Serious bagpipe competition opens Alaska Scottish Highland Games

The 2015 Alaska Scottish Highland Games will take place on Saturday June 27. One of the most moving – and arguably loud – moments will be when ranks of pipers and kilted drummers from across the state walk through the Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer for the infectious pulse of Caledonian rousers like “Scotland the Brave “and” Bonnie Dundee “.

“I have exactly 100 pipers and drummers combined” participating in the grand entrance and closing ceremony that day, said Sarah Heverling, chair of the games bagpipe and drums. They include four groups from the Anchorage area – the Anchorage Scottish Pipe Band, Crow Creek Pipes and Drums, Alaska Pacific University Pipe Band, and Alaska Celtic Pipes and Drums – and the Red Hackle Pipe Band from Fairbanks.

A number of players and sets will compete against each other for cash prizes of up to $ 700 during Saturday’s games in Palmer. But in Anchorage on Friday, as part of the games, trios and individual piper competitions will take place at the Loussac Library.

“It’s a great way to start the whole weekend,” said Ian White, drum major – meaning musical director – of Crow Creek. “The piper community and those interested in the Celtic arts can hear a wide variety of performances right off the bat.”

Time evaporates

The trio competition will take place on the library lawn from noon. The judges are looking for a good game, “perfect, fair fingering, the same expression of all three players,” said Tim Kincaid, Anchorage Scottish Pipe Band piper and sports director of the games. “But they’re also looking for lively execution, for brightness, not just the playing of notes.”

The trio format allows for limited harmonization between instruments, Kincaid said, typically with two pipers playing the main tune and a single instrument providing the harmonic notes. Just like the bands, all the music is memorized.

The trios focus on lighter dishes or “ceòl beag” (“little music”), double and triple meter marches, dances like hornpipes, reels, jigs and strathspey. The same tunes form the basic repertoire of massed groups. While conventional thought associates bagpipe music with the era of pike and saber warfare, some of it is contemporary. White said his trio will perform a piece that dates back to Bach’s childhood, one written within the past 20 years and one written within the past five years.

“It’s like time is evaporating,” White said. “You have these three pieces, and they all fit together beautifully, as if 300 years hadn’t passed at all.”

The trio competition is especially fun, White said, because “the trios try to practice in secret so that their group mates don’t know what they’re doing until they do.” While some threesomes “slap each other at the last minute, many of them stick together for years,” he added. “So these bands have really polished performances.”

Very serious

Pleasure aside, dedicated pipers have the determination of concert pianists. “Even the reprimands that continue are serious. It’s a true Celtic defeat. The game and the competition are well thought out. Believe me, it’s deadly serious.”

The more serious side of the bagpipe, the “ceòl mòr”, or “great music”, will be featured in the piobaireachd competition, which will be held on the ground floor of the library from 6pm. Also spelled “pibroch” and pronounced “PEE-brok” ​​in America, it is a form of art music intended for thoughtful listening rather than walking or dancing. It is in the company of classical string quartets or serious jazz.

“It’s the pinnacle of Renaissance style music,” White said.

Performed by a solo musician, the form consists of a set of ordered variations on a “floor”, a format also used in the compositions for Celtic harp and Scottish violin. In a full performance – which can take 10 minutes or more – the composition ends with a repetition of the original melody.

Three expert judges from the Lower 48 will rule on the game, Heverling said. They include American gold medal champion Ian Whitelaw, whose play most readers will have heard. Not only has he performed with the Chieftains and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, opened concerts for Sting and performed for Queen Elizabeth, but his bagpipe is used on film and television soundtracks. When Groundskeeper Willie on “The Simpsons” plays the pipes, Whitelaw is the one sounding the notes.

“I think they mess up just having a judge,” White said. “The appeal of the crowd is more important than the score. But we all agree that the judge has to be there. They are top notch players and they have heard a lot of good performances for many years. always give us a lot of good feedback. “

Singers and kilts

Bagpipes, in various forms, are widely used in folk music. They are found in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They include small instruments suitable for indoor playing and the Irish uilleann or union pipes, which use bellows in place of the bagpipe bag. There are even versions where air is supplied to the instrument by a foot pump.

The instruments featured in groups at the games are known as the Great Highland bagpipes. It has three fixed-pitch pipes – one bass, two tenors – which feed the stable drone. A fourth pipe, the chanter, is fingered like a recorder to provide the melody on a nine-note scale.

The wind that makes the sound is provided by the bag, which is carefully squeezed by the player’s arm. The bag is filled by a blow stick. A non-return valve prevents the air supply in the bag from lowering when the player breathes. Maintaining a constant level of pressure on the bag with the arm is critical, Kincaid said. “You don’t want it to fluctuate or it will change pitch.” Being nervous and squeezing too hard can draw negative marks from the judge.

The bagpipes are tuned higher than most instruments, Kincaid said. An orchestra grants its note a at 440 hertz; bagpipes are tuned at 468 hertz. When pipers play with other instruments, they sometimes have to use a special chanter.

The chanter uses a double reed, as do oboes and bassoons. These are usually made of cane. Nowadays, drones use single reed carbon fiber in a plastic body to resist moisture. As with all wind instruments that get their initial air from someone’s lungs, the pipes can accumulate a lot of moisture. It also affects the pitch, Kincaid said.

Getting the right setting can take a long time. The competition rules do not allow competitors more than five minutes to get up to speed.

Other rules concern appearance. “Competitors may be precluded from competing and accepting trophies on stage if they do not wear acceptable and properly worn Highland attire,” one stipulation read. Kilt or trews (tartan pants, often decorated with leather), shirt, host and shoes “are minimum requirements”, although beginners are allowed to compete in dress pants or skirts.

Solo contestants must parade while playing their steps for the judges. There’s even a category of visual effects for drummers turning the baton.

In competition, solo drummers must be accompanied by one or two live pipers. The bagpipers are not judged, but jurors must see how well the drum matches the bagpipe, Kincaid said.

World Championship Hosts

Saturday’s competitions at Palmer, which include solo and “little music” bagpipe and drum ensemble events, will share the program with dance and rugby exhibits as well as popular sporting contests – like throwing the log of 127 pounds and 20 feet long called a caber.

“It’s like a three-track Scottish circus,” Kincaid said.

Professional champions from all over the world will participate. The games, now in their 34th year, moved to the state fairgrounds last year to accommodate the crowds. Ten thousand people took part in 2014.

Local Highland fans are particularly excited for next year’s event, when Alaska is the site of the 2016 Highland Games World Championships. Under the auspices of the International Highland Games Federation, the The Scottish Sports Olympics have been held in previous years in Scotland, Canada and, earlier this month, in Bressiure, France.

Kincaid said the 2016 championship obligations would force the Scottish club Alaska to nearly double the $ 100,000 cost of the games. “We cannot get to the gate,” he said. “We are already looking for sponsors.”

If enough funds can be raised, a top tier bagpipe group could emerge with the cream of the Highland international athletes heading to the competition.

“I would love to see whoever wins this year’s world (piping) championship come forward,” White said. “We have to think long term. It’s a huge deal and Alaska should be really proud. Tim Kincaid has done an incredible job bringing him here. Other areas have been whipping him for years – and we got it.

“It’s pretty cool.”

Bagpipe and Percussion Competition at the 2015 Alaska Highland Games

The trio competition will start at noon on Friday June 26, on the lawn of the Library of Loussac, moving to the Wilda Marston Theater in case of bad weather. The Solo piobaireachd competition will take place from 6 p.m. in the assembly hall on the first floor of the library. Both events are free and open to the public.

Competitions for solo bagpipes and percussion, marching bands and drum salutes will be held during the games at the Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer. The courts will open at 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 27. The Mass Group Opening Ceremony will begin at 11:45 a.m. and the Closing Ceremony will begin around 6:00 p.m. Celtic rock band Brothers will perform at 7 p.m. ET. Adult admission to games on Saturday is $ 12.50 in advance, $ 15 at the door; for children, $ 4 in advance, $ 5 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased online at

Contact Mike Dunham at [email protected] or 257-4332.

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Jennifer R. Strohm