Ryan Praskovich reaches up over his shoulder to fine-tune his bagpipes; he's adjusting the pitch of the drones, which give bagpipes their characteristic low humming accompaniment. They need to be perfectly in tune, and steady as a rock. As the 14-year-old Green Tree native stands on the intimidating stage of Oakland's Mellon Institute Auditorium in full highland dress, he's preparing to be judged. And, hope against hope, to win.
This is, after all, the contest portion of the Balmoral Classic, a weekend-long Pittsburgh event held Nov. 9-11 -- the United States' first-ever junior solo bagpipe championship. Praskovich is up against 18 of the country's best under-18 pipers, some of whom have traveled here from California with their parents. The winner will get a full scholarship to a two-week bagpipe summer school, worth over $1,400, and a gorgeous set of bagpipes worth several times that. Also to be won or lost today is the respect of one's peers, and fame -- among bagpipers, at least.
Finished tuning, Praskovich begins to stroll the stage, playing the opening notes of a medley of traditional tunes. The judges take out their pens.
Seated at a table onstage, they are three of the world's pre-eminent pipers: Alasdair Gillies, the most prizewinning piper in history, now the head of Carnegie Mellon's bagpiping program; John Wilson, flown in from Scotland for the occasion; and Jimmy McIntosh, the embodiment of old-school class, who founded the CMU program in 1989, and who is, for all intents and purposes, the Jedi master of U.S. bagpiping.
The slightest hesitation, slip of memory or of a finger on the bagpipe's wooden chanter can mean you're out of the contest. In bagpipe competitions, a player who suffers an insurmountable error, such as forgetting to repeat a section, may simply stop playing and bow in defeat. It's called breaking down, but it's common enough that it's abbreviated, even in conversation, as "BD." As in, "She was off to a good start, but she BD'd. A shame."
Despite this pressure, Praskovich seems at ease -- and he might as well be. His chances of even placing as a finalist are slim: Many of the pipers here are older and more experienced than he is. Yet his performance ends in the loudest applause of the day: He's one of only two contestants from the Pittsburgh area. Along with John Hanna, of Glenshaw, Praskovich has drawn most of the crowd of a few dozen, scattered among the back rows of the auditorium's plush seats, built to accommodate 300. Admission is free.
Bagpipe contests don't typically happen indoors -- they're held on dew-soaked mornings on the fields of highland festivals all over the U.S., Scotland, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand. And the solo contests usually conclude around noon, before the general public arrives and the crowd-pleasing pipe and drum bands begin to perform. That's also when all the Braveheart bullshit really gets going: guys in kilts throwing logs, terrible frozen Scottish food, and everything in plaid, plaid, plaid.
But events like the Classic help keep this traditional art alive. Such competitions encourage a high caliber of playing and instill traditional repertoire and style among new generations. That's no small feat, when you consider that the bagpipe is essentially a medieval instrument dragged, dazed and blinking, into the 21st century sunlight.
Like rock and other popular forms, bagpipe music is stuck somewhere between entertainment and art -- between rowdy beer tents and the concert hall. Yet like classical music, it's also technique-obsessed, rule- and tradition-bound. And in the modern era, it's often reliant on institutional financial support, rather than a paying public.
A big part of the reason the Balmoral Classic is here in Pittsburgh, says one of the nonprofit event's organizers, George Balderose, is that there's institutional support among local foundations. "There's people that are essentially putting their money where their mouths are to support piping."
Which may be just as well. "I'm willing to admit that everybody in the entire world can be divided up -- not evenly -- into those who love the bagpipes and those who hate the bagpipes," Balderose says.
Still, he adds, "I'd like to think that those who hate the bagpipes hate them because they were played badly."
U.S. pipers have often been dismissed as mere hobbyists in the past, thanks to the number of Yanks who take a Renaissance Faire-style approach to the instrument. For them, bagpipes seem mainly an excuse to have a few beers with the boys at "band practice," and speak in a vaguely piratical fashion, with the conspicuous use of "aye." And let's not forget the power of the kilt: Put one on, and suddenly everyone cares what you're wearing under it, even if nothing in that general vicinity has tempted anyone for a long, long time. Plus, you get to make sheep jokes.
But here's the real thing about bagpipes: Firing up a set of pipes is a rush like no other. It's an instrument custom-designed to kick ass, and the sometimes religious, sometimes riotous awe that people feel when they hear it is no joke. Had Jimi Hendrix lived in the pre-electrical era, it's hard to imagine him playing anything else. Bagpipes were outlawed in Scotland by the occupying British government in 1746 -- not because they bothered the neighbors or the livestock, but because they were viewed as an instrument of war.
Pipes have existed in various forms throughout Europe and the Middle East; the most popular form is properly called the Great Highland Bagpipe. To play, a piper blows through a mouthpiece into a bag under the left arm, and squeezes the bag to force that air through the drones -- three long tubes which drape across the shoulder -- and a chanter, which looks like a recorder, where the melody comes out. The air moving through these parts vibrates separate reeds in each, creating the instrument's characteristic sound.
For all that, it still only plays nine notes, and just keeping the damn thing going is a cardiovascular workout. It's maintenance-intensive -- and it sounds terrible in the hands of a beginner.
On the other hand, the bagpipes have a power few other instruments can match. They are, for starters, self-accompanying. The drones, playing a constant pitch across two octaves, create the hypnotic, organ-like accompaniment to the melodies. The pipes are portable and sturdy: If British history is any indication, they're tough enough to survive on battlefields all over the world. They are also, after a fashion, self-amplifying -- registering at over 100 decibels, by some measures, bagpipes can be as loud as the printing press that ran off the copy of this paper you're reading -- making them ideal for outdoor conditions.
I myself heard the call of the pipes around the age of 9. Putting on a kilt and making a lot of racket seemed as good -- and loud -- a way as any to embrace preteen awkwardness. By the time I was 17, I had studied with some of the greats at summer Balmoral School sessions and competed in contests in Canada, the U.S. and Scotland. I'd played in the top U.S. group at the time, the City of Detroit Pipe Band and led another band, The Ann Arbor Pipes & Drums, to a creditable showing at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
But then I went to college, where the prospect of bagpipes faltered before the unholy trinity of girls, rock 'n' roll, and undergraduate education -- also known as "getting a life." I've hardly played since.
Which is why hanging out with Jimmy McIntosh is a little weird for me.
Medals, trophies and photos of famous pipers line the walls of a little room on the ground floor of Jimmy and Joyce McIntosh's Forest Hills home. A small man with silvery-white hair, McIntosh's hearing aids are the most obvious evidence of his 80-odd years, and his 70-odd years of piping. He speaks in a gentle Scottish accent, often ending his sentences with "you understand?" Something in the way he says it makes you pause to reflect: Do you truly understand?
Right now, McIntosh is explaining how he came to learn one of the greatest pieces of this music, "The Prince's Salute." He learned it from his teacher, a Royal Piper of Balmoral Castle, Pipe Major Bob Brown. Who learned it from Pipe Major John MacDonald, of Inverness. Who learned it from the great Calum Piobaire, a.k.a. Malcolm MacPherson.
McIntosh points to a portrait on the wall. MacPherson, he says, "was a direct descendant, married onto the MacCrimmons from Skye. So there's a direct lineage of teaching," he says. A direct lineage going back over four centuries.
"In my life, I had the best teachers in the world. And they had the best teachers in the world," he says. "That's the way it has to happen."
The many pipers who've studied with McIntosh, including myself, have also had one of the best teachers in the world. McIntosh teaches piobaireachd the same way he was taught it: orally, by singing the music with his students. "They used the chanting method to communicate the song -- the timing, the nuances in the music."
Born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1925, McIntosh has been involved in nearly every aspect of bagpipe music, nearly every day of his life. As a young man, he served as a piper in the British military with the Cameron Highlanders; later, he taught piping in public schools and helped organize solo competitions in Scotland. He's won many of the most prestigious events himself. In 1994, he was awarded the Member of the British Empire medal (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to piping.
But when he first visited the United States in the 1970s, things were much different. Contests were haphazard, and the expertise limited. "People, if they played the bagpipes -- if they were even Scottish -- they could be a judge," McIntosh recalls.
So in 1978, he co-founded the Balmoral School of Piping in Pennsylvania with Balderose, a friend and pupil who helped him obtain the visas to emigrate. (The men first met at a bagpipe summer school in Ontario in the early '70s.) McIntosh moved to Pittsburgh 23 years ago, marrying his wife Joyce, also a piper and a highland dancer. "My wife belongs to Pittsburgh, here, so that was it!" he says with a chuckle.
But as it turned out, Pittsburgh, too, had a lengthy bagpiping history -- at least for an American city. According to Balderose, who is researching the subject, the first bagpipe society in the U.S. was founded here in 1901. The corporate giant Westinghouse had a pipe band prior to World War II, and Donora High School boasted a band at one time. The first documented bagpiper in Pittsburgh, Balderose says, was Andrew Carnegie's personal piper, Angus MacPherson, "a very prestigious piper."
McIntosh continued his bagpipe supply and reed-making business here, and as the summer programs gained popularity, their reach expanded. "I would travel and start schools through America," he says. Next year, for example, Balmoral sessions will be held on college campuses in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, California and Illinois.
Carnegie Mellon University eventually approached him to set up what was, in 1989, the world's first program to offer a Bachelor of Performing Arts degree in bagpipes. "I guess the goal for the school was to have a bagpipe band," McIntosh says. At the time CMU, despite bearing the name of Pittsburgh's first bagpiping patron, didn't have a pipe band of its own.
So, McIntosh says, "I had to start all from the beginning again. I just recruited some students and started teaching them."
McIntosh retired from CMU in 1998, handing the department's reins to Alasdair Gillies (who did not return calls for comment on this story). But it's hard to think of McIntosh as "retired." Not only does he still perform on this physically demanding instrument, he also has formed one of the area's top pipe bands, The Balmoral Highlanders, whose member he teaches at his home. (Joyce McIntosh is the band's Pipe Major.) There's also the reed-making, and in recent years, the Jimmy McIntosh School of Piping & Drumming, held each June at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
And that's just the day-to-day stuff: On a given weekend, a piper may fly in from Texas or Nova Scotia for a brush-up lesson before testing his or her mettle in Scotland's premier contests -- especially the coveted Gold Medal contest. So far, only three Americans have ever won it; so far, they've all been McIntosh's students.
McIntosh has also served as president of the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association (EUSPBA), which organizes and adjudicates competitions in this region. He was also, of course, one of the judges for the Balmoral Classic's junior bagpipe championship in Pittsburgh.
For McIntosh, contests are mixed blessings. On the one hand, he says, they can help instill motivation and confidence in young players. "You can nurture young children to be achievers, and have pride in themselves," he says. "To go out there on a stage and perform, when they're 14 or 15 years of age, on a bagpipe playing classical music, that's a great achievement."
But unfortunately, competitions can also encourage conservatism and a narrow attitude towards the music. Young players may not learn many tunes outside the few minutes of music they'll drill on endlessly for the contests. "People focus just on competition and just on material to compete with," says McIntosh, "and that's a negative, you understand? But then if they don't have the competitions, people don't have the incentive to practice and get involved. So it's a necessary evil."
Tunes chosen for such contests tend to be endless iterations of pieces composed by time-honored old masters, deemed "serious" enough by contest officials. While playing new compositions -- or even your own -- might seem to demonstrate well-roundedness, such a risky move is usually discouraged and in some cases, grounds for disqualification. Competitions may preserve tradition, but they can also stifle creativity.
To be fair, much of the old repertoire is powerful stuff. A hoary strathspey like "Caber Feidh" is an astonishing piece of music, a mesh of harmonic and rhythmic intricacies, the internal drama of which only becomes apparent after repeated listens. Parts of it can sound forbidding, stern, even violent; others provide surprising bright flashes and resolve the stormier moments.
It's sophisticated, intellectually stimulating music. But, after hearing the umpteenth solo piper attempt -- and too often, not quite succeed at -- this tricky work, its sharp abstractions can become dull, meaningless repetitions.
And while McIntosh feels that having the solo competition held in Pittsburgh was positive, he expresses ambivalence about the impact of the Balmoral Classic as a whole. The effort and expense of bringing an entire pipe band from Dublin -- some 48 people -- seems a misplaced priority to him. "I didn't feel it was beneficial to piping in Pittsburgh," he says. All that money spent, and "the weekend's passed. It's just a memory."
And McIntosh, at least, already has plenty of those to spare.
Across town from McIntosh's workshop, in Manchester, sits an enormous brick structure with a tower, built in 1876. Its hardwood floors, soaring ceilings and roaring woodstoves have hosted house concerts; it was also the birthplace of Pittsburgh's folk music society, Calliope.
The first floor of Calliope House contains offices littered with the accoutrements of music-making and music-business. They bustle with a sizeable staff, including Balmoral's assistant director, Leslie Clark. But the enormous residence is also home to George Balderose, Calliope's founder, his artist management company Music Tree, and home base for The Balmoral School, which Balderose co-founded with McIntosh. He has served as executive director ever since.
Balderose is very pleased with the success of the inaugural Balmoral Classic, the first big local event the piping community has been responsible for. "Essentially, we let the light out from under the basket, and let Pittsburghers know that we exist" -- and that "we're supporting a bigger piping picture in Pittsburgh by being here."
In fact, the region already boasts a healthy number of pipers and pipe bands, including The Balmoral Highlanders, various police and fire department bands and the Laurel Highlanders in nearby Greensburg. Add to that Carnegie Mellon's pipe band, and the only BA in bagpipes you can get in this country, and you have a sizeable community.
But Balderose's work carries on: The second Classic, slated for November 2008, is already in the works. An accomplished piper himself, Balderose is very much in demand for local weddings and funerals. His main focus, though, is writing grants in an attempt to secure more funding for the piping school, and thus to shore up the legacy it has built over the past three decades.
Yet despite their common dedication to piping -- and the fact that Balderose was McIntosh's partner and pupil for many years -- the two would seem to have fundamentally different approaches to the instrument.
Unlike McIntosh, Balderose learned to play as an adult, and he's American rather than Scottish. But perhaps more importantly, he's a folkie.
"I didn't get into piping through the usual avenues," he says. "My interest came through the Appalachian musical tradition." He left a career in political science to build dulcimers and manage folk artists; along the way, he began to wonder whether the droning sounds of a dulcimer shared some commonality with bagpipe drones.
"There was this greater tradition that piping was at the foundation of, essentially," he says: Appalachian fiddle tunes overlap with bagpipe music, for example, as do Irish tunes. Even as he was discovering the competition system and piping schools (and founding his own), "in the back of my mind, I knew there was something else going on," he says. "My antenna was always out there, beyond the piping. In fact, I never joined a pipe band until [McIntosh] formed the Balmoral Highlanders."
Balderose "basically almost quit piping" while attending a school taught by John MacFadyen and Sandy Jones. "I got really turned off by the strict authoritarianism of MacFadyen and his arbitrariness," he says.
That may explain the more nurturing environment of the Balmoral Schools, which are usually held in a college dorm. The atmosphere is convivial and cross-generational, and it fosters community-building among pipers across the U.S.
While he considers the Classic's junior solo competition a "major stake in the cultural landscape for us to plant," Balderose too is wary of competition's potential for stifling musicianship. Even in the best circumstances such environments can be insular.
The headline act for the well-attended event (entitled "The Dawning Of ... Another Day") was a performance by Dublin's St. Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band, one of the most accomplished pipe ensembles in the world. The audience thrilled as the room reverberated to the stirring cacophony of bagpipes and drums, emanating from a wide arc of pipers and drummers clad in plain green kilts.
But pipe-band music -- even performed with the perfection and power demonstrated by the St. Laurence O'Toole band -- soon starts to all sound the same. And while the evening tossed in some performances of Irish and Scottish folk dancing and music, not to mention a near-indecipherable storyteller, there was also a lengthy awards ceremony and an endless list of people to thank. The event's emcee -- who bore the decidedly un-Celtic name of Eric Stein -- peppered his patter with piping in-jokes and acronyms that would be indecipherable to a casual listener. Bagpipe award ceremonies and speeches can drone on about as much as the bagpipes themselves; one audience member eventually shouted, "I didn't know this was going to be a meeting!"
Balderose prefers playing in more diverse musical contexts, such as his folk group Road to the Isles, in which he performs alongside guitar and fiddle and other instruments. He has also performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony and played concerts of piobaireachd accompanied by organ, a choir, and interpretive dance. "The classical music community is the one that's going to recognize the beauty and the value of piobaireachd more than any other, really," he says.
You couldn't call bagpiping popular music, exactly; for one thing, its adherence to tradition means that a "recent hit" is one that's less than a half-century old. Then again, when the St. Laurence O'Toole band played such a song -- "Pumpkin's Fancy," penned by the band's pipe major, Terry Tully -- the audience howled its approval as if they were hearing a Top 40 chart-topper.
"We're talking about fine art here," Balderose says of bagpiping. "But we're also talking about a history that has a lot of public and popular appeal."
In his workshop, among the reeds and slivers of cane, Jimmy McIntosh spent last winter recording 35 CDs of piobaireachd for posterity: The music will be stored in the archives at CMU, the Balmoral Schools, and another piping school. "That was a worthwhile project to me," he says with a smile. "That's more the feeling I have about the music and my ambitions -- it's to leave something and create something."
Indeed, despite the rigors and rigidity of the music, there's a very real place for musicians like McIntosh to give a bagpipe soul.
"It's never frozen," he says. "The music's always moving; it's never stationary. In piobaireachd, there are strict guidelines; it's not a loose interpretation. But what changes all the time is the [musician]'s personality, and that's what changes the music."
And McIntosh's personality, with its drive to teach and nurture young students, will continue to leave a mark on American piping for years to come, as those students grow and carry on the tradition.
"When I came to America here, the standard was quite low," he says. Now, "there are 15-year-old kids that are further advanced than what some of the professional players were at that time. ... That's what we have to create."
One future professional just might be 14-year-old Ryan Praskovich, who beat the odds and squeezed onto the list of Balmoral Classic finalists. As with many other contestants, Praskovich inherited piping as a family tradition: His father also plays. But Praskovich would like to carry things further: "I hope to get a scholarship at Wooster College or CMU and possibly go there to school," he said after winning fifth place in one of the day's contests, taking home a medal and a bound collection of bagpipe sheet music.
U.S. pipers increasingly match the caliber of players in the homeland, and arguably could someday even overtake Scotland's native sons. "The comparison to the center of golf moving from Scotland to the U.S, I don't think is too far-fetched," Balderose says. "A lot of the top pipers are teaching over here during the summer, or have taught over here at one point or another. And all it takes is for a bunch of them to emigrate, really. Or for Americans to go back to Scotland and win there a lot more."
In fact, for the past five years, the winners of the Scottish junior piping championships have been coming to the Balmoral Schools to hone their skills ... in the U.S. "These guys who have come over have gone back to Scotland and done even better," says Balderose, "because of the finer points of instruction from Alasdair [Gillies] or John Wilson or Jimmy [McIntosh]."
While it's doubtful Jimmy McIntosh could ever admit the possibility of the U.S. becoming the center of piping over Scotland -- perish the thought! -- he derives much satisfaction from the advances made by the pipers of his adopted country, so many under his tutelage.
"At this stage in my life, it's seeing young students, and getting those young students and teaching them and seeing them maturing," he says. "People who, in the future, will be good teachers. For the future, you understand?"