April 30, 2003

Northwest Territorial Pipe Band

Northwest Territorial Pipe Band

Submitted by Brad Heath

The skirl of the great Highland bagpipe is traditionally associated with the lochs and highlands of Scotland, not the frozen, sub-Arctic of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Yet for the past quarter of a century, the Northwest Territorial Pipe Band has called the City of Yellowknife home. At a latitude of 62.5° North, this is the most northerly pipe band in Canada, slightly edging out the Midnight Sun Pipe Band of Whitehorse, Yukon, for this dubious honour.

The NWT Pipe Band can trace its roots back to 1976 and the formation of the Yellowknife Pipe Band – although a handful of pipers and drummers played on Armed Forces Day one year earlier. The band was later to change its name to the Northwest Territorial Pipe Band.

It’s been 26 years of ups and downs. There have been low periods when the band consisted of less than a handful of pipers and drummers. Pipe Major Floyd Adlem, the longest serving member of the band, recalls times when the band almost “disappeared”, times when the “band” marched in parades with only two pipers – and no drummers. “We were a pretty straggly group,” he recalls with a laugh.

Yet there have also been many, many high points, such as performing for HRH Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Yellowknife in 1994, for the Queen of Denmark in Greenland in 1978, and for Prince Charles at the official opening of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife in 1978. And there have been many, many other highlights over the years including hit performances at the NWT Pavilion in Vancouver, British Columbia for Expo ’86, and competing at the Gathering of the Clans in Whitehorse, Yukon in 1998.

Many of the pipers and drummers who have worn the Northwest Territories’ distinctive tartan of orange, green, white and blue were actually trained by the band. Very few are lifelong pipers, such as former Pipe Sergeant Lorie Crawford who was the third female piper from the Province of Ontario to reach professional status as a solo competitor.

Long, dark winters with bitter temperatures of -40°Celcius may be hard on the band, but so is the shifting nature of Yellowknife’s transient population. This has compelled the band to adopt a strategy of training its own musicians. The NWT Pipe Band is continuously training and adding new members to the band.

Crawford says it’s essential for the band to take this approach if it’s to survive. The NWT Pipe Band would simply disintegrate if it waited for fully trained pipers and drummers to move to the city. Of the current roster of 14 pipers and six drummers, all but four were trained by the band. There are also about a dozen junior band members at various stages in their training — but it’s a long road and attrition is high, especially for would-be pipers.

Pipe-Major Adlem was also trained by the NWT Pipe Band – on both drums and pipes. In the autumn of 1977, Adlem began work on the practice chanter but soon after a medical condition threatened to force him to the sidelines for three or four months. He was encouraged to switch to studying drums and as a result, Adlem played drums with the band for 10 years. But, he never fully abandoned his practice chanter. In the fall of 1987 he left the drum corps and began his pipe lessons again.

And the tradition of teaching pipers and drummers continues. Senior band members feel duty bound to pass along the instruction they’ve received to novice pipers. Practice is held every Tuesday evening and Saturday morning. In addition, novice pipers work with Crawford on Wednesday evenings in her home to learn the repertoire of band tunes. And everyone is expected to practice on their own time! The band also holds development workshops in which world-class pipers and drummers are flown into Yellowknife.

The NWT Pipe Band also supports band members by providing financial assistance to attend piping and drumming schools held every summer across Canada and the U.S. The band recognizes the ongoing efforts of its members with the Scotty Trotter Trophy. Band members vote by secret ballot to select the most-improved musician and the Trotter Trophy is presented annually at the band’s Robbie Burns Supper in January.

Although Crawford reached the heights both as a professional solo competitor and as a piper with Grade One bands where perfection is demanded and mistakes are not tolerated, the focus of the NWT Pipe Band is somewhat . . . less demanding. That doesn’t mean the band doesn’t strive to be the best that it can, says Crawford. They simply aim to be “comfortable and competent” playing a set repertoire of band tunes.

Those hours of practice are put into use when the band plays at numerous community events every year such as Remembrance Day services, Yellowknife’s Canada Day Parade, and Caribou Carnival to celebrate the return of spring – although there’s still snow on the ground and most activities take place on a frozen lake in the heart of the city!

Another annual highlight is Yellowknife’s Raven Mad Daze held on June 21st to celebrate under the midnight sun! Traffic is closed off in the late afternoon and Yellowknife residents crowd the downtown to celebrate the longest day of the year. The NWT Pipe Band marches at its leisure through the crowds, stopping here or there to perform, then marching on to perform. When thirst overtakes band members, they stop for a pint, then it’s back to marching and performing. At midnight, band members reconvene at the Yellowknife Golf Club to officially kick off the Midnight Sun Golf Tournament. It’s a test of bravery for band members as they must perform, in kilts of course, while being swarmed by ferocious mosquitoes! (Pipers are extremely reluctant to use mosquito repellent because it can literally melt their chanters!)

However, the undisputed highlight of the year is the annual Robbie Burns Supper organized by the band. This year’s Burns supper on Jan. 25, 2003 was a welcome diversion from nearly two weeks of -40°C temperatures in Yellowknife and was a sell out event with more than 200 people in attendance!

For more information about the Northwest Territorial Pipe Band, contact bcheath@theedge.ca, or write Brad Heath, P.O. Box 2078, Yellowknife, NT, X1A 2P6, Canada.


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