PP Ed’s Blog: American Soujourn Day 1

Pittsburgh has indeed thrown off its smokey steel town reputation. Yesterday I was given a tour of the metropolis by Andrew Carlisle and saw for myself the parks, the clean rivers the clean air – a distinct turnaround from the days of belching chimneys and Scot Andrew Carnegie’s industrial empire.

That empire has endowed the city with some magnificent buildings and universities however and everywhere you get the feeling of old money mingled with new, of a place that has re-invented itself with some considerable success. The picture up top shows Andrew on Mount Washington, the clear skies self-evident.

Andrew has been professor of piping at Carnegie Mellon University for six years now and has come a long way from his days as a young piper in the Ravara band back in Northern Ireland. He currently runs the university band and has many students – lots of Chinese – and a select group of them are all on the bagpipe music degree course. They could not have a more knowledgeable tutor.

Andrew at the CMU Pipe Band's trophy cabinet
Andrew at the CMU Pipe Band’s trophy cabinet

Andrew remains an important member of the World Champion Field Marshal Montgomery PB and flies back during the summer for practices. This often means flying in on a Thursday and heading straight to band practice with the compensation of his mother’s cooking no doubt offsetting the jet lag.

Carnegie Mellon has an impressive campus with its thousands of students ($60,000 dollars a year) enjoying an establishment with a worldwide reputation in arts and sciences. The city does to, and once they can settle the current dispute with the famed Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra its reputation as a crucible of music will no doubt continue on the up.

The musos are on strike after management instituted cuts to wages and staff. There is light on the horizon and when we stopped to speak to one of the pickets they told us they were hopeful of a resolution before Christmas.

Posing with a picket
Posing with a picket

In the evening it was on to a reception for the Balmoral Classic where impresario George Balderose introduced the attending competing pipers and drummers to the audience. Thereafter myself, Jimmy Bell (after a 14 hour drive from Arkansas) and fellow judge Ian K MacDonald all gave selections. The evening concluded with a promo spot from Toronto Police Pipe Band, country dancing and music and song from the folk band Road to the Isles. 

Toronto are doing the concert tonight after the competition and sounded as thought they mean business even at this time of year. Their all-cane drone sound came across as rich and full and the new chanters, received only last week, were very true and projected well.  A shade more work and Glasgow Green standard is a certainty.

Ian K does his stuff
Ian K does his stuff

Have a listen to the band:

So now on today’s contest. The programme note reads: ‘The Balmoral Classic’s core event is the US Junior Solo Highland Bagpiping and Solo Snare Drumming Championships, the only US national competition for pipers and drummers 21 years of age or younger. This year there are twelve piping and four drumming contestants representing California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ontario.

‘They have worked intensively for years to earn their position by competing with distinction in the upper amateur grades of their respective regional pipe band associations. They deserve our respect and congratulations. Both pipers and drummers compete Saturday morning and afternoon in two separate events, with the point total for both events determining the overall winners. Each piper submits two competition-type march, strathspey, and reel medleys, and two piobaireachd tunes.

‘The judges choose which one is to be played. The drummers submit a march, strathspey and reel, and a hornpipe/jig, all four-part competition tunes. Drummers can engage a piper to play the melody, or can use a CD of same. All contestants must play from memory. For any competitor at this level it takes a lot of talent, focus, and time, in some ways analogous to preparation for top athletic contests. They have all come to Pittsburgh at their own expense to prove their skills and compete for trophies and valuable prizes, including sets of bagpipes donated by the manufacturers, David Naill Bagpipes and McCallum Bagpipes, and a Premier snare drum donated by Henderson Imports of Traverse City, Michigan.’

• Stay tuned for results and report from the competition.