When the Colorado Youth Pipe Band performs at area St. Patrick’s Day festivities later this month, their costumes and music will undoubtedly evoke favorite Hollywood films or nostalgia for a misty green landscape. The music is powerful, and even those with no Scottish or Irish ancestry often find it speaks to them. Jamie Cuthill, the band’s director for almost two decades, recalls the first time he heard it and how it catapulted him into what became his career.
“Both of my parents are Scottish immigrants. And my older sister…was competing in Highland dance from a very young age. We would go around to all of her competitions.” In 1990 he was among the founding students of the Youth Pipe Band. Over the course of his history with the band, he says has seen interest ebb and rise with each new big screen feature, from “Braveheart” to “Brave.”
Cuthill embraces his Scottish heritage and estimates that about half of the band’s musicians and dancers have some cultural connection to the region. For Cuthill and many of his students, though, it’s the sound of the bagpipe that drew them in. Stapleton’s Carson McConnell, age 10, first heard a solo bagpiper perform at Montview Presbyterian Church during a “Reformation Day” event when he was six and asked his parents if he could learn to play.
When asked about his cultural heritage, McConnell talks about the clans identified with his parents’ ancestry: “On my dad’s side is McConnell, which is a clan in Scotland that, I think, came over to America several hundred years ago. And I think on my mom’s side it’s the Campbell clan.” Still, it’s the music that resonates most for him. “It’s an incredible experience. All those bagpipes together with all those drums, it sounds really cool, and it’s cool to be a part of that,” says McConnell. “Playing, in general, is really fun.”
Despite the name, piping, drumming and dance are all part of the Colorado Youth Pipe Band’s skill set. Drummers may choose from snare, tenor or bass drum, and dance lessons begin as early as age 4. Board President Gillie Bishop’s entire family is involved in some way in the band. Her husband began to pursue his lifelong dream of learning to play bagpipes a few years ago. Their two daughters began to dance and drum, and Bishop was also drawn in. Over time, she engaged in more leadership roles as she realized how important parent support was to sustaining the small-knit group that has become a second family to her.
Because children age out at 18, Bishop says keeping the band at its ideal size can be difficult at times: “We’re always looking for new people who want to join and commit to the band.” Though music lessons and program fees sustain the band, Bishop says they are also undertaking some creative fundraising efforts.
Cuthill says music theory is helpful for learning to play the bagpipes, but is not required; of his own musical background, he says, “I played the trumpet very poorly.”
New bagpipe students typically begin playing on a practice chanter, a reed instrument that resembles an elongated recorder or oboe. “They learn the basic fingerings and then they start learning how to blow the big instrument. When they’re proficient, we’ll outfit them,” he says. McConnell worked his way up to the bagpipes from the chanter, a true test of willpower and commitment. “It was kind of hard just because being able to play was quite a long way away.” He’s been playing the bagpipe since 2018 and now has his own bag. He says he borrows the rest of his bagpipe’s parts from the band since the complete ensemble can run upwards of $1,000. For video of the band practicing, CLICK HERE.
For performances, band members must dress in “proper highland attire,” says Cuthill. And yes, that includes kilts, normally in the Hamilton green hunting tartan (what the uninitiated might refer to as “plaid”), though dancers are allowed a pop of color if they like. Asked about wearing the kilt, McConnell responds with a smile in his voice: “…it takes a little while to get used to it.”
To hear the band play and see the kids perform in their tartans, though, you don’t need to fly to Edinburgh. The band performs on Sat., March 14 at noon at Denver’s Hard Rock Café (downtown) and at 2pm at the Abbey Tavern, 5151 E Colfax Ave. For additional dates and information on lessons and future events, go to: https://www.cypb.net/
Front Porch photos by Christie Gosch