Children learn bagpiping skills in unusual Scotia-Glenville band (with video)

Although they live an ocean away from Scotland, there are some local youths who are quite familiar w

Although they live an ocean away from Scotland, there are some local youths who are quite familiar with the skirl of the bagpipe.

“It’s fun and it’s got a neat sound,” said 11-year-old Dalton Hanaway of Saratoga Springs, a member of the Scotia-Glenville Pipe Band, who started playing the instrument about two years ago.

The pipe band has been around for two decades. Director Maureen Connor said its origins date from the late 1980s when the Scotia-Glenville superintendent and principal at the time noted that the school mascot is a Tartan with a piper and the school should have a band.

The group has really grown during the past few years, according to Connor. “For the first part of its life, it was very small,” she said. “When we opened up our members to kids all over the Capital District, that’s when our membership started to grow.”

Right now there are 25 pipers and 17 drummers, ranging in age from 8 to 17, according to Connor.

“They really enjoy being able to play pipes and drums with kids their own age,” she said. “The Scotia-Glenville Pipe Band is the only significant youth pipe band in the Northeast.”

Some people come from as far away as Texas and Ontario, Canada to play with the group when they can.

Students may feel less intimidated in being a group with their peers, Connor said. “When kids play together in a band like this without adults — who generally speaking have learned [to play] as adults — getting in their way, then they’re able to achieve just absolute excellence.”

When it was a small group, Connor said, it was hard to maintain enthusiasm even though the children were excellent musicians.

Drumming director Eric MacNeill said they have held a lot of open houses to recruit more people.

“Most of our new beginners come through word of mouth. As it grows, it helps spur more growth,” he said.

The band is now so large that it has been split into two groups — beginners and intermediate. The group practices Wednesday evenings at Celtic Hall on New Karner Road in Colonie.

The hard work is paying off. The Scotia-Glenville Pipe Band placed third in its division in 2007 and then again in 2009 when it competed in Scotland against some of the best pipe bands in the world.

It placed first in competition last month in Manchester, N.H., while performing more challenging music.

“They moved up to the next highest level and they won their first contest,” said MacNeill.

The band has a full slate of competitions in the coming weeks and months in New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Its season will conclude in the Capital District Scottish Games during Labor Day weekend.

It is only fitting that the band had its origins in Scotia-Glenville. People only think about the Dutch founding of Schenectady but the area’s Scottish heritage goes back to the 17th century with the settlement by the Sanders family in Scotia, according to Don Rittner, Schenectady County and city historian.

There were also a lot of Scottish settlers in Duanesburg. “The rolling hills of Duanesburg sort of reminded them of home,” he said.

The bagpipes themselves also go back that far and can be seen in 17th century Dutch paintings, according to Rittner. “There’s some claim that the Dutch invented bagpipes,” he said.

Rittner said the Dutch were used to living in a very pluralistic environment with a lot of different ethnic groups and languages spoken in the Netherlands. This included some Scots.

“It was just a natural course of events for all the different groups that were in the Netherlands to come here,” he said.


Playing the bagpipes is different from other instruments. “It’s more physical than other instruments,” said 16-year-old Gabriel Holodak of Niskayuna, who has been in the group since 2005. “It’s a lot of blowing and squeezing with your arms. You have to build up your endurance.”

Like all who learn to play, he started off on the chanter, which looks similar to a recorder. “Once you can play that, you can progress on to bagpipes,” he said.

Allyson Crowley-Duncan, 15, of Latham plays a lot of instruments — piano, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone, oboe and trumpet — but she said learning the bagpipes is by far the most challenging. “It takes longer to really get used to it because it’s so different,” she said.

After a student becomes proficient with the chanter, they start off with one drone — a pipe with a reed attached to the air bag — and then add another and another. Complicating matters, according to Crowley-Duncan, is making sure that the reed provides the right pitch and does not cut out or squeak. Unlike other instruments, the reed is not controlled directly by the mouth but rather is attached to bag, as is the chanter pipe.

Despite that complicated process, Crowley-Duncan said “bagpipes are really fun and cool.”

The drummers are also a crucial component in the band. Haley Stuart, 15, of Scotia plays the tenor drum.

“A tenor is almost like the bass but you have flourishes you can do to help draw in the audiences,” she said.

Stuart demonstrated the twirling of the drumsticks, which include the cartwheel, windmill, feather, butterfly, forward eights and backward eights.

Stuart became interested in the band because of her older sister, a bagpiper.

“She was getting dragged here all the time, so she said she might as well do something,” said her mom, Kathy Stuart, with a laugh. Such piper-drummer tandems are not uncommon when one sibling is involved and the other one wants to join in. Laura Quinn of Nassau has two sons in the band — 13-year-old Liam, a piper, and 10-year-old Troy, a drummer. Her younger son is also involved in Irish step dancing. “He said he wanted to take up the pipes. It kind of snowballed from there,” she said.

In addition to competitions, the band has a busy schedule of upcoming parades. The Memorial Day holiday is really a weeklong event for the group, with several parades, including Scotia, Rotterdam, Stillwater and Lansingburgh, Connor said. Scotia’s kicks off at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday on Mohawk Avenue.

expensive travel

The parades serve as one of the major sources of revenue for the group as it raises funds for its trip to Scotland. The band charges about $1,200 per parade. They need to raise about $10,000 to $15,000 to pay for a return trip to Scotland in the summer of 2012 to attend the World Pipe Band Championships.

Holodak said going to Scotland in 2009 was a ton of fun, despite the long practices. During the competition, the band has to play a certain set of songs, depending on the grade level of the competition. For example, for level 4, they have to play a “quick march medley” as part of the repertoire.

Everybody is focused on that goal, he said. Band members need to rely on one another to raise the level of their performance, Connor said.

“I know they need to want to do it for each other. When we go over to Scotland, it really counts. The band has a pretty good reputation to live up to.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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