September 12, 2017

River crossing

Mine would be 40 years ago, my first solo piping competition. It was 1977, about 18 months since I’d laid hands on a practice chanter. I’d been “on the pipes” – a set of imitation-ivory-mounted Hardies – for maybe six months.

I don’t remember having a choice in the matter. I was geared to compete from the get-go. It was what we pipers and drummers did. What one was supposed to do was described to me: salute like a boy soldier, tell the judge your tune, march up and down, making sure you don’t turn your back on the judge when turning, don’t play too fast, make all the doublings clearly, blow steady, try to keep in step with the beat or at least the beat-notes, keep going, don’t stop. Keep going.

The event was the Under-15 march at the St. Louis Highland Games organized by the local St. Andrew’s Society. Fresh from the United States’ Bicentennial celebrations, everything was still red white and blue, at a time when, unlike today, everything in the USA wasn’t always red white and blue every year. The games program was red white and blue, the ribbons on the medals were red white and blue. I think there was even a red white and blue Bicentennial tartan adorning an unfortunate drum-major.

I was prepped to confront my main competition from Kansas City: a young upstart named Kurt (or was it Chris?) Atwell. Everyone seemed to talk about how good this kid was. He must be beaten. Some sort of St. Louis vs. KC pride was at stake. Rivers vs. fountains. Beer vs. barbeque. Cardinals vs. Royals.

I diligently practiced my tune. For some reason, I was playing the obscure 2/4 march, “The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” Gordon Speirs, from whom I got lessons early on, assigned it to me in his often unconventional way. Something about it being a good test of my fingers, or my diligence, or maybe my sanity. I’ve never heard anyone play it since, and couldn’t tell you how it goes, mainly because the tune’s melody isn’t memorable, much less good.

At any rate, I rehearsed “The 12th etc.” every day after school. Marching back and forth. My parents and brother and sisters must have been going crazy listening to me struggle with the instrument and tuneless tune as I got set to do battle against Mr. Atwell, KC Kid Genius.

Games day arrived. If you’ve ever been what you think is the hottest and most humid place on earth, double that and you have St. Louis in July. I was decked out as one was when one played in lower-grade American bands in those days: hose tops, spats, thigh-itchy horsehair sporran, glengarry with cock-feather, epaulettes, khaki shirt, dorky embroidered band patch sewn to the short sleeve, floppy size-13 black dress shoes that I would have to “grow into.” It was the height of cool for this 13-year-old getting set for the eighth grade at Hanley Junior High, since then mercifully demolished in favour of a cracker-box suburban subdivision.

The judge was the truly terrifying Sandy MacPhee. Sandy back then, as he is now, was larger than life. At that time his son, Donald, must have been a toddler, destined for greatness, but Sandy’s legend as a pioneering American piper was established from his years in Detroit.

Yes, this is it. Sandy MacPhee judging, my mother pacing in the background, my sister, Clarissa, dreaming of Olympic balance beam gold.

Still not quite comprehending the occasion’s gravity, I approached Mr. MacPhee. “Name?” he asked in what I was sure at the time was a growl, but was probably just him asking my name. Name given. “What are you going to play?” “The 10th Argyll’s Crossing the Rhine.” “The what?” ” The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” “The 10th Battalion HLI Crossing the Rhine?” I really didn’t know what to say. At that time I’d never heard of that excellent Donald Shaw Ramsay march. “Um . . .” “It doesn’t matter; just play whatever you want.” Someone must have stopped me from breaking down in inconsolable sobs.

I vaguely remember bumbling through the tune, still searching for the elusive crappy melody, my mother pacing in the distance with my younger sister, and my dad, as always, snapping pictures. But I “got through it,” as they say, albeit out-of-step and with drones blaring like the simultaneous horns of three Mississippi River barges.

There couldn’t have been more than three or four in the event. I placed second. Atwell was first, which was okay, since I sussed that he was much like me, a kid plodding along in the heat in spats, epaulettes and itchy sporran. Someone contended that it was fixed and I should have won. I didn’t care. It was over and I received a shiny gold (not silver?) medal with a Bicentennial ribbon, and I was hooked by the will to do better, to exceed and succeed with music. Welcome to piping.

The next year I ditched that dreadful march for the more sensible “Atholl Highlanders March to Loch Katrine,” thinking it was pronounced ka-TREEN, as in latrine. It’s a more difficult tune than “The 12th etc.” but, with a discernably good melody, it seemed easier. The stub-fingered, one-lunged legend John Wilson, who was judging, bizarrely mentions me by name in his autobiography, A Professional Piper in Peace and War, playing it for him at the Kansas City Highland Games where I once again confronted Atwell. I was again second, but Wilson wrote that I was the best player of the day and would have won had I not made “catches” in the final phrases. Best player: second prize. Welcome again to piping.

A more catchy tune.

I’m always interested to hear first competition stories. When more established pipers mention to me now that I judged their first contest, there’s not a certain amount of satisfaction that I, like Sandy MacPhee, didn’t completely scare them for good from the competitive piping avocation. It’s nice when they reassure me that I wrote positive things on their scoresheets.

Like the 12th Royal Scots or the 10th HLI, we all cross our rivers, theirs to military glory, ours to a glorious piping and drumming life awaiting us on the other side.



  1. Andrew, a good read and remember that I was there. I realized then that someday you would be great even though you wore red boot laces. Thinking about it, you were better than Chris.

  2. My first ever solo was a Grade 4 2/4 march event in Halifax, over 20 years ago. I was the wettest blower I knew and shortly before going on I could hear one of my tenor drones starting to gurgle. I don’t remember if it shut off mid-play, of if I shut it off manually beforehand or if I did so by overblowing until it shut off, but I do remember the judge’s written comment: “Drones okay – did you have 2 tenors?”

    The thing that made me nervous was how to stop the instrument once the tune was finished. I assumed that a good cutoff was required, and I couldn’t get a clean cutoff to save my life at the time. I did some practice cutoffs in the days leading up and hoped for the best. Then in the event itself, I got to the end of “The Inverness Gathering” and my fingers knew what to do so I just let them play the notes, and concentrated on squeezing while keeping pressure and pitch.

    I gave probably the best cutoff I’ve ever executed in my piping career, precisely on the offbeat right after that last birl. I cut my right arm smartly and sharply down to my side and thrust the instrument out away from my body with my left arm at the same time, all in a fraction of a second. The judge smiled and told me I did a nice job, and that I didn’t have to give an abrupt cutoff in solos. I got 6th and was happy to have placed, so I felt pretty good about how the day went.

  3. I’ve never competed solo but in my first band competition, as I stood on the line, I asked myself “what do I feel?” and I remember thinking “prepared.” As we stepped off, I saw to my right, a judge with his clipboard… a familiar face since he was, and still is, my band’s professional instructor. And, as soon as I blew an early E, I also remember seeing his pen move into position to document my faux pas!

  4. 1994 Toronto Indoor games, John MacDonald (Toronto) was the judge, I was wearing my grandfathers old army kilt which was as itchy as can be and weighed a tonne on my 90lb frame. I looked like a homeless kid with long hair tucked up under my glen which was about three sizes too big. I submitted Captain Norman Orr Ewing. I believe it was two parts more than what I was supposed to submit, John advised he would judge all four parts. I was initially taught to play open C’s, prior to this contest however tried to switch to Closed C’s which was not an easy task. I likely turned away from John when I thought a C was coming, I was a nervous wreck and remember my dad saying “just play and have fun”, that changed over the years to “we didn’t drive all this way to lose” lol. I gained a first prize at this contest to my surprise and was hooked. After that contest all I wanted to do was beat Ian K. hahaha, I am still trying. Cheers Steven Tripp.

  5. My first solo contest was in June 1999 in SLC, UT. I was a teenager and SFU had just released the “Carnegie Hall” CD the prior year and I had listened to that album on repeat the entire year, especially Stuart Liddell’s famous solo of “Blue Cloud” and “Mason’s Apron”. This was back before YouTube so I didn’t have any idea what Stuart Liddell looked like. I was pretty nervous, but the kind judge made me feel at ease. I went on and played a decent Mist Covered Mountains for the judge. I was feeling pretty relieved after I finished my teacher came up to me asked me how it felt to play for Stuart Liddell. I was so surprised because I had no idea who the judge was. I was star struck at the time. Had I known the judge was Stuart Liddell, my piping hero, I probably would have broke down. I ended up getting 1st place. I was “over the moon” as they say.

  6. First contest: “Orlando”//Central Florida Highland Games
    Judge: Ken Eller
    Grade 5, Tune: High Road to Gairloch
    Place: 5th out of at least 15 due to the amount of young people from the school band and older people from the parade bands playing.

    Was below freezing (in my opinion) Royal Stewart Kilt, spats, etc. size way too big for me sweater to try and stay warm. Got through the tune, was told my hands looked the part or something like that, and the music was good but I needed to cramp down on technique. My friend in the band got 1st and subsequently told me I sucked. (I got pissed, I still play and he doesn’t). Later in the day was also my first band contest (I had only started taking lessons three months prior so I was a bit fast to come on, so I had that going for me.) But was told after the first warmup that “You better learn how to play a throw on D before the afternoon or you’ll find yourself sitting on the bus.” – Sandy K. I stayed against the side of the bus for most of the day after that, playing them over and over again. I made it into the circle.

    Years later my D throws still haunt me at times, but I’ve managed to either work hard enough or luck out to never have been cut from a contest. The feeling is something that I have always dreaded and feared at every level ever since that day. Instructors can be cruel that way.



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