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Trip Journal

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 Christchurch.

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 foot.

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 Sydney.

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 Dremel drill.

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 anticipation.

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 security procedures.
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 Room.
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 hall.
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 One

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 in, mate.

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