January 07, 2024

Texas’s Saint Thomas Episcopal School goes deep in the heart of piping and drumming (video)

Thanks to a school pipe band that has won the Juvenile World Championship five times and an alumni band that is one of only two Grade 1 pipe bands in the United States, Saint Thomas’ Episcopal School is a household name throughout the piping and drumming world.

But what is this incredibly successful Scottish musical arts program in Houston all about? How does the operation keep turning out highly skilled pipers and drummers in seemingly unlikely Texas in America’s deep south?

Founded in 1955 as a parish school of Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Saint Thomas’ Episcopal School is a fee-based, pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade school that upholds Christian values and educates boys and girls through classical instruction.

With a total enrollment of around 650 students, there are currently 156 kids involved in the piping and drumming program, most of whom start as raw beginners. There are many more pupils in the school’s Highland dancing program.

While there are many sports teams and other extracurricular activities, there is no high school “American football” team at Saint Thomas, a rarity in football-mad Texas. But football-adjacent marching bands are just as popular, so the idea of a pipe band might be understandable.

Joining the pipe band as an elective is considered cool among Saint Thomas students. There are no limits on how many kids can participate.

Founded in 1955 with a strong Scottish connection, the school’s piping and drumming program started shortly after. Almost from the outset, Saint Thomas’ Episcopal School insisted on top-flight instruction for its fledgling pipers and drummers.

The legendary Donald Shaw-Ramsay was a frequent instructor and highly accomplished full-time teachers like Campbell Naismith, Albert McMullin, Jeremy Freeman, Doug MacRae, and Harry Isensee, who filled the piping roles through the decades.

Local native and alum Michael Cusack, the most successful American solo piper in history, ran the program for many years before becoming headmaster, a position from which he retired in 2021.

Today, the piping and drumming program is handled by band director and bagpipe instructor Lyric Todkill, percussion instructors Graham Brown and Brandon Thomas, and percussion instructor and band manager Andrew Elliott – all experienced Grade 1 bandsmen and soloists.

In 1988, the school started the Grade 2 Hamilton Pipe Band as a place for Saint Thomas graduates to play. They eventually became the Saint Thomas Alumni Pipe Band, and it and Florida’s City of Dunedin are the only two Grade 1 bands in the USA.

In 2018, Nick Hudson was recruited to join the program as a piping instructor. The 2022 Highland Society of London Northern Meeting Gold Medallist shares those duties with Todkill.

We were fortunate to sit in on a piping practice at the school and got together with Hudson to discuss the Saint Thomas program and some secrets to the school’s remarkable success in educating young pipers and drummers.

We thank Nick Hudson, Lyric Todkill and Mike Cusack for meeting with us to share their insights on the Saint Thomas Episcopal School piping and drumming program.






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