Cameron McCall, from Dollar Academy, attended the SFU summer school, ‘Piping Hot Summer Drummer’ in Canada, and reports on his week………..
Arriving into Calgary late on a Saturday in mid July, with a further connecting flight east to come, the mood was brightened up by the Canadian Immigration Officer who showed real enthusiasm for pipe band news as she confessed to being a five-year member of a local band herself. A short one-hour flight to Kelowna later and, we were driving to Silver Star
Mountain, British Columbia to join the second week of ‘Piping Hot Summer Drummer’ (PHSD), the Simon Fraser University summer school, now in its twenty-second year. I was to join another 350 or so students from places like Alaska, California, Washington State, New Zealand and, of course, Canada. So as a Summer Drummer, I was about to embark on six jam-packed days of intensive tuition, seminars and lots of fun activities with a whole bunch of students, all looking to improve their skills and learn from some of the best. It was also a bit of a home from home with one of my tutors from Dollar Academy pipe band as one of the resident professionals. Mr McWhirter was also accompanied by his Pipe Major, Stuart Liddell and they would be playing a recital later in the week on top of taking classes.
A rainstorm on the mountain that was pounding a drum score I didn’t recognise, beating the warm asphalt and creating a foggy mist as we drove from Vernon up the 6000 feet high and 20 or so kilometer road to Silver Star. Visibility was poor and it was well after midnight when I checked that the snare drum was safe and well after more airline travel. The land of nod awaited my arrival.
After registering with Administrator Mrs Bevan, I would report to the Drumming HQ under the charge of J Reid Maxwell, a drummer I’ve watched since I started playing, and have some of his scores in my developing repertoire. I also knew he was a great influence on Mr McWhirter during his time at SFU, as he has been to many top class players over the years. I was duly categorised and joined a group that would be my corps for the week.
I was also allocated a less experienced group to work with on a piece for the legendary ceilidh on the Thursday night. Before that though, orientation and meeting the tutors. Mr Jack Lee, P/S of SFU led us through the ground rules with his brimming enthusiasm. With the pipers dismissed to their groups, Mr Maxwell then gave us our orders and his expectations. Don’t be late! Ever! Read the programme, follow instructions and don’t ask dumb questions – ‘when is lunch’, being an example cited. This was as much about being responsible, part of a team and also self-sufficient all in one. I liked his style. Firm, but fair, and someone who simply loves playing and teaching.
The afternoon sessions started and Tano Martone, a former juvenile world solo champion, and SFU back liner took us through a new tune. Eric MacNeill, another SFU man said hello and knew me from my connection with the Dunedin Pipe Band of Florida, in the spring. Another few faces from Winter Storm were there too and once again the power of pipe band networks was made very clear to me. It was a sharp finish at 3pm with a jaunt down the mountain to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre, an impressive theatre, where SFU would be in concert at 6pm, with the PHSD crew joining them on stage for a short set in the first half. The concert programme is in final development for Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in August, and the “Nous Sommes Prêt” pre World’s concert. It is top-secret and I already have my ticket for Glasgow. It’s going to be super. Job done, concert over and the end of a busy day.
Morning gathering with the whole faculty to get our orders for the day and then off into our corps. It is a 9 – 5 day with some breaks (I know when lunch is). The evening events start mostly at 7pm and run until curfew. For teenagers that is 11pm latest, so long as we continue to behave responsibly – a ground rule. We also took an oath in front of the whole school about behaviour. The day settled into what would be a regular format of formal lessons as a large group, small corps and individually. One session covered teaching tips on how to deal with beginners and new drummers. The combined 100 years of teaching experience from the instructors brought some good ideas to the table. That was followed by a refresher on the famous Alex Duthart score for the ‘Salute to Max Rayne”, whilst some individual lessons closed the afternoon session.
That evening we had TED talks (a popular format for internet talks on many subjects www.TED.com/talks) where invited speakers covered diverse subjects from ‘Competition v Performance’, ‘Nutrition for Performers’, the ‘Science Behind Practice’ and ‘Team Work in a Band’. The day closed on a noisy note with ‘PHSD’s Got Talent” – To avoid any blushes and allow anonymity, the simple statement to make is – yes it has, and most will be on YouTube in due course.
After hearing the on parade band at 8am in the courtyard, classes got underway at 8.45am with sessions on Bass drumming for non bass drummers, performing like a pro in solos from Grant Maxwell, covering such matters as tune selection, and contest preparation. A very useful class ahead of the Arran Campbell Memorial competition in the evening, but more of that later. I had slotted in for a one to one with Reid Maxwell in the afternoon and I wanted to work on specific points in a Jig score he wrote.
Arran Campbell Memorial Competition: The context to this competition is that a local resident in the area of Vernon, British Columbia, was instrumental in setting up Summer Drummer with J Reid Maxwell some years ago, driven partly to get top class tuition for his son Arran, who became a drummer with SFU. Sadly, Arran passed away at a young age. An annual solo drumming Hornpipe and Jig competition was created in his memory this being the 9th year. There were ten competitors and a round of applause to piper Alan Lee for accompanying many of us. Several New Zealanders, American’s, Canadians and a split between boys and girls tookpart. After facing three constructive judges, who made comments in the auditorium to the competitors. The winner was announced and congratulations to Taylor Killoran of Robert Malcolm Memorial on being this year’s winner. Very fittingly, Mr Campbell senior was on hand to present the plaque. Long may this important memorial competition continue.
The pipers at PHSD were going through their paces in another venue for the Silver Cup (solo performance) and many of the drummers moved on to hear the end of that contest. I could make a cheap joke about tuning lasting longer than the pieces, but that would be a drummers’ cheap shot at the piping brethren. Another excellent day.
Wednesday dawned and another sunny day at Silver Star. After the group gathering and a revision session on the tune of the week (51st Highland Division) we were taken through a technical session on getting your instrument tip-top. Then a very tricky class with one drum stick. Yes one stick! Reid Maxwell took the group through a lesson focusing on the non-dominant hand. If you are a drummer reading this, try it. One hour of one stick practice.
The evening was graced by highland dancing and a recital from the double act of Stuart Liddell and Steven McWhirter, with their years of collaboration clicking into gear and the set rolling. After Steven’s version of the ‘Salute to Max Rayne’ with his additional signature pieces, Stuart joined him with a blinding set. Owen Russell, the SFU tenor, then joined them. I had watched Owen win the Gold medal at Winter Storm in January and knew it would be full on flourishing. Stuart’s solo piping was simply phenomenal, and as a clarinetist (some drummers can play music) I marvelled at the speed of his finger execution. An impromptu ‘Happy Birthday’ for an audience member, ‘naughty notes’ and rousing encore of ‘Thunderhead’, he marched off to a huge round of applause. I’d love to do justice to the quality and variety of the programme, but you had to be there.
These SFU Band alumni, now leaders of Inveraray and District Pipe Band, have been long term supporters of this summer school and delivered both combination pipes and drum and solos worth traveling wide distances for. Interesting to note that both of these gentlemen will be leading an SFU competitor at Glasgow Green next month, and underscoring that the playing and participating is one thing, whilst competition is another. Both can happily co-exist.
The evening was set ablaze, literally, by a fire alarm and the local Fire and Rescue crew visiting. It was interesting to see what personal effects became priorities for those exiting to the muster point. Some of the adults clearly valued certain liquids more than their instruments. A senior tutor exercised his ‘Three W’ rule: ‘wallet, whisky and wife’. It was a false alarm, but it might just have been the heat generated by some of that playing.
Thursday was the last full day of tuition, moving along at a fast pace towards the Ceilidh in the evening. Learning the SFU ‘Salute to Willie McErlean’ and hearing the tutors talk of ‘Five Great Drummers Everyone Should Know About’. Reid Maxwell and Steven McWhirter gave examples of the inspirational styles that shaped current drumming. I thought this was a very neat session and reminded me of the foundations and breakthroughs made by previous generations, which are very important in a heritage and cultural art form like this.
The Thursday evening Ceilidh is really a concert showcase for all of the various groups to perform to the whole faculty, attending parents and chaperones. Pipers and drummers collaborating, some playing in smaller groups and a wide variety of tunes from beginners to very seasoned players. The entire drum corps sang, yes sang, the old Scots song ‘The Parting Glass’ to rousing applause. It was a fitting end to the formal part of the evening with the presentation of the Scholarship awards for 2016. The evening continued in the ‘1609’ social venue into the later hours. Many performed, myself included. I saw and heard a boisterous piping conga and various national anthems were played, the Kiwi’s being particularly loud. Curfew time arrived all too quickly and the day closed.
Friday morning was an opportunity to gather and reflect, with the largest Massed Band of the week parading. We were all, I am sure, looking back on a week well done and friendships made. There are always new friendships and, technology allows those to continue and flourish over the miles of distance between us all. I look forward to seeing many of these colleagues again in the years to come as we cross paths at competition and events like this. Where else can you have something in common with a Coast Guard Captain (who brings excellent drum pads), Barrister, a drummer in Alaska and residents of so many other countries, than Pipe Band school.
We closed at around lunch time as all of the attendees, now friends, began to leave the setting on Silver Mountain, making their farewells and promises to keep in touch with each other and follow the fortunes of various bands as the season peaks back in Scotland in the middle of August. I’ll hope be able to get along to a watch an SFU practice at the Glasgow Caledonian University, where they are basing themselves this year. I also have my ticket for the ‘Nous Sommes Prêt’ concert.
The summer of 2015 has truly been a ‘Piping Hot Summer Drummer’ for me. PHSD was truly remarkable and a great school to be part of. I would like to record my thanks to the generosity of the Dollar Academy Wight Scholarship Award, which contributes to the furthering of pipe band development for students beyond the extensive programme at school. I was the fortunate beneficiary of this year’s award and I know I join a list of those who have benefited greatly from it. I’ll be back with my colleagues at Dollar Academy every morning in August, for the preparation ahead of Perth and then the World Championship on Glasgow Green.