I am writing this from the north German plain, from the well appointed youth hostel at Müden/Örtze the home of the Northern Winter School of Piping, Drumming and Drum-majoring. Sixty plus students have gathered and at the moment are getting to know one another round the log fire in the reception hall. They’re mainly from Germany of course, but there are pipers from Australia, Singapore and Ukraine too.
Largely self-taught, the Ukrainian chap took 24 hours to get here by bus from Kiev. The Singapore girls are sponsored by their local police force. The Australian I met in Adelaide earlier this year and is tying in a visit to relatives in England with a week at the school.
The NWS was sold out months ago and on arriving it was pleasing to see some new faces plus others we first met at the College of Piping School at Homburg.
Class auditions begin in an hour or so after supper and I will once more conduct the school’s piobaireachd class. I plan to get them on the pipes more. It is easy to spend too much time at these schools on practice chanter.
Give the technique a brush up in the morning, go over the tune in question, get them singing it, and then send them off to memorise. Thereafter it must be the pipes. Usually the initial problem is getting them comfortable with the instrument – you cannot play ceol mor unless you have command of the instrument as all readers will know.
That might involve a degree of setting up and adjustment. Those from bands usually play reeds that are too strong. They are used to placing quantity over quality. Once disabused of this approach they start to enjoy themselves.
Suddenly the fingers are more relaxed, the drones are steadier, they can sustain the long notes without waver. Then they begin to understand how the music is bound up in the instrument and that it cannot satisfactorily be reproduced on any other instrument despite the efforts of the early scribes trying to adapt it to piano, flute and fiddle.
Before classes began we made a trip to the nearby Bergen Belsen concentration camp museum, scene of some of the worst barbarity in human history. On the way we passed barracks once occupied by the Scots Guards and where Ronnie Bromhead, the Winter School Principal, was once housed along with another piping notable, Keith Bowes senior of the Johnstone Pipe Band.
Ronnie even pointed out the barbed wire where Keith scraped his backside whilst climbing back into camp one night after an unauthorised furlough spent in a local shebeen.
The museum is intense, the horror laid brutally bare. It even records the shocking fact that many SS and Wehrmacht men and women got away with their crimes, there not being a huge appetite for such prosecutions in 1950s West Germany.
One of the NWS instructors, Craig Munro of Wallace Bagpipes, is just back from the South American Pipe Band Championships where he had a great time in the Patagonian city of Bariloche in Argentina. It is carnivore heaven with prime beef for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a different wine with each mouthful.
The South American association only has 15 or so bands and they vie with each other to act as host. The next bi-annual event will be held in São Paulo, Brazil in 2021 and it will be the ninth championship in the series.
Craig says the standard is improving all the time with the judges doing some teaching during the trip. Once the competition is over all contestants, judges and officials are entertained at a fiesta organised by the host band.
Brian Lamond is another member on the Northern Winter School team. On the trip from the airport he spoke of his time as Pipe Major of the Dysart band taking over from Jim Murray. Under Brian the band picked up quite a few prizes in Grade 1 including a fifth at Cowal. Always a wooden chanter man, Brian played Sinclair. On moving to Dysart he got them all on to wooden chanters too but made by Bob Shepherd. No longer active in bands, Brian has a thriving reed business in Dunfermline and a string of pupils.
Well, that’s the auditions over. A bit of a marathon but I think we got most pipers sorted out according to their grade. There are eleven who want to study piobaireachd exclusively during the week which is encouraging.
The evening ceilidh went well with Ronnie, Craig and Brian entertaining everyone on well sounding pipes and Dagmar Pesta doing well for the students.