Smallpipe Renaissance and Emergence in the Pacific Northwest

by Skye Richendrfer-

The Pacific Northwest of the United States and Lower Mainland of the Canadian province of British Columbia have long been a hotbed of Highland piping and drumming.  Due mostly to the historic immigrations of Scots to the greater Vancouver, BC, Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon communities—this region in North America has produced World Champion pipe bands, and multiple gold medalists in the most prestigious solo competitions in Scotland.

So against that backdrop it is perhaps even more amazing to learn of the rapidly growing Scottish smallpipe scene and session community, complete with regular workshops and innovative performance events—some even occurring at Highland Games (gasp!).  It’s almost as though the entire geographic region discovered their bellow’s elbow all at once!

My own story is no different from countless other pipers—getting a start in Highland piping at a young age, doing solo and pipe band competitions…and then what?  Judged some, kept the pipes going with the odd wedding and funeral, but for all the love of the music, keeping the big pipes singing with competing demands on time was all but impossible.  Fortunately, in the early 1990s a set of Scottish smallpipes had been acquired and slowly over the next several years, I developed an adequate bellows technique and a totally new path for my musical enthusiasm.

It is accurate to say that several strong bellow-pipe players have been around the area for years.  However, things really took off in this region in February of 2010, the first year of the Celtic Arts Foundation’s Winter School that featured a smallpipe session in conjunction with its existing fiddle workshop.

Fred-Morrison-even-smallerThe incomparable Fred Morrison of Bishopton, Scotland was the guest instructor, and to say he inspired many players to embrace the bellows tradition would be a huge understatement.  From a humble start of half a dozen students in 2010, in February of 2013 more than 20 attended, and enjoyed instruction from Fred Morrison, and Gary West of Edinburgh, Scotland.  What’s more, because of the growing popularity of the Winter School’s fiddle workshop (held at the same time), fiddlers and pipers participated in joint sessions and, dare we say, the results appear to be learning to play nicely together!

Along the way, in 2011 an October smallpipe session was created in Bellingham, WA, featuring Fred Morrison and well-known American smallpipe player/maker, EJ Jones.  This October, we’ll welcome back EJ and Fred for our third workshop, and have also added a fiddling component with noted Cape Breton fiddler, Andrea Beaton.  Plans are afoot to add accompaniment options for guitars, bouzoukis, mandolins, etc., once again under the umbrella of learning to play nicely together—enhancing the understanding and appreciation of our music.

Perhaps most shocking of all, was the addition at our Skagit Valley Highland Games in Mount Vernon, WA in 2011 of a solo and duet smallpipe critique event.  Decidedly NOT a competition, around ten smallpipe players had the opportunity to play a tune for Fred Morrison and wife Deirdre (a noted Scottish fiddler) on their own, and optionally in another event, be accompanied by an instrumentalist of their choice.  Showcasing bellows-blown pipes (whether reel or small) generated interest and raised an eyebrow or two amongst the Highland piping crowd for sure.

While it’s important for bellows-pipe players to have workshop and learning opportunities Gary-West-Fred-2011-smallersuch as those we provide, it’s arguably even more important to have practice and performance opportunities.  The region’s growing number of players of all skill levels and abilities can count on regular monthly sessions in Seattle, Everett and Mount Vernon, Washington currently, with plans afoot for a kickoff session in Portland planned for this April.  Standardized session sets are emerging, and perhaps most important, bellows-pipers have venues to continue developing their musical skills in the fun social setting that is so indicative of this style of piping.

There is little question that this geographic region has caught the smallpipe bug in a huge way, with exciting opportunities to learn and perform in diverse venues.

Skye Richendrfer is the founder and Executive Director of the Celtic Arts Foundation, based in Mount Vernon, WA.  For more information, please visit their website