SFU Pipe Band in New Zealand and Australia:
April 3 to 16, 2001
by Jori Chisholm
Three concerts. One recording. Two days at the Australian
Pipe Band Championship. Eight airplane flights. 19,000 miles.
Fourteen days. Seven kangaroos. A fast-paced trip, packed with
plenty of piping, friendly people, and fantastic scenery.
Tuesday April 3 - The Forty Hour Commute
The first flight from Vancouver to Honolulu was pretty much routine.
With all the band members, dancers, and supporters our group had close
to 70 members and took up a good part of the airplane cabin. Stuart
Liddell entertained our fellow passengers by playing his practice chanter
for just about the entire flight.
We arrived in the Honolulu airport in the middle of the night to the
sound of ukulele music blasting over the loudspeakers. Almost everyone
from the group rushed outside to snap some photos of his or her brief visit
to Hawaii. Too bad it was pitch black outside and the only views
were of a few potted palms on the concrete tarmac. I stretched out
on an outdoor bench and relaxed to the gentle strumming of our bouzouki
player David MacVittie. Soon enough we were back on another plane
and headed to Sydney.
Nine hours later, the captain announced that we were an hour from landing
in Sydney. Outside the window, the distant sunrise glowed on the
horizon like red molten lava. While on a brief stroll to stretch my legs,
I wandered past two flight attendants discussing the noise coming from
one particular group. I wondered if they are referring to the drum corps
practice taking place in Aisle 54.
Just as I got back to my seat, I heard the sound of a distant pipe chanter.
I spun around in my seat and saw Rob Bruce marching up the aisle playing
Scotland the Brave. Rob was the latest SFU rookie piper required
by tradition to play a tune in mid-flight his first trip with the band.
Even the most robust pipe set up at sea level sounds thin and sharp in
the pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet and this was no exception. Nevertheless,
the passengers showed their appreciation for his impromptu performance.
After a brief stopover in the Sydney airport, we were on our way to
Thursday April 5 - Arrival in Christchurch
We arrived in the Christchurch terminal to the glorious spectacle of
a traditional Maori dancing group. The young performers welcomed
us with several songs and dances, including a fascinating display of chanting,
stomping, eyeball rolling, and tongue waggling. Afterwards, as we
shook hands with the dancers, they pressed their noses against ours and
presented us each with a Tiki necklace.
We were greeted in a more typical manner by Alasdair Hanning and Richard
Hawke, both of the New Zealand Police Pipe Band and coordinators of our
trip to New Zealand. One by one, they would call out the name
of each player in the band and the names of the people from the Christchurch
piping community with whom we would be staying. I met Rusty and Margaret
Rusbatch, a delightful couple well known on the New Zealand piping scene
for decades. They drove me to their home in Rangiora, a town about
30 minutes outside of Christchurch.
I unpacked my duffel bag and hung up my uniform. I opened my pipe box
to find the Begg sheepskin bag was hard as a rock. The trans-Pacific flight
had completely desiccated the leather. I grabbed my tin of Airtight
seasoning and quickly seasoned the bag. To get some moisture back
in the reeds, I played the pipes for 15 or 20 minutes. Afterwards,
I stepped outside to dump my water trap -- not a single drop came out.
In the evening, Rusty arrived at the house with SFU pipers Derek Milloy,
Damien Burleigh, and Robert MacLeod who were also staying in Rangiora.
We were picked up by a shuttle bus and driven to the Retired Servicemen's
Association Hall for tea (I realized later that tea means dinner).
The place was hopping. A four-piece brass band called the Clubmen played
some old favorites. Damien and I were eventually persuaded to get out our
pipes and play a few tunes. After the meal, we headed home.
Having been awake for over 40 hours and nearly delirious, I fell asleep
before my head hit the pillow.
Friday April 6 - Day 2 in Christchurch
For breakfast, Margaret offered spaghetti on toast. I'd never heard
of such a combination in my life but she explained that it was quite popular.
It's just what you would imagine -- a piece of toast with a fried egg all
topped with heaping pile of spaghetti. It's worth a try.
After breakfast, we met up with the others and were dropped off at the
Copthorn Hotel in downtown Christchurch. Our New Zealand hosts had
arranged for the hotel's corporate lounge to be available for band members
for the duration of our stay. The spacious room on the 9th floor
gave us a central location to meet, rest, and secure our instruments.
After dropping off the pipes, we headed out to explore Christchurch by
We explored Market Square and surrounding streets and did a bit of shopping
and eating. Incredibly, there seemed to be more sushi restaurants
than in Vancouver. We wandered past "The Strip," and its many pubs,
and settled in for dinner at an Irish pub called The Bog. At one
point during the meal, we witnessed a spectacle I could have never imagined.
We watched in amazement as over a hundred university graduates dressed
in their old child-sized school uniforms staggered past us, drunk out of
their minds. There were lovers, fighters, troublemakers, and even
some cross-dressers. An earsplitting air horn signaled them to crawl
to the next pub.
After the crowds had passed, we made our way to the Canterbury Caledonian
Society Hall for an evening band practice. A small crowd gathered
around the band as we played through a few sets from the concert.
P/M Terry Lee tuned the drones as P/S Jack Lee listened to the chanters.
Due to the humidity, the top hands were a bit thicker and flatter than
usual. As a remedy, Jack ordered some of us to sink our reeds into
the reed seats. I unleashed a bit of tape from my High A. Soon
the tone was quite good and Terry led the band through parts of the jig
set, reel set, and MSR. We dumped our water traps into a plastic bucket
to keep from desecrating the hall carpet with any repugnant secretions.
After drying out the reeds and putting the pipes away, we followed our
hosts down some cement steps to deep within the bowels of the hall to a
place called The Dungeon. With its low ceilings and well-stocked
bar, it proved to be the ultimate location for post-pipe band practice
refreshment. Many memorable conversations ensued. Several locals
attempted to persuade me of the benefits of one regional brew over another.
The drummers gathered around a table and tried to one-up one another by
playing "Drum Fanfares of the Past."
Saturday April 7 - Day of the Christchurch Concert
The morning of the concert, we were dropped off at the Copthorn Hotel.
We found the drum corps practicing in the park across the street. A decent
crowd had gathered around them - some were pipe band folks; others were
tourists or just passersby. After lunch, we went into the James
Hay Theatre to drop off our gear and prepare for the sound check.
The bulk of the equipment had been set up earlier in the day, but the lights
and sound systems needed to be rechecked with the entire band on stage.
Usually, a pipe band provides plenty of unplugged, unamplified musical
power. But this concert featured MacVittie on bouzouki and electric
bass, fiddler Anna Schaad, singing, keyboards, and a variety of alternative
percussion instruments, all needing additional amplification. We were aided
backstage by Nick Pak, a young piper who won a local tune composition contest.
The prize was the opportunity to spend the day with the band and join us
on stage during the concert to play his tune "SFU's Welcome to New Zealand."
Sunday April 8 - Christchurch Day 4
The day after the concert we were honored with a barbeque at Hagley
Park Horticultural Center in Christchurch. We enjoyed some great
home cooking and some good laughs. Band manager Robbie MacNeil's
interview with a local radio station was played over some loud speakers.
The weather was gorgeous and we performed a few tunes from our concert
repertoire. The get-together gave us a chance to thank our New Zealand
hosts for their incredible hospitality.
Monday April 9 - Back to Sydney
This was our last day in Christchurch. Our hosts drove us to the
airport, and we took time to snap some group photos, share our addresses,
and once again express our appreciation. The opportunity to stay with and
forge friendships with our hosts proved to be one of the highlights of
the entire trip. Soon we were back on the plane and headed back to
As we approached Sydney the airplane dipped to one side, providing a
fabulous glimpse of the Opera House. It was stunning even from afar.
The harbor positively sparkled.
We caught the bus in Sydney and checked in to the Marriott Hotel, centrally
located just off Hyde Park in downtown Sydney. We met in the hotel
lobby at six in the evening for band practice. We soon learned that
the hotel failed to provide us with the practice room we reserved.
P/M Sam Young of the New South Wales Police Pipe Band, our primary contact
in Sydney, managed to find a place for the band to practice on extremely
short notice. With pipes and drums in tow, we followed Sam down the
street a few blocks into a building marked Probation and Parole Office.
We squeezed ourselves into a small office space. It was tight but
good enough. The air was humid, something we all noticed upon our
arrival in Sydney. When I pulled my pipes out of the box, I checked
my hygrometer (something I just recently put in my pipe case). At
home the meter hovers between 65 and 70% humidity. Today, within
a few minutes the needle crept up to 85%, then 90%, finally peaking at
95% humidity at the end of our practice. Indeed, the pipe tone reflected
the change in climate. Some High A's were a bit thicker. My
High G was slightly flat, prompting Jack to drill out the hole with his
After practice we had a short meeting. Jack prompted us to reflect
on what should be our primary focus: the chance of a lifetime to put on
a stellar performance at the Opera House, not to drink ourselves into oblivion.
He weighed the options for us A. Chance of a lifetime B. Stay up all night
to drink. While ultimately allowing us to rely on our judgment, he
suggested that the veterans keep an eye on some of the younger members
of the band.
Tuesday April 10 - Sydney Opera House Concert Eve
In the morning, the pipers met in the hotel lobby for a practice. Jack
told us that we would practice in a church a block from the hotel.
The pastor arrived and walked us down the next block to tiny St. Paul's
Church wedged between two non-descript brick buildings. We set up
in a meeting room in the basement of the church. The air was warm
and humid, so we kept the playing down to a minimum -- short bursts with
the entire corps to keep the pipes going alternated with playing one-on-one
with Terry. The tone was set- quickly and after two hours we were dismissed.
Jack and some others departed for radio interviews. A small group
of us caught a cab to The Rocks, an historic Sydney neighborhood, to climb
the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Billed as the ultimate tourist adventure
in Sydney, it certainly lived up to that description. It took three
hours to climb over 1,450 stairs to the summit of the Sydney Harbor Bridge
roughly 135 metres above the water. The view was staggering. As we
gazed down at the Opera House, I thought ahead to the concert with great
With adrenaline gushing through our veins, we headed back to the hotel
for a change of clothes before the dinner cruise of the harbour. The boat
trip was organized and sponsored by the local pipe band community and gave
us the chance to make new acquaintances. The sky was overcast, but the
air was warm. After the cruise, we walked back to the hotel and called
it an early night.
Wednesday April 11 - The Day of The Big Show
9 am Woke up. Showered. Packed up the pipes
and uniform. Had a big breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
10:30am We met in the hotel lounge for a short practice
on chanters and pads. Terry efficiently led us through a few highlights.
Everyone seemed energized.
Noon We gathered in front of the hotel to wait for the bus.
When the bus didn't arrive, apparently the bus company's mistake, we decided
to catch taxicabs to the Opera House.
12:30 pm Met at the Opera House stage door. The
Opera House event manager handed out backstage passes and explained the
1 pm We gathered on the sun-drenched steps outside the
Opera House to be photographed in our street clothes.
1:30 pm Grabbed lunch at a nearby cafe.
2:15 pm Drummers took to the stage for their sound check.
Pipers waited in the Red Room, our tuning room for the night.
3:00 pm The pipers played for the first time in the Red
3:35 pm Pipers joined the drummers on stage. Record
producer Bob McDowell of Lismor Recordings positioned the chanter and drone
microphones. Played through parts of the jig set. Microphones
were set for recording and for the house. Floor positions were marked
with gaffer's tape.
3:50 pm Pipers gathered to rehearse the singing of the
Piobaireachd. Recording levels were set.
4:15 pm More rehearsal. Reel set. Mikes were
set for the drum set, congas, djemebe, and dumbeck. The concern arose
that the snares were too loud in the seats despite the black curtain hanging
at the back of the stage. Additional sound baffling panels were placed
behind the corps to further reduce the reverberations.
4:45 pm Dancers joined the band on stage to run through
the Blue Cloud and a few other sets.
5:15 pm Mikes were checked for soloists. Walked
through the opening of the show.
5:30 pm Dinner in the Green Room cafe, shared with the
performers in the other venues.
6:00 pm Dressed.
6:45 pm The entire group gathers on stage for photo
session in uniforms. All the possible combinations were photographed:
pipe corps, drum corps, full band, trio, soloists, dancers.
7:15 pm We went back to Red Room to wait. We read
through the glossy, full-colour $10 AUS program and searched for typos.
Meanwhile, the audience started to take their seats inside the concert
7:45 pm Fifteen minutes to show time. Jack instructed
us to pinch our reeds and start playing. The tune up went effortlessly.
Terry touched up the drones and we were ready to take to the stage.
8:05 pm Showtime. After a few sets, the nerves settled
down and the show ran smoothly. The crowd was enthusiastic.
11 pm We marched off stage, through the crowd, and into
the lobby. Veteran piper Derek Milloy congratulated me, "Jori, you've
just played at the Sydney Opera House." It was a spectacular feeling to
have performed well in the magnificent venue. It was also a great
relief. So many months of preparation built toward that moment. Soon,
audience members poured into the lobby and we were surrounded. The
response was overwhelmingly positive. I posed for a few photos and
signed some autographs. After a few minutes, we were called back
stage to the Red Room for presentations from the local pipe band community
and Canadian government officials. A few more handshakes and photographs,
then we headed to the Green Room to unwind. Terry made the rounds
and congratulated every player individually. He shook my hand and
told me well done on my first recording with the band. After an hour
of reveling in our achievement, we headed back to the hotel.
Thursday April 12 - On the Road Again
The travel routine was familiar. Bussed to the airport. Checked
in. Caught the flight to Melbourne. Our bus driver in Melbourne,
Archie, was remarkably friendly and accommodating. He drove us to
the YHA hostel in Melbourne. Some members of the group were skeptical
at first, but the hostel passed inspection. The four-person bunkrooms were
clean and secure. The hostel common area had a cafeteria, Internet
cafe, pool table, and an Indiana Jones pinball machine. The hostel's
rooftop patio offered a great view of the Melbourne skyline.
It was a brilliant sunny day and a few of us wandered to the Queen Elizabeth
Market, where, we discovered, you could buy almost anything: Levi's
501 jeans, Bluntstone boots, boomerangs, wombat fridge magnets, live pigeons,
kangaroo pelts (or meat), even skinned goat heads with both eyes.
I bought a t-shirt and sandwich and passed on the goat head.
We met up with some of the others for tea at an Italian Restaurant that
evening. Jack bought the first round of drinks. I was delighted to
meet prominent piping composer Murray Blair and his companion Tanya.
On the way back to the hostel, we discovered a tree filled with hundreds
of big shrieking bats. The dark sky was swarming with the fluttering
mammals. They only eat fruit, we were told. No worries.
Friday April 13 - The Melbourne Concert
In the morning, we took the bus to a park in downtown Melbourne for
band practice. Terry led the band through our competitions tunes:
two MSRs and Medley. At this time we are playing the medley from
1999, with indications that a new medley will be distilled from the concert
tunes in time for the summer competition season. It sounded and felt
great to be playing on the grass under the warm Melbourne sun. Afterwards,
we drove back to the hostel in time for lunch at a nearby cafe.
Around 3:00 in the afternoon, the bus took us to the concert venue -
the John Batman Theater. By this point, the pre-concert build was
second nature. Sound check, change into the kilt, and tune up. This
concert hall itself was much smaller than the Sydney Opera House, with
the seats much closer to the stage. The mood of the day was much
more relaxed having had the recording successfully behind us.
Showtime at 8 pm. The acoustics of the hall were great and show
was excellent. The audience was packed with pipers, drummers, and
pipe band enthusiasts all in town for the Australian Championships the
following day. One particularly rowdy contingent yelled out "Oy!"
between the drum rolls on nearly every attack. After the show, we
enjoyed a few Victoria Bitters backstage before the theater staff kicked
us out at 11:30 pm. Then it was back onto the bus and to the hostel.
Saturday April 14 - The Australian Pipe Band Championships - Day
The Aussie Championships were held in Ringwood at an Aussie Rules Football
playing field. The setup was typical of most pipe band contests.
Outside the gates, nearly every available space was crowded with band busses,
practicing pipe bands, and rows of equipment. After our bus parked,
the drummers started the long process of unpacking and tuning the drums.
The rest of us headed off to check out the park. Once inside the
gates, it took us only a few minutes to circle the entire venue.
The pipe band competition was already underway on a vast grassy expanse
kept far from the crowds. Two separate highland dancing platforms
showed the tremendous contrast between the Australian dancers who have
adopted the techniques and dress of the Scottish Official Board, and the
independent New Zealand dancers with their interesting costumes and free-flowing
moves. There were surprisingly few vendors, and overall the scene
was free from the commerciality that has emerged at other pipe band contests.
A souvenir poster or T-shirt could not be found anywhere.
We were scheduled to play at the very end of the day. The sun
was hot and the tune up was short. As we started to play, a crowd
began to form around the band, with people jockeying for the perfect spot
to photograph or videotape the band. The group followed us until
we entered the final tuning area. Before I realized it, we were marching
up to the line. At the line, we drew MSR #1: P/M Tom McAllister, Ewe wi'
Crookit Horn, John Morrison of Assynt House. As far as I could hear,
we played the set nearly flawlessly. The concerts and rehearsals had put
us all in top physical and mental condition for performing -- playing a
single MSR was a breeze. Soon we were back on the field for massed
bands and then back to the hostel to rest up for Day 2.
Sunday April 15 - The Australian Pipe Band Championships - Day Two
The second day of competition progressed much like the first. We played
the medley for the judges under the scorching afternoon sun. At massed
bands we were announced Australian Pipe Band Champions. The score
sheets indicated that we received straights firsts from the judges in both
events, squashing the rumor that we had placed second in the MSR. We played
off the field and over to a barbeque provided by the Melbourne Pipe Band.
Instead of stopping for a beer and a burger right away, we formed a circle
and performed an impromptu concert on a grassy incline surrounded by a
crowd ten-deep of cheering Australians and Kiwis. The cheering crowd
kept us going for several sets. The atmosphere was charged.
It was a fantastic moment: unrehearsed, unplanned, and utterly unforgettable.
Monday April 15 - The Morning After
It was the end of a demanding two-week tour schedule, and it would have
been perfect time to catch up on some sleep. Not a chance. The ever-efficient
SFUPB kept on trucking. The bus left for the airport at 4 am.
Instead of leaving with the band, I stayed for a couple weeks with a
few friends. We picked up the rental car to do some sightseeing and
take a well-deserved break from the pipe band.
Rumors are flying about a return trip in 2003. If so, count me
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