SFU Pipe Band’s Tori Killoran is here to change your perspective on the bagpipes

Killoran puts the polarizing instrument into perspective through the university’s world-class band

Photo courtesy of Tori Killoran

By: Natasha Tar, Peak Associate

Fast Facts
Name: Tori Killoran
Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
Department Affiliation: Criminology (fifth-year student)
Hometown: Pitt Meadows, B.C.
Hobbies: Playing the bagpipes, highland dancing, and going for bike rides
Fun Fact: She started dancing when she was two years old, so she’s been dancing for almost 20 years of her life.

This August, the SFU Pipe Band joined 8,000 other pipers and drummers in Glasgow, Scotland to perform at the World Pipe Band Championships. The band has now triumphed as world champions seven times since their official conception in 1981, finishing fifth this year and thereby maintaining last year’s position.

This is all very impressive, but how much of this did we actually know already? Did we know that SFU had a pipe band? Are we wondering why SFU is host to a pipe band when we’re over 6,000 kilometres away from Scotland?

Before we think too much of the band itself, we must remember our connection to Scotland. Simon Fraser, our university’s namesake, was born to Scottish immigrants in New York, 1776. Because of this, our university has adopted a Centre for Scottish Studies, the Clan name for its athletic groups, and, as we now know, a pipe band. While the band had a humble beginning, simply as a way for our school to have more character, it has now grown into a worldwide entity.

To put this entity into perspective, we sat down with pipe band member Tori Killoran, a fifth-year criminology student at SFU with a flair for bagpipes and highland dancing.

Before she entered the world of piping, Killoran began highland dancing, a solo Scottish dance. She describes highland dancing as “more of [an] athletic type rather than a balletic type of dancing” that involves a lot of jumping and complicated footwork. She explains that after she began highland dancing, the accompanying music of bagpipes really caught her attention and she was inspired to learn to play.

From there, Killoran joined the Kamloops Pipe Band and then moved into the youth pipe band at SFU, known as the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band. “From there, the SFU Pipe Band is kind of the final step,” Killoran says.

“I was really quite amused and astounded at everything the Pipe Band was doing. I just really loved their music and I thought, ‘That’s the band I want to play with’ because they sounded so good and I wanted to be part of it.”

I ask her if it’s a bit surreal to have a top-tier pipe band in Burnaby. “Yeah, there’s a lot of people who really are actually surprised that there’s a big Scottish culture in the Vancouver area because we are so far away from Scotland,” she said. “It’s cool to be so far away yet so connected.”

Despite the distance, this year SFU’s band once again made it to the championships, and Killoran explains that “the world championships were huge, again, just like every year.” 13 nations were represented by the 214 bands in attendance, and over two days, 30,000 attendees watched pipers from New Zealand to Zimbabwe perform. The event was also live-streamed, so anyone who couldn’t make it to Glasgow could still tune in.

But Killoran proves the most memorable moments happen within the SFU Pipe Band itself. “There was this one concert that we did in 2015 and it was a fundraiser [. . .] At the time, one of the members of the pipe band had just been diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately, he has now passed away.”

As part of the fundraiser, members of the band shaved their heads. “In particular, there was this one guy who had a pretty big beard, and a lot of people liked it. So he raised, just by shaving off his beard, an extra $100 . . .”

Now having all this information with me, I can ask Killoran my burning question: how do the bagpipes even work?

From the blow pipe, air is filled into the bag. When the bag is squeezed enough, then sound comes through the “chanter,” which is where the piper makes the tune by covering different holes. The “drones” are three pipe-like things near the top of the bagpipes, which is for the “background music,” according to Killoran.

“It’s not that the instrument itself gets easier, but you get stronger as a player,” she explains.

Despite the glory the band receives and the instrument’s complexity, the bagpipes still get tons of flack. I ask Killoran what she thinks when people say they “hate the bagpipes.”

“They probably haven’t heard a really good bagpiper to be honest,” she says. “It isn’t really a nice instrument if the person is squeaking a lot [ . . . ] Once you become confident with the pipes and you can play tunes well, they’re quite a nice instrument.”

“Hearing a good bagpiper or a good pipe band can really change someone’s perspective of bagpipes.”

From that, I hope many at convocation are inspired by the mix of youth and older pipers from the SFU band who play there. You might assume the competitive nature of the pipe band would make them intimidating, but Killoran assures me that the piper community is tight-knit enough that new and seasoned players are happy to mingle and support each other, especially at events like convocation.

Of course, getting to that professional level takes a lot of work. “[Piping] is kind of a mix between [a] hobby and a job for several reasons,” Killoran explains. “It’s a hobby because it’s something that we all really enjoy doing [. . .] but also a job because it takes up a lot of time for us. [. . .] I guess another way to look at it is as an ‘intense hobby.’”

Killoran also comments that while balancing school and the pipes can be challenging, she finds that piping and dancing act as a sort of “brain break” from studying.

In her first year, Killoran moved from Kamloops to Vancouver in order to start her studies at SFU and try out for the SFU Pipe Band. For most of us, first year was daunting enough, but Killoran explains she had “to learn all of this music because the [band] had a concert in Glasgow that year.”

“There was all of the competition stuff [and] it was just pages and pages and hours [of] repertoire that I was to memorize for the year if I wanted to be in the band the next year.”

However, Killoran found that it wasn’t all stress. “It was really tough to balance it all, but I found that learning the tunes actually kind of increased my productivity of studying because it was like a break, but, again, not actually a break. [. . .] That following September, I was invited to actually be a full member.”

Nearing the end of our conversation, I ask Killoran if she has any general advice for someone who’s interested in learning the bagpipes or even highland dancing.

“I’d say honestly just go for it. Find an instructor or contact the SFU Pipe Band or the [Robert Malcolm Memorial] Pipe Band just to get yourself started,” she says. “It can be as competitive as you want or you can just do it recreationally, both dancing and [piping] as long as you just get started.

“I’m a little bit biased because I love both of the things that I do, but it’s just such a great community to be a part of, really small, close-knit. [. . .] I would say just go for it, don’t let anything stop you. [. . .] You’re never too old to get started.”

For those of you who still believe SFU is community-less, the pipe band is yet another family that you can find on campus and become a part of. The youth pipe band (ages 6 to 18) starts up again on September 15, and any inquiries about joining any of the SFU pipe bands can be sent to info@sfupipeband.com.