In the late 1970s Brian Switalla was a name that was being bandied around as one to watch out for. He had been successful in competitions in the lower part of the South Island and many of those who heard him were aware of the talent.
It was at Christchurch in 1978 when I heard him for the first time. The most notable feature of his playing was the slow tempos of his tunes. There were those who criticised him for this approach, but Brian’s reasoning was that if he could get his technique sorted out at these slower tempos then it would be easier when he did speed things up. In 1984 at Inverness was the next time I heard him and there was no doubt that his method was the correct one.
Brian was born in Dunedin in 1959 and there was no history of piping in either side of his family but in the late 1960s he heard pipe bands at the annual Festival Procession and immediately fell in love with the instrument.
His parents took him along to the City of Dunedin Pipe Band and at the age of 11 he started learning from Fergus Mathieson. At around the same time the City of Dunedin Boy’s Pipe Band was started, and Brian was invited to join them in 1973. This band was reputedly the first junior band in New Zealand that was intended as a feeder band and Brian stayed with them until the inevitable happened and he moved into the No 1 band in 1977.
In 1984 he became the Pipe Major of the band and at the age of 25 was reputedly the youngest to hold this office in a Grade 1 band in New Zealand. Brian points out that there are a number of pipers who have taken over other New Zealand bands since then who were younger than he was.
By 1993 work commitments were such that he decided to step aside and for two years had no band involvement. Then in 1995 he was invited to join the New Zealand Police Pipe Band and played with them for four years.
In 2000, 2002 and 2003 Pipe Major Richard Parkes of the Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band invited him to play at the World Championships. He became only the second New Zealander, after Craig Meinsmith with the Victoria Police Pipe Band, to be a playing member of a World Championship winning band. This occurred in 2002.
Brian has for over 30 years been a top-class soloist and has won all of the top prizes throughout New Zealand. In 1980 be won the Silver Chanter at Christchurch. By 1985 there were enough previous winners of this event to inaugurate a Clasp competition. Brian won on that occasion and has also been successful on 11 subsequent occasions. Not bad for a competition that has only been going 22 years.
At an early stage in his piping career he learned Ceol Mor and in 1982 at Hastings won the Comunn na Piobaireachd (NZ) Inc Gold Medal. His returns to Hastings have been infrequent but in 2002 won his first and only Clasp.
Brian credits Fergus Mathieson as his first teacher but also received regular tuition from the late Allan Dodd and then later Lewis Turrell. Much later he was also influenced on a less regular basis by the late Donald Bain.
Composing did not come early to Brian. It was not something he tried until 1986 when he had a melody come into his head and quickly wrote it down. It coincided with the birth of his daughter and has been called Lauren’s Melody. This tune has been played by a number of soloists and pipe bands and twice at the World Championships.
Lauren’s Melody was published in The Kiwi Collection of Music for the Highland Bagpipe by Roger Gill in 1991. There are four other tunes composed by Brian in that book including Helen’s Dilemma. This is a reel composed in 1988 that thanks his wife for her help and support.
Nicknames in pipe bands are not uncommon and the Pipe Corporal in 1988 was Alan McKenzie. He is large of stature and to some at least he resembled a Clydesdale. (I have known Alan for many years and cannot see the resemblance!) When Alan married Wendy Sneddon, Brian penned a two parted reel called Wendy and the Clydesdale.
Bruce Anderson was a top eventing horse rider and good friend of Brian’s. He was also a good friend and supporter of the band. When he died at a young age in 1989 Brian composed an air called My Song for Bruce.
My Tribute for Don Mackie was written for that larger-than-life Australian piper who died in 1988. Brian met him the year before when competing in Brisbane.
In 1989 he composed a jig called Peter Tassell’s Birthday. This was followed in 1990 by Red Kenny of Barvis a 6/8 for a good friend and well known chieftain of the Maclean Highland Gathering in Australia. His name is Kenny MacLeod who originated from Barvis on the Island of Lewis.
Brian’s son Brendan arrived into this world in 1991 and such an important occasion called for a tune. Brendan Switalla’s Hornpipe was the result.
Brian had a short seven-year break from composing but in 1998 made up for lost time with three tunes. On a flight from London to Los Angeles he had as a travelling companion Richard Hawke. As they passed Greenland they noticed 35000 feet below small white ‘things’ in the water.
A discussion ensued as to what these may have been. One thought they were icebergs and the other was adamant they were sailing ships. One of the flight attendants adjudicated and confirmed they were indeed icebergs. You may be surprised that a New Zealander cannot recognise ice when he sees it. I have had it confirmed that Richard never has it in his whisky so can be forgiven! The upshot of this episode is that Brian felt the occasion needed a tune and Ice Ships Off Greenland resulted.
Also, from 1998 is a reel called Egg Shell Walkers and hornpipe Tulliallan Walkabout. Another hornpipe, Lady Tallisker has been played by the Temuka Pipe Band and also Field Marshall Montgomery.
This name came from the time he was tutoring his partner’s daughter Louise Weston-Condon. He said that he would buy her a malt whisky if she won the Gold Medal at Hastings. In 2003 she achieved this goal and Brian was reminded of the promise. Louise was partial to Talisker whisky from the Isle of Skye. It does not take a brain surgeon to work out the rest!
Brian’s partner is Gillian Weston and her brother, Colin Weston is the well-known side drummer. Colin and his wife Fiona have two sons and Andrew and Johnno Weston is a 2002 strathspey composed for them.
In 2004 Brian was playing around with the 2/4 march Road to the Isles and came up with a hornpipe that borrows heavily from that tune. He called it Skye Road to the Isles.
The last tune he has composed is lullaby called Nicholas’s Lullaby and named after Louise Weston-Condon’s newly born son.
Brian is another composer whose tunes are being played by bands and soloists. As already mentioned some bands have played them at World Championship level. The two things that decide if a tune is any good is whether they are played by one’s contemporaries and whether they will be played in decades to come. Brian has certainly achieved the first of these and twenty years later at least one of his tunes is still being played.
Most of the composers I have spoken to will say that they are more inclined to have a tune come into their head when they are in a relaxed mood. There are some who say that the relaxed nature of having a glass of one’s favourite malt whisky is another occasion when the Muse will strike. Brian is no exception and has had success under both.
The pipe band movement is full of people who can be called the quiet achievers. With a minimum of fuss, they have varying degrees of influence and success and their efforts and are largely unnoticed by many of those in the pipe band world.
One of these is Len Millar. Len hails from Palmerston North and it was there as a 12 year-old in 1956 he learned the bagpipes. His first teacher was Frank Gannaway, and Len started at about the same time as Frank’s son Donald who now lives in Christchurch and is also involved prominently in the New Zealand piping and pipe band movement.
Frank had started the Palmerston North Piping Centre with the intent of teaching bagpipes only but after a while a number of drummers became involved. Once drummers became involved with pipers the result is always a pipe band and it was from these beginnings that the Palmerston North Junior Pipe Band was formed.
Len well remembers the day at Athletic Park at the Wellington Contest in 1960 when the band paraded with 40 pipers and drummers. Soon after there was a name change and it became the City of Palmerston North Pipe Band.
About a year after this Len left the band and joined the Manawatu Scottish Society Pipe Band and remained with them until 1970. During that time, he became Pipe Sergeant.
Len was involved with the dairy industry and Alfa Laval dairy equipment. In 1970 he spent the better part of the year in Lund in Sweden for training and whilst there played at the Inter Scandinavian Pipe Band and Solo Championships. There are not many New Zealanders who can claim amongst their list of victories the Inter Scandinavian Solo Championships – Len Millar certainly can.
In 1971 he moved to Hawera with his business and has been there ever since. He very soon became involved with the Hawera Highland Pipe Band and was made pipe major.
During his time at the helm, they won the 1982 Grade 4 championships at Palmerston North. A year or two before the City of Wellington Pipe Band had acquired a set of polypenco chanters that were all the rage overseas. The sheer volume and sound quality obtained with these chanters impressed Len and he decided to have a go at making a set himself.
A local engineering firm undertook the machining of the chanters whilst he carried out the fine detail of tuning them. The Hawera Pipe Band played these at that 1982 contest. Four years later in 1986 at Wellington the band won the Grade 3.
Business commitments were such that in the mid-1980s Len gave away the Pipe Major’s job but was able to continue with the band as a playing member.
The band membership has always been healthy but not all those members wished to dedicate their time to the rigours of competing. Other local bands had the same problem and after some collusion between the bands and the local centre a Taranaki Competing Band was formed in February 2003 with Len as pipe major.
The New Zealand Championships at Taupo saw them competing for the first time at the national level and they come away with second place overall in Grade 4.
In his early days Len frequently competed in solo competitions and was placed a number of times at different A Grade competitions around the country. However, his first love was for the pipe band movement and although he has occasionally competed in solo competitions over the last thirty years, we are more likely to meet up with Len at a pipe band competition.
In 1989 the Millar Family Band was formed. This unit comprises Len, his wife Robin and four sons Allistair, Craig, Stuart and Campbell. They all play the pipes along with the bombarde, guitar, A pipes, D whistle, keyboards, bass, rainmaker, Ugandan drum and various other percussion instruments. Although they choose to play nontraditional music there is a rich vein of Scottish music in their repertoire.
In 1991 they released a tape called Millar Magic. This recording has 19 tracks with tunes ranging from the bagpiping genre through some classics from the pop scene over the last thirty or forty years, some traditional Maori songs and some 19th century pieces.
There are two bagpipe tunes on the tape, and they are composed by Len. Per Colliander is named after a friend from his days in Sweden and MacLachlan’s Gathering celebrates the first MacLachlan Clan Gathering in New Zealand. This happened in 1990 and the tune was composed especially for the occasion. The Millar Family represented the Hawera Pipe Band, and the tape was produced after encouragement from those at the Gathering. Stuart Millar composed a tune on the same tape called Stuart’s Soliloquy.
In 1999 as part of the Hawera Highland Pipe Band’s 75th anniversary the band and the Millar Family combined their talents to produce a CD called Sounds Fyne. Loch Fyne is the ancestral home of the Clan MacLachlan in Scotland and the MacLachlan tartan is worn by the band.
This recording has a fine blend of modern movie theme tunes, tunes from some of the more popular recent stage shows, along with some old favourites from the Scottish and Irish idiom. There are two tunes on this album composed by Len The MacLachlan Wedding and Stuart’s Hornpipe. Each member of the family are lucky enough to have a tune named after them.
Len has been a composer from his early days in piping. It started with a few doodles on the practice chanter as time went on many of these doodles became full blown tunes and were written down.
There were many times when he should have been concentrating on his school lessons, but his mind wandered to far more important things like how a certain musical passage would sound on the pipes.
One of the biggest fears many composers have, Len included, is that their compositions may merely be a rehash of an existing tune. With only 9 notes in our scale, it is only too easy to plagiarise someone else’s compositions. Len is meticulous in having many other pipers listen to his new tunes with a view of weeding out any that have even the slightest resemblance to an existing tune.
He has as many as 50 or 60 of them that have passed the acid test and have been preserved in writing. Many of these are in the hands of other pipers and Len has plans to collect as many as he can and publish them in a book at some time in the future.
A tune highlighted by Len is Stu’s Hornpipe. It is a little unusual in its construction in that it has only 8 bars in each part. However, that does not detract from this delightful melody. Initially, the writer has some difficulty getting to grips with the melody but with a little perseverance it suddenly came to life.
If the reader wishes to hear it played as the composer intended, then it is recommended they obtain the CD Sounds Fyne. On this recording Len gives a splendid rendition of the tune.
The composing of bagpipe music has always been part of the New Zealand piper’s culture. There is ample documentary evidence to suggest that pipers from the earliest days in New Zealand through to their modern-day counterparts have been prolific composers.
In my collection I have more than a dozen hand-written manuscript books with hundreds tunes in all time signatures (including Ceol Mor) dating from the 1890s through to the 1940s. There are a significant number that if brought to the notice of the piping world will surely be played and it is my intention to publish such a collection in the not-too distant future.
I also have dozens of loose sheets with tunes composed by New Zealand pipers. There are tunes that date back many decades, but it is a delight that many have been composed by the younger generation of New Zealand pipers.
My travels bring me into contact with pipers throughout the country and I am constantly reminded that there are many people who are actively composing. I frequently hear bands and soloists playing tunes composed by their contemporaries.
The majority of this new music has not been published and is in the hands of a few individuals. It is to be hoped that one day collections will be published that will include these newer tunes.
I frequently get as asked how many books of pipe music have been published by New Zealanders. There have not been many, and it is appropriate that I list them here.
The Muckle Dram Collection has already been discussed in this column and I intend to write about all the remainder in subsequent issues. There is one other I am aware of, Seventy-Five Years with the City of Wanganui Highland Pipe Band by Don Fitchet and George Abbott, 1993. This is a history record of the band since its inception in 1918 and includes 14 tunes either by band members or about band members.
In New Zealand there are a number of other pipers who have composed sufficient tunes to fill a book and some of them intend to publish their efforts. This approach is commendable and deserves all the encouragement that we can give them.
The Kiwi Collection of Music for the Highland Bagpipe, Book 1, by Roger Gill, 1991.
Roger is the son of Ian Gill and hails from Richmond near Nelson. Ian was a drummer in the Richmond and Districts Pipe Band and when at the age of 12 Roger decided to learn the pipes, he did not have far to look for a tutor. For about a year his first tutor was Jim Patterson until Jim moved to Auckland. Ian MacEwan took over for a few years and later again he received tuition from Rob Rodgers in Motueka.
It was when he about 15 years old that Roger first started to get tunes coming into his head. He found by experience if he did not record them, then he would forget them. Therefore, he would always write down any random fragments that came into his head and by the time he was in his 20 had a reasonable collection of tunes.
It was about the same time that Roger moved south to play in the City of Dunedin Pipe Band under Pipe Major Brian Switalla. Another notable teacher in the band was Airdrie Stewart and between Brian and Airdrie Roger’s piping took a quantum leap.
One of the biggest fears any composer has is that any new tune may not be original. This is where our fellow pipers can be very helpful. Roger was able to use Brian and Airdrie as a ‘sounding board’ and all his tunes were deemed to be original.
When others started playing his tunes Roger decided to compile a collection of distinctly New Zealand tunes. He is convinced there is a definite style amongst the younger composers that is peculiar to New Zealand. It is probably best that I let the man himself explain what he intended by reproducing the forward from his book here.
‘This book of music is dedicated to the originality in New Zealand piping. It has been inspired by the creative talents found among pipers throughout the country. My hope is that it will help to persuade New Zealand bands to have confidence to look for individuality in their choice of music. I believe that the composing talents in New Zealand are second to none, and that we do not need to follow slavishly all the new trends of other piping countries.'
12 years ago, computer software was not so sophisticated as it is today, and music writing programmes were extremely rare. Those that were available cost thousands of dollars, so Roger set about using his computer programming skill to design his own. This allowed him to set up all the tunes for the book.
In line with his intention to make this a collection of tunes by New Zealand composers Roger put out a general request and received material from all over the country. Some of the older generation of piping composers sent tunes but many were from the younger generation.
The following lists those who have tunes in Roger’s collection:
Most of the tunes in Roger’s Collection have notes recording their origins and there are a few that were supplied without comment. However, I have been told that as this is a family magazine it is perhaps better that the circumstances of the naming of a few of these tunes be left untold.
A number of the tunes in this collection are being played by pipers throughout the country. This is the proof of the quality of a composition. There is no doubt that Roger has a rare talent for composing.
The Kiwi Collection that Roger has produced is his first and as such has Book 1 on the cover. He does not intend to produce any more at this time and has made the offer that if any other compiler wishes to use the same title, he will allow its use. The only condition he puts on it is that it must be a collection of tunes by New Zealand composers.
Roger is not playing the pipes at the moment but still retains an interest in piping. He has had requests from various quarters to reprint his collection. He is currently pursuing this and hopes to have it out in the near future.
Bryan is a well-known piper in the Waikato area and has been playing for over fifty years. Born in Takapuna in 1945 he grew up on a farm in Auckland’s North Shore – this was long before it became the urban area it is today. There were no known pipers in his family but when he heard a pipe band as a ten-year-old he was hooked. The opportunity to learn did not occur until five years later and the circumstances were somewhat different than the norm.
One Friday night in 1961 Bryan spotted a set of bagpipes in the window of Beggs music shop in Takapuna but at £35 they were well beyond his means. He arrived home at 8.30 pm and told to his grandfather (who obviously had some love of the instrument) of what he had seen, and good old granddad pulled out his wallet and gave Bryan the money. Back on his motorbike he made haste to the shop which was 12 miles away and completed the transaction before the 9.00 pm closing time. In those days weekend shopping was still many years away and Friday night was the only time many were able to get to shops.
The bagpipes turned out to be a set made by either Henry Starck (who traded from 1889-19621) or Allan Stark (1947-601). Now that he had the bagpipes Bryan then had to obtain a practice chanter, tutor book and teacher.
The first two of these had to wait until the following Friday and very soon afterwards he started lessons with Greg MacGregor-Smith who was pipe major of the North Shore Pipe Band.
Greg fell off a ladder and broke his back forcing him out of the band and the late Terry Cassidy took over as Pipe Major. Bryan then went to Avon MacMillan (who was Pipe Major of the City of Auckland Pipe Band) for solo piping tuition and it was only natural that he would eventually start playing in the band. He played in the COAPB for the next three years, but it had been Bryan’s desire to travel overseas and at the age of 21 in 1967 he boarded the New Zealand Steam Ship Company’s SS Ruahine bound for UK where he was to spend most of the next 4 years. During this time, he was invited to play at the Eagle Pipers’ Society in Edinburgh and the London Scottish Pipers’ Society.
Upon his return to this country in 1971 he decided to move to Hamilton where he has resided for nearly 40 years. Bryan jokes when he left New Zealand, he had a set of bagpipes and only one suitcase with all his other belongings. However, when he returned, he had a wife, two children, the same set of bagpipes and fourteen tea chests full of their joint assets.
He did not actively pursue piping again until about 1984 when he joined the City of Hamilton Pipe Band. Ken Weeks was the pipe major, but he soon stepped aside, and Bryan took over and held the position for the next four years. He then became pipe major of the Cambridge and Districts Pipe Band and has been with them ever since.
Bryan’s first wife Pia was born in Denmark, and she participated in his pipe band interest by becoming a tenor drummer in the City of Hamilton PB. However, when Bryan moved to the Cambridge & Districts Pipe Band, she had a change of job and working hours and her involvement ceased.
Their eldest son Kyle also learned to play the pipes and played in the Cambridge band before going off to work in Scotland and Ireland. His piping is only very occasional as he now lives near Wellington and has a young family of his own. Bryan’s daughter Anika, who is married and living in France, has three sons and they are all learning the pipes.
Whilst in UK Bryan became involved in computer programming. This was long before the days of the PC and was at the very beginning of computing and information processing that these days is taken very much for granted. Bryan has also taught these skills at the Waikato Polytechnic. For the last 20 years his livelihood has come from his kilt hire business, kilt and leather-ware making business, and sales of bagpipes and piping accessories, plus playing at the occasional wedding or funeral.
Besides introducing Bryan to bagpiping, his grandfather Acland Withiel Thomas taught him beekeeping at age 12, a hobby that became a lifelong interest. He still has a few hives and for some years in the 1970s and 80s worked as a commercial beekeeper. For a few years he worked for Agri Quality as an Apicultural Advisory Officer and was with them at the time the Varroa mite first hit the beekeeping industry in 2000.
Bryan has competed solo but has found the pipe band took up enough of his time and soon devoted all his attentions in that direction. However, he also plays for some highland dancing, and encourages his pipe band’s involvement in Clan Gatherings and other social and cultural events. Bryan sees piping as not just something that takes place within the monoculture of the pipe band world but as an integral part of all events associated with our NZ Scottish (and Irish) heritage be it in family or broader social spheres.
Composing is something that most pipers try and many start at an early age. In Bryan’s case he had been playing about six years before the bug hit him and since then he has composed well over 100 tunes. He admits that some are not the best tunes one would hear but there are a few that he is quite proud of.
In September 1995 he compiled two collections of bagpipe music. The first is called Bryan’s Bagpipe Tunes Book No 1 and this contains 28 of his own compositions. They are mostly 2/4 and 6/8 marches but there are some jigs and slow airs. The tunes are all named after incidents in the lives of his family and friends. At the same time, he published Bryan’s Bagpipe Tunes Book No 2 and although there a few Scottish tunes there are also a number derived from other musical cultures. There are also 12 Hymns and Christmas Tunes, and these are followed by 8 Nursery Tunes.
September and October 1995 must have been a busy time for Bryan for in that year he also published Bryan’s Highland Bagpipe Tutor Part 1. Besides the tutor there are 21 tunes, most of which are standard fare for the Highland bagpipe.
By January 1998 Bryan had composed some more tunes and eight of these, along with a number of traditional Scottish and Irish tunes, as well as three Christmas carols are included in Bryan’s Bagpipe Tunes Book No 3.
All the books are in one spiral bound collection and were also available on compact disc in pdf format.
In 2010, Bryan brought out Bryan’s Music Collection 2010 and this includes all his compositions at that date. This revised book is available as part of his collection of books all included together on the CD. Hard copy can be made from the CD or can be requested. The books deviate from the old standard style of tutor or bagpipe music collection by including a bit more about the culture of piping in NZ and such things as a haggis recipe, highland dancing tempos and other information.
Bryan has composed in all the common time signatures and his tunes are generally easy to play. There is enough in the book to tempt pipers and it will not surprise if bands are heard playing his tunes in the future.
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