening for it and I was quite happy with my performance. I took 4th place, and got some good comments from the judge, John Partanen. I think a few nerves may have crept in, but overall I can’t complain!

On Saturday, my pipes were sounding really good for the Slow March and 2/4 March. Amazingly (for me) I placed 3rd in my half of the draw in the 2/4 March. The organizers pulled the top 3 pipers from each half to play again and I finally finished in 4th place overall. I’m still trying to figure out what my surprise at this result shows: Am I a better piper than I thought? If so, why couldn’t I tell? I thought I did OK, but I could hear plenty of places for improvement. Or, maybe the explanation is that almost everybody else choked! Whatever is going on, I’m happy with how it turned out!

Not competing in the Band competition freed me up to do a couple of other things: talk to pipers from other bands, and listen to all the Grade 4 bands quite carefully. Next year, our fledgling Grade 4 band will be competing against these guys and it’s helpful to see where we should be aiming. The verdict: It’s going to be tough, but doable.

Next up, the Payson Games on July 12th and I get to do it all again! See you there.

A Busy Weekend

It was Memorial Day in the United States yesterday and my band was busy!

We had three cemetery performances and four of our band members played with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their weekly TV show “Music and the Spoken Word”.

The other bands along the Wasatch Front were busy too. Here is a nice multimedia presentation from the website of a local paper, The Salt Lake Tribune, featuring Jason Killpack, the PM of the Salt Lake Scots.

In addition, several Utah pipers, including some from my band were competing at a Highland Games in Costa Mesa, California. I haven’t heard all the results yet, but it sounds like they all did well.