Have you ever wanted to experience, in person, a great piping school, right here in North America, but have hesitated to do so without more information? Each year, there are several great schools from which to choose, but having just finished my 12th year in a row at the highly acclaimed Piping Hot Summer Drummer (PHSD), I’d like to offer some insight into that particular piping program.
PHSD started as a summer school only for drummers, originally organized by Mr. Don Campbell, of Vernon, British Columbia. Don wanted only the best for his son, Aaron, who was at the time a promising young drumming student. Don recruited world champion snare drummer J. Reid Maxwell, Simon Fraser University Pipe Band’s Drum Sergeant, to start the school. After three highly successful years, a piping program was added, headed by Jack Lee. Jack, currently the Pipe Sergeant for the SFU Pipe Band, is one of the most respected pipers in the world, having won Gold Medals, Bratach Gorms, Clasps and the Glenfiddich Championship. The two week long session in July, 2016, marked the 23rd Anniversary of PHSDth and the 20th for piping. For the past six years, a noteworthy program for Highland Dancing has also been included in the school.
The school is held during the first two weeks in July, and is located on Silver Star Mountain, about a 25 minute drive from Vernon, British Columbia. A very popular ski resort during the winter, Silver Star has become a mecca for mountain bikers during the summer, along with pipers, drummers and dancers for the two weeks. The most recent school had over 300 pipers, drummers and dancers, which represented the second largest school ever. Students from throughout Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand were in attendance this year.
In this post, I will focus only on the piping program. A PHSD brochure is available at the PHSD website for more information. Besides Jack Lee, several members of the SFU Pipe Band serve as instructors, including Alan Bevan, current SFU Pipe Major, along with additional guest instructors. This year, as usual, Stuart Liddell was a guest instructor. Stuart is considered by many to be the best piper in the world today. He has won three Clasps at Inverness, the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban, and both Gold Medals, among many other awards. Stuart is the Pipe Major for the Inveraray and District Pipe Band. Another annual guest piping instructor was Donald Lindsay, a world renowned authority in piobaireachd.
PHSD is designed for students of all ages. There is at least one class for students on chanters only, with other classes for very advanced pipers, with every level in between. Each week starts off with an informal solo audition on Sunday morning with Jack, practice chanter only, so that the student is placed in the most appropriate class for the week. Each class, generally with no more than 6 to 10 students each, stays together the entire week. Therefore, the various instructors rotate through each of the classes. Each class, during the first get-together, establishes its own goals for the week. Jack prepares a collection of pipe tunes, up to fifty or so, representing each pipe idiom and ranging from easy to difficult. The class chooses as many tunes as they like from that collection. There is always a piobaireachd included in the package, and there is a new assortment of tunes for the second week. At the most recent PHSD, the theme of both weeks was “tunes from outside of Scotland”.
Following a general orientation session early Sunday afternoon, it’s off to the first class. Then, on Sunday evening, there is an Instructors’ recital, during which the entire school is treated to a phenomenal exposure to some of the best pipers, drummers, and dancers in the world. What a great way to start the week!
At 8:00 AM each morning, a designated “wake up band” plays around the village. Often an amusing and rousing way to start the day, this ad hoc band is a fun way to hear pipers and drummers of various levels play together, even if for only a few minutes. Also every morning, there is a short general session for pipers at 8:30 with Jack (drummers and dancers meet separately). After playing through the designated “tune of the week” and some doubling exercises (all on chanters), the pipers begin to learn to sing the canntaireachd for the week’s piobaireachd. What an amazing experience it is to learn even a small part of this ancient language of the bagpipes, which of course came about because of the lack of written music during the early centuries of this amazing instrument.
After that session, the first of the two morning classes begins. A nice lunch break is followed by the third class of the day from 2:00 to 3:00 pm. After this class, any number of opportunities open up for all of the students, including “playing for adjudication”, private lessons (20 min each), piobaireachd with Donald (or Jack or Alan Bevan), or studying for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). At 4:15 each day the piobaireachd session continues, along with opportunities for band practices. PHSD offers a grade 5 and a grade 4 band, which give a chance for those students who do not have regular access to a group of their own to be in a band. The Kamloops, BC, highland games occur on the Saturday between the two weeks of PHSD, so both of the PHSD bands compete in those games. The PHSD band tunes are provided during the spring of each year, and it’s best to have the tunes already on the pipes well before PHSD starts.
Each evening, there are several interesting hour-long workshops offered, put on by the instructors or a more experienced adult student. The Wednesday evening recital with Stuart and Steven McWhirter (lead drummer for Inveraray and District Pipe Band) is always a highlight of each week. On Thursday night, all of the classes perform before quite a large audience at the “Students’ Ceilidh”. And, of course, the pipers sing the urlar and at least one variation of the piobaireachd we’d learned during the week. On Friday morning, there is an all school massed band held for the entire village of Silver Star Mountain, during which certain classes of pipers, drummers and dancers are called out to show off what they’ve learned during the week.
As a long-time member of Dojo University and regular attendant at the morning Dojo sessions, I very much look forward each year to attend PHSD. The pace of learning is as rapid as you want it to be, and it is virtually impossible to leave PHSD without having gained new skills and proficiency. For example, it is rewarding to observe how much improved my sight reading has become through Dojo U, along with the group classes at PHSD, and to be able to “keep up” with others who often have played far longer than I have. I first met Andrew Douglas at PHSD, where he was one of the SFU instructors my first summer there. I will never forget my first class with Andrew, where, even back then, he carefully explained each step of a taorluath to our group. Every fundamental skill learned through Dojo U can be directly applied and enjoyably reinforced at PHSD. It is a recommended experience for the eager piper, drummer, and dancer!
For more information about the Piping Hot Summer Drummer school, visit www.PHSD.net.