By Kara Doyle
The Pipers' Review, Autumn 2006
The “Gathering Formerly Known as North Hero,” in the second year of its new incarnation in the scenic Green Mountain region of Vermont, took place August 11-14, 2006, at the Killington Grand Ski and Golf Resort. Though this event originated as a celebration of Northumbrian pipes, uilleann pipers now make up a significant percentage of the attendees, instructors, and vendors. Pipemakers Bruce Childress and Uilleann Pipeworks of Boston were represented again in the vendor’s exhibit. This year’s teaching staff included David Power, Jerry O’Sullivan, and Benedict Koehler (who graciously stepped in when Debbie Quigley couldn’t be there). These three stalwarts displayed remarkable stamina, wit, grace, and generosity throughout a breakneck daily schedule consisting of three and a half hours of classes, plus private lessons, plus afternoon workshops, plus evening concert performances. Factor in the inevitable late-night/early morning sessions, and it’s a wonder they were still on their feet by the close of the last class on Monday. Kudos to you, lads!
Adding local and long-distance color to the event were three uilleann pipemaking/reed gurus. Ted Anderson, accompanied by his wife Janica, traveled all the way from California to enliven the festivities -- zampogna in hand and suitcase full of cane. Nick Whitmer, now of Ithaca, NY, dropped by with his wife Liz for two days, bringing along three key session ingredients: his low whistle, a steady stream of jokes, and chocolate. And, of course, we must not forget the inimitable David “Hans Freideweiss” Quinn, whose wife Lynn “Helena Handbasket” Anderson may have set new land-speed records on the local Alpine Slide.
This year’s Piper’s Gathering concerts were better than ever, thanks
in part to a streamlined program of performances, and in very large part to
a stellar job on the sound system by Bob Mills of Vermont. Bob’s dedication,
his complete understanding of the sound pipers aim to produce, and his constant
attention to detail made the experience highly enjoyable for both audience and
performers. (For more examples of Bob’s very fine, though lamentably uncredited,
audio work, consult the new Pipers’ Gathering 2005 concert CD – featuring,
among other things, performances by uilleann pipe instructors Anthony Santoro
and Brian McNamara.)
Uilleann piping served as the “bookends” in the 2006 concert program. David Power opened the Saturday night concert with his usual flair. Highlights of his set included two beautiful slow airs, played at a truly majestic pace, and the Seamus Ennis setting of The Ace and Deuce of Pipering. Throughout the set, David demonstrated his deep understanding and appreciation of the playing of the old masters, and his own total command of the nuances of his instrument. The Saturday concert also featured Benedict Koehler and Hilari Farrington on pipes and harp, who, as usual, combined a sensitive and graceful performance with funny and engaging repartee (including a demonstration of how to make the regulators sound exactly like a car alarm). Benedict and Hilari drew upon their own unique repertoire, including the music of Mike Rafferty, Billy McComiskey, and Frank Harte; the climax of their set, however, was a performance of O’Carolan’s Planxty Festus Burke, an acrobatic and technically challenging piece that Benedict and Hilari imbued with their trademark lyricism and joy. Finally, on Sunday night, Jerry O’Sullivan brought the weekend’s concerts to a dynamic close, treating the audience to tunes and stories from his travels in the far-off corners of the globe. One such story served as the preface for a tune called The Trip to Galilee, which, in honor of a visit to that town, Jerry composed himself. Imagine: a Middle-Eastern-esque tune, composed by an Irish-American as a memento of a trip to Israel, played on uilleann pipes in a key normally only found in Klezmer music. Phenomenal!
As in recent years at the Pipers’ Gathering, uilleann piping classes on
Saturday and Sunday were divided into beginning, intermediate, and advanced,
and as in recent years, the instructors rotated between classes so that all
skill levels might benefit from their insights and wisdom. Each instructor also
conducted an afternoon workshop in his area of expertise. David Power finally
got to make the long-awaited presentation on the music of his mentor, Tommy
Kearney (a workshop originally scheduled for North Hero 2004, but thwarted by
a ferocious thunderstorm that sent the entire Pipers’ Gathering scurrying
from the tents to the porch at Shore Acres). Jerry O’Sullivan regaled
listeners with tunes from the O’Farrell collection, while acquainting
the audience with the historical context for O’Farrell’s tune collecting
and his pocket tutors. For his part, despite being scheduled concurrently with
David Power’s presentation, Benedict Koehler drew a sizable crowd of pipers,
pipemakers, and interested observers as he demonstrated reedmaking technique.
Monday morning’s classes convened all the uilleann pipers as a group, instructors and students alike, for three hours of tunes and talk. David, Benedict, and Jerry played tunes together, answered questions, and conducted a free-flowing discussion on a range of topics. They began with a few reels played in unison, and then, at David’s suggestion, each one played the same jig a few times so that students could compare their playing styles – a fantastic opportunity to listen to three highly skilled and subtle musicians think their way through the same tune. (Wish this sort of thing happened more often at tionóls!) This prompted a question from a student, and a long ensuing discussion, about whether one’s playing should simplify melodically when playing with other musicians. All three instructors agreed that it is much more crucial for the musicians to find the same rhythmic groove, and that if the groove is solid, melodic variation is less of an issue for listeners and musicians alike – a point they proved by example as they played together during the course of the class.
After a badly needed break for caffeine injections, the conversation shifted organically to the question of what makes a good session. The instructors reminisced (and remonstrated) about the changes in session etiquette over the years, talking about the shift from the old “benevolent dictator” system, in which a senior musician chose the tunes, controlled the pace, and took steps to include people by playing tunes they knew, to the more current, chaotic, “democratic“ model, which is not as rigidly hierarchical but leaves more room for showboating, tension between egos, the occasional double bass and washboard duo, people who play too fast, and other common session evils. The instructors (and some of the students) agreed, however, that there comes a time when one starts going to sessions more to listen than to be heard, and that truly good sessions are just as much about people and socializing as they are about tunes. Later on, in a sort of pipers’ hootenanny, David Power passed around his newly acquired but venerable Quinn concert pitch full set (recently purchased from Mike Rafferty), and several students had a go. Afterward, David and Jerry swapped sets and played a few more hopping reels, before Benedict rejoined them for the class finale. Then it was time to bid one another safe journey, pack up the car, and head down the mountain road, full of memories and charged up for another year of piping.
by Meghan Dewald,
Seven Days, August 16, 2006
A dozen Scottish smallpipes buzz in unison, as piping expert Annie Grace stomps her flip-flop-shod feet in time to the tune she's teaching. The sound fills the room, but some people are having trouble with the fingering. "Have a wee listen," she says in a lilting Scottish accent. Grace stops the other players seated in a circle around her, their pipes in their laps powered by small bellows strapped to their arms. She starts again at a slower tempo, and begins to sing the notes clearly in Gaelic, "o hara be oro, ah hayra o oro, o hara be oro, o hara m boro . . ."
Still playing, Grace calls out fiercely in a clarion voice, like some Celtic drill sergeant, "Is it comin' back? Clear as mud?" The group starts up with a wheezing sound, and then pauses for a few seconds to tune and gather steam. In a moment, they're off again in a cloud of chest-swelling harmonies.
At the mention of bagpipes, most people envision the Great Highland version: a large Scottish instrument with a sound designed to carry great distances. Plaid-kilted, puff-cheeked operators play them standing up and, if they've any mercy, outdoors. Regimental pipe-and-drum bands skirl them in street parades, and they appear at weddings and funerals, in military divisions, or as props in Brigadoon. But the Highland pipes have lots of lesser-known, distant cousins scattered throughout the British Isles and continental Europe, and these also have their share of ardent admirers.
Scores of top-notch bagpipers, instrument makers and enthusiastic students have come from around the world for the 22nd annual Piper's Gathering in Killington. The three-day conference, which took place last weekend, is devoted to "alternative" bagpipes. It's the largest, most comprehensive event of its kind in North America.
Northumbrian piper Alan Jones founded the Gathering in 1985 in North Hero, where it continued for 20 years with great success. In fact, the popular event outgrew the meeting space available, and a 2004 thunderstorm exposed the limitations of tents. The Killington Grand Hotel offers greater space and stability. On Saturday morning, 10 of the hotel's conference rooms hold students absorbing instruction in at least six varieties of bagpipes, as well as the tinwhistle, and their trills filter through the walls. From the hallway, all the activity sounds like a beehive full of particularly merry insects.
Emanating from the spot devoted to English and Cornish pipes is a reedy, haunting, almost Middle Eastern sound. Suddenly, it stops, replaced by the voice of instructor James Merryweather. "See if you can find some wobulator to put in there," says the genial, bushy-bearded man holding a medieval-looking set of bagpipes. He beams at a student he's selected to "solo." The player tries to modulate the music to add a controlled wobble, something between a note-bending quaver and a trill on the song's top note.
Most of the pipes in this room have spindle-turned drones with fluted ends like trumpets, and look as if they were copied from an illuminated manuscript. That's not far from the truth: English bagpipes were fairly common in the southern part of the country before the 1500s, but by the 1800s, they'd fallen out of favor and disappeared. The pipes here are the result of an attempt to revive an extinct instrument, after prototypes assembled by researchers and instrument makers in the 1970s and '80s. One of the models is based on a 15th-century illustration of the Miller from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Like many of the pipe types at the Gathering, this one is now undergoing a renaissance.
Satisfied with his pupils' progress, Merryweather suggests exploring alternate harmonies at tomorrow's "Cornish pipe moot." Someone asks what the word "moot" means, and another student quips: "A cow with gas." Merryweather chuckles and says he's not sure if he coined the phrase, but he started calling sub-gatherings of the Yorkshire Bagpipe Society "pipe moots" when he lived there and began convening casual practices. Fittingly, the word borrows from J.R.R. Tolkein's tree-like characters that gather to communicate via a sort of musical booming and tooting. "I just thought back to The Lord of the Rings, to the Entmoot, where all the Ents came to . . . It's as silly as an Entmoot, really," Merryweather concedes.
The Pipers' Gathering does feel like a news-swapping event. During the lunch break, impromptu sessions spring up in corners, as pipers jam and teach each other their favorite tunes. The overall effect of multiple pipes playing different melodies within ear-shot of each other can be a bit jarring for listeners. But the sense of freedom and enthusiasm for the music is appealing, and the music-making klatches generally don't last long.
The morning's chatter conveys a mixture of dread and gleeful anticipation at the prospect of browsing the vendors' hall -- it's a dangerous place for anyone bitten with the bagpiping bug. In addition to CDs, rare books and displays of thistle-themed artwork honoring Scotland's prickly, purple flower, the hall houses five pipemakers who craft all their instruments by hand. Full sets run upwards of $7000, and in-demand makers have enough orders to keep them busy for years.
Bagpipes make noise by forcing air through pipes over reeds, sort of like a saxophone or a clarinet. The bag holds the air, which is blown in either through a pipe in the player's mouth, or through a bellows connected to his or her elbow. Drones, pipes of varying lengths that usually stick up behind or point down and to the side, contain reeds that provide a harmonious background noise -- if all goes well and the set is in tune. A set of pipes can have anywhere from two to five drones, or more. The chanter, shaped something like the lower part of a recorder, also contains a reed, and this is where the player's fingers go to make the melody. The "alternative" pipes at the Pipers' Gathering are almost all bellows-driven, which allows players to sing or talk while they're making music.
Several of the instrument makers displaying items on the white-covered tables specialize in the Uilleann pipes, a bellows-driven bagpipe from Ireland. Alex Bush, a twentysomething maker who recently co-founded Uilleann Pipeworks of Boston, explains how to pronounce the Gaelic: "Illen." He strikes a hip-hop pose: "Like, I'm illin'!" Bush offers a rundown of Uilleann pipes and their wood-and-brass construction: They're quieter than Highland pipes, he says, "about as loud as a fiddle, so they're played indoors. It's more of a pub instrument. So the music that you play on the Uilleann pipes is dance music -- jigs, reels, stuff like that -- not what you'd normally associate with Highland bagpipes, which is more war processional music."
"The chanter plays the melody, and there are three drones, which go 'braaaagh,'" Bush continues. "Those are tuned in octaves to each other." He explains that a chanter and three drones are a half-set, but a full set has three pipes called regulators, which have big switches with long metal tabs. "The regulators all are keyed and can play chords, which makes the Uillean bagpipes the most complex bagpipe in the world," Bush enthuses. "You can play a harmonic chordal accompaniment, that's also rhythmic, to the melody."
Across the room, pipemaker Michael MacHarg of South Royalton presides over three tables filled with rare recordings and books, equipment for pipe cleaning and repairs, and dozens of elaborately carved chanters and bagpipe components of his own design. He's been in this business for 30 years. A rare double chanter in the style of Spanish Galician pipes nestles kitty-corner to flat bags made of elk hide, and a chanter with a top carved like a bearded man's head. Fuzzy rods, destined to dust and clean pipe innards, are spread out next to hemp twine for adjusting joints on the pipes. A jar labeled "bagpipe seasoning" isn't for desperate moments in the kitchen; it's a solution for conditioning the insides of new bags before they're put to use.
MacHarg talks about the material used to make the stocks and joints on a pipe. These were once commonly made of tusk ivory, but nowadays there's a far more humane and renewable resource: the Tagua nut, from a type of palm in Micronesia and Polynesia. "It looks like a prehistoric apple," MacHarg says. "It has dentine in it, the same as your teeth." It's the kind of arcane detail pipers seem to love.
MacHarg's son Iain, the lead piper in Burlington's now-defunct Celtic trad-rock band Whisky Before Breakfast, is an instructor at the Gathering this year. A champion Highland piper, the younger MacHarg is also proficient at Scottish smallpipes and other instruments.
Not far from his father in the vendors' hall, Iain sits with several other musicians to play a short and spirited reel. While their fingers fly, the players grin and waggle their eyebrows, trying to one-up each other with embellishments while keeping the tempestuous pace. The tune is just a taste of what's to come in the evening: A full concert featuring James Merryweather on English pipes, Montpelier-based Uilleann piper and pipemaker Benedict Koehler, Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston and Uilleann piper David Powers. Ultimately, it's all about the music.
Our thanks to Meghan Dewald and Seven Days for permission to use this article. Please visit Seven Days on-line at: <http://www.sevendaysvt.com>
by Pierre Home-Douglas
Vermont Life Magazine, Summer 2001
It's 9:30 on a summer Sunday morning. In the basement of the North Hero Town Hall, third-generation piper Al Purcell is instructing a group of intermediate and advanced players of the uilleann pipes, an instrument that figures prominently in traditional Irish music. "Don't force the drones by pressing too hard on the bag," the Dublin native advises one student. "Never put the reed in your mouth," he reminds another. Meanwhile, in a room at the back of the Federal-style Courthouse near the north end of town, Gary West, a lecturer from the University of Edinburgh, is leading fifteen students through a group playing of a Gaelic air-"a simple, wee tune," as Gary puts it-on the Scottish smallpipes. A few hundred yards away at the North Hero library, Ian Lawther from Silver Spring, Maryland, is sharing his close to 30 years of experience playing the Northumbrian pipes with a group that watches his playing with rapt attention.
They're all part of the North Hero Pipers' Gathering, a three-day event in late August when the picturesque town on the shores of Lake Champlain becomes, as one participant describes it, "the Woodstock of the bagpipe world." Teachers, performers, budding players, instrument makers, and curious passersby descend on the town to attend workshops, seminars, and concerts featuring instruments that, in some cases, have only recently been resurrected from extinction.
To the uninitiated, the word "bagpipe" normally conjures up images
of kilts, regimental bands, and the unmistakable haunting skirl that is synonymous
with Scotland. But the diverse array of pipes at the North Hero event reflects
a tradition in bagpipes far older than the well-known Scottish highland pipes,
with some instruments that date back to medieval times.
A primitive form of the bagpipes originated in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago. Today, virtually every country throughout Europe and as far east as India have bagpipes in some form or other. In France alone there are more than a dozen different types; England boasts a half dozen of its own. Most of these instruments, such as the Scottish smallpipes and various English pipes that are part of the Pipers' Gathering, had ceased to be played centuries ago. It is only within the last couple of decades that they have been recreated by bagpipe makers on both sides of the Atlantic, often relying on antiquarian books and church sculptures and carvings that featured the pipes to build the most accurate facsimiles they could of the instruments.
North Hero has been drawing pipers from across North America and beyond since 1985. Today, the non-profit Pipers' Gathering Inc. is run by seven directors who hire internationally respected instructors to pass on their knowledge and techniques. "There's nothing like this where I come from in Scotland--this mix of all the different pipes," says Gary West. "It's spectacular." After an informal session Friday night, the event kicks into high gear the following day with instructional workshops in the morning and seminars in the afternoon on subjects that range from bagpipes of central France and Brittany to the relationship of Scottish smallpipes to dancing. Those who want to take the lessons buy a Participant's pass, which costs $75 for the whole weekend, while people who want to stroll around and sit in on workshops and lectures that strike their fancy can purchase a one-day Observer's pass for $25.
Those interested in buying instruments head to the main floor of the Town
Hall, where a dozen or so of America and Britain's top pipe makers display
their creations. Here you'll find people like Julian Goodacre with his Leicestershire
smallpipes, beautifully crafted by the English instrument maker from cherry
and yew. At a nearby table stands Michael Mac Harg of South Royalton, Vermont,
with sets of bagpipes from Spain, Scotland, and France. Mac Harg has been
a professional pipe maker for 30 years and has constructed 31 different kinds
at his Wee Piper shop. One of his most recent creations is a replica of bagpipes
played in Cape Breton 150 years ago, complete with mounts made from moose
Vermont is also represented at the Gathering by Benedict Koehler who works out of his shop in East Montpelier with partner David Quinn building uilleann pipes, familiar to many who saw the hit movie Titanic, in which a dancing scene below decks features the venerable instrument. A former piano restorer, Koehler says he was drawn to the uilleann pipes by his upbringing. "I remember my mother's brothers in Ireland sending over recordings of traditional Irish music. That was the sound going around in my head when I was growing up." The pipes that he builds with Quinn, a veteran with 20 years of pipe building under his belt, are constructed from rare woods like ebony and boxwood and take six weeks to make. Such craftsmanship comes with a price. A set of uilleann pipes can run $6500 and up and even then the waiting list stretches for four years or more.
Unlike the Scottish highland pipes, which are mouth blown, the pipes at the Gathering feature a bellows under one arm and a bag under another. These instruments generate a soft, melodious, surprisingly unobtrusive sound, and because of their pitch, they are suitable for playing with other instruments such as flutes and fiddles. As instructor Iain Mac Harg puts it, "that makes you a sociable piper." The 26-year-old player has had a lifelong fascination with bagpipes, no doubt inherited from his instrument-making father, Mike. Like Koehler, Iain says he grew up with the music from the cradle. "I remember the first time I heard popular music when I was in grade school and I asked, 'Hey, where are the bagpipes?'"
Today, Ian tours the country playing several types of pipes and the Irish flute. The founder of two bands, he also offers instruction at his Marshfield, Vermont home, drawing students both near and far. One of his pupils, Jonathan Timlin, drives three hours from Durham, New Hampshire for lessons. Timlin credits a visit to the Pipers' Gathering with turning him into a budding piper. "My wife brought me to North Hero in 1999 as a surprise gift. She knew I was interested in playing the pipes and had asked Michael Dow, an instrument maker from York, Maine, about where to buy a set of highland pipes. 'Does he really want to play highland pipes?' Michael asked. 'What about the other types?' So we came hear and I sat in on various sessions. The uilleann seemed too difficult; the Northumbrian a little too quiet, but the Scottish smallpipes sounded just right. I was hooked."
He isn't the only one. Talk to participants at the Gathering and you'll hear
constant praise for the quality of instruction and a delight in the fact that
they can immerse themselves in music here from morning 'til night. This is
a passionate group--passionate about their music and in their delight of finding
others who share their interest, a challenge when the number of pipers makes
them, as one player admits, "a little thin on the ground." Says
Michael O'Hanlan, a professional harpist from Washington, D.C. and an aspiring
uilleann piper. "This is a community that comes together in North Hero
once a year and then disperses. But the community endures. You make connections
with people, you learn things, you go your own way, and then you meet again
the following year." O'Hanlan also praised the opportunity to improve
his skill as a player: "I learned something here in three days that would
otherwise have taken me three months."
What draws these people from various walks of life to play the pipes? According to Richard Shuttleworth, secretary of the Pipers' Gathering Inc., the appeal stems partly from a yearning to form a connection with the past. "It's all part of that general interest that just about everybody has as to what their roots are--where did we come from. Music, and in this case bagpipes, are simply one facet of that preoccupation." Some of the participants at North Hero started playing the highland bagpipe but found them too regimented, the bands that played them too concerned with the standardized technique. For these players, the uilleann, Northumbrian, and other pipes at the Gathering offer more freedom of expression--the piping version of playing jazz.
The Gathering comes to an end on Sunday evening with a final concert that draws 250 people to the Town Hall, where the instructors provide a packed house with virtuoso performances on the various pipes. Many in the audience, however, have already been treated to various impromptu concerts that invariably spring up throughout the weekend--out on the lawn in front of the town Hall, across the street by the lake, or out back next to the parking lot, where cars bear license plates from a dozen states.
It starts unobtrusively. Sometimes it's a piper who is standing by himself adjusting the drones of his instrument. A minute or two later, another piper and perhaps a flute player stroll by, start to talk and suddenly a trio springs to life, while spectators gather around to watch and listen. The players joke and chat and then, after a few extemporaneous tunes, they go their separate ways and the trio vanishes like a spring flower that disappears after briefly bursting into life.
It's these spontaneous acts of music-making that provides an extra drawing card for those who attend the North Hero Pipers' Gathering--the serendipity of stumbling across something wonderfully unexpected. "I remember the first night I got here," recalls Michael McWilliam of Cohasset, Massachusetts. "I was having a beer at the Shore Acres Inn and I walked outside and there was a group of pipers already jamming. The stars were shining. You could see the Milky Way it was so clear. There was the lake in the background and all you could hear was the sound of this fabulous music wafting through the air." He pauses and smiles, "It doesn't get much better than that."
Pierre and Vermont Life have granted permission to offer the article to you via this site. You can visit Vermont Life Online at http://www.vtlife.com and take advantage their "free issue offer" which will allow you to sample this fine publication without obligation.
By Wally Charm
Iris na bPiobairi (The Pipers' Review), Autumn 2001
The North Hero Pipers’ Convention, originally begun by Alan Jones 15 years ago and now governed by the Pipers’ Gathering Board of Directors, put on a wonderful event. It was superbly organized and very well attended. It was so well attended by pipers and observers that the Grand Concert on Sunday had to turn away a large number of people.
To eliminate any mix-ups or confusion, everyone who registered was given a folder with the program of events, and a 37 page publication listing a short bio of the instructors, instrument makers, and vendors. There was also short articles on the different aspects of the many pipes shown and played at North Hero. Nothing was left to chance.
If you were an uilleann piper there was much to keep you interested after your lessons. Uilleann pipemakers Seth Gallagher, Joe Kennedy, Bruce Childress, Koehler and Quinn, and Ray Sloan were either talking to prospective buyers or having a few tunes behind their display tables with who ever wanted to join in.
You could always head for the kitchen—under the auspices of Bruce Childress, (see The Great Helium Experiment that appears elsewhere in this issue) where the uilleann pipers hung out, and work on reeds, play tunes, look at other peoples pipes, and do some schmoozing. I personally did a lot of that, and I came away with material enough for four pipemaking interviews that will appear in the coming issues of the "Pipers’ Review."
I know that there were over 30 uilleann pipers at the Gathering, and 28 pipers had signed up for tuition with either Kevin Rowsome, Benedict Koehler or Debbie Quigley. (Please read Frank Gibbon’s article A Style of One’s Own. A Perspective on the Workshops at the North Hero Pipers’ Gathering, in this issue).
Along with all the other activities available to pipers, the Al Pucell Memorial Concert on Saturday night, and the Grand Concert on Sunday night called, A Celebration of Bagpipes, were superb, and very well run. Ray Wall, a uilleann piper, did the sound, and it showed that a piper should always do a piping concert. Every piper could be heard clearly, which is certainly the exception rather than the norm. There were also a number of mini concerts throughout the day by the instructors, and other superb musicians attending the festivities.
Whenever I walked up to the Town Hall, the place where most of the events took place, there were always musicians playing on the front porch. The Gathering attracts musicians, other than pipers, from throughout New England who like to come up and hang out for a weekend, so there was always "music in the air" along the North Hero "strip."
It is interesting to note that people were making reservations for next years Gathering. It is true that the Lake Champlain Islands are very tourist oriented, and places to stay fill up by the time of the Gathering. I know of a piper who applied late and couldn’t get lodging. Some of the nicer places are pricey, so make your reservations early.
The only down side of this event, if you could really call it a down side, is the lack of reasonable priced places to eat in North Hero. My wife and I, and probably others, existed on wrap sandwiches from the Hero’s Welcome. Thank God they were good and reasonable. I don’t think that the Gathering could continue if the Hero’s Welcome goes out of business.
Our thanks to Wally Charm for his permission to use this
visit the Irish Pipers' Club web site at: http://www.irishpipersclub.org/
By Michael O’Hanlan
Iris na bPiobairi (The Pipers' Review), Autumn 2002
I am honored (and a little intimidated) to be asked to write a review of the 2002 Pipers’ Gathering on North Hero Island, Vermont. I have about two years of joy and frustration on the pipes, maybe more of the latter, so realize my review will be from the perspective of an intermediate piper
In the spirit of full accounting disclosure, I must tell you I am a harpist of both the classical (I read notes) and folk (fewer notes and improvise) harp. I got bitten by the uilleann pipe bug two years ago when I accompanied piper Elliott Grasso for a St. Patrick’s Day concert with the Vienna Virginia Choral Society. After that concert, I began searching the web to see how I could get started on pipes. David Daye provided my first practice set. When I got over the idea of building my set, I tried them out and I immediately went into despair. First, harps come fully assembled, and you sound good on them even on easy, beginners’ exercises. Not with uilleann pipes, need I tell any of you. Even the name HARP is easier to learn to pronounce than the Irish word for "elbow." Buíochas le Dia ní raibh Píobairí Tóna atá orthu! Even that’s easier to pronounce.
I found out about the Pipers’ Gathering on North Hero Island and decided to come for some help. I had a great lesson with Jerry O’Sullivan followed by some wonderful sessions with Al Purcell. I was hooked on the pipes. By the time Al (God rest his wonderful soul!) had me play Eileen Aroon that last Monday morning, I had bought a C chanter from Seth Gallagher and was planning to get a larger set as time and finances allowed. I attended the Northeast Tionól in Baltimore and had a chance to meet Brian McNamara. I saw what fine piping could be.
North Hero 2001 was not possible so I committed to returning this year. I now have a Gallagher 1/2 set in stainless steel and have been lucky to work with Ian Lawther down here in the Washington, D.C. area.
A month before North Hero 2002, I was in Ireland studying harp and Irish. I took my Gallagher D chanter with the Daye bag & bellows because they took up less space and I was already shipping a lap harp to the O’Carolan Festival in Keadue.
During my first week in Glencolumbkille, Co. Donegal, I went a few times to the Rusty Mackerel Pub in Teilin. The first time I took both harp and pipes there, I learned a valuable lesson. In a pub, folks love hearing a harp, however, when you start playing pipes, all conversation stops and all attention falls on the piper. I had started Siobhán Ní Dhuibir when I noticed the silence and promptly forgot the whole piece. I went down in flames. A local man offered to sing it for me (and offered some dignity to both me and the pieces!). Instead of feeling like a total failure on pipes, I had the chance to hear a local rendition of Siobhán by a native Irish speaker. From that moment on, I knew I needed North Hero to help me work through my musical gaff.
On Friday, August 23, I flew from my home near Washington D.C. to Albany, New York to drive the rest of the way with a college friend from years back. We got back in touch with one another because of the North Hero 2000 Pipers’ Gathering. Her parents live in upstate New York near North Hero.
When we arrived at the Shore Acres Inn, it felt like a reunion. It was fun seeing familiar faces, catching up, hearing pipes, and talking shoptalk. The weekend was made a bit magical by the fact that we had both perfect weather and a full moon!
I knew things were different this year because all the activities were to be held on the property of the Shore Acres Inn. The traditional facility of the Pipers’ Gathering is the North Hero Town Hall. This was not accessible due to renovations or intended renovations. Because of this, the 2002 Pipers’ Gathering had to incur the additional costs of renting tents to contain the activities.
Saturday was clear, sunny and windy. Considering the heat we endured in D.C., the coolness of the wind was really refreshing. We drove up to find very clearly defined parking areas and great signs leading you to the main tent. When I crested the hill from the parking lot and saw the green of the Shore Acres property, the indigo of Lake Champlain, the white of the tents below and the clouds above, and a powder blue sky behind, I knew I was in for a great weekend.
With the coolness and the wind, even heeding nature’s call in the port-a-potties almost pleasant!
Registration was handled systematically and I found the information clear and the maps to the various teaching locations clear. The main tent also served as both the vendors’ hall and later on, the main concert venue. It seemed there were not as many vendors there this year as two years ago, and they may have been anxious about the tents. I think any vendor who chose not to come due to the tents might reconsider for next year. It was fun to hear all the different sounds, see all the instruments and recordings. The vendor arena was, as always, a challenge to the pocketbook.
The organizers set up the uilleann program so that each level would have a class with all four teachers at least once during the weekend. The teachers this year were Brian McNamara, Pat Hutchinson, Deb Quigley, and Benedict Koehler.
I was put in the Intermediate 1 track which began with Pat. He taught us to play "Tickle the Wig" in our session. He set the tenor of support and encouragement, which was to follow through the other classes with all the other teachers.
When I was taking harp in Keadue with Gráinne Hambley, she would play a line and all the harpists would play it back together until she heard one consistent sound coming from all 10 harps. I quickly learned that was not how pipes are taught. Pat introduced a phrase and then he would go around the room with us individually seeing that we were catching on. Then we would try playing the phrase together before moving to the next. We got through the tune in the hour and a half and this success made me more excited about the remaining classes.
Deb Quigley taught my next class. She taught us most (if not all, memory fails me) of The Maid at the Spinning Wheel. She really focused on working on crans since the piece is loaded with them in the second and fourth phrases. She also worked with us to get the G arpeggio [guess the etymology of that word asks the harpist!] in the third phrase so we could get it calmly and clearly without overblowing. The class went by very quickly and we were only introduced to the fourth phrase. On the other hand, to hear all of us playing the first three phrases was really impressive!
The classes I had attended were held in Shore Acres guestrooms, which meant things were a bit cramped. I knew the Pipers’ Gathering 2002 would have challenges because of the new spaces and this was one of them. I noticed everyone took the same attitude I did, which was to make space for everyone and make the most of what was there. Again, the support and encouragement far surpassed any physical inconveniences.
Shore Acres provided sandwiches, chips, salad, cookies, fruit and drinks for lunch. They were not exorbitantly priced, and the convenience of not having to leave Shore Acres to get lunch made up the difference.
That afternoon, I took it easy for a while and enjoyed the wind and weather. Seth Gallagher conducted his reed class/discussion/session, which was well attended.
I took a chair away from the tents and practiced what I had learned in the morning. If I were to leave then, I would have considered the Pipers’ Gathering 2002 a success. As a classically trained musician, I was taught that the black dots and circles on the page were sacred and never to be altered. Your interpretation would be in the context of faithfully repeating every note, but with your own phrasing and interpretation. Learning to study by ear was a really scary skill to learn if you are "paper trained." That term is really accurate because if you take a classical musician’s music away, more than likely, they will piddle on the floor like a puppy. Folk harpist Sue Richards one time stole my music from me at Renaissance Faire, and I learned (after cleaning myself up) that I really could play by ear and even learn by ear. The Pipers’ Gathering continued to reinforce that.
So here I was, by myself, working on The Maid at the Spinning Wheel facing the lake, not having to mess with a music stand and yet able to really focus on what I was practicing in the midst of all the natural beauty. I was in heaven.
My college friend’s parents joined the two of us for the "Irish Tradition" concert Saturday night. The sound and light guys had some major challenges to overcome in the concert tent. Again, good-natured attitudes came from performers, Master-of-Ceremony Bruce Childress, and the audience alike and gave the sound and lights guys the time and space to get the systems working and they ended up doing a great job.
We caught the performances of Brian McNamara, Benedict Koehler and Hilari Farrington and Ian Lawther. Unfortunately, my friend’s parents had to leave and we missed the second half of the concert. I will focus on Brian and Ian for this review.
What struck me most of all was how seemingly effortlessly Brian McNamara played. He joked (or was serious) about being able to pick up new tunes while driving up to North Hero from Boston and playing them for the first time on stage [need I say flawlessly?!? ]. So all these years, when I thought I was seeing hitchhikers, they turned out to be pipe tunes. Maybe now I can pick up a tune or two on the road. Then again, if I had the ability of Brian McNamara, maybe I could do it too. Brian’s playing was very impressive. One thing I particularly liked about his playing was his choice tempi. He has the fingers to play any tune at virtually any tempo yet he holds back and you can hear both the tune and his ornaments. He makes music rather than impressing us with how fast he can play. My ears could be wrong, but I would swear that if I had $1.00 for every note in one of his crans, I would be rich. He introduced his tunes and shared experiences with a wonderfully wry and subtle wit.
Benedict Koehler said once, that if you wanted to learn to play staccato notes, study with a Northumbrian teacher. Well, funny, that is exactly what I do in D.C with Ian Lawther. He is well known for his Northumbrian piping, yet he is equally skilled in uilleann and Highland pipes as well. It is always fun to see your teacher play both on stage and in lessons. Benedict was correct in that statement because Ian played some cross-over pieces on the Northumbrian pipes with their characteristic crispness. It was fun to compare and contrast what you heard, to the same pieces on uilleann pipes.
The first class Sunday morning was with Brian McNamara. This time we were in a tent and we had lots more space than in the guestrooms of the Inn. Brian taught us The Humors of Bolton Street (reel) which he did NOT pick up on the side of the road between Boston and North Hero, but from the rare Greer Manuscript. A neighbor of his in Ireland had found a copy of this rare manuscript in the attic and gave it to him. Many of the pieces can be found in the Ceol Rince vols. 4 and 5. Again we had another session on learning crans as well as working on octave jumps. At first play through, it seemed the piece was way too complicated to learn, and then phrase by phrase, piper by piper, the piece is given from teacher to student. By the end of the class, we were playing the entire tune. Another fun class!
The second class on Sunday morning was with Benedict Koehler. Like Brian, his wit is subtle, yet tremendous. We worked on The Tailor’s Twist and we all found it to be quite a mouthful. I had learned that piece on the harp. I could now concentrate on the technical side, since I knew the tune. The tune, none-the-less, was a really fun stretch on the pipes.
The uilleann pipe instructors’ talk after lunch was what I considered the uilleann apex of the weekend. Benedict, Brian, Pat and Deb gathered to discuss uilleann pipe issues, trends and other topics. To have, under one tent, so much experience, ability and talent was awe inspiring. There were duets, trios and quartets interspersing the conversation. They played tunes to illustrate points they were discussing as well as taking advantage of this time to really challenge themselves to play some truly difficult pieces. It was not a concert setting, so they could safely try things out and experiment. It was very well attended with folks seated and standing all around.
At 4:00 I had a private lesson with Deb Quigley. During my practice session the day before, I had learned the fourth part of The Maid at the Spinning Wheel so that we could work on it. We were able to polish a lot of areas and spend some good focused time on crans again. We also resurrected Siobhán Ní Dhuibher and I had a chance to put away my embarrassment from my piping experience in Ireland. Besides, I forgot to mention that two days after falling on my face on pipes in Teilin, I brought only my harp and was able to play sessions there with Mairéad Ní Maonaigh and her husband Dermot Byrne from "Altan."
The Grand Celebration of Bagpipes concert Sunday night was a lot of fun. Here was a chance to "taste" each of the pipes taught at North Hero. Maybe I am just picky, but I really do not like Highland pipes leading off the Procession of the Pipes. Granted few instruments can make an entrance like the Highland pipes, but we are a gathering of non-Highland pipes. Couldn’t we gather ourselves and have them stay at home? You can see Highland pipes almost anywhere, yet where can you see uilleann, Northumbrian, Border and Scottish small Pipes (shuttle, Breton, German, Yugoslavian, etc. as well)?? It was funny to see that all the other pipes except uilleann could march. I guess uilleann pipers can join harpists and cellists in the "Inertia Marching Band."
All kvetching about Highland pipes aside, I realized again what a truly rare and special place the Pipers’ Gathering at North Hero is, when I saw these rare instruments performed on, taught and sold. Where else do you really see these instruments? It just makes me enjoy the North Hero experience all the more.
Monday was a slow day in the beginning. I did not take any classes. Instead, I just walked around, listened to classes and individuals, took pictures and said my good-byes.
The organizers of North Hero really deserve much praise, not only for the overall weekend, but also for the wonderful organization of the uilleann pipe program. They were facing many difficulties with the tents and it really worked out well. Everyone up there wanted it to work, and it did.
As construction projects can take longer than planned, we might be back in tents next year, but that won’t matter to me, I’ll be going. I encourage folks from other parts of the nation/continents/world besides Eastern Canada and the US to come to North Hero. It is a wonderful location with a great program each year. Also, and this is my own urging, please support the North Hero Pipers’ Gathering with your donations until they are back in the North Hero Town Hall (but why stop there?). I understand the tents really hit their budget hard and they could use your support. Besides, they are a 501(c)(3) which means you will get a tax deduction for the all monies you give. But don’t forget to support your local organizations as well.
Thank you for letting me share my experiences from the 2002 North Hero Pipers’ Gathering experiences with you.
Our thanks to Wally Charm and Michael O’Hanlan for his permission to use this article. Please visit the Irish Pipers' Club web site at: http://www.irishpipersclub.org/
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