How to Play Championship Bagpipes in Scotland-When You're From Columbus

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Brian Batty of Capital City Pipes and Drums

The sound of a bagpipe can swell one's pride or grate the nerves. If you've seen the Capital City Pipes and Drums and Highland Dancers performing around town over the last 50 years-at parades, the Dublin Irish Festival and the Arnold Classic-you know they fall solidly on the right side of the debate. This month, they take their pride and musical prowess to Scotland to compete in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, as well as the Crieff Highland Games.

This journey is possible because John Underwood, an active member in the 1980s and '90s, left the group a sizeable bequest when he died in 2008. "He was the quintessential piper," says Nancy Gettinby, a current member who played with Underwood, "always so kind and thoughtful." After much deliberation, the group felt the best way to honor him was to use the money to compete where bagpiping music and culture originated.

Practice Makes Perfect

Last year, 223 bands competed at "the Worlds" in Glasgow, with nearly 30,000 people in attendance. "This is really the world stage," says Brian Batty, the group's pipe master. In November, they selected four songs from an approved list and started practicing. One big challenge is the effect of the weather on the woodwind instruments. Because it is likely to be both humid and cold in Scotland, the band will arrive five days early to adjust.

Aiming to Score

There are five competition levels, starting with Grade 1, the most elite. Capital City will compete in Grade 5. They are judged on tune, rhythm, tempo, selection of music, unity and expression. Judging criteria unique to bagpiping include the "strike in" or how well the band starts together. "The instruments have four reeds; getting them to start without it sounding like a cat dying is a real accomplishment," Batty says. Cutting off together is equally challenging.

The dancers, on the other hand, compete as individuals. They are judged based on standards set by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. "There is a book that everybody teaches to," says dance instructor Crystal Essex. "Pretty much any part of the body that moves has a standard."

Dress to Impress

The musicians and dancers wear Highland attire, the traditional dress of Scotland: kilt, sporran (pouch), button-down dress shirt, tie, five-button vest, sport jacket, kilt hose (aka knee-high socks), glengarry cap and ghillie brogue shoes. Dancers wear a "dress tartan" (with more contrast to draw the eye), velveteen jacket, a soft-soled ghillie and hair pulled back (in homage to a time when this was a men-only sport).

Keeping Tradition Alive

In 1745, the King of England banned the bagpipe, dubbing it an "instrument of war." Scots ultimately won back the right to play it and have been fierce in keeping the tradition alive. The Capital City Pipes and Drums and Highland Dancers practice that commitment. When recent Reynoldsburg High School graduate and drummer Bretton Jones went searching for a new challenge and found the group online, they invited him to a rehearsal and encouraged him to return. Says Batty, "It's the only way to grow and continue."