Piping hot

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I am sure that my friends are spending their Saturday night partying at a club or perhaps relaxing at home, but I am more excited by the minute as I hear the echo of bagpipes within the Bay Street Armouries Hall in Victoria. While the first Saturday of each month is the meeting of the Vancouver Island Pipers Club, this meeting on Nov. 3 is particularly special; it is the 40th reunion of the City of Victoria Pipe Band (CVPB).

A dozen or so bagpipers stand in a horseshoe in the sergeants’ mess; their music fills the warmly lit room. Some of the pipers are clad in light red and green kilts (the ancient Lenox tartan), while others are in semi-formal shirts and slacks. Behind the pipers, the drummers stand. Six are on snare drums, two on tenors and one on bass. The sergeants’ mess is lined with long, wooden tables, around which a full audience sits. For the first half of the show, I stand against the wall since all seats are taken.  The musicians in the group have reputations in the bagpiping community, and they have come from across Canada and the United States for this performance.

Fellow UVic student and bagpiper Tim Erdmer is also at the CVPB performance this night. He says, “I feel privileged and extremely fortunate to be able to see performances like [this]. For anyone involved in the piping community, seeing the star-studded lineup of the reunited City of Victoria Pipe Band is like having Yo-Yo Ma or someone of equal calibre give a private concert in your living room.”

The band begins by playing approximately 15 minutes’ worth of material as a group, and afterwards, various bagpipers and drummers play as individuals or in duets.

The difference between a low- and high-calibre bagpipe band is not apparent to untrained ears. This is an instrument that is finely tuned. There are four reeds in one set of bagpipes: one for the chanter (from which the melody emits), and one for each drone (the three tubes resting on a bagpiper’s shoulder, which make the deep, constant sound in the background as a piper plays). The drones must be tuned to the same pitch, one octave apart, and that pitch must be in tune with the chanter. When a band plays, each set of bagpipes must be set to the exact same pitch; the goal is to make the band sound as though it is one instrument. It can take up to an hour to tune a band together.

Considering that the reunion band is made of musicians who have come from across the continent, it is amazing how well they are tuned together. To be heard over the bagpipes, the snare drums have a cracking, sharp sound — the instrument is a high-tension drum with snares on both the top and bottom heads (snares being strings of tightly spiraled metal stretched across the head of the drum). Snare drummers play technical rhythms and intricate taps and rolls. Tenor and bass drums can be compared to the bass guitar in a rock band: they have a deeper sound to accent the bagpipe music and keep the beat steady for the entire band.

Leading the band in this performance is James W. Troy, who played a huge role in creating both the CVPB and the Vancouver Island Pipers Club. Through a bagpiping camp in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, he brought together a group of musicians to form a Grade 1 band. In the world of bagpiping competitions, Grade 1 is considered the highest level at which a band can compete; Troy remembers that, at the various competitions, “the sound of the music was cranked to a whole new level. People from all sorts of world-class bands would go wide-eyed when the sound came on.”

Immediately following the band’s performance, it is announced that Jack Lee, a piper from Vancouver, won the Piobaireachd (pronounced “pea-brock”) event at the Glenfiddich Championship one week previous, and will perform his award-winning tune for us to start off the solo part of the evening. The Glenfiddich Championship is a competition held at the castle at Blair Atholl, Scotland, and is widely regarded as an extremely prestigious bagpiping competition. There are two events in which the bagpipers compete: the March, Strathspey and Reel event (MSR), and the Piobaireachd. Piobaireachd is an ancient form of bagpipe music that is slow and melodic.

Following Lee’s Piobaireachd performance at the Pipers Club, a number of other world-renowned bagpipers, such as Bruce Gandy, perform as soloists. A solo drummer named Blair (Buzz) Brown performs, as well as a drummer and piper duet.

A multi-generational community 

The performance by the CVPB illustrates how many bagpipers are fortunate enough to be able to play alongside their mentors 40 years after they first played in a band together. It’s a resillient communty, too: though the CVPB ceased to be an organization in the late ’90s (hence the excitement associated with the band’s reunion), many of its members went on to form the The Greater Victoria Police Pipe Band, which still operates in the community today.

Being a bagpiper entails more than simply playing the instrument. The bonds formed within the bagpiping community are extremely tight. Countless bagpipe bands of various levels exist in Canada alone, and musicians travel far to compete against each other or play together. The tradition of bagpiping is often carried on over generations; musicians that met each other as toddlers will continue to pipe against each other until they are 70 and will quite likely compete against their own children.

Both Troy and Colin Magee — who was a key member of the CVPB from its beginning in 1972 — have children who played with the band and then went on to play in other Grade 1 pipe bands in Canada and in Scotland. Both of Troy’s children, James Troy Jr. and Jacquie Troy-Carter, performed at the reunion as well. Carter said she was pleased to have been able to play snare drum alongside two of her uncles — both of whom have made a name for themselves in the bagpiping community.

Michael Abel, an audience member at the Nov. 3 Pipers Club meet, thoroughly enjoyed the performance. As someone who does not play bagpipes, he feels that bagpipes represent “the preservation of Scottish heritage.” He says, “Seeing as Canada represents a mosaic of various cultures, it is important to keep traditional types of music alive.” For many bagpipers, playing this instrument is based on a Scottish heritage, but for others, it is based on a passion for the music. Many people are driven by their love of the community; fellow musicians form a large part of a bagpiper’s social network.

Gord Pollock was a member of the CVPB and played an important role in bringing the band together for the performance at the Pipers Club. Pollock began playing pipes when he was nine years old and living in Vancouver. When he moved to Victoria in his last year of high school, he began taking lessons from the elder Troy and began playing with the band. After the show, when asked how he felt about the reunion performance, Pollock says, “The reunion weekend was pretty special for me. The fact that so many came from so far to be there was a tribute to Jamie and to how important this band was at the time.”

Pollock is not the only piper who expresses this emotion towards the reunion performance. Magee says, “The camaraderie that we enjoyed as a group over the years was a major part of all of our lives, and it was reaffirming to get together as a group at the reunion and still be as free and easy with each other as we had been as young adolescents. I think some of that joie de vivre came across in the performance at the club.”

According to the elder Troy, “It was Magee and Pollock who spirited the whole thing; they emailed 40 people who had at one time played with the band. Jacquie [my daughter and the president of the Pipers Club] ran with it. We didn’t know who was going to show up.”

There was a great turnout. World champions came out from all across Canada and the States: Peter Amounier from Toronto, Rob Barrick from Portland, Jack Lee and Terry Lee from Vancouver, as well as many others.

Year-round opportunities with the Pipers Club

While many bagpipe competitions take place over the summer (primarily due to the practicality of being able to hold competitions in outdoor venues), there are not many opportunities for performance or competition during the winter. The bagpipes are an extremely demanding instrument, and when players do not have an event to prepare for, they can find it difficult to be motivated. Being part of a bagpipe band can give performers a reason to get together once a week and practise, but solo players are not likely to visit with fellow bagpipers as much over non-competitive months. Since the CVPB disbanded, there are not many competitive pipe bands on Vancouver Island. However, the Pipers Club provides many performers with a way to play during the winter months. For people interested in Scottish music, it allows any individual to come and listen.

The Vancouver Island Pipers Club first began in 1968 when pipe major Ian Duncan was teaching a number of young players on the Island and involving them in the local junior band.

Magee says, “The monthly Vancouver Island meetings provided a vehicle for the young players to hone their skills and expand their repertoires.”

While the club is meant for local talent from on and around the Island, it also serves as a place for up-and-coming musicians to partake without feeling as though a competitive standard applies. The elder Troy says that the club’s aim is “to present a great program for people in the area and [to] try to make it interesting so people will come out once a month to hear good piping.” He adds, “Anyone can play; after the main program, anyone is welcome to perform. We have had some great programs. Many bands from over the years — bands from up-Island, Triumph Street, New Westminster Police, and bands from Scotland . . . The Pipers Club gives them a night so they can have a purpose for playing.”

While pipers clubs in other cities sometimes struggle to find enough people who are interested in Scottish music, the Highland community in Victoria is alive and well.

Barrick, who came out from Portland to perform in the reunion, says, “The Pipers Club is great; they all have changed over the years, but the home town one is still the best. The Portland club is struggling most of the time for attendance.”

New blood in bagpiping

I had the privilege of playing at the Pipers Club as a soloist in my first year at UVic in 2009; it was a challenge to find the space to practise ahead of time while living in residence, but I was thrilled to be able to play for such an enthusiastic audience. I was able to perform there again with the New Westminster Police Pipe Band in 2011.

My peer Erdmer performed solo at the Pipers Club in March of 2010 as the Cowichan Pipes and Drums’ featured student. When asked what some of his favourite performances have been, he says, “Seeing James Troy Jr. and James Troy Sr. play is always a treat, as well as when select solo players from the world champion Simon Fraser University Pipe Band or other Grade 1 bands perform. For local flavour, the session group of smallpipes players from Vancouver Island is not to be missed.”

For people interested in getting in touch with their Scottish roots, admission is cheap, and the Bay Street Armouries is only a bus ride away. If, on Jan. 5, you find yourself in need of a good place to hear bagpipes, meet new friends and perhaps sip a Scotch or two, I highly recommend that you check out the Vancouver Island Pipers Club.

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