After starting my bagpipe career at Helix High School in La Mesa, California in 1972, my family moved north to Newport Beach. The month before Helix had just put on their Highland Games.
As I was licking my wounds from the move and looking at the games brochure that had been published, there was a list of all of the bagpipers who had competed in those games. On the list was a fellow bagpiper who it turned out lived less than a mile away from my new house. This bagpiper played in a band called the Caledonian Pipe Band. They were an hour away by freeway in West Covina. I was excited when I realized I may have another opportunity to play.
Pipe Bands back in the 70’s were listed as Grade A, B & C. The Caledonian Pipe Band was an A Band and their skills were way over my head as I had less than a year of playing experience. I walked in to practice at 7pm on the first night and only a couple of pipers were there. The rest of the band didn’t show up until 8pm. The oldest member greeted me. His name was Bill Lumsden. He told me that the only qualification to being in his band was to be able to play tunes on the tune list. He didn’t say “You stink. Come back in a few years.” Instead, he gave me a tune list and said “get to work”.
Needless to say, I did. Bill was there every week as I produced one tune after another. He also corrected my technical issues. By the end of the school year, I could play all of their parade music, both of their MSR’s and medleys. I got a great education from Bill. I still wasn’t ready to play with them technically, and being the impatient teenager that I was at the time, I felt I needed to move to another band more at my level.
After playing in a Stage Show at school I met Mark, who was on the football team. The only thing we had in common as it turned out was the bagpipe. He played with a band called the Andersons Highlanders. They were a B band and more at my level. After I joined, we played a lot of gigs like the Hollywood Christmas Parade and our monthly gig at the Loch Ness Monster Pub in Pasadena. That was a great place to grow as a band player and solo competitor. I also learned a lot more music.
For the last 22 years I have been teaching beginners how to play the bagpipe. I have started 3 groups as a result. My goal was to have a graduated pipe band program. The only qualification needed to play in my group is to be able to play the tunes on the tune list. Sound familiar? I have one rule and that is “no faking”. You can sit at my table and stand in my circle as long as you can play the tunes. When you reach your limit, you simply excuse yourself and go home. The goal is to be able to stay longer. By the end of the night, I have my key people in place who can play the harder music.
I have had local students who have gone to local bands when I didn’t have a group program going. They would come back to lessons and tell me that they were completely lost. The bands didn’t have a tune list and weren’t consistent in how they practiced. Every week they practiced something completely different. They couldn’t see a clear path to membership.
Most of my students today are remote. They live all over the world as I teach them on Skype or Google Hangouts. One woman that I teach wants to take it to the next level and join a band. I told her that if no one greets her after she’s been in the door for 10 minutes that she is probably in the wrong place. Hopefully, there will be someone like Bill who will welcome her and give her the same opportunity that I received
Recently, I read an article talking about the lack of community bands. We know that not every band is going to be a competition band. I’m happy teaching beginners to intermediates. There has to be someone bringing new people into the pipe band fold. I also know that as my people grow they will move on. I don’t have a problem with that and neither should the piper who is moving on. If I do my job, they will become accomplished players and be able to play in any band.
So, community band leaders, a few questions? Do you welcome new people into your groups? Do you have a tune list? Do you have a track for new people to follow to become members? If you don’t and your group isn’t growing, that might be the reason. Playing the bagpipe is one of the greatest things that I have done with my life. If it is for you as well, we want it to become perpetual, right? A bagpiper is a person who can play a list of tunes on the bagpipe by memory. Shouldn’t that apply to pipe band members?
My door is always open, is yours?
Gary Guth is a professional bagpiper with over 45 years of playing experience and has been teaching bagpipes full time for the last 20 years. He has written "Bagpipes For Beginners", "the Bagpipe Hymnal", and " A Piper's Christmas".