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 Mandelas 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 Countys 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 years 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, theyll 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 fathers 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 its a skirt, because its a male uniform, its
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 bands 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 players inability to control the
dynamics of the bagpipe, Hackneys most challenging gig to
date has been the recording of the bands two CDs: "
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 youre from a Piper family,
you either pipe or drum. I didnt 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. Malcolms 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."