For the moms: six accomplished players and their celebrated mothers
Mothers make pipers and drummers, literally and figuratively, and this Mother’s Day, we celebrate moms everywhere with the thoughts of six prominent pipers and drummers. Their musical mothers played made an indelible mark on their careers.
May 10th is Mother’s Day in Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia and much of the world. Mothering Sunday in the UK was on March 22nd, but we hope that all mums of pipers and drummers will enjoy today, no matter what.
We asked a few accomplished pipers and drummers whose moms are also accomplished in the art, for their thoughts on the influence their mothers had on their careers.
“Without the help and support of my mum, I wouldn’t be the piper or person I am today,” says Faye Henderson of Edinburgh, the daughter of Patricia Henderson. “All of my success and enjoyment of piping has been influenced by her. I can’t thank her enough for all the hours of tutoring and wise words that guide me through my piping journey. Having a mum who is also a tutor has created a unique bond, and I’m forever grateful for everything that she does.”
Both mother and daughter Hendersons made piping history, Faye as the first female winner of a Highland Society of London Gold Medal (Oban 2010), and Patricia, one of the first women to compete in a premier solo piping gathering.
“In the male-dominated piping culture having female role models has been incredibly valuable for me.” − Eilidh MacDonald
It’s difficult enough for a female piper or drummer to make her way through an art whose strongest roots are firmly embedded in an all-male military history. Those roots spread to a male-controlled civilian scene that has diversified substantially only in the last 50 years.
“In the male-dominated piping culture having female role models has been incredibly valuable for me,” says Eilidh MacDonald, the daughter of Barbara MacDonald, whose piping career has included membership with Grade 1 Simon Fraser University and many years as pipe-sergeant of Grade 2 City of Regina. The younger MacDonald is a member of Grade 1 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel) in Nova Scotia and has won many awards for her solo piping. “My mum has been a constant source of aspiration. She continued playing pipes both during pregnancy and when we were very young, rather than sacrificing her hobby for our sake. This exposure was invaluable, not only for the ‘osmotic’ understanding gained of the music, but also for the lessons it taught us about patience, respect, and equality.”
Barb MacDonald is also the mother of Ruaridh MacDonald, one of the world’s top tenor drummers, and Duncan MacDonald, a rapidly rising piper in Regina, Saskatchewan. With their dad, Iain MacDonald, the pipe-major of City of Regina and one of the world’s great contributors to piping and drumming, the MacDonald family is a model of piping and drumming prowess.
Fifteen-year-old Kayleigh Johnstone of Aurora, Ontario, is one of the world’s fastest-rising solo pipers. Her mom is Glenna Mackay-Johnstone, who enjoyed a long competitive piping career as a soloist and also as a member of the Grade 1 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1990s, and she followed in the footsteps of her famous piping father, Reay Mackay.
“Having a mother as a piper has been a key point in my piping career.” − Kayleigh Johnstone
“Having a mother as a piper has been a key point in my piping career,” Kayleigh Johnstone says. “Although there can be ups and downs in the process, it has helped me immensely as a player. Daily instruction and constant support have driven me to be a strong and confident piper. Also, my mom and I can very much relate our piping journeys together since she was once a young piper.”
That influence carries to Kayleigh’s older brother, Colin. Like Kayleigh, he is on the ascent as a piper, with many awards to his name in his young career.
Islay Spalding is an accomplished snare drummer with the Grade 2 MacKenzie Caledonian of Dundee, Scotland. Her mom is Anne Spalding, who, along with Patricia Henderson, was one of the first female pipers allowed to compete in an elite solo contest, and who was awarded the Balvenie Medal for Services to Piping in 2019 at the Glenfiddich Championships.
“She was an inspiration, but there was something different that made me want to be a drummer. Being taken around the games when she was playing solo exposed me to pipe bands and made me want to be a drummer after seeing the massed bands at Pitlochry. I sleep very soundly and have good natural rhythm, which must be to do with all the piobaireachd she played. And commitment, maintenance and patience.”
Alex Gandy is one of the world’s premier pipers, and his mother, Beverley Gandy, while perhaps not as well-known as his father, Bruce Gandy, was also an accomplished piper. Her father, Ronnie Rollo, was the leader and member of several Grade 1 bands, so the piping bloodline runs deep.
“She has been critical in my piping career,” Alex Gandy says. “In my life as a piper, people have always been very aware that my dad’s a piper, but fewer know that mom was a piper and an extremely good one at that. Never a piobaireachd player, but a professional light music player and a member of the 78th Frasers in the 1980s and a Juvenile world champion. So she’s no slouch.”
Gandy’s exposure to excellent piping from both mother and father had an indelible positive impact on his abilities, and his mother’s nurturing and forthright honesty greatly influenced him.
“Mama bear can come out from time to time if she doesn’t love a result or a comment from another listener.” − Alex Gandy
“Mom has always been supportive of my playing and would lend her ear at times when I was developing as a piper and still living with my parents,” he adds. “Not one to mince words, if I did something wrong or played a wrong note, she would be telling me I had better get the book out. At this stage now as a professional player myself and pipe-major of a Grade 1 band, she is my biggest fan. I think she gets nervous for my dad and me when we are on the boards. If I think I play well, I can count on mom to let me know if I’m dreaming or if I got it right that day. The same goes for a band performance. She won’t blow smoke, but she’s still the biggest fan. And slightly protective, too. Mama bear can come out from time to time if she doesn’t love a result or a comment from another listener.”
Conscientious attention to detail is a common trait that appears to pass from player-mothers to their player sons and daughters.
“My mum has always been very precision focused,” Eilidh MacDonald says. “When practicing as a kid, if I missed or muffled any piece of technique or execution, she would insist that I go back for it. She believed in me and my ability, so accordingly wouldn’t allow me to settle for anything less than the best I could manage. Although this was at times painstaking, this daily influence (not to mention that of my Da) was extremely beneficial for me as a player. Mum is also the greatest teacher of children that I know both technically, and in her ability to inspire, encourage, and support kids in their piping and as people. This has greatly influenced how I strive to teach kids, too.”
Blair Brown is one of the world’s best pipe band snare drummers, and his mother, Gail Brown, was a pipe band pioneer. She was the first female to compete with a World Champion Grade 1 band when she was a piper with Scotland’s Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia in 1973. There might not be anyone in history to have more accomplished children than Gail Brown. Blair’s brothers Glenn and Graham are two of the most successful musicians in our world. Glenn has won many of the biggest awards in solo piping, and Graham, like his brother Blair, has played with and led several Grade 1 bands.
“My mom was an influencer before influencers were cool.” − Blair Brown
“I was lucky to be born into a pipe band family,” Blair Brown says. “My brothers and I were raised by a woman who not only contributed greatly to our education and experience in the pipe band world but to many, many others, as well. My mom was an influencer before influencers were cool. For a long time, she had a direct impact on the quality of the Ontario pipe band scene. First as a player, in multiple prominent bands, and then as the
leader of the Milton Optimist band. Many of the players that came through those ranks went on to become world-class musicians, and to this day, are still making waves in every grade level, bands and solos, respectively. I’m glad I was raised by a true trailblazer.”
We wish we could talk with all players with mothers who were pipers or drummers. It would be great to hear from any piper or drummer about the role their mom played in making them who they are.
Blair Brown, Alex Gandy, Faye Henderson, Kayleigh Johnstone, Eilidh MacDonald and Islay Spalding. Their collective thoughts are a great representation of the greatness of their mothers, of all mothers everywhere, who make us who we are.
Blair Brown sums it up easily for us: “Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there!”
The presentation of the 2019 Balvenie Medal to Anne Spalding
October 28, 2019
Faye Henderson wins Oban Gold Medal – first ever female winner
August 31, 2010
Piping history’s greatest mother
May 14, 2017