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Band Talk May 2009

Interview with Roger McGuire, Pipe Major of the Canadian Scottish Regiment pipes and Drums, Victoria, BC

Q: Tell us a little about yourself.

RM: I was born in Ottawa, Ontario and grew up in the Ottawa area. My father was on staff with the Army Historical Section at the time, where he was primarily involved with the writing of the Official History of the First World War. He had various side interests which included military music, and he was a huge Sousa fan.

He took me to concerts frequently. Seeing as Ottawa is the Capital City, there were lots of touring bands as well as local bands like the Governor General’s Foot Guards.

I also loved going to see the Changing of the Guard at Parliament Hill. In those days, the regular battalions of the Canadian Guards performed most of the time. I distinctly remember asking my mother why there weren’t cymbals in one of the bands marching by. I would have been about three I think. Anyway, the reason was it was the Canadian Guards pipe band! I thought it very strange that a band wouldn’t have cymbals.

The old Auditorium in Ottawa was where I first saw a British Band’s touring show. It was the place where the Ottawa Senators last won the Stanley Cup in 1926, and it was a typical arena of its day, filled, as I recall, with thick smoke.

Anyway, when the bands entered, one of the bass drummers was wearing a white bearskin! It was an impressive and colorful show, the Royal Scots Greys and Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. It was around the date considered the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A year or so later, the Black Watch came to town. When the band entered the arena, the combination of sight and sound was such that I knew I was going to be a piper one day. I believe there were 23 pipers in the band for that show. The big story of that tour was the fact that 9 pipers left the tour at one point to participate in President Kennedy’s funeral.

My mother was the kind who wanted her boys to try whatever activities interested them. I wanted to be a piper, but I was considered too young. So I became a highland dancer instead, which I continued with until the early teen years.
At ten years old, I finally began taking lessons on the chanter from Pipe Major JT MacKenzie of the RCAF Rockcliffe Pipe Band. He had been pipe major of the 2nd Bn. Scots Guards in the immediate post-war years, and a tremendous individual who was to have a huge impact on the pipe band community of Eastern Ontario. After retiring from the Canadian Forces, he and his family moved to Maxville where he began teaching in the area high school. His autobiography is a great read.

When he retired, I started taking lessons from Pipe Major Sam Scott, wartime pipe major of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. He had a big teaching program going with dozens of students, but he died following a minor traffic accident in about 1972. For a couple of years, I went down to Maxville every Saturday, to take lessons from JT MacKenzie. It was an all day journey through country roads.

I joined a kids pipe band around 1972 called Camp Argyle #26. We were somehow affiliated with the Service Battalion but were not forced to cut our hair. Anyway, we had a great time and even made a trip to Scotland in 1974 and played in the World Pipe Band Championships in Grade IV.

Following my university years in the late 1970s, followed by an extended bout of travelling, I decided to join the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa in 1981. We participated in the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 1983. During the show we had to play one 12 minute segment of non-stop marches at 120 for the Lochiel Marching Team.

By 1988 I had moved to Victoria with my wife Sally. I joined the Canadian Scottish Regiment. In 1992 I was appointed Pipe Major. I set about trying to get our band involved in events all over the place. We went to Monterey, California in 1993, which was the beginning of what was to become a long series of visits to California over the next few years.

A tattoo started up in Memphis in 1993 with Major Michael Parker of Royal Tournament fame as producer/director. We were invited to perform the second year. It was a legendary band trip. Unfortunately the tattoo had cost a lot more money than it brought in, and there hasn’t been one since.

In 1997 we were invited to be the guest military pipe band at the Pleasanton Highland Games in California. We were to play some combined band pieces with the 3d Marine Aircraft Wing Band. It was a magical weekend. The audience loved it, and we did a lot of performing together and socially things sparked also.

That was also the weekend that the Princess of Wales died. So one of our pipers played Amazing Grace at the closing ceremonies, and that moment was broadcast throughout California if not across the USA.

Following our performance with the Marines at Pleasanton, the relationship continued, and we performed together many times on both sides of the border between 1998 and 2001. In 2000 we recorded a CD together, but that’s another story.

The Canadian Scottish Regiment performed for the first time at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2004, which is the last time to date that a Canadian band has appeared in this prestigious event. In 2005 the band returned to Holland for the first time since World War II, where we played in the Netherlands National Tattoo.

Personally, I was a member of the Canadian Forces Pipe Band for both the 60th Anniversary of Holland celebrations in 2005 and also the Vimy Ridge Monument Rededication in 2007.

While a Pipe Major, I have also been involved with a society promoting the vision of creating a west coast international military music festival or tattoo since about 1993. Several events took place during 1994 when the Commonwealth Games occurred in Victoria.

Things began to get rolling in 1998 when we were able to stage concerts involving the Prince of Wales’s Division (Clive) Band along with British Columbia bands, and later the US Army Field Band and Soldier’s Chorus. The year 1999 was a particularly good one with concerts by the Grenadier Guards Band, Welsh Guards Band, 1st Bn. The Highlanders Pipes and Drums and a Sunset Tattoo commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the founding of Fort Victoria.

Despite a record of successful events, financial support was slow in coming. With very modest financial support we held a festival for most years between 2000 and 2006. Bands we were able to include are a long list, including a return performance by the US Army Field Band and Soldier’s Chorus, Third Marine Aircraft Wing Band, US Navy Band Northwest, French Navy Pipe Band, Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, Invercargill Caledonia from New Zealand, and numerous Canadian regular force and reserve bands.

With the opening of a new modern arena in Victoria just over 2 years ago, we now have a facility in the community in which to stage a world-class tattoo. Consequently plans for “The Pacific Tattoo” are underway with the intention that the first performance will take place in 2010. Date and venue has not been set, but will be passed along as soon as they are known.

Q. What is your daily band routine?

RM: Owing to financial circumstances, as well as being a “Reserve” band, we rehearse one evening a week for 3 hours.

Q. Do you select the music played for concerts or was it done by committee?

RM: I do it

Q. Are auditions for new band members done collaboration with section leaders?

RM: Yes, we have auditions.

Q. How important are recordings to you and the band?

RM: Not a factor at the moment. Making a CD was a rewarding and time consuming effort, but circumstances have not allowed us to do another recording since we made Canadian Bagpipes, American Brass.

Q. How important to you are the various small ensembles that are often employed?

RM: In our case, we occasionally have the traditional 4 pipers for a mess dinner. Most of the time we are full band.

Q. What is your view on the future of pipes and drums and military bands in the world?

RM: We are in a period of transition for sure. Playing standards are going up, but there are lots of internal and external things that make it difficult to practice and perform as often as we would like. I believe in retaining the traditional elements of performance and dress as well as acknowledging there is a “progressive” pipe music direction going on. At one time you could predict what the first 20 tunes a new piper might learn. Not so today, with a distinctive “civilian” approach. When I started, it was considered mandatory to acquire the Scots Guards manual.
Full dress is an important component of the traditions we are upholding. We have very stringent control over what kit we purchase, and how its to be worn. There is a lot of shoddy items being produced, as buying the best means paying what at times seems extortionate amounts of money.

Q. What type of music do you feel most comfortable with?

RM: Personally I am a fan of traditional military music. Some Jazz, Pop and Broadway is ok, but I’d prefer that it doesn’t dominate a performance.

This may be the opportunity to make a comment about the playing of marches in touring performances or concerts. Seems that they are often viewed as being nothing more than a musical accompaniment for getting the band on or off the stage or parade square. I consider it to be an artistic flaw to cut off a march without playing it in full in anything other than a parade where the music is being used for the marching of troops. In that situations it’s understandable. Otherwise it’s not.

Not so long ago I heard a performance where the narrator gave a 30 second illustration of “Semper Fidelis” which was followed by the band performing the march for no more than 30 seconds and cutting off! (I think I have a tape somewhere to prove it.)

In the brass-reed band world, medleys are another area I’m not fond of. I’d rather hear one or two full selections rather than 10-20 snippets jammed into a 5 minute medley. Imaginatively conceived medleys can be effective, but most medleys leave me cold.

Finally on combined pipes with brass-reed, the feature items are particularly popular with audiences worldwide. With the rising pitch of pipe chanters over the past two decades or more it has become mandatory for bands to consider adopting two differently pitched chanters. “Orchestral” chanters are being manufactured to blend with brass-reed and other instruments. Especially in hot weather, the pipe chanter pitch rises to the point where the “unsuccessful blend” becomes admittedly painful to listen to.

Q. What is your opinion of the world of music today?

RM: Exciting time, for sure. If there is one general thing I would like to see happen though, it’s to see bands not lose sight of their military roots. Marches should be a staple of most types of performance, and light classics. I’ve heard concert performances where the objective seemed to be “let’s show how we could be mistaken for anything but a military band”.

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