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Bagpipers play A 'Spectacular' tune
By: Aimee Greenberg

Orange County Register, November 15, 2003

On Saturday, November 16, at 7:00 pm, Nicholson Pipes and Drums will perform the annual "Scottish Spectacular" at the Ebell Theater in Santa Ana. This year the Nicholson band will present a Celtic cornucopia of pageantry, pomp and flourish with the additional talents of The UC Riverside Highland Dancers, Sean Gavin Irish Dance Company and renown Scottish folksinger Alex Beaton. The most recent addition to the MacNicol Clan, twelve year old Katherine Schmidt, will grace the stage with a rendition of "Amazing Grace." Thrown into the traditional mix of marches and reels, Nicholson piper fans can also anticipate an American medley, as well as "Nelson Mandela’s Welcome to the City of Glasgow ," by Scotsman Blair Douglas. The latter is an Afro-Celtic infusion; a celebration of the crossover of bagpipes into other cultures, with the inclusion of the didgeridoo, djimbe, bongos and other percussion instruments. Audience members are encouraged (not required) to wear kilts!

For over twenty years, Orange County’s own Nicholson Pipes and Drums have enjoyed a prolific career ranging from inauguration festivities to Olympic ceremonies, to the California Scottish festivals, which commence in February on the Queen Mary and end Labor Day at the Caledonian Club in San Francisco. This past year has been particularly busy with commemorative ceremonies for the Fire and Police Department, in the wake of 9/11.

This year’s concert is a key fundraiser for the band to test their metal and compete in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow Scotland, August 2003. This historical event marks the first time an Orange County Pipe Band will compete in Scotland. Over two hundred pipe bands from countries including Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, Africa, Pakistan and Australia compete annually. Bands are graded on a 1-4 scale. The vast majority of pipe bands are grade 4. Nicholson Pipes and Drums (a grade four band) will compete with at least thirty other grade four bands. If the band places, they’ll move up to the ladder one notch, to rank three. According to Mary Platt, publicist and performer, the band is determined to compete in the indigenous festival "not to win, but for the pride of representing Orange County." Mary is one of the few female bagpipers in the band. She has been playing the bagpipes for six years and can be heard practicing after hours in Winkle Park, Costa Mesa, across from the Orange County fairgrounds, "where every horse pokes his head out of its stall, mesmerized." Mary was raised listening to her father’s old bagpipe recordings. "I woke up one day and said I have to learn how to play." How does she feel about wearing the kilt? "Ironically, even though it’s a skirt, because it’s a male uniform, it’s a lot like dressing in drag."
Despite popular opinion, the bagpipes are Middle Eastern in origin. The earliest bagpipe was made from a sheep or goat skin bladder attached to chanter reeds and one drone. The bagpipes were used as an instrument of war after 1745, when the British put down the Scots in the Battle of Culloden and declared the bagpipes illegal, this forcing the art form underground for many years. The art of the bagpipes was transmitted through an oral tradition or canntaireachd (gaelic), whereby the teacher methodically vocalized every note on the chanter, which the student then replicated on the pipe.

The bagpipe is a unique instrument that uses a diatonic scale with a flat seven, rather than a tempered western scale. The reed is not controlled by the mouth, but is in the bag and can only play nine notes. The instrument is physically demanding and requires dexterity and air power to blow air into the bag, while pushing the bag and using both hands to play the notes on the chanter.
Robert Hackney, the band’s Pipe Major, is the musical director. He is a student of Kathleen Graham Macnichol, the founder of Nicholson Pipes and Drums. Hackney is also a professional abstract sculptor. He is a grade one piper and has competed solo in both traditional march strathstey reel and classical Piobaireachd (Peebrock), at least five times a year at the Highland Games since 1984. In competing solo, Hackney has "faced the dragon and come out a winner." Nevertheless, due to the player’s inability to control the dynamics of the bagpipe, Hackney’s most challenging gig to date has been the recording of the band’s two CD’s: " Nicholson Pipes and Drums" and "By Request." For Robert , playing the bagpipes is "connecting to the past through an ancient music that is also a living tradition, which is very much alive and kicking."

If the soul of the instrument is the drone, then surely the heartbeat or rhythm of the band is the drummer, who provides dynamics and creates the illusion of loud and soft. Drum Sergeant Malcolm Willis is the first drummer in a piper family of three generations. According to Malcolm: "If you’re from a Piper family, you either pipe or drum. I didn’t take to piping, so my grandfather stuck the sticks in my hand and I became a drummer." His mother, Kathleen Nicholson Graham formed the band with her students in 1981. Against a backdrop of discrimination, Graham and her two sisters paved the way for women pipers with the establishment of the Vancouver Ladies Pipe Band. Malcolm’s grandfather, Vancouver Police Sergeant and Pipe Major Malcolm Nicholson, took his daughters to Scotland in 1963 and won the European championship. In the seventies, Malcolm Willis went to Scotland in a youth band and placed in the competition.

For Malcolm, the World Championships at Glasgow is "the Mecca of pipe band competitions, where you compete with the best. Every piper yearns to go, it is the ultimate dream, to be in the element." His goal is to draw more youth into the group because, "it teaches life lessons through the fellowship of the process, camaraderie and being judged in the homeland."