By Cameron McCall, aged 14
Every day is a school day, as the American’s say, and the first thing I learned about traveling to ‘Winter Storm’ the North American Piping and Drumming Solo Championships, is that Kansas City is not in the state of Kansas. It sits just over the state line in Missouri, a three-hour flight from our start point in Florida where I had spent Christmas and New Year.
On the same second weekend of January for the last 14 or so years, pipers, drummers, students and tutors have gathered to compete in the North American Championships, attend workshops with some of the best tutors and attend a gala concert with the masters of their instrument holding court. A full-on weekend and I was on my way to join in. Kansas City is a pretty mid-western city with a population of just less than half a million and for this weekend an estimated one thousand would swell the number. So add two more to that census as my dad and I arrived. The gathering also doubled as a venue for pipe band associations to meet in a summit, with my home society (RSPBA) in attendance, along with those from Australia, South Africa and Canada.
The atmosphere was warm, but Kansas City was extremely cold, especially after traveling there from the heat (80s) of Florida. The packing of thermal gear, gloves and hats was not so mad as it seemed at the time. On arriving at Kansas City airport it was clear that many of the arrival passengers were pipers and drummers with drum cases, harnesses and pipers with their bags in evidence. I heard a Scottish accent and I was asked if I was in the Dollar Academy band. Maybe the band jacket with logo was the clue, but Steven MacDonald, a piper now based in Winter Garden, Florida, and originally from Dundee, introduced himself. He plays with the Dunedin Pipe Band in Florida, was there for the Grade 1 piping and had been having a good season after relocating to the US with his family. So much so, that he is taking up a scholarship at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh after the summer, majoring on bagpiping. We rode in the hotel shuttle bus and were amazed at the number of people we both knew from the band world.
On arriving at the hotel, which was a core part of the Winter Storm campus and all contained within a small area, I had two priorities: first, unpack my drum and allow it to recover from another long flight and being in a plane hold in sub-zero temperatures. Then wait to see how the heads would recover; second, meet with my piper, as all the Dollar Academy pipers were in Dollar. Ben Peterson is a piper with Greater Midwest in the Chicago area and has a long pedigree in piping. He had been brought into the mix thanks to Scott Currie, the former bass section tutor at Dollar and Shotts man, and his connection, Mike Cole, a well-known name, and another connection in a chain of friendship, which I began to see the power of during the weekend. In the weeks leading up to the competition Ben had been sent copies of the sheet music, watched the video of me playing in the World Solos and made the necessary changes to the set required for this grading. There were numerous emails and we were about to meet for the first time.
After a long drive from Chicago, Ben arrived and we got on well instantly. He was enthusiastic, played back to me his knowledge of Dollar Academy and was most envious of the ‘programme’ we have at the school. This would become a common theme. As he unpacked his set, I was heartened to see the R.G. Hardie logo and knew Mr Wilson, the Dollar pipe major and Field Marshal man would approve. An hour of practice, some tinkering, the obligatory ‘tuning’, we were cracking on and it was reaching 8pm. Ben was in demand and would be playing for several other drummers over the following day of competition. For those wondering about the drum, the move from practice pad to drum was absolutely fine, although there was a bit of tinkering by my dad, who can tune. With a very early start the next day, and the time difference between Florida and Kansas, it was time to wrap up and get some sleep. On the short walk back to my room, pipers and drummers at practice were using every function room on the entire floor.
Friday – Competition Day, 9th January
With my grade starting at 8am, I was up and ready to go at around 6am. A good breakfast in a dining room full of tartan and brogues, and then off to get a practice spot in one of the suite of rooms. The draw, putting me as the third from last competitor, suggested I would be ‘on’ at around 8.45am. Ben arrived at 7.45am as planned and he had been practicing until quite late the previous evening with tenor drummers and others. From pad to drum and then taking a break, my routine was followed. The gap between players in this competition was longer than any other I had experienced, so the run time was looking more like 8.55 or 9am.
There is no age category limit in North American competitions, so I was up against some very experienced older drummers. The runner up and third places from 2014 were back, the winner having been ‘promoted’ up a grade as is normal. The list included competitors from Iowa, British Columbia, California, Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and, Stirling/Dollar Academy. The atmosphere was good and competitors were friendly and accommodating.
In final tuning room we were given the heads up by the steward and it was my turn to face the judges. Stephen Creighton is lead drummer of World Champion drum corps St Laurence O’Toole and Jim Sim, an American judge of note. I had a solid run, one or two minor niggles in my mind, but I know that ‘it’s never good enough’. The grade had two more competitors to go and as I left the stage the audience was warm for the foreigner, or alien as immigration refers to visitors, with a generous round of applause. At some time after 9am the last competitor finished, and I had something like 12 hours to wait for the result.
There must be something about performing and adrenalin that you feel wiped out a few hours later. I had a nap in the afternoon, and then we went into Kansas City for dinner at a highly recommended barbecue place before going to watch the final competitors in the Piping and then professional Gold Medal drumming. It came down to four players, the two Brown brothers from Canada, who play for Shotts, Derek Cooper from Pennsylvania who had played alongside Mr McWhirter at Simon Fraser and Michael McKenna, the defending champion, from St Laurence O’Toole in Dublin.
Moment of Truth – Prizegiving
With the grand ballroom set up, the prizes and Winter Storm directors in place, the prize giving got underway at approaching 10pm local, 11pm in Florida and 4am in Scotland, so we knew it was too late for family back home even though the event was streaming live thanks to DOJO. Bass drummers, tenor drummers and then on to the snare awards. Unlike Scotland, they announce in reverse order and in the amateur grades only third, second and first. I had set my sights on getting a good run on the day and hopefully being placed in the three but there had been some great drumming. My stomach churned, the time seemed to drag on and the announcements came in slow motion. A talented drummer from Colorado, who I later found out plays kit in a band too, was called third, followed by a neat drummer from Iowa, whose reel I had really liked. Was I going to be disappointed? Ken Eller, the Master of Ceremonies, then said ‘In first place, winning the Gold Medal and choice of snare drum,…….from Stirling, Scotland’ at which point my dad was hugging me and we knew there wasn’t any doubt, ‘Cameron McCall’. The audience was very loud and I think being a long distance traveller made the applause louder as I walked up to shake hands, receive the medal and then disappear into a blur of a photo call and meeting the sponsor to pick my prize, a new Andante snare. What an honour to be placed first.
I saw Ben, my piper and, got over to say thank you as he shook my hand. Mike Cole, the man who had introduced Ben after Scott Currie’s request was also there and a whole host of people gathered round to offer me congratulations. It was quite overwhelming and allowed me to reflect on the hard work and practice to get here, and the people who had helped me do so. As for the senior Gold Medal, Blair Brown was the victor, shading Mike McKenna, and taking the prize which included a generous travel stipend to allow attendance at the World a Solos in Scotland. My head hit the pillow and before I knew it, Saturday had arrived.
Workshops – Saturday 10th January
One of the key benefits for North American amateur players is that some of the best tutors gather and offer workshops. As I said earlier, those who take up pipes or drums have to fight to do so as the opportunities are few. I met one piper who is a soloist in Texas and his nearest band would be a 14 hour round trip drive. He takes lessons by Skype. The East Coast has a few bands, but the mid west has fewer, and I began to realise how much I take for granted. Turning up at my own school to find Lee Innes and Steven McWhirter with their drumming pedigrees and over in piping Matt Wilson with his track record and all the other tutors we have access to. We don’t know how fortunate we are. I also know that isn’t the way it is all over as the campaign for every school to have a pipe band has pointed out.
I joined a group led by Jake Jorgensen, the new lead drummer at Scottish Power, where our former lead drummer and Head Boy Joe Armstrong has joined. Jake is also the drum tutor at George Heriot’s School and turns out good drum lines. He taught on composition, which was a good subject to be in on as I have been covering that in my music curriculum at school. After a break I joined Duncan Millar’s session on ‘Effective Practice’ which was really helpful. He explained how he works as a lawyer and has a practice room set up in different places so he doesn’t waste time packing and unpacking and not being tempted to miss practice because of the hassle. I thought this equally applied to revision for exams.
After lunch I attended a workshop by the enthusiastic John Scullion, a well know former world champion and himself a pupil of the late Alex Duthart, the godfather of modern snare drumming and mentioned by Buddy Rich, my dad’s favourite kit drummer, as the best rudimentary drummer. During these classes I made new friends, spoke with drummers from all over North America and again heard how tough it is for them to get tuition and join a band.
Gala Concert – Saturday night
As a Gold Medal winner I received an invitation to play in the Gala from the Concert Director, Doug Stronach, another well known drummer. I had excused myself from one of the workshops on the Saturday morning to gather in the conference room with the faculty drummers and the other winners in bass and tenor sections. There would be an appearance at the end of the second act, and a slot for those who were able to join in playing the very famous Alex Duthart’s fanfare at the start of the second act. Fortunately, Mr Innes had been going over that with me before the Christmas break and I had used elements of it as my warm up every day during the holiday. There were gaps in my knowledge, but I decided it was too good an opportunity to pass on.
Lining up with the senior players would be an experience in itself and I had a couple of hours to practice later, whilst being able to view various old performances on YouTube. As the concert time got nearer I had some doubt about my sanity in saying yes, but after discussion with my dad the conclusion was to adopt the Nike slogan and ‘Just Do It!’. How many times would this chance come along in my life. I arrived at the concert venue and joined the other musicians in the green room. A full band from Kansas City, celebrated pipers, drummers and the world champion Drum Major. The concert started and various combinations of pipes, drums, and bass sections started going through their paces. The proceedings got off to a flying start with Jason Paguio from Simon Fraser Pipe Band demonstrating why he is the best drum major in the world.
It was soon the intermission and the atmosphere in the drumming quarter kicked up a gear. John Scullion helped me with some of the passages and there was great encouragement from the others for me to do my best. As Ken Eller, the MC announced the faculty members and then named the gold medal winners we marched in through the auditorium. The seniors played a piece that I didn’t know and I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, getting on stage safely and waiting for the fanfare to start momentarily. John, acting as lead drummer to all of these lead drummers around me, counted us in and off we went with the famous ‘Salute to Max Rayne’ at 100 miles an hour. It was over in a flash, all four minutes of it. Thanks to the whole concert being streamed to the web, I’ve watched the footage since and it was good to see it. The audience loved it. What stayed with me was the help and encouragement given to me by the seniors.
The concert rolled on and there was a standing ovation for the gathering of the two solo pipers from the first act, William McCallum and Roderick MacLeod, joined by Colin MacLellan and Brian Donaldson in a quartet of piobaireachd. Our pipers at Dollar would have been hanging on every note. This was a knowledgable and enthusiastic audience. As the finale started, the entire cast marched on and the packed audience of around 1200 stood up applauding. What a way to end the concert. Now on to the party.
Back in the hotel and everyone changed out of kilts, the after concert party called ‘Winter Steam’ got underway. The Lee Piping Company sponsored a ‘karaoke’ for pipes and drums making a donation to charity for each performance and before long people were signing up. Pipers drumming and drummers piping, a piper piping whilst highland dancing, quartets, trios and solos. It was hilarious. I was encouraged to play my winning MSR with Ben and once again Dollar Academy, Scotland, got a mention and a big cheer. The rest of the details and what time I went to bed remain in the code of ‘what happens at Winter Steam, stays at Winter Steam’ or on YouTube, as most of it now is.
Homeward Bound – Sunday 11th January
Sunday morning and the unholy 4.30am departure time for the airport shuttle arrived fast and we were on our way out of Kansas City to connect with the later flight from New York to Scotland.
Memories, many. Great fun, and honoured to have represented Scotland and my School at Winter Storm and been judged the winner of my grade.
There are many thanks to throw out there, not least Mr Innes and Mr McWhirter my tutors at Dollar for getting me ready. To Scott Currie and Mike Cole for bringing Ben Peterson into the mix as my piper. Ben Peterson for his input. John Scullion and Steven Creighton for their patient coaching for the concert and the other senior drummers for their encouragement. Finally, my family for dealing with all my practice over the holiday and accommodating the travel and time to make it happen. And thank you Mr Knapman, the school Rector, for allowing me the extra time off. I learned a lot.
Things I learned
You have to be in it to win it
American students who play, really want to play pipes and drums and have to work to make that happen
The North American circuit is huge
Practice is the key part of doing well – it’s never good enough
Judges who stare menacingly at you constantly through the run, may actually write down really good points on your crit sheet.
How to deal with meeting a piper for limited practice time Drums do not like vast temperature changes
Effective practice is like effective studying
Pipers in North America ‘tune’ as often and as long as at home pipe band friendships and networks are VERY powerful
On a lighter note
Beards are making a big comeback in piping. Joint gold medal to Wolverine and Duck Dynasty lookalikes. I’ll be watching, Mr Wilson.
Kilt socks are never cool with sandals
There are variations on how to wear a kilt – although pleats to the front is wrong on so many levels
Minus 21 degrees is very cold
Ty Fry (famous tenor drummer) has a near monopoly on tenor mallet sales; Scott Currie’s recommendation of Jack Stacks Barbecue was first class
In physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. By winning a drum (action) our luggage space had to be repacked (opposite reaction).
2016 – A definite maybe. Hopefully with some other Dollar Academy pipers and drummers.
• Cameron McCall (14) is in Form III at Dollar Academy and plays in the current Scottish, European and World Champion Juvenile band. He was 3rd in his category at the 2014 World Solo drumming championship.