Thisyoung piper is calling the tunes

Published on Thu, Jun 10, 2004 by eg Olson

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This young piper is calling the tunes

By Meg Olson

When Will Nichols moved to Blaine last fall from Eagle River, Alaska, he said one of the best parts was not having to play “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes for nearly three months.

“As a song it’s OK,” laughed Nichols, 15 and just finishing his freshman year at Blaine high school, “but everyone wants to hear that, or ‘Scotland the Brave,’ so it’s nice to play something else.”

Nichols moved south with his parents Patti and Hank Nichols and younger sister Renee to be closer to Surrey resident Jack Lee, his tutor for the last four years. “I used to fly down from Anchorage once a month to play for him,” said Nichols.

Lee works with the legendary Simon Fraser University (SFU) pipe bands, a conglomerate of several groups that starts young pipers out while still in grade school. His brother Terry serves as Pipe Major for their world-class grade one band. Jack Lee is the Pipe Sergeant, “sort of a second in command,” Nichols said, a role he fills for his own pipe band.
Nichols, who began playing the pipes at six, is a grade one solo piper. “Each grade is achieved through promotion based on competitive points earned at games,” said Patti Nichols, “so to move up, eventually to become professional, you have to be a top level piper in your grade.” Will Nichols has been a grade one piper for two years, something achieved by only a dozen or so other teenagers in the B.C. Piping Association. His goal is to become a professional by the time he turns 16.

Nichols plays in the juvenile grade three Robert Malcolm Memorial Band. He marched on to the field at last weekend’s annual Highland Games competition at Hovander Homestead Park with 16 other pipers, seven snare drummers, three tenor drummers and the bass drummer, five-foot tall Jessica Lahti. The band tied for first place with the Washington Scottish Pipe Band from Seattle.

The inspiration for Nichols to become a piper came from his parents following a trip they made to Scotland when he was five. Now Nichols goes back to Scotland every other year with his band to compete in the world pipe band championships, which they won last summer. They’ll defend their title in 2005.

In the meantime they’re off to weekend highland games competitions all over the west from now until next fall.

Nichols has two sets of pipes, one of which is the “great highlands” model that is commonly seen and another small indoor set. “The better bags are made of animal skin, usually a goat or sheep, because the problem is getting rid of the moisture that can collect in-side,” Nichols said. His bag is made of elk hide by a man named Dannaway who works in New Zealand.

Some bags are made of gore-tex with bags of drying agents inside, but the best instruments often are the oldest. “Old is good,” Nichols said, “so if I won the lottery I’d probably get a set that’s maybe 100 to 150 years old.”

Live music, such as a rock band for a wedding reception or a polka band for a family picnic, is not allowed at Hovander Park except on the first Saturday of June, when the annual Highland Games begins and ends with hundreds of pipers joined together in a mass pipe band that can often be heard over 10 miles away.

Bagpipes, according to Lee, often sound jarring to listeners used to music written in the musical scale found on a piano because, unlike piano scales, bagpipes are not “tempered.” Tempering is a way to keep different instruments in tune with themselves and each other over a wide range of octaves by slightly flatting or sharping the pitches of certain notes.

Since bagpipes are almost always played alone or just with other pipes and drums, they’re tuned to play exact pitches. The resulting music sounds loud, and can be, but it carries much farther mostly because the chords coming from the chanters, or long open pipes, are playing exact pitches. These result in stirring overtones that can pierce miles of distance much like the light from a laser cuts through the darkness better than an ordinary lamp.

Whatever the physics, this year’s Highland Games went off without a hitch, despite a rainy morning that held down attendance. “We like coming down here,” said Terry Lee, “because it’s not a football stadium but a more natural setting, like Scotland itself.”

“That’s right,” said Nichols, “but for us kids it’s not about recreating Scotland but playing the pipes well and competing successfully with other bands.” Having at least one world championship in his kilt pockets, Nichols seems well on his way toward his goal.