College hosts the challenge of piobaireachd

Journal Pioneer staff
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20 pipers from around Maritimes competed in six classes at College of Piping

SUMMERSIDE - The College of Piping played host to the Atlantic Canada Piobaireachd (pee-brock) Challenge, which attracted six bagpipers from P.E.I., two from New Brunswick, and 12 from Nova Scotia, in five amateur classes and one professional class

Bruce Gandy, former senior teacher at the College of Piping, now residing in Halifax, received the professional class trophy from College of Piping executive director Karen Hatcher, following the Atlantic Canada Piobaireachd Challenge. The bagpipers were judged by Dr. Jack Taylor, president of The Piobaireachd Society, which is based in Scotland.

Piobaireachd is a very specific type of music, being the original for the great highland bagpipe, dating from at least the 1400s, according to James MacHattie, the director of education at the College of Piping.

It was taught by singing, for centuries, before the music was written down, according to MacHattie.

"That oral tradition is such a clear link to the past; whereas with music that is written on paper, it's open to a bit more interpretation," he expounded.

While it may seem more likely to find interpretations in oral traditions - think of the whisper game often played by children to see how an oral message gets changed - MacHattie detailed the difference that makes the written form more variable.

"The thing about piobaireachd is there is no strict beat. It is based on pulses, the length of which can really change.

To someone not used to hearing it, it is very foreign. Once you get into the music, and study it, and understand it, it becomes absolutely fascinating," he detailed.

A lot of bagpipers don't play piobaireachd because of the challenge. It takes a lot of background understanding before one really gets it and starts to enjoy it, MacHattie noted.

MacHattie has almost all of his students involved in learning the techniques of piobaireachd because it is a good foundation for the technical aspects of playing the bagpipes, as it helps with tuning and tone.

The College has only hosted the event once before, in 2013, when they attracted 17 players. MacHattie attributed the increased registration this year to talk of the quality of the College's event and the quality of judging.

"We make sure we have the highest caliber judges possible," MacHattie explained.

This year featured Dr. Jack Taylor, president of The Piobaireachd Society, who is from Aboyne, in central east Scotland.

"He will also be running educational workshops on Sunday, which I think will be a draw for people as well," MacHattie anticipated.

Players ranged in age from pre-teen to their fifites at the competition.

Their performances are tests of endurance, MacHattie explained, because the pieces are very long: they are complicated, a series of variations built around a theme, and it is all played from memory.

It requires memorizing a whole series of patterns and changes of techniques, and of course one needs musicality on top of the technical skills. The performer also has to keep their instrument perfectly in tune from start to finish and strive to be as consistent as possible, advised MacHattie.

Their performances are tests of endurance, MacHattie explained, because the pieces are very long: they are complicated, a series of variations built around a theme, and it all played from memory James MacHattie - director of education at the College of Piping

Piobaireachd performers got only one shot to play their classical piece as perfectly as possible, but even so the 20 players extended the day from 9 a.m. to past 4 p.m., with a break for lunch.

"These tunes are long," MacHattie reiterated.

Of course, the judge wrote his comments after each competitor finished, so there were breaks between competitors. Critique sheets were handed out with awards at the end of the day, and the opportunity was available to discuss with the judge if pipers were comfortable asking for feedback.

Entry fee was $10, and prizes were provided by the Atlantic Canada Pipe Band Association. Each winner got a trophy and medal, and there were special prizes awarded for grade-levels.

Each of the six classes in the competition had at least two competiors, and the largest had five.

This is the only competition in the Maritimes that is strictly piobaireachd, but there are other similar contests in other parts of Canada and, certainly, in Scotland, where The Piobaireachd Society is based.

The College of Piping took the competition over from a Highland Society in Antigonish, N.S., who used a local high school to host the competition for many years.

That Society was unable to hold the event in 2013, so the College of Piping offered to hold it to continue the competition of the traditon. The College was asked to host again for this year, and accepted the honour. Those efforts bode well for the return of the competition to Summerside in future years.

"We've got the built-in facilty here, which is perfect," MacHattie emphasized.

The college has two full-time bagpipe instructors, one full-time and one part-time drumming instructors, one full-time highland dance instructor, and three part-time step dance instructors. The College also encourages senior students to mentor less experienced students.

There are currently 228 students registered with the College, up from 207 in 2013, including 14 who are registered to learn through the Skype communication technology.





Organizations: College of Piping

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