Piped Up: How a Small Student Club became SFU’s Voice Heard Around the World

It was the early 1980s — 1981 to be exact. Then-SFU president, George Pedersen, was in attendance at a Clan football game at Empire Stadium on what John Buchanan describes as a miserable rainy night.

The stadium, which usually held thirty thousand people, was practically empty on this particular night. It had perhaps “five hundred or a thousand people,” according to Buchanan, the current head coach of SFU’s golf team. There were ten or twelve players standing in the center of the field, their uniforms drenched and muddy.

“[The uniforms], in a sense, represented the school at this time,” Buchanan continued, a notion “that annoyed Pedersen.” The team, visually, were nothing special to look at, and did little to foster any sense of tradition or culture at the school.

After the game, Pedersen called up Buchanan, who, at the time, was in charge of recreation and clubs — there needed to be a better representative for the school.

But what? Who could represent Simon Fraser University, a school which was named after a Scottish explorer and which had already adopted Scottish traditions as their own?

A pipe band, that’s what.

SFU already had a pipe band, yes — a pipe band that consisted of pipers and drummers who attended the university, students who played for four years, graduated and moved on with their lives. However, the university, particularly Pedersen, was looking for a group of players who were more stable and could represent the school.

How could they get a prestigious pipe band that would stay consistent, as students came and went from the university? 

They came up with the idea to recruit some help: the City of Port Moody Pipe Band. However, they could not possibly have dreamed what would happen next. SFU wouldn’t just get a pipe band that represented the adopted Scottish heritage of the school, but a professional band that would represent SFU on the world stage, amongst the best of the best — and rock out alongside some pop music legends.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he SFU Pipe Band initially came into being in the fall of 1966 when it began more or less as a student club created by a Scotsman with an English accent by the name of Dennis Roberts. Initially, he did not receive much support from the university, which became clear by the cheap uniforms that the band of eight or nine members wore. Three or four of the members were students and the rest were friends of the students.

Scott Marshall, an early member of the club, said while speaking to SFU’s student newspaper, The Peak, in 1966 after the announcement that the school was getting a pipe band, “We’re trying to get some tradition going at SFU.”

Simon Fraser, whom the university was named after, was of Scottish descent, hence the school embraced its adopted Scottish heritage. The introduction of a pipe band seemed like a natural extension of this.

The aim of the band was to build up spirit at the new university, which was something that the institution seemed to lack — SFU was trying to compete in UBC’s town.

The early band — for financial reasons — was restricted to male individuals who could actually pipe. In that same article in The Peak from 1966, Marshall spoke about how the band was not going to act as a training group, they sought members who could pipe or drum well.

However, shortly after its initial creation, interest in the band fizzled out.

The band reorganized in 1973 and had some success after this. A notable highlight is when they performed at the 1975 Grey Cup parade in Calgary.

However, it wasn’t until 1981 when the band really picked up steam and became the SFU Pipe Band as it is known today.

In 1981, Buchanan and Ian McGregor, the Manager of Recreation and the SFU Director of Recreation respectively, were asked by Pedersen to speak to the City of Port Moody Pipe Band on behalf of the university. Pedersen had given the piping program to Buchanan after Roberts left. Buchanan was asked to help elevate the status of SFU as a quality institution and the recruitment of high quality musicians was a way of creating that public image.

The City of Port Moody Pipe Band was led by the Lee Brothers, Terry and Jack, two world-class pipers. These two men went on to form the nucleus of the Simon Fraser Pipe Band, as their renowned reputations drew other successful musicians in.

Initially, the Port Moody Pipe Band was wary of the invitation to pipe under the SFU banner, as it seemed too good to be true. As a result, the band set aside some money in case the deal fell through — obviously, this was not the case.

The union, however, gave the band the opportunity to perform more often than they did with the city of Port Moody. Previously, the band performed only once a year at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day.

SFU-Pipe-Band

Unlike Dennis Robert’s band, which didn’t receive much university funding, the new band received tartans (kilts) that cost about $12,000, which shows how important it was to the university that the band visually looked the part of belonging to an established institution.

On April 1st 1981, the Port Moody Pipe Band had agreed to become the new SFU Pipe Band, and shortly thereafter, the band had its first performance at the June convocation — at this time, the mayhem that is convocation all happened on a single day.

Robert MacNeil, the current SFU Pipe Band Society president, describes the turning point for the pipe band as a moment in December of that same year when the band won their first competition in British Columbia under the SFU name.

Previously, they had competed against the other two Tier 1 bands in the Lower Mainland, but this was the first time they had outperformed both of them, which led to more competitions. The following year, the band competed at a piping competition in Chicago, in which they placed second. The week after, the band won the Grade 1 North American Championship in Maxville, Ontario.

This victory led the band to be invited to play and compete in the 1983 Grade 1 World Championship in Scotland, which is like the Holy Grail for pipers —their Stanley Cup, so to speak. The fact that the band was being invited to the World Championship in their second year under the SFU name speaks volumes to the enormous amount of talent and dedication of the musicians combined with the support of the university.

The band had become a world power.

In 1995, the band won the Grade 1 World Championships in Scotland for the first time. A small band from Burnaby became one of only four bands outside of the UK to gain this honour. And it came after a self-described down year for the band.

“The year before [1994] we had not had a good run at the World Championships. We ended up seventh which was out of the prize list and it was very demoralizing, but the band basically sort of knuckled under and thought we are going to be able to get over this,” explained MacNeil.

“In late March, we found out that the championships in Scotland that preceded the worlds were changing format so that the order in which the bands compete was going to be based upon the results from each previous championship.”

In the World Championships, when you played was everything. Going too early would likely guarantee a poor placing, so it was advantageous to go as near to the end as possible, to ensure that the judges would remember the performance clearly.

SFU’s poor placing the year before meant that the team would go fairly early — drastic measures were required. PIPE BAND3

“We thought that if we didn’t play at one of those championships beforehand, our seventh place the year before would put us ninth from the end, which is pretty far, so we took a calculated risk; no band had ever done this before,” MacNeil continued.

The team flew to Stirling, Scotland and competed in the regional championship before the World’s in late June.

“We ended up playing seventh from the end there, but ultimately ended up getting third in that competition, which then put us third from last in the order to play for the World’s. Of course, everybody was talking about the SFU Pipe Band’s bold move to go play at the championship and getting third.”

Then, at the World Championships, the band won both their events cleanly, playing a medley of songs for both competitions. MacNeil describes the feeling as “complete exhilaration.” Since then, the pipe band has gone on to win five more times at the World’s — in 1996, 1999, 2001, 2008, and 2009.

The prestige wasn’t just limited to competitions — the band also became the first pipe band to perform at two renowned venues: Carnegie Hall in New York City in February 1998 and the Sydney Opera House in Australia in April 2001.

On top of that, the pipe band made a dent in the world of pop music, which included gigs opening for Scottish rock star, Rod Stewart, twice during his Vancouver concerts in 1989 and 1991.

The band warmed up the Vancouver audience. Instead of performing on the stage like a traditional opener, the band played throughout the crowd surprising their audience with the sweet sounds of bagpipes.

“It was unreal,” exclaimed MacNeil.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he SFU Pipe Band now has five different bands. Surprisingly enough, the band that plays at convocation ceremonies is not the same band that plays at the large competitions. The one that many people on campus have heard is the younger players, or the reserves, known as the Robert Malcolm Memorial Band.

The band name is derived from the first names of two of the SFU Pipe Band’s members, Robert Barbulak and Malcolm Bokenfohr, who were tragically killed in a car accident in November of 1993. The tragedy brought the band closer together and led to the creation of a new band that was geared toward the development of dedicated, as well as talented young musicians, pipers and drummers.

The future of the Pipe Band appears promising. MacNeil, one of the band managers, describes the steps he plans to take to ensure they remains successful.

Strategies have changed slightly since pipe major Terry Lee retired two years ago and Alan Bevan took over as pipe major. According to McNeil as with “any institution, there is a necessary succession that must take place so that the organization may continue.”

He explained that the focus is on nurturing strong leaders and players for the junior pipe bands so that they can lead the future Simon Fraser University Pipe Band. One way he intends to cultivate such a strong junior band presence is by “moving from a simple junior pipe band to an institution styled along the lines of an academy of music.”

Of course, his intention is not to abandon the current band structure. MacNeil explains that this new endeavour will be an effort to “[take] the best of what [pipe instructors] know, and weave it into that type of mainstream musical institution.”

The junior pipe band is also being exposed to new performance experiences to foster their interest in the piping culture worldwide. Typically, pipe bands outside of the United Kingdom travel to Scotland to compete, as it’s the country where the bagpipes were popularized and integrated into the culture. MacNeil, however, plans to take a junior pipe band to the New Zealand Pipe Band Championships in 2017 as a “unique cultural experience.” Surprisingly, New Zealand has a thriving piping culture, with various skilled bands, much like Canada.

The SFU Pipe Band is not a university band in the traditional sense. They do not conjure up the stereotypical image of college kids in a marching band. They are a ceremonial band — they were the City of Port Moody Band. They left that band because the city of Port Moody didn’t utilize their voice; they are now SFU’s most important ambassadors.

“But if you trace it back, it began with a love of Scottish pipe music and to know that that started in the early days of the university and we were able to take that mantle and carry it forward was really important,” MacNeil said. “In thinking about the 50th anniversary, to know that piping and drumming was an early part of [SFU culture] is really special for the band and others to know.”

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