The Pipers’ Gathering – A Beginner’s Report

Written by Bob McFarland.

I have played Northumbrian smallpipes for about twelve years. But when I considered attending The Pipers’ Gathering for the first time this summer, I wanted to attend as a Border piper.

I have no Scottish piping background, but I had been assured by Nate Banton that the border pipes I had ordered months earlier would be in my hands at least six weeks prior to the start of the Gathering. Plus, I had been receiving some basic fingering instruction on practice chanter from a generous local highland piper, Don Watts, for several months. But those six weeks on the pipes, and a handful of lessons with a highland piper would be the sum total of my experience as a Border piper. Some very large questions loomed:

“Would the instruction offered to a nearly complete beginner border piper be worth the time and expense of a 5200 mile round trip from Boise, Idaho?

Would I be able to obtain the detailed but sometimes inane information that would make me comfortable in attending?

Was there a dress code at Killington Resort?

Should I bring my own music stand?“

Treasurer and Registrar of the Pipers’ Gathering Mark Stayton quickly and politely responded to my every question, no matter how trivial. The organization of the Gathering was incredibly detailed. And so I decided to make the trip.

I continued to worry on the plane ride over, “Would the instructors be willing to accommodate a true beginner, especially one who often substitutes NSP for BP fingering, and who needs every musical note written out?” I had no doubt that the instructors provided would all be accomplished musicians. But would they be accomplished instructors as well? Unfortunately, the former does not guarantee the latter.

Again, my concerns were without merit. I had the incredible good fortune to have Tim Cummings and Dan Houghton as my instructors for the weekend, and the beginners’ class consisted of only four students. Tim and Dan proved to be gifted teachers who could tailor their instruction to the needs of each student. In my case they provided exactly what I needed at my beginning stage – sensitive and specific guidance as to posture, fingering and arm position, and methods to progress when back in Boise where I am the only border piper. Add to this the fact that Tim and Dan are really nice guys, and one could not have had a more enjoyable learning experience.

My pipes had arrived at my home in perfect condition. But, due to my inexperience, I had questions about the “fit” and how to hold the pipes. So would Nate Banton have the time to look over my new pipes? Thankfully, Nate’s ability to make beautiful instruments is matched by his willingness to offer exceptional service. He quickly provided instruction and made adjustments that tailored my new pipes to me. This alone would have been worth the price of the trip!

Since I usually choose a cheap budget motel when given the choice, I knew the Killington Grand Hotel would be more than acceptable. The option to have a kitchen enabled me to spend money on tune books rather than expensive meals (although the restaurants were very good). The fitness room was a real gym rather than a closet, and the power of the jets in the hot tubs near the heated pool were strong enough to work out any back kinks from playing bellows all day.

So, all of my concerns were groundless. Plus, there were many wonderful parts of the weekend that went beyond just the instruction I was seeking. The two concerts were incredible. The opportunity to see old friends like Ian Lawther, and meet new ones from around the world was most enjoyable. Finally, seeing the sense of camaraderie and passion for music was amazing. I witnessed pipe makers, who in a different line of work would consider themselves to be competitors, generously sharing techniques. Having attended The Pipers’ Gathering I now have the tools necessary to enhance my playing ability, and the knowledge that this musical tradition will not only continue, but will grow. If only a border pipe instructor would move to Boise, life would be perfect!

Jon Swayne at the Saturday Concert

Photos by Nate Banton