I just returned from the Winter Storm collection of competitions, workshops, and concert from this past weekend, held annually in Kansas City, MO. It has been a long while since I’ve been to a major piping event. Let’s say the last notable event I attended was the World Pipe Band Championships in 2001 when I played with Lyon College. Since then, I’ve been to 5 (maybe 6) small regional bagpipe competitions (having 2-4 competitors in my grade) and one small workshop associated with one of those competitions; all but one of those 5 or 6 is the same competition I go to annually in Salado, TX in November. So I don’t forget what I learned at Winter Storm, here’s what I learned:
An all day indoor bagpipe competition can wear your ears out! I attended the Gold Medal Ceol Beag (light music, i.e. MSR) Qualifier and MSRHJ final in addition to a few of the amateur piping and Gold medal drumming performances. I didn’t catch any Piobaireachd or most of the drumming. If you don’t bring ear plugs, it’s probably a good idea to sit a few rows back to let the people in front of you absorb some of the sound.
I took notes during the Ceol Beag competition. Things of note is that the average pitch of low A for the competitors was 482 Hz with 2 exceptions in the field of 26 which came in around 474 (I think both of these were playing the McC2 solo chanter). Of course, there were McC2 chanters around 482 as well. Additionally, the Henderson solo chanter seems to also be a very popular choice in addition to Naill (which is “the” standard solo chanter of recent past). I also spotted a couple Strathmore chanters if I’m not mistaken and one Shepherd chanter. A few chanters had decorative soles and I’m not good at identifying those. One of these was Alastair Murray who says he played the new Gibson chanter he designed with Jerry Gibson. The only competitor to qualify for the Gold Medal Ceol Beag final that wasn’t on the Gold Medal Piobaireachd competitor list was Alexander Schiele (the Gold Medal Piobaireached list is composed only of those who have won the Silver Medal Piobaireachd in previous years whereas the Gold Medal Ceol Beag has no such restriction on entries, there is no Silver Medal Ceol Beag prerequisite). Alex had a great run in the qualifier and I had him pegged in the top 3 of the final but alas the judges felt differently. He is really good! Very entertaining player. Another of my favorite performances was Robbie Beaton in the qualifier. He had the loveliest chanter sound of the bunch. A teeny bit of crow on both high G and high A, both ringing with the high A having just a touch of vibrato, with excellent volume. Although he didn’t make it out of the qualifier in the Ceol Beag I believe he won the Silver Medal Piobaireachd.
It might have been the room (we were indoors after all) but there were a few players where a marked difference in volume was heard between the top and bottom hands; this is not to say their high hands were weak, I realize this sounds negative, but that their bottom hand, low A and low G, were too strong. Too punchy. There were some quiet pipes which were easy on the ears and there where some big pipes which I’m not sure fit the venue. So, bring ear plugs! Also don’t forget there is piping in the drumming contests too; this did not occur to me until it was far too late to catch many of the remaining drumming performances. There’s always next year!
You get to pick what workshops you want to go to, they are not assigned to you beforehand, you just show up to those that interest you. The first one I attended was the first of Fred Morrison’s smallpipe sessions which just went on throughout the day. Fred is a sweet guy and spent this time helping people understand their smallpipes and worked on a few of the McCallum/Fred Morrison brand reel pipes for people who were having trouble. Time was up before we got around to playing any music but I did walk away with an understanding of the most important thing with bellows blown pipes: everything must be optimized and airtight or your bellows arm will be flailing around unnecessarily and you’ll struggle to make music.
Next was Angus MacColl’s “small music” class where I picked up some nifty tunes I’ve heard a lot recently. This includes Angus’ own “Room 35”, the story goes this was the number of the room where he/they would go to play pipes while he was in school, if I recall correctly. Main take away, if there’s a high A in a tune, hold it. A copier malfunction kept us from getting to many of the tunes but it was a great class because I walked away with a lot of cool tunes!
In the afternoon I attended Colin MacLellan’s strathspey/reel course. His emphasis was on finding where the strong beat in each bar of the strathspey was. Strong Weak Medium Weak doesn’t apply to everything and certainly doesn’t apply to every bar in a strathspey. You’re more likely to find SWWW, WWSW, as you will SWMW and it varies even within the same part, for example: SWWW | WWSW | SWWW | WWSW. Additionally, the pattern probably won’t hold within the same tune as each part is different. He emphasized the question/answer phrasing of strathspeys and reels, which seem to me to follow a 4 beat pattern (so 1 phrase in strathspey = 1 bar, 1 phrase in reel = 2 bars). Phrase 1 = question, Phrase 2 = answer, Phrase 3 = question, Phrase 4 = answer, etc. He also provided some recordings of players from the past (circa 1950’s) who played at very fast tempos; he also stated these tempos were NOT a product of the conversion process of making the mp3 from a vinyl record, which he did himself. I got the impression that he felt competitive piping was perhaps allowing tempos that were too slow. While he did not advocate playing very fast for the sake of playing fast, he did outright say that there is expression to be had in the tempo of a tune. Listening to his World’s Greatest Pipers album in the car on the way home, he definitely practices what he preaches and that doesn’t seemed to have changed much over the years since he recorded that album. One other point he made is that in piping there are no medium length notes, except for jigs. There are really long notes and really short notes, but nothing in between. Make the long notes long and the short notes shorter.
Saturday concluded with a Donald MacLeod hornpipe/jig class with Roddy MacLeod. In addition to some background on Donald and providing a list of his compositions, Roddy focused more on how to memorize a tune than he did the technique of hornpipe/jig playing. While this technique of memorization was not new to me, I’ll share it here. The best way to memorize something is to play it without looking at the sheet music. Step 1: Identify common phrases between parts (like endings) and common bars within parts. Step 2: Part by part, play the phrases individually a few times until you’re familiar with them enough to not need to look at the sheet music. Step 3: Part by part, play the linked phrases together as whole parts with the sheet music for guidance. Step 4: Turn the sheet music over and have a go. The main point to emphasize is that you have to challenge yourself to memorize the music. Reading the music off the page isn’t going to help you memorize a tune! Look at the music, flip it over and give it a go. If you get stuck, flip it over, figure out what notes didn’t get connected but then flip it back over and try again without looking at the sheet music. Tunes are memorized by not looking at the music and challenging yourself. Only once you’ve convinced your brain that there isn’t a crutch to rely on will it record the information you need for later recall.
Sunday continued with more workshops. I attend Jack Lee’s hornpipe/jig session. Jack Lee is a very enthusiastic instructor and he has a very different style of teaching. Whilst, like the others, he will have the class play all together, he also picks certain phrases from the tune and will go around the room having each player play the phrase alone. He also made the point of having everyone introduce themselves. Jack is very affable and directly honest with you. He states clearly what he expects and what he feels is the best way to achieve it. If I ever organize a piping workshop, he’s at the top of the list. I imagine some of this comes from organizing the SFU organization. Birls. He only teaches the “7 style” birl as opposed to the tap and drag style I’ve always played. He stated he was surprised people still taught the tap drag birl (of course I learned it 17-18 years ago). He said the tap drag birl emphasizes the low G and so it’s easy to get stuck on the low G making it difficult to execute it whereas the 7 style birl emphasizes the low A with quick low G’s. He quickly identified the problem most people have when trying the 7 style birl (which involves starting with your pinkie above the low A hole but on the chanter [by that I mean vertically on the chanter, as in closer to the B hole, NOT aerially hovering directly above the low A hole] and then swiping your pinkie down so it crosses the hole and then contracting your finger so that it again passes over the hole). He said the most common problem is that people make too much of the movement and it causes their other fingers on the bottom hand to move off their holes, that is, they exaggerate the movement in an attempt to perform it. He said, make the movements small and localized. After swiping down, the pinkie should just be uncovering the top of the low A hole, not completely past it. I’ve always struggled with birls and having tried the 7 style just for a few minutes during the class intermission, with this “small movement” revelation, I was almost as consistent with it on the practice chanter as I am with the tap/drag on the pipes. So, here’s to giving the 7 style birl another go. Particular to jigs and hornpipes, Jack really like heavy strikes and heavy throws, if you haven’t noticed that from his recordings. This includes his preference for heavy throws even from low G! Jigs need a little bit of pulsing, almost always achieved by adding just a touch of emphasis on the first note of every 3 note grouping of 8th notes. Concerning hornpipes, Jack compared them to 2/4 marches, both being in 2/4 time. However, he said with 2/4 marches you’ll heavily rely on the question/answer format of phrasing with emphasis on the first beat of each phrase, but that this would kill (my wording) a hornpipe. Hornpipes should be played straight through to keep them flowing and fun. I don’t feel I’m describing this adequately but hopefully you get the idea.
Saturday evening was the Winter Storm concert. This is really a very fun event. I heartily enjoyed the concert. There were 3 performances which were big standouts, ranked in order: 1. Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl on pipes, John Fisher on snare drum, and Kahlil Cappuccino on bass. Just wow. John Fisher is AWESOME. The jigs at the end with the expression from John’s snare drum were just really rocking. Fantastic set. 2. Jack Lee playing along with a cadre of drummers though I don’t remember which ones! I’m sorry! Again, just great piping with great drumming with a very musical selection that wasn’t just another MSR. 3. Alastair Dunn’s solo performance. Alastair played, in a nod to current and past performers and judges at Winter Storm, Jack Lee’s “Andrew and Colin Lee”, Colin MacLellan’s “The Piper’s Bonnet”, and Bob Worral’s “The Homewrecker”. One of the greatest forms of flattery is imitation, and while Alastair wasn’t trying to imitate anyone, in just taking the time to share these tunes with us drawing from the compositions of his peers was just down right cool. Of course, all the performances were enjoyable but these were my favorite. Now, if someone can just teach Ken Eller how to pronounce the “a” in McCallum, we’ll be all set, haha.
Lastly, I attended Winter Storm with two mates, David (a student of mine) and Jordan. Jordan is the most recognizable person in that he was kilted out the whole time, most often accompanied by his full mask Egyptian jackal sporran which he named “Norman”. Much like pipeband chicken, I can readily imagine Norman making the rounds of Facebook photos as Jordan makes his way around the games. Jordan and I played a few sets (and I forgot how a couple tunes went in the process) at the Winter Steam party after the concert. I had not had the full opportunity to just jam with Jordan and it was great fun. He can improvise very well and harmonize with great effect and he’s got fantastic fingers. I look forward to playing with him more! Certainly made me wish there were more opportunities to “just play” outside of the structure of the organized events, but alas, it’s a busy weekend already! Below is a picture of Jordan (I stole from Facebook) wearing Norman alongside his instructor, Tom Campbell.
Winter Storm is quite the event with many varied things to do from listening to the competition, learning from judges, and enjoying the concert. Non-playing spouses also have the convenience of the Plaza just a short shuttle ride away, literally, it’s across the street with lots of restaurants and shops. Thank you for an enjoyable weekend!