Spectators at the Alma Highland Festival and Games were hard pressed to travel the serene fairgrounds without hearing the ambient sound of bagpipes, reminding them that for the day, they were in the rolling countrysides of Scotland.
Filling the air with Celtic fare, more than 10 teams from around the country competed in the bagpiping events dressed head-to-toe in traditional garb.
A complex instrument in terms of construction and playability, bagpipes consist of an air supply, a bag, a chanter, and usually at least one pipe protruding from the bag called drones. Most bagpipes have more than one drone in various combinations, held in place in sockets that fasten the various pipes to the bag.
The bagpiping events at the Highland Festival and Games were ranked based on the degree of technical difficulty of each of the pieces played.
“As they go up in grades, they should sound like one piper playing,” said Ted Kerrn, pipe major in the Celtic Cross Pipes and Drums band from Peoria, Ill.
Kerrn said his band was there to compete against themselves. In the lowest grade, his band was comprised of a ragtag group of pipers with a wide range of ages and experience.
“With lower grades, not everybody hits the same note at the same time. Theres not that tight unison,” he said. “Even that drone sound, newer people tend to fluctuate in pressure and you hear it waver, whereas older pipers are solid as a rock.”
The band was originally organized in 1963 with one piper, Tommy Livingstone from Dunblane, Scotland, and three students. Livingstone became the known as the father if of piping in central Illinois.
Under the name The Peoria Pipe Band, its original members practiced at a local American Legion facility. Due to the growth of the group, pipers have been coming to them from all around their area to learn the art of playing bagpipes.
Peoria Pipe Sergeant Kevin Nickerson has been playing for nearly 20 years after hearing about a pipe band in his area. Many of Nickerson’s bandmates have much less experience than he has, like Josh Steffan, who started two years ago after seeing a street musician in Scotland.
Janet Shannon, another Peoria piper, began playing bagpipes with her daughter as a family activity. Her husband Paul joined the band with her shortly after.
Of the assembled talent at Alma, only one team was qualified for the highest grade of difficulty. Pipe bands must petition to the Midwest Pipe Band Association to advance in rank after demonstrating their skill.
Compared to more common instruments in orchestral bands, bagpipes play on a fixed scale with one octave, Shannon said there are essentially nine notes that are available, making it unlikely one would hear a rendition of Top 40 hit on the bagpipe.
“We get requests, people ask if we can play ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ or things like that,” Kerrn said. “No we can’t. We can play tunes set to pipe music. Other than that, adaptations are difficult.”