Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bagpipes make it 'feel like you're in Scotland'

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It was easily one of the proudest moments of my life.

It was May 2007, and I was standing on a stage at the convention centre along with my buddy Brad Oswald, the Free Press's television writer.

Brad and I were co-hosting the National Newspaper Awards, which are the Oscars of the newspaper business, and we were pretty pumped up.

But the reason I felt so proud, the thing that overwhelmed my fatherly emotions, was the fact Brad and I had been piped on stage by my then 20-year-old son and one of his buddies from the award-winning St. Andrew's Society of Winnipeg Pipe Band.


Brad and I managed to get a few decent laughs that night, but, in my mind, the biggest roar of sheer delight came when my son and his pal, both in full-dress kilts, fired up their pipes and led us through a crowd of crusty journalists.

Even if you don't have an ounce of Scottish blood in your body, there's nothing like the thunderous skirl of the bagpipes to get your blood boiling and turn most of your internal organs -- along with your eardrums -- into an emotional puddle of goo.

"It's a unique kind of instrument," is how Dan Sloan, an instructor with the Lord Selkirk Boys Pipe Band, the youth band where my son got his start as a piper, explained it to me.

"You've got the pomp and ceremony, the kilt, the heritage, the knife in the sock, everything that goes with it.

"Plus there's the volume. It's not a quiet instrument. It commands attention. You hear it, and you have to find out what's going on.

"You can feel like you're in Scotland just by listening to a piper in a park. Then you go home and have haggis."

Many of Winnipeg's pipers learned, as my son did, with the Lord Selkirk youth band, an organization for boys under 18 started in 1957 by legendary Pipe Major Robert Fraser, who died on March 9 at the age of 89.

Mr. Fraser's philosophy was simple -- every boy, regardless of his family's financial situation, would have access to a set of pipes or drums at no cost. For 55 years, Mr. Fraser taught generations of local boys how to play, without ever taking a penny.

An instructor with the youth band for the last three years, Sloan, 46, who also plays with the Winnipeg Police Pipe Band, said Winnipeg's piping community is in limbo at the moment.

"It's not dying, but it's not as strong as it once was," he said, pointing to a decline in immigration from Scotland as one possible reason. "Every pipe band goes through an ebb and flow -- big, small, big, small.

"We used to get calls three times a week for funerals, but now it's more like once a month.

"For every 10 students you start, one makes it to being a player for life, so we need a lot of students to keep this craft going."

Sloan said the youth band is stepping up the fight to keep the pipes alive. "We're putting posters in high schools and getting out and being seen in public as much as possible," he said.

In some ways, it's a miracle anyone learns to play, because it's one of the more demanding instruments in the world, what with all the fingering and squeezing and huffing and puffing.

"It's a challenge," Sloan conceded. "You have so many things running through your mind at the same time and you have to vibrate four reeds at the same rate and you have to keep even pressure on the bag. Plus you have to build up your lung capacity.

"It's a great mental and physical exercise and it's a heck of a lot of fun."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J14

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