The Annapolis Irish Festival Exhibition Piping Contest “The Clover Crown” brought together the bagpipe virtuosos of our region in a contest to see who is the best at conveying the beauty and excitement of traditional Irish and inter-Celtic music to the general public. The contest was judged by local piping star Robert Mitchell and the top prizes awarded to the players who use their lifetimes of study to entertain the audience who may never have heard traditional music before. The players announced by members of the AIF entertainment lineup including Seamus Kennedy and piper EJ Jones. This contest was primarily focused on pipers not just competing, but especially playing to the audience.
There were two events consisting of 3-8 minute medleys: an Irish traditional music event, and inter-Celtic Freestyle event. Since each competitor must be ranked officially Professional or Grade I, their “classical” credentials have been established and their performances will be judged primarily on how they seduce the audience using only a Great Highland Bagpipe.
Saturday, 2 June, 1pm – 5pm on the Piping Stage at the Lower Field
For more information please call 713-526-7889 or email EJ Jones at email@example.com
5 cash prizes corresponding to the 5 top performers:
- 1st place – The Clover Crown and Mantle- $1250 – Nick Hudson
- 2nd – $750 – Andrew Carlisle
- 3rd – $500 – Andrew Donlan
- 4th – $500 – Derek Midgley
- 5th – $250 – Dan Lyden
A wee lad of three at a parade with his parents the first time he heard the sounds of a pipe band in his hometown of Ballygowan, Northern Ireland, Andrew Carlisle started taking piping lessons when he was seven. Never dreaming it possible to make a living with music, Andrew, now 32, is Professor of Music and Director of Piping at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.
Although some distant relatives are “very accomplished musicians,” Andrew says, his immediate family never played. But as a young student, Andrew was supported by his father and grandfather. “(They’d) take me along to various competitions to watch and I got exposed at a very young age to some of the best bands and the best pipers in the world.”
The hardest thing about learning “the most temperamental instrument in the world” was the tricky transition from the practice chanter to handling the full bagpipe. Samuel Connolly and Jimmy McIntosh were among Andrew’s first teachers. And now, as a teacher himself, he loves being part of the chain keeping the tradition alive.
In addition to his first and enduring love, the Great Highland Bagpipes, Andrew also plays other instruments and pipes such as the Uilleann, but doesn’t spend much time on anything else. “Music is my life,” he says, and now that he’s reached a certain top level, he continues to be inspired to “just to keep doin’ it…it’s quite challenging, so I enjoy trying to keep myself at that level, you know?”
Andrew laughs good-naturedly when asked to consider his strengths. “These are tough questions,” he says, going on to say that diversity and being well-rounded are his strong points. “I can play a diverse style of music, everything from piobaireachd composed in the 1500s right up to modern compositions (from) this year.”
The bagpipe’s rich history and tradition are one of the most compelling things about the instrument, he says. But also, because the instrument only has nine notes, “It’s a unique challenge to try to do something creative with a very historic instrument, to try to take it to new levels.”
Trad Celtic music and bands such as Bothy Band and The Chieftains are among his favorites, and Andrew has performed all over the world, including perennial favorite Festival Interceltique de Lorient. The roster of wins under his belt include The Gillies Cup for Premier Piobaireachd at London and The A Grade Strathspey and Reel at The Argyllshire Gathering, Oban.
And if he had to choose between whiskey and rum, it’s whiskey, every time. Irish whiskey, naturally. Bushmills.
Chasing the next perfect tune is one thing that’s kept MacMillan Pipe Band Major Andrew Donlan coming back for more since he picked up the bagpipes at the age of 10. But what is a perfect tune? “It’s ineffable. You just know it when you got it,” Andrew says. “The performance where you think everything’s gone right.”
An amazing bagpipe solo he heard once was a powerful first inspiration for Andrew, now 26, who hails from Washington, DC. “I was like, that’s really cool, I want to do that!” More inspiration came from a youth pipe band in Montgomery County, MD, and also from his dad, a drummer in the DC Fire Department Pipe Band.
Andrew felt lucky growing up in the rich culture of piping and drumming in the DC and Baltimore area, in a youth piping band with other AIF Exhibition Contest competitors Nick Hudson and Ben McClamrock, and with early instruction from Chris Hamilton.
He’d wanted to be a high school music teacher when he was a kid, and for a few years was a full-time piper, but now works for a Congressman in Washington, DC. Piping isn’t a hobby, though, it’s more like a second career. After work at his day job, “I leave immediately and work on piping just as hard.”
What makes piping and the culture around it so exciting? Its complexities and paradoxes, Andrew says. “The music is basic and simple enough to be easy to get an understanding of, but the performance of it is so difficult, that I think to master it, it takes decades. So I think in a way it’s accessible but completely inaccessible.” It takes a lot of time, dedication and hard work to be a piper, he says. “It’s easy to enjoy good piping, but hard to play.”
Always hungering to improve, trying new things, or working on something from a different perspective is his best skill as both a competitor and piper; but consistency is his greatest weakness, he says.
Piping accolades include winning the A grade jig at London in 2018, the Silver at Inverness in 2018, and US Silver in 2015, and Andrew has played in Spirit of Scotland Pipe Band. When he’s not piping, Andrew enjoys mountain biking and traveling…and speaking of chasing tunes, he’s planning on following the band Phish on their upcoming fall tour.
And if he could be a superhero and have one secret superhero power, Andrew, who has thought about this before and is clearly both a dreamer and a practical man, says: supersonic flight. With the ability to carry luggage. “I mean, who doesn’t like to get where they’re going a lot faster?”
After a long break to focus on family, education and work, Vic Frank, from Bowie, MD, and now in Silver Spring, is back in the piping saddle, albeit with slightly slower fingers. It’s less learning new tunes now and more “warding off the forces of decrepitude” with his piping, Vic, 55, says jokingly.
“I think I’ll be the oldest guy playing there, by 20 years or so,” he laughs. “But your hands do slow down a bit.” Dedicating time to piping again is therapeutic and meditative, Vic says. “Especially if you just focus on the music and your instrument, it really takes you away from all your day to day thoughts and concerns.”
Vic’s Marine dad, who loved Scottish military pipe band records like Black Watch and Scots Guards, got him interested in piping at the age of 7. “And I was fortunate that there was a really good teacher nearby, Pipe Major Sandy Jones (of the US Air Force Pipe Band). Vic, loving the way it felt to play, began studying hard and has been competing since he was 8. One recent win is the piobaireachd at the US Piping Foundation in 2014.
Now, he’s “just trying to keep improving despite my ‘advanced’ years, and learning new music, trying to get my instrument better,” though oldies but goodies still hold interest, such as the “evergreens” Mrs. MacPherson of Invaren, and Lochanside.
Any secret weaknesses when it comes to piping? “Well, I don’t know if any of them are secrets,” Vic laughs, saying getting his slowed down hands back up to speed would be one, but he’s really improved in cultivating a “really good instrument and trying to get as much music out of the tunes and make as big a musical impact as I can.”
Inspired by piobaireachd teacher Jimmy MacIntosh, who “still plays every day and he’s over 90,” Vic says he will always want to play, though if he couldn’t play pipes anymore, he’d try piano. Teachers like MacIntosh and the unbroken chain connecting him to other teachers in the distant past are one of the most important aspects of piping music and culture, Vic says. “We have an unbroken tradition of teaching and an oral transmission of the music, so (people like) McIntosh, his teachers and the people that taught them…we have a connection to music some of us played 200 years ago.”
And no other instrument has the “same palette of sounds that the pipes has…it just makes an emotional connection that, nothing else is in that range, nothing else can do that.” Sometimes the music you play is just a mechanical exercise, nothing special, but “if you’re lucky,” he says, you can turn your ideas and your breath into “something magical. Sometimes it’s mediocre,” Vic laughs. “But sometimes it can be quite magical.”
Speaking of magic, if Vic could be a mad scientist, what would his superpower be? Ever a practical man, Vic says he’d give himself the relatively benign superpower to turn off other people’s car radios. Because they’re playing stupid music, it’s suggested. “And it’s too loud,” he laughs. “If I wanted to hear that, I’d be playing it in MY car.”
It’s Hitler’s fault he’s a piper, says Chris Hamilton with a laugh. Because of Chris’ World War II “Flying Fortress” B-17 bombardier father, he became interested in military history and music. “He developed an interest in the British army, which he passed on to me, which I then became interested in the bagpipes. So you can kinda blame Hitler for all my piping, which is a weird way of putting it, but…indirectly, yeah. It was Hitler.”
And it was his mom, hitting her limit one day on Chris’ setting down the needle one too many times on a recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which he used to obsessively play as a 10-year-old, marching toy soldiers. “My mother finally one day went into my father’s closet and dragged out a bunch of records, which included the Black Watch, the Scots Guards, and she says you can play any of these, but I don’t want to ever hear the 1812 Overture again.”
Chris, 56, now in Rockville, MD, but who grew up mainly in Pittsburgh, started playing those pipe band records and his reaction was immediate: “Oh my god, YES. This is what I must do.” Teachers, beginning with Joyce (MacFarlane) McIntosh, were found, and he enthusiastically began a lifelong love affair with the bagpipe. Sometimes, as a teen, though, boredom struck. “I just thought it would be all glorious and I’d have a great uniform, just like all the history books…the reality of course was much harder than I thought.” His mom actually had to pay him to practice when he was 13. “She said it didn’t cost her much money because I didn’t practice much,” Chris laughs.
Although he’s quit piping twice for a few years at a time, Chris, who ran bagpipe shop Tone Czar for 10 years, taught piping, and has founded and served as Pipe Major for several bands, keeps coming back for more. “It’s a part of my life. You hear those pipes and you’re like, I was BORN to do this,” he says.
“I don’t know what it is about the music, it just, it gets in your blood and it’s infectious.”
He’s been going to Highland Games and competing successfully for 46 years but still gets that same thrill. “And you get there at 8 o’clock in the morning and you hear that first bagpipe, whoever it is, practicing out there on the field…it’s magic. Doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad piping, it’s just…oh yeah, there it is.”
Describing himself as a “pretty solid, all-around player,” Chris says he was never the most dangerous out there, but he’s known as an “exceptional technical player, maybe overly technical.” His piping kryptonite? “The birl. Always been a problem for me,” he says. “Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s…my god, if you only had a birl.”
An old-school guy in both piping music and mainstream, Chris loves 4/4 marches and Frankie Valli, and says if he couldn’t ever play the pipes, he’d try snare drum. Mainly, his intent is to always be involved in the piping world. “One of my goals is to be on the field with high level band when I’m 75, 80, 85. And if I can’t be with a high level band, then I’ll be in the grade 3 or grade 5—but I’ll be out there.”
And lastly, Chris answers what we’d all like to know about every piper: when out on the field, what’s he wearing? Boxers, briefs, or…regimental?
“Briefs,” Chris laughs, who then amends it to boxers under the kilt, but briefs otherwise. “I tried regimental once. It was extremely uncomfortable.”
A pipe band marching in kilted synchronized glory is a magnificent sight, but for Nick Hudson, “I was initially drawn by the sound of the pipes more than the spectacle.” Hudson, 30, resident of Houston, says “I came for the sound and stayed for the tunes!”
Originally from Massachusetts, Nick got into piping as an 8th grader in Cleveland after being intrigued by the bagpipe for years; shortly after moving to Maryland, he joined the Rockville High School Pipe Band. “I had the hardest time learning how to march, blow steady, and remember the tune all at the same time,” Nick says.
“There’s a lot of funny things (about the pipes) that are not intuitive, compared to other instruments,” but he had a blast getting to learn piping from great teachers with other kids his age. Now, holding a Music Performance degree from Carnegie Mellon University, Nick’s thankful to teach school band full-time at St. Thomas School, a K-12 school with a six-time World Champion bagpipe band.
Nick loves listening to everything from trad to garage rock to improvisational noise. “If there’s a common thread through my musical tastes,” he says, “it’s a certain element of earthiness or grit, a bit of wildness.”
Learning the bagpipes initially made it easier to learn other instruments, Nick says, and if pipes were no longer an option, he’d like to pick up the pedal steel, because while similar to the pipes in the ability to sustain pitch, “the warbling, sliding textures are far removed from the crisp precision of piping. Something different!”
In addition to the Great Highland Bagpipe, Nick plays smallpipes, border pipes and whistles. He gravitates to piobaireachd and jigs because you get something to get your fingers moving and also something to slow down with and take in the sonorous quality of the instrument. Some of his favorite performances involve “playing complex, long-form bagpipe music in front of small audiences of aficionados at prestigious piping competitions with centuries-old history and tradition,” Nick says.
He’s also enjoyed different and swankier gigs, such as playing for President Obama in The White House, for tens of thousands at NFL games, and as a guest musician with Grammy-winning acts such as The Chieftains and Carlos Núñez.
Nick likes that the music he plays is “connected to a past and by doing it, you’re connecting yourself to these other people that came before you in an interesting way. But of course, it’s always evolving and changing, it’s not like a museum piece.” In addition to being lucky enough to perform and compete at Lorient’s Interceltique Festival, he travels regularly to Scotland, where he’s won the Braemar Gold Medal, Oban Silver Medal, Inverness.
He once biked across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, enjoying experiencing different parts of rural America at a slow pace, though he bikes much less since moving to sweltering Houston. Also, now that he’s a Texan, Nick agrees that tacos are life. “I’ve gone entire weekends subsisting on nothing else: breakfast tacos, traditional al pastor tacos, BBQ tacos, Cajun seafood tacos,” he says. “And, my personal favorite, the mystery meat truck tacos!”
Although a bit older than most kids are when first bitten by the bagpiping bug—15—age didn’t matter for Dan Lyden, who hasn’t wavered in his devotion to the instrument. He’d tinkered with alto sax, trombone and tuba before that first time he heard a pipe band playing in Dundalk in a 4th of July parade, but Dan, now 35, says he has no interest in playing any other instrument again.
Originally from Baltimore, MD, Dan now lives in Timonium. When he became interested in the pipes, his father found his first teacher, Ed Kitlowski, and he also joined a local pipe band. Now, Dan himself is a piping teacher and feels this is what he’s meant to do.
Initially, mastering accurate fingering and tuning the pipes was the hardest thing to learn about the pipes. But he was truly hooked when he first heard the legendary late piper Alasdair Gilles play at a local event. “I’d been playing for a year or two when I heard him play,” Dan said. “He’s one of the greatest players in the world and to hear him in person…just to hear somebody great, it was quite inspiring. When you hear that, you’re like…I want to play like that.”
When it came to learning the pipes, there was no “one great moment of clarity,” Dan says. “It’s a very gradual thing. You just work at it for years and years and eventually you realize you can do it.”
Dan’s best skill? Teaching bands to play in unison and teaching pipers how to tune their pipes. And he’s known for his hornpipes and jigs. A favorite piobaireachd that makes him particularly happy is The Red Speckled Bull.
The deep—and ongoing—history behind the piping culture is one of the best things about it, Dan says. “It’s kind of a master/apprentice relationship between the people that came ahead of you and the people that come after you.”
The Hornpipe and Jig at Fairhill and the Gold Medal Piobaireachd at Braemar are among his favorite festivals, Dan says. One reason for Fairhill’s favor is that he’s often won contests there. Paradoxically, perhaps, Braemar is a favorite, Dan says, because “it’s a big contest and the weather is usually horrible, so it’s one of those things that’s SO miserable, it’s fun. It’s a very daunting contest and for some reason, I enjoy it.”
Dan is also a several time EUSPBA (Eastern United States Pipe Band Association) season champion and has won the piobaireachd at Birnam.
One important final thing to know about Dan: when it comes to peanut butter, he prefers crunchy over smooth.
Ask Derek Midgley what his best qualities as a piper are, and while you might expect to hear something standard like strathspeys and reels, here’s what you’ll actually discover: he’s got the best kneecaps in the whole piping community. “I like to call it ‘kneevage,’” Derek says jokingly, “Top of the calf muscle, lower quads. Raw physicality.”
Tinton Falls, NJ, bred and born, Derek, 35, brings “Jersey flair to the Highlands idiom”—along with a strong competitive streak and a somewhat unique path to the pipes. It was his younger sister Morgan who’d wanted to try them and their mom said if she wanted to, then they both had to.
“So (at the age of 12) I was dragged against my will to the local band practice, got a chanter, a book and instructor,” Derek says. Quickly memorizing his first tune, Minstrel Boy, he kept up with the pipes while his sister went in a different direction: fencing. “Kind of a gender reversal. She had the sword and I had the skirt.”
What continued to hold his interest in piping was that tangible confidence-building feeling akin to that of the “leveling up” one might experience when playing board games—which is another one of Derek’s passions, in addition to running and craft beers.
“Bagpipe tunes are kind of the same thing, in a sense. It’s like, you level up like you would a video game character. Like…you’ve learned a new tune, you beat that, and you try a harder tune, and then you try an even harder tune and you try a longer tune…and each one feels like its own distinct level of progress.”
A properly tuned bagpipe is “this sort of wall of noise that’s so unique,” Derek says. He enjoys the history, drama and harmonics of the bagpipes and those tunes he’s owning like a boss. “I like the fact that you’re a one man DJ. You know, you’ve got the three drones, that’s the background chorus singers, and you’re both the front line guy and the backing guys.”
While his kneecaps—and his skill and tenacity—are strengths, when it comes to weaknesses, Derek says it’s one common to most musicians: being nervous and shaky before a performance, which he combats by eating bananas. Listening to his favorite band, Alt-J, is also calming, and he also enjoys guitarist Jose Gonzales. When it comes to pipe music inspiration, Derek finds it in teacher Roddy McLeod and Alastair Gilles, “the two guys that kind of defined how I view piping music.”
Having specific and competitive piping goals keeps Derek focused. Right now he’s reaching for a gold medal. “Maybe it’s just the way I’m wired, but for me it’s the next thing, so therefore it needs to be done, as opposed to raw inspiration.” If he couldn’t play pipes, he’d find something else to enjoy being competitive in. Accolades already won include the Golden Axe at the Lochaber Gathering in 2017, Silver in 2012 at the Northern Gathering and the Dunvegan Medal at the 2016 Skye Gathering.
And finally, as a dedicated craft beer drinker, Derek has strong opinions when it comes to IPA vs Stout. “IPA all the time,” he says firmly. “The hoppier the better.”
Contest Judge, Bob Mitchell
At the age of 9, today’s contest judge Bob Mitchell began learning bagpipes from his father, who himself had just begun playing a week prior. A Navy man, Bob’s father first heard them while serving and had always wanted to learn. “Of course, ironically, he did not hear Scottish bagpipes in Italy,” Bob laughs. He heard Italian bagpipes, and “I don’t think he ever knew the difference.”
Bob, now 67 and living in Shepherdstown, WV, also began taking lessons together with his father in Wilmington, DE, from Robert Gilchrist, well known as a founder of the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association. Interested in preserving and promoting bagpiping, Gilchrist helped grow interest and participation from just a few people to the thousands it is today, Bob says.
Enjoying a long career in various pipe bands and competitions, Bob enjoys traveling and teaching, at home and at a music shop. One key to staying inspired is switching things up, Bob says, describing how when he was in his 50s, for about 8 years he took a break from the pipe band world to tour and record with a folk music band, Iona, playing Scottish smallpipes at Celtic festivals. For the first time, he played with other instruments, “and that fascinated me. I started over. And I found out what I could learn from pipers that were accomplished in doing that and take lessons from them.”
When asked to describe his best skills as a piper, Bob laughs, saying, “I’m told I’m a very musical player, but I don’t know exactly what that means. I know that I’m different than everyone else. You can tell when I’m playing, and that it is unique.” Challenges? “To get the embellishments on the bagpipe to fit into the rhythm of the tune.” The subject of ornaments in piping music is of keen interest. “This is something that’s really fascinated me in the last 20 years, is that there’s a lot more room in bagpipe music for the player to really express the music, than the pipe bands are allowing for.”
When it comes to being a judge today, Bob says, “Well, I’m gonna listen to the music, I’m going to be more interested in letting the players know what sounds the best, what moves me, I guess. They’re all going to be accomplished players in this contest.” What it comes down to is who will be the winner of THIS event on THIS day, he says, because they’re all equally good and a winner today doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t win the very next. “I’m looking for a nice, well thought out medley of tunes that tie together musically,” he says, “and embellishments that fit the flow of the tunes rather than are just put in, that are maybe right on, but not enhancing the music as well.”
Bob is really impressed with today’s strong group of pipers and says they’re unique, as they remind him of a specific, equally very talented group who were around Ontario when he was a senior in high school, that had also grown up competing against each other and taking turns winning prizes.
And finally, because Bob dreams of traveling to one of the world’s bagpipe meccas, Ireland, here’s an important question: Aisle or window seat?
“I always go for a window seat. So I can see out the window. There’s always something going on outside.”