Upper Potomac Music Weekends have established a small, but unique niche in the music world, as it hosts its seventh Piper's Weekend on Jan, 18-20. The weekend, held on the Shepherd University campus, features a variety of bellows-blown bagpipes from England, Ireland and Scotland and takes place in a quiet, retreat setting, allowing players to learn from some of the best pipers in the country, share tunes, trade secrets and expand their knowledge in this relatively arcane aspect of traditional music.
The bellows-blown bagpipe is a quieter, more parlor-oriented cousin to the great highland bagpipes most folks are familiar with. There will not be folks marching about in kilts playing Amazing Grace and the Gay Gordons with their cheeks puffed out and looks of intense concentration on their faces. Instead, there are pipes that are far more likely to be played with flutes, guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, drums and other instruments in a session-like atmosphere for concerts or dances in smaller, more intimate settings.
There are four kinds of bagpipes featured, the Scottish smallpipe, the quieter cousin of the great highland pipes, the Irish uilleann (or Union) pipes, Northumbrian smallpipes and the Border pipes which are played in the border region between Scotland and England. Instead of filling the bag of the pipes with a big breath from your mouth, these pipes are set up to play with a small set of bellows tucked under one arm, with a bag to hold the air squeezed under the other. The air flows through reeds into three kinds of pipes a chanter, which plays the melody; drones which play a constant note in harmony with the melody and regulators (on the uilleann pipes only) which add ornamental pops and squeaks that accent the melody. With all of these things going on, these instruments are quite a challenge to play.
These instruments are seldom played alone, and in order to make tune sharing more fun and lively, classes in Irish flute, guitar and bouzouki accompaniment of Irish music, arranging Irish music, bodhran and mixed-instrument repertoire in a variety of styles that is friendly to one or more varieties of pipes to round out the weekend have been added, and make it possible for friends and families to attend together.
The weekend starts out on Friday evening with a Piper's Round Robin in the Rumsey Room at the Student Center a sort of combination of open mike, jam session and show-and-tell. Since there are no mass producers of these instruments, all pipers are intensely curious about other player's pipes, who made them and want to know more about how they work. This style of evening allows novices and professionals to share information together in an informal way and get to know each other at the start of the weekend.
Saturday and Sunday day times are divided up into workshop sessions of two-hour lengths in technique and repertoire with breaks for meals, shopping at the fest store and lessons. The private tutorials with these highly esteemed professionals is what brings many of these students to the workshop. The classes themselves are small, but the one on one sessions are very valuable for improving technique and fine tuning their instruments.
Saturday evening is a more formal concert with the weekend staff, at Shepherd University's Reynolds Hall, followed by informal jam sessions back at the student center where folks can play tunes together. Since the pipes are in different keys, different styles of pipes play entirely different repertoires of music and cannot play with each other so there is likely to be several different groups gathered in separate locations.
The weekend is put on by the Upper Potomac Music Weekends, started 24 years ago by Nick and Joanie Blanton as a gathering for hammered dulcimer players but the range of programs has grown to include hammered dulcimer weekends, a Celtic-themed music weekend, a fiddle retreat and the piper's weekend.
The idea for the weekend gained momentum and finally became reality when the Blanton's met Shepherdstown's newest piper, Bob Mitchell, who has been playing the highland pipes since he was nine years old and is quite versatile on both the Scottish smallpipes and the Border pipes, and found that he shared their dream of this sort of retreat. So, with Bob as the "Host piper" for the weekend, the weekend is becoming a January tradition.
The weekend staff of seven includes our five featured pipers; Ivan Goff, Iain MacHarg, E.J. Jones (and Rosalind Buda on pipes and Breton bombarde), Bob Mitchell and Ian Lawther who each play several kinds of pipes, and Irish flautist Shannon Heaton, and her husband Matt on guitar, bouzouki and bodhran. Classes include four types of bagpipes and flute, technique classes on all of these instruments and repertoire from Scotland, England, Ireland, and Brittany for all instruments.
All-Ireland champion uilleann piper Ivan Goff also plays whistles and Irish wooden concert flute. A Dubliner, based in New York, Ivan has performed in productions of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, with numerous bands and artists including world-renowned Paul Winter. and internationally acclaimed Irish traditional bands Lnasa and Dervish, and with Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul. Ivan is currently pursuing a PhD in music at New York University while continuing to perform as a solo artist.
EJ Jones is a professional level Highland piper who tours the country with the folk band Clandestine and exhibition pipe band Brizeus . He was on the 2012 faculty at the North American Academy of Piping and Drumming and was part of the St Thomas Alumni pipe band at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow last August. EJ is part of a movement of alternative pipers who try to encourage bagpipe music for practical cultural roles such as music for dancing. When he is not performing or teaching he makes custom Scottish Smallpipes for other players at his workshop in Asheville, NC. EJ will be joined in his concert performance by bassoonist, Rosalind Buda on smallpipes and bombarde.
Iain Mac Harg, the son of one of the premier bagpipe builders in the world, has studied with many renowned pipers and has earned the title of EUSPBA 2001 Grade One Season Champion. He has founded two Highland Pipe Bands in Vermont, played with several folk groups, made two solo recordings and published a collection of original tunes for the bagpipes. After completing his Masters in Education, he went on to start the Vermont Institute of Piping where he has over 60 solo students.
Ian Lawther plays the highland bagpipes, Northumbrian and Scottish smallpipes, uilleann and border bagpipes, English concertina, whistles and flute. He began playing as a boy and has more than forty years playing experience, which includes film, TV and radio, as well as orchestral pieces. Ian regularly plays for weddings, christenings, funerals and teaches privately in the Seattle area and at festivals and workshops across the US and abroad.
Boston-based husband-and-wife duo Matt & Shannon Heaton offer updated and traditional Irish music on flute/guitar/bouzouki, stirring traditional-style singing, and a fresh, appealing stage show. After years of playing sessions and performances in Chicago, Clare, and their adopted home of Boston Matt & Shannon bring to their performances a depth of shared experience and a love for Irish music.
Our host piper, Bob Mitchell is recognized as a successful solo competitor in the US and Canada, He's worked for 20 years at the Maryland Renaissance Festival and has performed with a number of DC area bands including Iona and Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra. Although his greatest area of expertise is Highland piping, he also plays the Scottish smallpipes and border Pipes.
For folks living nearby who don't play the pipes or any of these other instruments but are fascinated by them, we encourage all to come out on Saturday evening to enjoy the concert and the jam sessions. Admission to the concert is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and $8 for children or students. Attending evening jam sessions is free but donations are welcome to help us cover our facility costs.
For more information, call the Upper Potomac office at 304-263-2531 or see the website at www.squeezethebag.info. Come on out and watch these pipers Squeeze the Bag.