First South Florida Academy Flying High

Principal Robert Wallace reports: The first ever South Florida Pipe and Drum Academy could be classed as nothing other than an unqualified success. Thirty-three students enjoyed the best part of a week of top class instruction in the arts of piping and drumming. Based in Fort Lauderdale, the school ran for four days leading up to the city’s March 14 St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The instructors, myself, Barry Donaldson, Kansas-based Donald McBride and Tommy Johnston were impressed with the dedication and endeavour displayed by the students. That said, they were in need of good tuition; the standard of play in this part of the piping world is, shall we say, rather basic. This should not be construed as in any way critical of local bands and the pipers and drummers who fill their ranks. Sufficient numbers of them have simply not been exposed to an extended period of proper tuition – and without that how can they possibly be expected to improve?

Band practice
Band practice

This fact was realised by three of their number, namely Iggy McSorley, Noah Morrissette and Mike Nugent, and they determined to do something about it. Hence the birth of the Academy. Within four months of the germ of such a school being discussed it became a reality. As I said to them, in piping and in life there are talkers and doers. We now know which camp these three gents belong to.

The pipers and drummers were asked to download and print out the RSPBA’s Structured Learning book and this provided the guidance for the correction of crossing noises, and other false fingering and technical deficiencies so prevalent among the pipers. The drummers worked from these books too, and Tommy reported rapid progress both in drumming practicalities and theory.

Shepherd Reed Set:


Tommy on parade...he had a wonderful rapport with the drummers
Tommy on parade…he had a wonderful rapport with the drummers

The Academy was based at a well equipped Fire Department building where we ate, slept and taught. The daily teaching pattern followed a fairly set routine of lessons on chanter and drum pad in the mornings and on pipes and drums in the afternoon, with a band practice and piobaireachd class accommodated too. Contrary to what may be imagined in the 80 deg. heat, the pipes, once adjusted or re-reeded, all went well. The humidity kept reeds vibrating freely and the dry, thin, squeaky – squealy sound we might have expected did not happen.

On the Thursday evening we held a concert in an open air auditorium in a downtown Fort Lauderdale park. It was well received by locals and set the tone for the big parade to come on the Saturday.

Before that, on the Friday, we had our certificate presentations and the awards to the most promising students. Before we get to that, a big thank you to our sponsors RT Shepherd & Co., McCallum Bagpipes, D Naill and Co, Pipe Dreams and the ppresshop for their generosity with the prizes. After much discussion among the instructors, the Most Promising Piping Student was declared to be Jason Hernandez (engraved practice chanter), and the Runner – Up Christopher Brown (reeds and music book). In drumming the main award went to Kevin Hernandez (quality drum pad) and the runner Joseph Insella (Tommy’s personal sticks).

Barry's class
Barry’s class

I had never taken part in a procession such as that held on the Saturday in honour of Ireland’s main man St Patrick. It involved a lot of standing around in the baking heat waiting for our turn to move off. Fortunately we managed to find a shaded house of quality refreshment during the longest of the stationary periods and that sustained us till we reached the end, thousands lining the streets and seemingly never tiring of the Dawning of the Day.

Most of the bands played and play Irish song tunes and I believe a move to a repertoire which includes more mainstream Scottish fare (away from the St Paddy’s Parade of course) would encourage firmer technique and better control of the basic rhythms. Five years on, with correct application, a major improvement could be effected.

Carlos, Donald and Barry on parade
Carlos, Donald and Barry on parade

For now, let’s look forward to next year with a thank you to the organisers and the  Fort Lauderdale Fire Department for launching the Academy in such fine style. Check out the website, and if you are in the US you may like to consider flying down for some piping and drumming fun in the sun in Florida 2016.