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Squeeze the Bag: Upper Potomac presents the Eighth Annual Piper’s Weekend

By Staff | Jan 17, 2014

Upper Potomac Music Weekends have established a small, but unique niche in the music world, as it hosts its eighth Piper’s Weekend on Jan. 17-19. 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. Featured will be pipes that are 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 our tune sharing more fun and lively, we’ve added classes in Irish fiddle, flute, hammered dulcimer and mixed-instrument repertoire that is friendly to one or more varieties of pipes to round out the weekend, 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 daytimes 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 27 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 9 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 five includes our six featured pipers; Cillian Valleley, EJ Joness, Iain MacHarg, Will Woodson, Bob Mitchell and Ian Lawther who each play several kinds of pipes, and world-renowned flautist Skelton, who also plays the Frence veuze and Galician bagpipes as well as master percussionist, Matt Bell, teaching the Irish bodhran. Classes include 4 types of bagpipes and flute, technique classes on all of these instruments and repertoire from Scotland, England, Ireland, Cape Breton and Brittany for all instruments.

Admission to the concert is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, $12 for Shepherdstown Music and Dance members, 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 http://upperpotomacmusic.info/squeezethebag/.