One evening each week, classrooms and hallways at Fraser Heights Secondary look and sound a little like Scotland.
Drummers tap out beats with sticks, Highland dancers rehearse their steps and bagpipers make walls vibrate with their wind-powered drones.
“We’ve kind of been all over the place, but we’ve been here for, I want to say, close to five years now,” explained Kyla MacNeil, who snare-drummed in the band as a teen and later graduated to the role of instructor, back in 1991.
“I just haven’t gone away, and never wanted to leave,” she said with a laugh.
Today, MacNeil serves as band manager and helps organize all the piping, drumming and dancing that involves 50 kids – some as young as eight, others ready to “age out” at 18.
The band has been a training ground for thousands of young musicians and dancers since 1956, when it was launched as the Optimist Junior Pipe Band by its celebrated founders, Don Bellamy (who later served as a Vancouver city councillor) and Malcolm Nicholson. By the early 1960s, a new name was found to reflect the sponsorship and patronage of Nat Bailey and his restaurant chain, and ever since it’s been known as White Spot Pipe Band.
“Learning to play, playing to learn” is a motto splashed on the home page of the band’s website (whitespotpipeband.com), a portal for its history, programs and many events, including an inaugural Spring Ceilidh planned for a night in April at a church hall in Cloverdale.
A key corner of the website is the “Join Us” link, established to attract new blood and keep everything piping along.
At Fraser Heights, many adults who’ve been through the band ranks now bring their kids to the school to be part of this “amazing organization,” as band president Alisa Corscadden calls it.
“But you don’t just have to have that family tie to come out and join us,” she explained. “There are some kids that have never been to a Highland games or know much about pipe bands, but they want to become part of this whole experience.”
Everyone is welcome to come see what they’re all about, Corscadden continued.
“We would love to show them around,” she said. “We are always accepting new students as we want this organization to continue to flourish and continue for another 63 years. We take kids aged eight to 18 for our program and we teach them from the ground up.”
Two of Corscadden’s children are still involved in the band.
“My daughter (Kyla) has aged-out, and my sons, one is a piper (Aiden) and the other is a bass drummer (Ethan),” explained Corscadden, a Langley resident.
For years, she’s witnessed the band’s rehearsal ritual, starting at 7 p.m. On their own and in groups, the pipers always start on their practice chanters, the fingered part of the bagpipe played to create the melody, and drummers play on practice pads, to nail down their rudiments. In another room, dancers step it up to canned music. Later in the evening, by around 8:30 p.m., everyone gathers in the school’s main hall for a full-band performance.
The practice has paid off over the years, resulting in gigs at the Calgary Stampede, Expo 86 and others, the USS Arizona memorial site in Hawaii, Beijing International Tourist Festival, charity runs, many Remembrance Day ceremonies and, of course, Highland Games far and wide.
For such opportunities around the globe, young people come from far and wide – well, from around Metro Vancouver – to learn from the 10 instructors employed by the band.
MacNeil, who lives in Coquitlam, recalled her own history with the band she now manages.
“I was kind of sucked into it because my dad played bagpipes and my brother played bagpipes and I was a highland dancer – hard to believe, but true, 8,000 years ago – and I wanted to go on and be in a band as well,” she recalled.
“So there was a time there when my family was going to three different band practices on three different nights of the week, and then me and my brother both got to playing with White Spot, and it was just fun,” MacNeil continued. “We made friends with people in the band that we are still close with now, so more of less, for me, family is why I got in, but everyone seems to have their own reasons for joining. Lots of people do come because their family but lots of people come to us because they see us out doing something, a performance, and they’re like, ‘That looks really neat,’ you know.”
The number of band members can fluctuate in a given year, rising to 60 but rarely falling below 50.
“But again, it’s all about recruitment,” Corscadden said. “And after they graduate when they’re 18, hopefully a lot of them go to other pipe bands at that point, and they do. We’re trying to get those beginners in because we’re teaching these kids from very beginner level. A lot of them have never picked up any kind of instrument. So we teach them right, raw, from the beginning, which is kind of cool, and kind of unheard of really. We’re pretty unique that way.”
Meantime, the organization’s Spring Ceilidh is a reason for band members, parents and supporters to enjoy a night of music and dance, with performances by the band Blackthorn and, of course, White Spot Pipe Band. The social is set for the evening of Saturday, April 13 at Cloverdale Catholic Parish Centre, 17475 59 Ave., with tickets priced at $20 for adults and $10 for kids 12 and under.
“It’s a first-time fundraiser for us,” Corscadden confirmed, “and we’re close to sold-out. We’re blown away by the response.”
For more event details and tickets, email email@example.com or call Ken at 604-649-6482.