April 26, 2020

Keep on keeping on: Johnstone P-M Keith Bowes shares his experiences and advice (video)

Keith Bowes providing direction to the Grade 1 Johnstone Pipe Band.

The Johnstone Pipe Band organization is one of the world’s great pipe band success stories.

Based in Johnstone, Scotland, about ten miles west of Glasgow, the group is led by Keith Bowes Jr., pipe-major of the Grade 1 band since 2014 and a full-time piping instructor with Renfrewshire Schools. Under his leadership, the seventy-seven-year-old Johnstone organization has become a model of youth-driven stability.

When he was made pipe-major, Bowes followed in the footsteps of his father, Keith Bowes Sr., an accomplished piper and pipe bag maker who led the group for many years. Johnstone won the penultimate grade at the 2016 World Championships, and the band earned a promotion to Grade 1. It has been able to make the difficult adjustment with relative ease.

Bowes himself has a rich history in solo piping and pipe bands. His teachers include his dad and tuition with renowned pipers Gordon Walker, Chris Armstrong, Gavin Stoddart and John Wilson. He was a piper in several Grade 1 bands: David Urquhart Travel, ScottishPower and, before moving to Johnstone, with Lomond & Clyde as pipe-sergeant.

As a competing solo piper, he has won the Scots Guards Knockout Competition, the SPA Former Winners MSR, the B-Grade Piobaireachd at Inveraray, and was the Competing Pipers’ Associations’ overall table winner in B-Grade Piobaireachd in 2009.

Bowes holds an honours bachelor’s degree in music from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama and holds an advanced certificate from the RSPBA.

Along with the Grade 1 band, the Johnstone organizations carry Grade 3B and Novice Juvenile bands, the latter under the banner of Renfrewshire Schools.

Johnstone, like the rest of most of the pipe band world, is under self-isolation and facing a summer of no competitions, keeping so many young pipers and drummers together and focused is an obvious challenge.

“We are very lucky to have an excellent relationship with Renfrewshire Schools Pipe Band,” Bowes says. “These bands started as a joint project between Johnstone Pipe Band, the Scottish Schools Pipe Band Trust and Renfrewshire Council. Due to the success of the project, the council has now funded it. I am using Microsoft Teams with our young people. This provides them with an online community where we can share tutorial videos, quizzes, and other fun piping activities that can entertain them during lockdown. I have been setting an assignment each week, where they record their sets and send it in, for me to provide them with some feedback.”

Bowes has taken things a step further, developing custom areas online for the band and the many young pipers and drummers who are so important to the organization’s future. Avoiding losing novice players to other hobbies and distractions is key.

Renfrewshire School Novice Juvenile, 2017.

“I have created a channel on YouTube for our learners, with short tutorial videos on the scale, all the way through our exercises and onto some simple tunes,” he says. “I do plan to expand this with some more tutorials on some of our tunes. Nothing can beat face to face contact, but we are continually learning with how to best cope under the circumstances.”

That approach is geared mainly for younger players. For more experienced pipers and drummers, he trusts them to manage themselves with their level of discipline to keep their skills at a high level.

“With regards to our adult bands, we have decided to leave them to continue to develop their piping and practise at their own pace. Depending on how long we are in this situation will depend on how we move forward with regards to our practice schedule.

The situation has already lasted more than a month, so has Bowes seen any members lose interest or even drop out?

“It’s the ideal time to join a band. Plenty of time to learn tunes and to get yourself into the required style of play.”

“No, so far, quite the opposite. Since lockdown, we have had a snare drummer and piper join our grade one band. It’s the ideal time to join a band. Plenty of time to learn tunes and to get yourself into the required style of play. I think in some ways, many of our members appreciate how much piping and drumming plays a part in their lives. The amount of hours practicing and attending practices and competitions are so much that it’s impossible not to feel the effects of what is going on at the moment.”

Bowes stresses that time at home presents opportunities to fine-tune skills.

“We put particular care into presentation of our technique and phrasing,” Bowes says. “My pipe-sergeant, Dougie Campbell, is excellent in this area. He puts countless hours into one-to-ones. I am hoping that this time can be spent bringing on some of our young talent. We have an excellent group of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who could make the Grade 1 band within the next year or two, providing they continue to develop their playing. I believe that the only way a feeder system can work is by giving them a chance to prove themselves. Much of the success to our bands down the years is by teaching our players.”

The size of the Johnstone organization was fully appreciated when all bands took the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall stage at the 2018 Celtic Connections festival.

Perhaps surprisingly, Johnstone’s teaching has all been in-person until now. Bowes, Campbell, Lead-Drummer Les Galbraith and other leaders have quickly moved to online methods.

“Up until now, there was no online teaching. We have had a teaching program at Johnstone since 2001. I have a lot to thank my dad for with regards to the groundwork he did to hand over an organization with an excellent teaching system. Each year we put approximately 50 students through their Scottish Qualifications Authority’s Piping & Drumming Qualifications Board examinations. I believe that has resulted in many of our students going on to study at the highest level. My dad has taught at least five pipers from scratch who have gone on to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Others have played with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Our Grade 1 band has benefited from many of them travelling through the grades together.”

The additional time has also allowed the bands to have an even closer look at their music. With an entire season gone, bands and solo pipers all over the Northern Hemisphere have at least a full year to prepare and refine content, and the Johnstone Grade 1 band is no exception.


The Grade 1 Johnstone band takes the field.

“We have a few in the band that are excellent in this area of developing music,” Bowes says. “Some of my most enjoyable times with the band are sat around the table with Les [Galbraith]. I have always enjoyed working with the drummers. Our mid-section is a real strength. We have a new medley that was supposed to be aired this season. I am extremely happy with it and frustrated that we won’t hear it up to standard for many months. We had a group of three or four from the band work on this medley. Dougie generally leads this group. In some ways, I can’t decide whether it’s a traditional medley or one that pushes some boundaries. In my own opinion, it is a medley that has excellent orchestration to it. Some of the rhythmical and harmony effects are good. The band is happy with it, but we need to patient and see how it goes next year. I do believe that this medley could be our best music yet.”

“My best advice to young bands is to grasp every opportunity you can.”

It’s tough right now for pipe bands at every level. Often competition can be the biggest motivator, and the universal shift away from the contest arena means new approaches and techniques will emerge to keep bands together and enthusiastic.

So what are Keith Bowes’ hot tips for now and at any time?

“My best advice to young bands is to grasp every opportunity you can. We encourage all our members to compete in the solos, to audition for the National Youth Pipe Band and attend any holiday camps that they can. Many of your best moments will come from competing and socializing with your band at minor competitions. Become a real piper, one who really understands the pipe band scene. Develop your own music collection. Make sure your theory skills are up to scratch. Join associations like the Scottish Pipers Association or the Eagle Pipers. Look out for each other and, most importantly, have fun.”

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