Summer piping camps: things you should know

When I was 15 years old, my teacher, Ed Neigh, took me to a summer piping camp that was presided over and taught solely by John MacFadyen of Glasgow. One of the famous MacFadyen piping brothers, along with Duncan and Iain, John was one of the leading piobaireachd players in the late 1950s and ‘60s. His competitive record and strong personality were formidable. The school was held on a remote 100-acre farm near Petrolia, in southwestern Ontario. The farm was owned by Mac and Dorothy Campbell, whose daughter Trudy was one of the leading young players at that time, besides being one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known.

The school was small — sometimes as few as 8 students — and we each received one private session from John in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Ed, his brother Geoff, and Bill Livingstone were regulars at the school along with some of the Detroit piping crowd like the late John Goodenow and Dave Martin. Each evening, one student was required to play for 20 minutes in the farmhouse garden, after which “Mr. MacFadyen” would get his pipes out and play for 40 or 45 minutes as he prepared for his annual recital in Detroit at the end of the two-week school. It was an idyllic and seminal experience, and I knew it even then. It gave me some of the fondest memories of my life.

I attended this school for five years and it was a boon for my piping. It was not just about the instruction, though that was the biggest part of it. It was also about having the opportunity and motivation to practice for six hours a day for two weeks. The additional opportunity to watch and hear other pipers do the same thing and to observe what they did during those hours was enlightening. Hearing a first-class Scottish player every evening opened by mind and boosted my repertoire. One of the greatest benefits came when John would ask one of the young players to take his pipes away and “put some air into them” for an hour. It was hot and dry there and he wanted his 1912 Hendersons to be kept in good playing condition for his upcoming recital. Those of us who got the chance to play The Pipes marveled not only at their remarkable steadiness, but at how easy they were to blow. This in itself was a marvellous education for me and it affected how I set up my pipes for the rest of my life.

In truth, few if any other summer piping schools are conducted this way. But I would still recommend summer piping camps to anyone hoping to raise their piping a notch or two. Having attended them, taught at them and run them, I’d like to offer a few tips about what you might look for at such a school:

1) Choose a school that offers small classes and lots of hands-on instruction.
Being lectured about music is like reading about art: it’s interesting, but it won’t improve your skills much. A few minutes of one-on-one attention from an instructor each day for a week will do more for your playing than any amount of piping discussion. Lectures and workshops have their place, but when an expert listens to you play and then makes suggestions for improvement, you get better.

2) Practice hard outside of class.
The best schools are those where you are given some new material to learn, and every day the instructor offers suggestions on how you might improve. As an instructor, when I give out a tune, I don’t necessarily expect the student to memorize it for next day, but I need them to be very comfortable playing it on the chanter with music or I can’t teach them what they need to work on to improve. I can’t teach you much if you’re still struggling with which note comes next.

3) Memorize some tunes during the school.
Your instructors don’t expect you to memorize everything, but you’ll get more out of the school and you’ll feel better about it if you can go home with two or three new tunes firmly embedded in your head. Increasing your repertoire is a big part of becoming a better piper. Once the school is over, get right on the tunes you started and finish them off. You’ll always remember where you learned those tunes. They will mean a lot to you.

4) Work on the quality of your instrument.
One of my goals as an instructor is to send every student in my classes home with a better instrument than they came with. Improving your bagpipe should be a major objective. Budget some money for supplies that might help you along. How many other chances will you get to have a world-class piper help you get your pipes going? I remember teaching at a school once where one of the instructors, who was renown for his instrument, asked a student to buy a new reed from the school shop and bring it to class so they could set it up together. The student declined because the reed was $20 and he could get one at home for $12. Bad strategy.

5) Talk to people who are at your age and piping level.
Most people will do this naturally, but be sure you find out how others manage their piping careers. It may be reassuring to learn that you are not alone with your piping trials and tribulations, be they personal or musical. I’ve learned much in my life from how other pipers do things. And don’t think these schools are full of hotshot young whippersnappers. Middle-aged hobbyists are the bread and butter of summer camps.

6) Learn a piobaireachd.
If you are already a piobaireachd player, make sure you take one complete tune home, memorized, and on the pipes. If you are not a piobaireachd player, here’s you chance to give it a try with daily help from an instructor and support from your classmates.

7) Make recordings.
You’ll find your instructors very willing to pick up their chanter and let you record the tunes you’re learning. Take advantage of this. Having personalized recordings of tunes you’ve been given is fantastic tool. Modern handheld devices make this a breeze. Record the instructors’ recital if their is one. You’ll listen to it more than any CD you might buy.

8 ) Stay focused during class and let the instructor lead. Sometimes we get a Chatty Charlie in class. Charlie’s a nice guy, and he’s been looking forward to the school for months. Now it’s here and he’s in a class being run by one of his piping idols, and he’s so excited that he just cannot shut up. He tells stories, carries on long one-on-on discussions with the instructor, appears to show off his knowledge and basically wastes a lot of class time, frustrating and angering his classmates. Having known some Charlies, I would guess Charlie is the last one who is going to think this paragraph applies to him, but I figured I would try anyway. The bottom line is simple: no small talk or personal anecdotes in class unless you’re asked. That hour whooshes by very quickly. If you have a Chatty Charlie in class and the instructor isn’t shutting him down, speak to the instructor about it after class. If that gets no results, try the administrator.

9) Ask the questions you’re afraid to ask.
I can’t tell you how many times in a class or an evening workshop someone puts up their hand, says “Maybe this is a dumb question, but….,” and six other heads in the room nod, acknowledging that they too really need to know the answer to this question. Sometimes these answers are just the breakthrough you need.

10) Offer feedback to the instructors.
You may wish to do this privately, but I can assure you that instructors love to hear feedback about their classes or performances. If you’re naturally hesitant to tell them what you didn’t like, please tell them what you did like. We appreciate the positive reinforcement! We’ll build on that to make our next classes/recitals/workshops better.

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5 Responses to Summer piping camps: things you should know

  1. john o hara says:

    excellent article Jim

  2. Jim Shaffar says:

    A very timely article for me as I recently signed up for a one week summer school at the National Piping Centre this summer. Besides the piping it gives me a good excuse to visit Glasgow and also go see the Scottish Pipe Band championships at Dumbarton.

  3. Gregor says:

    All I remember is endless fun, but that’s another reason why you’re Jim McGillivray and I’m not…. :D

  4. Martha Moore says:

    The North American Academy of Piping & Drumming run by Sandy Jones (co-founded with John MacFadyen) is an excellent summer school. Ed Neigh is sometimes my piobaireachd teacher there.

    Martha Moore

  5. Ross McMahon says:

    Going to The Ontario School of Piping in 1999 is one of my fondest piping memories. It was the first time I received world class instruction. I’m thankful it wasn’t the last.

    It took my teachers no time at all to point out my weaknesses. Thankfully my young ego survived as they were equally as good at pointing out what I was doing right. I remember hanging on their every word. With their guidance and a lot of practice I was able to improve a lot over the week and left with many things to work on in the coming months. I think every piper and drummer should attend at least one top notch school in their life.