AS Andy McGregor says, anyone who with a passion for piping knows that there is nothing quite like the World Pipe Band Championships, held in Glasgow in late summer every year.
Bands up and down the country spend hours practising and honing their talents to prepare for what is possibly the most exciting and hotly contested events of the season.
The standard of piping, drumming, marching and showcasing is impossibly high, and all awards are richly deserved and keenly desired. But this year, one band from Northern Ireland set off for Glasgow Green to compete in what was not just their first time at the Worlds - but their first ever competition, full stop.
That band was the Ulster-Scots Agency Juvenile Pipe Band, and they were only officially formed in 2012. And with 33 young members between the ages of nine and 15, some of whom were literally just starting to learn how to play the instruments, the prospect of coming home with an accolade certainly seemed slim. But there was indeed a method to Andy’s (he is the band’s Pipe Major) madness: “We didn’t qualify at the Worlds, but we really didn’t expect to - there was absolutely no chance as the kids we were up against would probably have been piping for about five years and had been at the Worlds numerous times, whereas for the ones that we took over, well this was the very first time they had played together,” he tells me. “The whole idea was to give these kids experience, and we wanted the best experience for them. We could have taken them to a competition in Bangor or Newcastle or Belfast, but at the Worlds there is upwards of 50,000 people, it’s a huge event.” Indeed, it is this kind of pioneering attitude which means that those children who join the Juvenile Pipe Band move from being beginners to novice musicians in a short space of time. Children from right across Northern Ireland can join, and the Band is willing to take on anyone who shows a determination to learn and a passion to perform.
Tutor Andy McGregor is himself a former Grade 1 Pipe Major and he is assisted by Brendan Megoran, a former Grade 1 lead drummer.
The 39-year-old is originally from Saintfield but now lives in Clough, Co Antrim, and joined his local band, Raffrey Pipe Band, when he was “eight or nine years old.”
Here, he learnt how to play the bagpipes. He says he really enjoyed piping as a hobby, and before long, like most pipers, he became “hooked on its sound.”
“I worked very hard at it, and it is quite a technical instrument. Musically it’s not difficult, there are only nine notes on it, and the scale is pretty basic to learn, but you have the technicality of playing the instrument and then the physicality of blowing it.” I remark that it amazes me that some younger children can become so skilled at playing an instrument that is it not unusual to see grown men exert themselves playing.
“There’s one wee girl, she’s only nine, and she’s blowing as good as set of pipes as any of the rest,” says Andy.
“Some who have got a good ear can get it quicker than others. Everybody think it’s really really difficult and it is physically hard to blow, but it is more of a technique, the kids won’t be able to blow them at all at the start and then all of a sudden they can do it a lot easier.”
Andy explains that he had been employed as a tutor for the Ulster Scots Agency, travelling round schools and teaching them how to perfect the pipes.
“I did this for a couple of years and then Jim Millar sort of said to me, ‘where’s this going? All these kids that we are teaching - what can we do with this?’
“I had said that Northern Ireland had never had a juvenile band - we could form one out of all these kids and take it to the World Pipe band Championships.”
Andy had thought such an outfit might come to fruition by 2014, but when Jim asked him how quickly he could get the band together, he revised his timeline and said they could do it for 2013 at a real push.
Brendan Megoran was taken on board on a part time basis, and last October, preparations kicked off in earnest.
“We started teaching them and selecting the tunes (for the Worlds),” he says, adding that a lot of the kids were only learning to play the pipes at this stage.
Andy says he believes it was beneficial to have something as big as the Worlds to use in what was almost a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to coaching: “Competition always brings that real competitive edge out in people, so if it had been a concert I don’t think the kids would have rehearsed just as much as they did. They worked really really hard at it. They really were beginners and the majority of them had never ever played before.”
In order to select the children who would represent the Juvenile Band in Glasgow, Andy says he set them the challenge of being able to play four selected tunes on the pipes by a certain date.
And all the while, everyone kept in mind the true aim of the whole adventure - not to come home with scores of silverware, but to soak up and make the most of “an opportunity and an experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.”
Adds Andy: “So we were never going to go and try and win it. The achievement itself was being able to go and play.” The final group of 33 participants were chosen, and rehearsals began. “We had a combined practice that was held in Omagh Primary School once a month. All in all we had about six combined practices before the Worlds.” The children are continuing to enjoy their membership of the Juvenile Pipe Band, and as Andy says, are “getting better and better all the time.”
He adds: “It’s only a matter of time before they will be pushing for prizes; they’re doing really, really well.” But he points out that the main aim of the Band is to feed into the local piping scene and culture across Northern Ireland as a whole. “They can be involved with us up until they’re 18, this is a development band. We want to encourage young people to play the pipes and the snare drums and tenor drums, and try and get them hooked on it. Once they’re hooked, we want to feed them into other local bands so they can start playing with them. “We give them an outlet to be able to compete with us, and play with us until they get the experience to play with their own band. That’s the whole ethos.”