MSA Winter School
a world class school, and more...
2/4/98 through 2/8/98

The inaugural Mastery of Scottish Arts (MSA) Winter School 1998, was held from February 4, through February 8th 1998, at the Seabeck Conference Center,  about 1 hour drive (south, then west, then north) from the Seattle (SEATAC) airport.

I was there only as a parent, not a student.  I took my daughters (Alison, age 13 a new grade 1 solo piper;  Elizabeth, age 11, a grade 4 solo piper), and practised being a lazy bum during their class sessions (I'm getting pretty good at being a lazy bum).

Each particpant (including parents) had an ID tag similar to the one shown here.  (I was tempted to put a '/' between the Piper and Parent, but I was only a parent there.)

The decision to go:

I read about the school on the Internet. I had no idea this was to be the very first MSA school, I thought I'd just never heard of this school before. What really caught my  eye was the list of  piping instructors (who could blame me?):

Pipe Major Ian McLellan, B.E.M., Scotland - his band won the World Pipe Band Championship 12 times, including 6 in a row, and he has won most of the major prizes in solo competition.

Pipe Major Roddy MacLeod, Scotland - Director of The Piping Center in Glasgow, and as they say 'he has won all of the major solo piping  awards'.

Pipe Major William Livingstone, Canada - the first non Scottish band to win the World Pipe Band Championship was his 78th Fraser Highlanders, and he is still one of the top solo players in the world.

Michael Cusask Jr., USA - The only US born piper to win the Gold Medal at Oban and Inverness.  Under his direction the St. Thomas juvenile pipe band has won the Juvenile Pipe Band World Championship twice.

I knew of  each of  these gentlemen, and I couldn't imagine all of them at one school . I was amazed because I think they must be the four finest pipers/teachers/leaders of bands that are still active in teaching today. Having read that these four were to be the instructors at a single piping school, well I just had to learn more about that school.

Prior to thinking about the instructors, I had no plan to take the girls to a piping school, perhaps 'ever'.  We'd had a very bad experience with a piping school during the summer of 1996, and  I was not looking for a piping school for the daughters.  

After a number of calls to the MSA registrar I learned:

1) there would be no other primary piping instructors, this was not an instructor 'bait and switch'
2) there were a limited number of student slots available, they planned very small classes.
3) there were open, and grade 1 solo pipers enrolled.
4) the MSA's goal was to be 'world class' - and it was starting to sound that way.

I enrolled the girls and we went to the school - or as I've joked, we flew up to Seattle (from Northern California) to get away from the rain.

Impressions at the 'scene':

After we arrived I noticed (I had not really paid attention to this before) there was also drumming and dancing  instruction, and those instructors were also 'world class':

Drumming:

John Fisher, Canada - former North American Drumming Champion, former student of Alex Duthart. 25 years experience as a drummer.

Hugh Cameron, Canada - 20 years in Grade 1 bands, winner of Canadian Champion Supreme for professional solo drumming, 3 times in a row.  Also a former student of Alex Duthart.

Craig Colquhoun, Canada - twice winner of US Open Bass competition, and twice winner of Canadian Open Bass Competition, three time winner of North American Open Bass contest, 1996 Best Bass prize at World Pipe Band Championship in Scotland.

Tyler Fry - winner of Canadian, American and North American flourishing championships.  Also a member of the World Championship Midsection in 1996. He is the current North american tenor drum champion.

Dance:

Jacqueline Smith, Canada - two time Adult World Champion - the only Canadian ever to win this award.  She is also a former Junior World Champion, and a Juvenile World Champion.  Six time Canadian Champion, and much more..

How on earth did they assemble this group as teachers?

Obviously they had a lot of help, but it was / is clear that they really meant to put on a world class school.  And they did.

The School:

Pipers played an audition and were then split into eight groups of an average size of 6.  These  groups then each had 75 minute sessions with each of the instructors. There would be a learning session, then a break, (during which time group workshops were held - my daughters attended nearly all the workshops that were available to them), then another learning session, throughout each day.  The small sessions worked on specific musical areas with the teachers.

This picture was taken Saturday the 7th, it includes the full faculty, and all the piping, drumming, and dancing students.  

In the evening there was a group session, for everyone. I attended these and was very impressed by the knowledge of the instructors, their desire to really answer the questions, and the amount of thought and knowledge that the drumming instructors possess.

Seabeck:

Standing on the side of the road, looking at the bridge that serves as the main entrance to Seabeck. Directly through the bridge is the Inn - the main building, and location of the dining hall.  A very beautiful location.  Yes, this is four pictures put together.  You can see (I hope) a  little white building to the right of the sign in the picture center - this is similar to the building we stayed in. Lots of grass, trees, and a few buildings.

The Seabeck Conference center was not  what I'd expected.  For a number of years I put together conferences and meetings, and as a result I had an expectation for this 'conference center'. This one was different, it was built about 70 - 80 years ago.  Some buildings have been upgraded / updated, some haven't.  There was no newspaper,  only a few (3 I'm told) pay phones, and no TV.  Meals were great, served in a large communal room - excellent food, way too much of it. We stayed in a shared, free standing two story building with four bedrooms, and two shared bathrooms - it worked out quite well.  The accommodations were in 8 or so separate buildings - yes we got wet walking around.

The Friday Night Concert:

Friday evening there was a concert in Seattle - the finest concert I've ever attended  In a very relaxed (but formal) environment, each of the instructors gave a solo recital, talked a little, and then joined with others to entertain us. Wonderful piping, drumming and dancing.  It was incredible, and the memories will last a life time.

Some of the more memorable moments:

Mike Cusack, just before playing with Hugh, Craig, and Tyler, tells us that these 6/8s have a lot of swing, 'I expect to see some toes tapping out there!'  

Imagine the most active, impressive tenor drummer you've ever seen (say Vail of Athol?), multiply by 4, and you have Tyler when he's going.  Yep, you have to look away from him every  now and then, just so you can hear the music.

Watching / hearing Ian McLellan play - we were in the front row, so I'm guessing we were among the very few who could hear him speak, a very soft spoken man, but he does speak  loudly with his pipes. I can't easily describe how impressed I am with his playing, and I feel it was an honor to have the opportunity to hear him play.

Ian, playing a sword dance for Jacqueline Smith - What a dilemma, do we watch the world champion dancer, or do we get lost listening to one of the world's best pipers?

Ian, playing for John - who is one expressive drummer. John had said 'drummers should be able to sing the piping tunes', and he did just that, at time we could hear him singing - while Ian was piping, and he was drumming.  Just watching / hearing John play is a true treat - you'd have to see it to know what I mean.

Roddy and his 'electric fingers' - Alison kept looking over to me in complete amazement. She was so involved in listening and watching Roddy that she just about fell out of her chair.

The drum corps demo - with Craig, John and Tyler.  Well, Tyler is incredible - I've mentioned that. John is also quite memorable - Craig easily hold his own with those two.  This was amazing - Tyler laughing while he does the fastest and most incredible tenor swings you've ever heard of or seen if you're lucky - at one point Tyler's watch came off, in mid swing, the watch flew about 10 feet up over his head, and landed about 15 feet behind him - no big deal to Tyler.... Craig and John, well again you have to see them to understand how 'into' this they were. Their technical knowledge was demonstrated and very entertaining.

Bill Livingston is very skilled as a piper, very comfortable speaking in public, very entertaining as a speaker and very articulate. While describing the story behind a Piobaireachd he was about to play he explained that the Piobaireachd was written by a man that had just burned 8 houses (with their occupants) to the ground, Bill summed it up with 'These were not nice people'. His playing was up to his great standard too.

Jacqueline Smith dancing a choreography where she pulled off aprons exposing changes to her costume (National, to Jig, to Hornpipe) as Bill  piped in a fashion that let the listener know he was a world class piper. What a pair.

Can you imagine these people on stage as a mini-band with dancer?  It was a very special moment. Ian called off the tunes, as if there could be any question.

I would have flown up to Seattle just to see a concert like this.  I don't know if we'll ever see a group like this assemble in a similar environment, but if it happens, go see it!


The drumming performers appear after the concert.  From the left: Craig Colquhoun, Tyler Fry, Hugh Cameron, John Fisher.

The piping performers appear after the concert. From the left: Ian McLellan, Roddy MacLeod, Bill Livingstone, Mike Cusack.

Saturday evening Ian MacLellan did a solo recital, and it was again a wonderful event. After that there was a Ceilidh - just your 'standard' great fun. Alison played her newest jig at the party, but I had to tell them she wrote it - she'll play her pipes in public, but she won't talk. (Must be a teenage thing?) 

Sunday was wet, and rainy - quite appropriate for the sad day that the school came to an end. Alison had Roddy and Bill critique her on the pipes, and they both did some tuning to her chanter - I imagine that from here her chanter sound can only get worse..(just kidding)

My Summary:

The MSA school has a goal to be world class, and to raise the level of instruction in the country, by their own example.  In my view this first offering of  their school achieved more than they could realistically have hoped for. I am pleased that my daughters had the opportunity to attend and learn from these great piping people.  If, in the future, they have a faculty of similar stature to this group, I will try very hard to attend the concert (flying in for  it, but I'll bring my wife next time).

Liz, the grade 4 piper, will very likely be back for the next offering - at her level working on new tunes is very worthwhile.

Alison, the grade 1 piper, will probably not go to any schools like this again.  She already has 13 solo competition tunes (3 Piobaireachds, 2 MSRs, 2 6/8s, 2 Hornpipe/Jigs), and more than 28 band tunes (grade 2 band), all  must maintain at a high level - learning new tunes is no longer her goal.  She was very pleased with the school, and it was indeed worth the time, money and effort, but she knows private solo instruction (which she receives bi-weekly) is the key to her future progress.

Diana, the Tenor Drummer, stayed home this time and went to work.  Next time she'll probably attend as a student, and take Liz with her.  I'll fly up for the concert (well, it sounds like a good plan right now).

I hope you found my review of this school to be interesting, and perhaps of value to you. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to email me.

Bob Dunsire 2/9/98

Copyright 1998 Bob Dunsire  last modified 12/31/98