The following article by Northern Ireland-based RSPBA Adjudicator Winston Pollock, was written almost 15 years ago. It is still as relevant today as it was then. In it Winston talks of how ceol mor was introduced into the Northern Ireland Piping & Drumming School, the early tutors being John Wilson and Andrew Wright. The writer’s comments were prescient with many pipers going on to achieve significant success in this music.
It is fair comment to say that the playing of piobaireachd over the past 50 years, and longer, did not feature high on the musical diet of most folk in Ireland. Indeed, to have asked any piper, or enthusiastic supporter of the art of playing the Great Highland Bagpipe, about this form of pipe music, the response would, more often than not, have been ‘Agh man, give me head peace, I haven’t got all day to wait for those boys to start playing .. … ‘
Remarks of this nature, or something similar, betrayed the shallow level of insight into the very valid benefits and enjoyment to be gained by the playing or study of this superb form of music. However, in more recent times a quiet revolution has been taking place in this part of God’s chosen vineyard and it might be said, as the folk of ‘Norn Iron’ have travelled to the fountain of all that is good in piping, they have begun to discover what is on offer when playing or listening to piobaireachd.
Yes, pipers in this music-loving province are taking much more notice of piobaireachd. The current crop of pipers who have begun to raise the solo piping standards owe much to the initiative of the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School during the past twenty years. This included the introduction to piobaireachd through Sam Bailie’s ‘Integrated Approach’ to the teaching of music theory and practice. At the same time other pockets of interest were emerging in the Province which ultimately provided more opportunities for the playing of piobaireachd in competition.
Without a doubt the most significant of these was the Piper of the Year Competition, currently held annually in Ballymena, organised superbly with Norman Dodds and Ken Stewart at the helm of a hardworking Committee. Norman Dodds, of course, stands out as being the most successful of our own tutors and deserves great credit for his own teaching and efforts to motivate others in this great music art. More tutors who come to mind include the late Norman McCutcheon who, in his latter years, did some great work in Armagh, while south of the border my thoughts turn to Steven Power (Waterford).
In the past two decades Steven has quietly perpetuated the interest in playing piobaireachd with help coming from two supportive disciples, Michael Egan (Limerick) and his great friend John Reville (Dublin), in more recent times. Nonetheless it was recognised within the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School Executive, some eleven to twelve years ago that, in addition to what was on offer in the education programme of the main school classes, there was room for the introduction of piobaireachd master class seminars.
So it was, initially, that Gold Medal winner John Wilson from Glasgow was invited by NIPDS to lead the first seminars for piobaireachd. John still recounts some funny incidents which occurred at the first venue, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Crammed into a little back room in which it would have been difficult to ‘swing a cat’ ten young hopefuls embarked on their first foray into the noble art of playing piobaireachd. John’s immense solo piping experience and his natural teaching talent allied to the simple philosophy that ‘learning by doing’ was the way forward, won the hearts and minds of all the young pipers involved.
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Subsequently when, through promotion in the Strathclyde Police, John was unable to continue the extensive winter commitment, the School was delighted to secure the assistance of Andrew Wright to continue developing the foundation laid. Andrew’s own solo career, vast experience in piobaireachd, and reputation as an excellent tutor is, of course, well known and this, combined with his sheer love of the music, quickly began to turn the blossoming promise of a number of young pipers into a reality. Over some seven years the growth in belief and performance of the students in the master classes has been quite remarkable.
Quite a number of names from the current standard setters come to mind as I write: Robert Watt, Jonathan Greenlees, Andrew Hall, Michael Egan (Limerick), Gary Watterson, Andrew Carlisle, John Reville (Dublin), David Russell, Lynsey McNicholl, Alan Tully (Kildare), William Evans and Colin Caskey (London). This youthful group is about to be joined by an ever-growing number of young pipers who are revealing an increased level of interest in piobaireachd as they progress through the main school classes.
It is indeed a great satisfaction to all involved, whether from the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School or as individual tutors, to see the growing participation of the above pipers in major solo events in Scotland and England. Many have already been successful. Most significantly Robert Watt’s achievement of winning the Silver Medal at the Northern Meeting in 2000 set a new benchmark for all solo pipers on this side of the Irish sea and, as a result, the march to the top of the solo piping tree has really begun.
Backtracking for just a moment it is worth noting that this period of significant solo development followed on from three very successful decades on the band front. Starting in the 1970s and continuing through until now, the Northern Ireland branch and IPBA bands emerged as regular winners of major championships. The pinnacle of achievement for Northern Ireland, as we all know, came with the crowning of Field Marshal Montgomery as back to back World Champions in 1992 and 1993 and again this year . This early Field Marshall success, attained through the application of excellent leadership and ability of the brothers Richard and Gordon Parkes, set a fine example of how to mould the finest piping and drumming talent available into an outstanding ensemble.
However, it must also be remembered that necessary, smaller steps were required before achieving the ultimate accolade of being the best in the world and these were taken by the forerunners of the Field Marshal who played such a vital role in raising confidence and belief in what was possible at the highest level of band competition. I refer to the blaze trailing group which included the Robert Armstrong Memorial, St Patrick’s Donaghmore, Cullybackey, McNeillstown, The Pipes and Drums of RUC, St Laurence O’Toole (IPBA) [who were to go on to win the World title themselves in 2010] and Graham Memorial. The Field Marshal continue to set standards and have maintained an outstanding level of consistency at the very top of Grade One over the past ten years.
What you might ask has been the essential ingredient in so doing? Well, put quite simply, it has been down to Richard Parkes and his constant quest for perfection. No stranger to the solo boards throughout the 80s and 90s, Richard was a regular winner in Ulster, All Ireland, and Piper of the Year solo competitions and also gained a liberal sprinkling of success across the ‘sheugh’. Setting new records and raising piping standards became his ‘Holy Grail’. He might be angry, of course, if I didn’t say he had a few solo birls left in him yet. Richard used the experience gained in the solo scene to great advantage when shaping and developing a very high level of performance within his band and thereby set clear examples for others to follow.
He willingly encouraged his players to become involved in the solo scene and saw no conflict between having a top class band and at the same time promoting individual solo talents. There is a mutual benefit to be gained as may be seen not only in the Field Marshal story but also in the example of the four times [now five] World Champions, Simon Fraser University Pipe Band. Jack and Terry Lee, it would appear, have also embraced the philosophy of pursuing the twin aims of promoting top individual musicians and harnessing such talent within a top-class ensemble.
Let’s get back to earth, though, and focus again on the very real influence derived from the study and playing of the piobaireachd. Not only does this form of music take the individual into new areas musically and intellectually, but there is an essential requirement which is fundamental in providing the platform for any good piping performance. The priority need to maintain a good instrument, which will remain constant throughout a ten, fifteen or indeed twenty-minute performance, is of the utmost importance. Pipers who master this challenge will, of course, discover the benefits this brings to the shorter March, Strathspey and Reel performance.
When this happens the piper will not only have gained the ability to maintain pitch throughout a set but, indeed, will have produced a bagpipe which will last the pace regardless of what type of competitive arena or concert stage he may choose to grace. Yes, and I believe, all these essential techniques for the performance and presentation of good piping are not restricted to the few or merely the preserve of the solo player. The quality band piper can and must develop an ability to produce an instrument capable of overcoming the most difficult demands of any playing situation. No other form of pipe music will provide a better foundation than piobaireachd.
The challenge to the learner in acquiring the necessary disciplines for good piobaireachd playing will bring great reward and satisfaction to the individual whether he chooses to pursue a specifically solo piping career or follows a twin pattern of band and solo playing. Wisely, it can be said, that the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School Executive decided to put in place a structure for the teaching and development of piobaireachd. So rewarding has the exercise been that in recent Ulster and All-Ireland Solo Piping competitions anything from a dozen to 20 competitors have regularly performed in the piobaireachd class, and, it must be said, to an ever higher standard. Indeed such is the quality of solo piping here at present that it cannot be too long before events like the ‘Ulster’ and ‘All-Ireland’ could rightly be considered an automatic qualifiers for The Northern Meeting, Inverness, and The Argyllshire Gathering, Oban.