Noddy says “Practice every day!”

My kids were watching the show “Make Way for Noddy” yesterday. The title was “Noddy and the Magic Bagpipes”, which was enough to catch my interest.

In the episode, this pre-school icon is so impressed by the sound of his friend Big-Ears’ bagpipes he convinces Big-Ears to lend them to him. Big-Ears impresses upon Noddy the need for regular practice. Un-named consequences are hinted at if Noddy fails to comply.

Predictably enough, Noddy’s first flush of enthusiasm wanes quickly as various distractions cause him to shelve the pipes for several days. Because of lack of practice, the set of pipes comes to life and runs around the neighborhood on its little drone legs, sneaking up on people and causing chaos.

Moral of this story – follow through on your commitments, or suffer the consequences.

When I came downstairs this morning, I checked my pipes were still in their case. They were, but I learned something today.

Utilikilts – what do pipers think?

There is periodic discussion of non-traditional kilts on the forums to which I belong. Lately, someone posed the question, Have you seen anyone compete solo wearing a Utilikilt? I usually comment on these threads, since, unlike the majority of pipers, I regularly wear both traditional and non-traditional kilts.

Many pipers (or at least, the vocal ones) do not like the Utilikilt. I have seen it disparagingly called an Extremetoolbelt and also a Potato Sack. Funny thing is, I don’t think the makers and wearers of the UK would really care – in fact, they would probably think it was funny. I know I did.

But, since the question posed referred to playing in a competition setting, I thought these pictures might be helpful. Imagine you are a judge and one of these three pipers has just stepped up to play his tunes for you. Who will you pick?

Tough (except for the smile)CasualFormal

The Rowan Tree – reason to lament

Well, I found out more about the tune Lament for the Rowan Tree, courtesy of the Bob Dunsire Bagpipe Forums.

Turns out it was inspired by the abandoned cottages of crofters who had left the highlands. Here is what the composer, Donald MacLeod, wrote about the tune in his book of piobaireachd:

Traveling through the Highlands, one often sees the ruins of crofter’s cottages, left derelict when the occupants sailed away to begin a new life in a new country.

At the gable end of each ruin stands the Rowan Tree, planted so long a go as a defense against evil spirits. It has witnessed the joys and sorrows of family life and listened to the laughter of children, as they played around the house. The lonely Rowan now stands sentinel, as if awaiting the long absent family’s return.

Interestingly, another Donald MacLeod, over a century earlier, was a witness to the forced removal of the highland crofters from their land during what is now known as the Highland Clearances. The earlier MacLeod was a stonemason on the estate of Strathnavar. Here is how he described the scene (repeated all over the Highlands during this period), as the residents were evicted from their crofts and the crofts were burned:

Nothing but the sword was wanting to make the scene one of as great barbarity as the earth ever witnessed. The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description.

We are a homeschooling family, and my children and I have been studying the period of forced removal of the Indian Nations of North America to reservations during roughly this time period. It seems that many of the evicted Highlanders ultimately forced to emigrate could have witnessed scenes in the new continent similar to those they left behind.

No doubt the depradations suffered by the native peoples of this continent are recalled in their laments too.

O! Rowan Tree, O! Rowan Tree

At this time of year (halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox) the Celtic peoples observe a festival called Imbolc. This observance has spread out with the people, and is also observed here in the United States, where it is sometimes called Groundhog Day.

Apparently, the festival has traditional links with the Rowan Tree, the ubiquitous tree of the Highlands. Not surprisingly, there are tunes about the Rowan Tree. The best known is the 4/4 march of that name, a standard for any pipe band. Perhaps not so well known by pipers is the fact that the tune has words, and very beautiful ones at that. Here is the first stanza:

Oh! rowan tree, oh! rowan tree,
Thou’lt aye be dear to me,
En twin’d thou art wi’ mony ties
O’ hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’ spring,
Thy flow’rs the simmer’s pride;
There was na sic a bonnie tree
In a’ the countrie side.
Oh! rowan tree.

The tune and words date from the early 19th century, and the focus on family ties the words to the Imbolc celebration, which tended to be one of family and community. One of my extended family of friends has a daughter called Rowan. I used to play The Rowan Tree to her before she was born. (I’m sure this is the deep-seated reason she has such a love of music – at 2 3/4 she is a self-described opera diva.)

More recently (in piping terms), Pipe Major Donald MacLeod composed an elegant piobireachd called Lament for the Rowan Tree. I am trying to find out more about this tune. Superficially, it sounds as though it may be based on the familiar song, but I don’t have the sheet music and it’s not that easy to tell. I will pick the (multiple) brains of the piping forums.

In any case, the days are lengthening and that’s always a welcome sign.

If it goes past your knees, it’s just a skirt

I watched Ace of Cakes last night on the Food Network. This is a great show, about a funky cake-making company, Charm City Cakes,with a cool owner, Duff Goldman.

Last night Duff was commissioned to make a Scottish-themed cake, so he chose a Highland Cow. The cake looked like a million dollars (probably was) and, to add to the atmosphere, Duff had a piper come to the bakery to play for the staff. (He hired Ian Coletti, of the City of Washington Pipe Band – Ian acquitted himself very well, and even offered a positive opinion on the cake!)

Then Duff kilted up for the remainder of the day and delivered the cake bekilt. I have to say, having watched the show, that the kilt Duff hired for the occasion was probably designed for a taller person. From the moment I started watching the show, I thought Duff would be a prime candidate for a Utilikilt. He sometimes wears a black chef jacket and a Utilikilt would look excellent with it.

If he does go for the Utilikilt, Duff should measure himself carefully. Remember, if it goes past your knees, it’s just a skirt

Orchestral Piping

The weekly BBC Radio Scotland piping show, Pipeline, was on hiatus this week. In its place was a live concert broadcast from the Celtic Connections Festival, a two-week festival of celtic music in Glasgow. The concert was titled Scotland’s Music Live, and featured various “celtic” performers, sometimes playing with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

I paid particular attention to two works: Calgacus, by Eddie McGuire, and An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Both are scored for orchestra and Highland Bagpipes and the piping was supplied by Robert Wallace, of the College of Piping.

I had heard of the Orkney Wedding, but never heard the piece performed; Calgacus was completely new to me.

According to a review of the concert in The Scotsman newspaper, Robert Wallace suffered “a critical memory loss” during his part in the performance of An Orkney Wedding but, since I don’t know the music, I couldn’t tell – it sounded fine to me.

The Eddie McGuire work was inspired by the exploits of Calgacus, a kind of Caledonian Boudicca. Apparently he led the Scots in battle against Agricola and the Romans. The piping in this piece was interesting – it sounded a lot like piobaireachd, and I may have to canvass the folks on the piping boards to find out if the tune was written by McGuire, or if it is an existing tune.

In both cases, though, it was interesting to hear the bagpipes played in serious orchestral music. I will also check in with my father – Elis Pehkonen. He is a composer, and was a colleague of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies when they both taught music in my home town of Cirencester. He will probably have something interesting to say about An Orkney Wedding, and he may know Eddie McGuire. I’ll keep you posted.

Piobaireachd in North America

Last week was the annual Midwest Highland Arts Fund Winter Storm competition in Kansas City, Missouri. The event features three top-flight piping competitions – two in piobaireachd and one in light music.

The list of competitors is interesting, because they are mostly quite young, and many already play with some of the top bands. Some have also competed in major solo competitions in the UK. Despite all their experience, it must still be quite intimidating to play in front of the panel of world-class pipers who were assembled to judge the competition. The formidable list included Andrew Wright (President of the Piobaireachd Society), Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl.

The Captain, Ken Eller, has generously made recordings of the three competitions available on his website, so I’ve spent the last few days listening to the prize-winning performances. The recordings show the healthy state of piobaireachd in North America, and I think anyone listening should feel optimistic about the future of the Big Music in the hands of the next generation of pipers.

The “Real Rainman” sings to me

Last night my kids and I were having dinner in a local restaurant. I heard a familiar voice at the table next to ours and immediately recognized Kim Peek and his dad sitting next to us.

Kim Peek is a mega-savant and the inspiration for the Dustin Hoffman/Tom Cruise movie Rainman. He is also the subject of several TV documentaries on savants and people with unusual mental abilities. Our conversation ranged widely, as anyone who has seen the documentaries might expect. Kim asked about my kids’ bithdays and told them what days they were born and what days they would retire. He answered obscure history questions for them, and talked about music.

When I mentioned that I was a piper, he said that he and his dad both enjoyed the bagpipes. He told me about listening to bagpipes at Fort Douglas, an old fort in Salt Lake City. Then he asked me if I knew the tune “Scotland the Brave”. I said yes, of course I did. He said “do you know that the tune has words?” Living in the Salt Lake area, it’s impossible not to come across this – the LDS (or Mormon) church has a hymn called “Praise to the Man”, which uses the tune to Scotland the Brave. (When we play it in my band you can usually see people in the crowd singing along.) I told him I was aware of the words to the tune, and then he started to sing it. Very Loudly. In the crowded restaurant.

It was a marvelous moment, and anyone who has seen the documentaries about him would have an idea what it might be like. He was a fascinating person to spend time with, and a genuinely likeable guy too. My kids have been talking about the experience all day, and I’m sure they will remember this for a long time.

Piper to the Stars

I was watching South Park last night. (lately, South Park functions as my bedtime story.) In the episode I was watching, the boys try to prevent Ike (Kyle’s little brother) from being circumcised. At one point, owing to a misunderstanding, the family gathers for Ike’s funeral, believing him to be dead (he’s actually in Nebraska). Imagine my surprise, when a piper shows up, playing Hava Nagila.

A little research revealed that the piping for this scene was supplied by Eric Rigler, “the most recorded bagpiper of all time”. Turns out Eric is the piper you hear in the movies Braveheart, Titanic and a number of other well-known soundtracks. Based on what I have read about Eric, it seems that he has made himself the go-to piper in Hollywood circles. He started out on the Great Highland Bagpipes, but now plays a bunch of other pipes and also the penny whistle. He also has a celtic fusion band called Bad Haggis, which is very successful. To quote the “All About Mormons” episode of South Park, “smart smart smart smart smart”.

This segues somewhat obliquely to me pointing out that my own band contains pipers to the stars – Mormon stars, that is. My Pipe Major and his brother feature on the soundtrack to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints-produced movie Joseph Smith:Prophet of the Restoration. Well, it’s a start.

Winter Workshop

Yesterday I attended a workshop for the pipe bands in the Wasatch Front. I had a great time and it was really good to just hang out with members of the other area bands.

The highlights were a piobaireachd class I took with local pipemaker and teacher, Gordon Nichol, and then later, the instructors’ recital.

Gordon has taken the initiative (along with some others locally) to found the Utah Piobaireachd Society. I missed their first meeting back in November, so this was the first time I had met him. He seems like a really nice guy – knowledgeable, but unassuming – and clearly has a great love of the music. It turns out he also teaches some of the younger members of my band, and he offered to give me any help I needed.

At the recital Gordon played The Desperate Battle, despite some rib pain, which he said was bothering him. I certainly didn’t notice. It was also really good to hear our band instructor, Justin Howland, play some of his competition tunes. You’ve got to feel good about being in a band with an instructor of that caliber – Justin sounded just tremendous. Of course, he would probably disagree, but the whole day sure made me feel good about having access to this level of help with my piping.