West Orange bagpiper to perform in national competition
| 6:34 p.m. July 22, 2015
West Orange Times & Observer
Steven MacDonald, a resident of Winter Garden, knows how to move people with his music.
“If you play ‘Amazing Grace,’ 99 times out of 100, everybody in the audience is going to cry,” he said.
The Highland bagpipe he plays is temperamental. It is difficult to keep in tune, especially when traveling among different climates. It also requires a great deal of control and ability in the lungs. But for MacDonald, the thrill of stirring people’s emotions and taking home trophy after trophy at competitions is worth the hard work and tests of patience.
“It’s unlike any other instrument, in my opinion, that has ever been made,” he said.
ACROSS THE POND
MacDonald was born in Dundee, Scotland, as the youngest of six children. His mother, who had been an accomplished Highland dancer, always had wanted a piper in the family, and the five older children had all passed on the opportunity.
“She said I didn’t have a choice,” MacDonald said. But as he grew older, he came to find his love of the music, independent from his mother’s.
At first, MacDonald was frustrated because his instructors allowed him to use only a practice chanter, which helps new players learn technique but is simplerthan the bagpipes and much quieter.
“I just wanted to go straight into the fun stuff, but I couldn’t do the fun stuff because I didn’t learn the basics,” MacDonald said. “It’s a very slow process, because you’ve got to be able to build up the lungs and the stamina to keep them going.”
When he was about 10, he joined a band, and the leaders put him straight on the real pipes. But two years later, his parents sold their business and decided to move the family to the Orlando area, where they had all gone for vacation many times.
“We were a very high-up, Grade 2 pipe band, and then I moved here not knowing if they even had pipe bands,” MacDonald said.
Since the move, MacDonald has found a number of pipe bands to join in Florida, such as the Dunedin Pipe Band, for which he travels weekly to practices in the Clearwater area. He also has sought opportunities to play at school, at private events and at competitions nationwide.
IN IT TO WIN IT
MacDonald competes frequently in the Southeastern United States, but he also has traveled farther, to places such as Scotland, California and Canada for competitions.
Competitive bagpipe players start at Grade 5 and gradually move their way up to Grade 1, based on the number of times a judge ranks them as “Above Grade Level.” Beyond Grade 1, they can become Professional Grade.
Last summer, MacDonald competed in the North American Championships in Maxville, Ontario, and he won the championship for Grade 2, which allowed him to move up to Grade 1. This year’s national competition is next weekend, and he is hoping to take first place in Grade 1 so that he can become Professional — a rare accomplishment for a 17-year-old.
“All throughout the year, I’ll practice my solos … but now, it’s at least two hours a day for the two or three weeks leading up to the competition,” he said.
As a solo competitor, MacDonald will play pieces he chose that represent a number of specific genres. He will also compete as a member of the Dunedin Pipe Band.
MacDonald’s most frequent performances are weddings, funerals and other private events. He said part of what he likes about the bagpipes is that the instrument can accommodate such a wide spectrum of occasions.
“Funerals are kind of sad, but I feel like the bagpipes brings a hope and a light to the people at the funeral,” he said. “But when you get to play the weddings, that’s a lot of fun.”
A certain Orlando wedding from November 2013 stands out in his memory.
“I didn’t know what the wedding was going to be, because it was booked through a separate lady who organized it and said, ‘We can’t tell you what it is,’” he said.
When he arrived at the hotel, he offered a code name for the event to the concierge, who led him to the wedding venue. That’s when MacDonald discovered he was playing for the wedding of Chris Kirkpatrick — a former member of ‘NSYNC — and Karly Skladany. Justin Timberlake and the other members of ‘NSYNC were in attendance, and MacDonald got to meet them.
MacDonald graduated this spring from Windermere Preparatory School. This fall, he will start as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh — the only university in the nation to offer bagpipes performance as a major.
MacDonald was worried about not getting in because his grades weren’t quite high enough, but his successful overruled his academic record.
In addition to studying the bagpipes and likely a secondary major, MacDonald will join the school’s pipe band and continue traveling to compete with the Dunedin Pipe Band.
One of MacDonald’s first bagpipes instructors in Scotland played with a band that is popular in Europe, called the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. MacDonald hopes to eventually have the opportunity to join the band.
“He told me from a young age that he always knew that I could definitely have the potential to play with them, so maybe once I’m done with university, I’ll take up that offer,” MacDonald said.
The Highland bagpipe is Scotland’s national instrument, but the first known ancestor of the bagpipe was documented around 1,000 B.C. on a Hittite slab. Historians believe the bagpipe arrived in Scotland during the ancient Roman empire. The instrument evolved in time into the three-drone, single-chanter Highland variation that is well-known today.
In the United States, bagpipes often are played at ceremonies for police and fire rescue officials. This tradition is traced back to the Industrial Revolution, when many immigrants brought their cultures with them across the ocean.
Because of discrimination toward Irishmen at the time, Irish immigrants often had to take dangerous jobs that no one else wanted — such as public safety. Scottish Highland bagpipes were played at the funerals of many fallen Irish policemen and firefighters instead of the traditional Irish pipes, which are not as loud. The practice continued through the years for officials of any cultural background.