When the pipers play | August 28, 2009 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Cover Story - August 28, 2009

When the pipers play

Danville bagpipers to take part at the 144th Scottish Highland Gathering & Games

by Susan Astbury

Think you'd like to play the bagpipes? It's not an easy task. Just ask two Danville residents who will be donning their kilts and hoisting their bagpipes for the Scottish Gathering and Games on Labor Day weekend in Pleasanton.

Nick Theriault, 15, a Danville resident, will compete as a member of the Caledonian Club Prince Charles Band. He started playing the bagpipes four years ago when he was in the sixth grade, although he was inspired to play when he was only 3.

"I heard a piper play at a wedding and was smitten ever since. I just always wanted to play," he remembered.

But Nick's family didn't know where to find a piping instructor so he learned to play other instruments.

"I started out with the guitar, which I played for six years. Then I learned the saxophone, the piano and the drums," he said.

Finally someone suggested that Foothill High School in Pleasanton might have a pipe band so his mother, Nancy Theriault, called.

"They didn't but they put me in contact with someone who was a piper and we got started," recalled Nancy. "Then, Nick moved to the Prince Charles Pipe Band and got great instruction."

"The thing that is difficult about playing bagpipes is the speed that they have to play," she noted. "Their fingers are moving at a rapid pace. Also, they don't just learn to play notes themselves. They learn to play movements so they are learning to play groups of notes together so they play evenly and you can hear every tiny quick grace note."

"Nick does solo competitions and band competitions," she added. "You don't go by age. You go by how good you are so you can compete against adults."

Nick explained that there are different levels of playing the bagpipes: Chanter, Grade 5, Grade 4, Grade 3, Grade 2, Grade 1 and then professional levels.

He plays bagpipe solos at weddings, memorials and parades, including each year at the Sept. 11 commemoration at Oak Hill Park in Danville as well as the Memorial Day Ceremony.

"I worked really hard to learn to play the pipes and now I've reached a stage that I can get it to sound like I want it to," said Nick. "It gives me great pleasure to share that with people. I'm a very patriotic person and I'm very honored to be able to help out the community."

He performed as a soloist for the Hero's Welcome Home celebration in Danville for Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in January and said it was an amazing experience. He tuned up in the library where the notes echoed off the wood for an enriching sound that was one of the highlights of his career. Then he was instructed to march to the stage and told to keep playing until Sullenberger and his wife arrived. He finished one tune - and then another - and, finally, the doors opened and the guests of honor made their appearance.

Nick attends Venture School in San Ramon because he travels to competitions throughout the year. "The competition season starts in February at the Queen Mary Games in Long Beach, actually on the ship," said Nancy. "Pleasanton is usually considered the closing of the season."

What do Nick's teenage friends think about his bagpipe playing? "When I tell them I play the bagpipes, they weird out but they learn to accept it," he said with a laugh. He also takes classes at Monte Vista High School where he is a member of the marching band and plays the alto saxophone.

Meanwhile, he is the pipe major of the Grade 3 of the Caledonian Club Prince Charles Band.

"A pipe major's role is to control the band," explained Nancy. "He chooses the tunes the band will play and teaches them to the other pipers. The pipe major leads the band practices and makes corrections as necessary. He works with the drum corps and the drum sergeant. The pipe major leads the band in competition by calling off the tunes, leading the marching."

"When Nick takes the Prince Charles Band out (at the Scottish Games), his players are all in their teens and all their competitors will be adults," she said. "Nick does solo competitions and band competitions. You don't go by age. You go by how good you are so you can compete against adults."

"The nice thing about piping is that it's something that people do for their entire lives," she added. "People do it forever. You'd be surprised. Nick has friends in their 80s who are still playing pipes."

The Great Highland Bagpipe is comprised of an air bag, into which there are five pipes, a bass drone, two tenor drones, the mouth piece and the chanter on which the tune is played. The chanter is a short pipe with eight holes, and the player can only produce nine notes.

"I heard that there were only nine notes to play," explained Nick, "so I thought it wasn't a big deal. First you start out playing a chanter, kind of like a recorder made out of wood and a reed. Once you get good enough, you can buy your own set of pipes. There are four different reeds in the pipes, three for the drums that are sticking up and one for the melody."

A bagpipe is an investment as they range in price from $800-$10,000. They can be purchased on the Internet as well as from the House of Bagpipes in San Francisco. Manufacturers warn that it takes six to seven years of intensive practice to become a good piper.

This year, Nick was the recipient of the San Ramon Valley Business Roundtable Student Recognition Project Award for Music, a collaboration between the school district and business groups to recognize students with special talents. He was also presented with a music composition award for a tune that he wrote while in Canada studying with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band. He explained that a piece of pipe music is always a "tune," never a "song."

The traditional bagpiper's uniform consists of a hat called a glengarry, a uniform shirt and tie, a sporran, which is similar to a purse, the kilt in a tartan pattern that can represent their family or band, hose or socks that go up to the knees, flashes that hang down from the socks, and ghillie brogues that are winged tipped shoes.

Bagpipes are believed to date back to 4000 B.C. They were a favorite of Roman Emperor Nero whose likeness playing the pipes has been discovered on ancient coins. They also were played in Egypt and Greece. It's believed that the bagpipes came to Scotland around the 1300s and settled in the Highlands.

Billy Anderson, 21, another piper from Danville, is also looking forward to the Scottish Games. His background is Scottish and he decided when he was 7 that he wanted to play the bagpipes. He has been playing in the Scottish Games since he was 9.

"I've always liked the bagpipes," said Anderson, who works as facilities coordinator for San Ramon.

His parents, members of Clan Anderson, have been involved with the Scottish Games as well as other Scottish organizations in Northern California. Attending the Scottish Games piqued his interest in the instrument.

Anderson learned to play from Lisa McAdams, a world-champion snare drummer who lives in Alameda. "Learning to play the bagpipes was really a matter of sticking to it," said Anderson. "My attention span as an 8-year-old just wasn't there but my parents encouraged me to practice."

"One of the most difficult things about learning to play the bagpipes is that you have to memorize all the tunes for competition," noted Anderson. "Playing a bagpipe is just getting in and practicing."

For the past three years, he has been Club Piper for the Caledonian Club of San Francisco, which presents the Scottish Games.

"I'm the soloist who plays at all the ceremonies for the club at all their events. Not many people have been selected to do this," Anderson said.

One of his favorite performances was at the closing of the De Young Museum in San Francisco prior to its renovation.

In his spare time, Anderson runs the Alameda County Sheriff's Band where he is the pipe major. The 13-member band practices at the Sheriff's Department in Dublin.

"I do basically everything from music instruction and purchasing to music selection." He also plays the bagpipes with a band in Claremont, where he travels once a month to play.

When asked the age-old question about what he wears under his kilt, Anderson replied that he wears basketball shorts. "That way, I can drive to the Games in Pleasanton, put on my kilt and I'm ready to go."

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in bagpipe playing. There's even a major in the bagpipe at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"You probably want to make sure that you have the drive for playing the bagpipes," said Nick. "If you actually really want to play then you try to find an instructor and practice, practice, practice."

"My advice is to listen to your instructor," said Anderson. "They have been there and know everything that you are going through."

One of the things that Anderson likes most about playing the bagpipes is being engulfed in the Scottish heritage and being around the people you love. While both Danville families are of Scottish descent, Billy and Nick are the only members of their families who are pipers.

This will be Nick's fourth year playing in the Scottish Games. The final attraction is the grandstand show when all the pipers and drummers from the two days of competition march onto the field, group by group, for the breathtaking closing ceremonies, including a mass rendition of "Amazing Grace."

"The most rewarding thing about playing," said Anderson, "is making people feel good about themselves and passing on the Scottish heritage to other people."

Be Scottish for a day

What: 144th annual Scottish Highland Gathering & Games

Where: Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton

When: Gates open at 8 a.m., Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 5-6

Special attractions: Pipes & Drums 1st Battalion Scots Guards from London; 35th U.S. Invitational Heavy Events and world Celtic Hammer Championships; dancing and Celtic music; living history

Tickets: Adults: one-day, $12; two-days, $20; ages 8-16, $8; under 8, 65 and over, $8