Arts & Entertainment

UC Riverside Pipe and Drum Band marches on in lean times

UC Riverside Pipe and Drum Band
UC Riverside Pipe and Drum Band
Steven Cuevas/KPCC

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The musicians who play in the UC Riverside Pipe Band will be marching across the Southland to ring in St. Patrick’s Day this weekend. The bagpipers and drummers get no financial support from the university. But the band plays on.

On some nights, along the northern edge of the UCR campus, you may hear the pipes calling. Not from across glen or mountainside, but from deep in the belly of a facilities management building.

In a cavernous workshop standing near a sheet metal saw, vise and other heavy equipment, a group of pipers are working out the kinks.

“A lot of people think there’s no way to tune a bagpipe, haha. Well yeah there is,” explains Mike Terry.

Terry’s UC Riverside’s assistant chief of facilities maintenance. He’s also a former country singer who traded in beer soaked ballads for bagpipes 25 year ago. Terry is the pipe major - the group’s maestro. Before they rehearse any marches or reels, he tunes and adjusts each pipe.

“The idea is to pitch the chanter that plays the 9 notes on the mixolydian scale to the drones which provide that steady droning sound, the male sound,” says Terry, as he works on one of the musicians bagpipe.

While the sound of Great Highland Bagpipes may sound timeless, Terry formed the UCR Pipe Band just 12 years ago. UCR’s sports teams are the “Highlanders” – so the university wanted a pipe ensemble to spice up basketball games and other campus events.

“Since then, we’ve had men in kilts. We haven’t thrown too many telephone poles around here! But um, drinking beer is also part of the culture and we do that rather well!,” says Terry.

UCR also has a couple of dorms with Scottish names, and its own Tartan design that makes for a fetching sky-blue kilt.

“The UCR tartan was developed by the UCR Pipe Band. It remains our intellectual property and is used with our agreement by the university to celebrate our Scottish traditions,” says Terry.

But the band gets no money from the university. It survives on donations and on the money it makes by performing off campus.

The players range in age from 16 to 60. They come from Southern California and Nevada, drawn by the ensemble’s stellar reputation - and by the music.

“When the person is playing, the bagpipe becomes part of the person. I am trying to connect myself to a force that is there,” says master piper Ian Whitelaw, the band’s the music director.

“The bagpipe is a combination of male energy and female energy. The bagpipes are supposed to be the sound of the woman singing,” explains Whitelaw. “The male is the drone that provides support for the soprano and has to be in perfect balance, one can’t be louder than the other or it doesn’t work,” he adds.

Whitelaw also teaches bagpiping at UCR – one of the very few colleges with piping and Scottish drumming courses.

Three years ago, university budget cuts forced the music department to drop the both courses. But the pipe band raised the money to rehire Whitelaw. Chief drumming instructor Ed Best, though, volunteers his time.

“This whole organization is based on teaching everyone to come up through the ranks, from scratch,” says Best.

“People come in from nothing with drumsticks and a smile, and we show them what to do - and eventually within a year or so, they become members of the band.”

As rehearsal night marches on, pipe major Mike Terry bustles from group to group. One band of pipers rehearses in the yard’s parking lot near some work trucks.

“The ancient tradition is that you can’t call yourself a piper until you had studied the instrument for seven years,” says Terry. “The folks that you can hear in the background are just the beginners, just learning how to put this physicality of moving your fingers,” he says.

“Blowing and squeezing at once to produce this really strange sound that becomes beautiful once the instrument is mastered. And um, there are some folks who probably should never call themselves a piper! Wanna be a piper? Here! Have a CD!,” Terry laughs.

Mike Terry and the UCR Pipe and Drum Band host the annual Harry Moore Memorial Solo Piping and Drumming Competition next weekend in Riverside. This weekend, the pipers play for the love of it – and for cash - at St. Patrick’s Day events across the Southland.