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Red hot pipers battle for votes at the UK Pipe Band Championships at Stormont

More than 3,000 musicians will gather at Stormont tomorrow for the UK Pipe Band Championships. Two pipers and a drum major from Northern Ireland tell Karen Ireland why more young people are tuning into pipe bands

Published 10/06/2016

Sounding off: Belfast Lord Mayor Brian Kingston with drummers Oliver and Evie
Sounding off: Belfast Lord Mayor Brian Kingston with drummers Oliver and Evie
Girl power: Sarah-Jane Bellingham
Sarah-Jane Bellingham with (from left) her sisters’ Abbie, Jessica and brother, Robbie
Generation game: Ian Burrows (second from left) with brother Stephen (left), father Lexie and brother Nigel (right)
Ian on the pipes
Major fun: David Brownlee with son Aaron
David Brownlee in Derryclavin Pipe Band

Tomorrow the 'Hill' will be alive with the sound of music when the UK Pipe Band Championships get underway at Stormont.

The event will see hundreds of pipers, drummers, Highland dancers and drum majors from across the UK, the Republic and even Canada taking part in the prestigious competition. Over 3,000 tartan-clad musicians of all ages and from all backgrounds will turn out for the musical extravaganza which is free to attend and open to the public.

Visitors will be able to enjoy a musical spectacle and watch the skills of the drum majors and dancers during the family event.

‘After a year studying law at university, piping is a great way of relaxing’

Sarah-Jane Bellingham (19), from Ballymoney, is a first year law student at Queen's University. She is a piper with the Topp Star of the North Pipe Band in Ballymoney.

She says:

About eight years ago I started piping. You could say it's been a bit of a family affair, as my grandfather founded the band which I play in. My dad, uncles and cousins are all members, too.

They all seemed to really enjoy it, so I decided to give it a try. At the start I found it difficult to play the bagpipes but the more I practised the better I got.

When I started, I was the only girl in the band with about 15 boys - which was very annoying. Over the years, however, more girls have joined and now there are more girls and young people competing at events generally. At the start when I took up piping my friends all thought it was weird but now it is seen as cool. I was in Russia this year for championships and my friends were impressed by that.

It is hard to practise the pipes in a house full of students, but they know if I don't, I won't be able to play properly at competitions.

Occasionally there are a few complaints but they tend to let me get on with it. Since I joined the band my brother and two sisters have become members, too, so we have a great day out when we compete together.

We practise twice a week, every week, and I enjoy playing as I love music.

I am also a member of a traditional band, which was formed out of the pipe band, and I play the fiddle.

We have whistles and bodhran drums, too.

After a tough year at university, piping is a way of relaxing. And I will be going to the Edinburgh Tattoo this year for the first time.

I've watched it on television for years and I'm looking forward to performing at such a famous event."

‘I love the fact piping is cross-community ... it’s like one massive family’

Ian Burrows (50) lives in Portadown with his wife Diane and they have one son, Nicky. He is the project manager for the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association Northern Ireland branch and a piper with Drumlough Pipe Band. He says:

I have been looking forward to this competition in Belfast for months. A tremendous amount of work goes into organising and planning an event of this scale.

There will be over 3,500 people of all ages and cultures taking part and they will all be joining together for one huge finale and salute at the end of the day.

I am very fortunate as I get to combine my hobby of piping with my job as I have been working for the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association NI since 2012. I get to travel all over the world doing it — we were in Moscow earlier this year.

I have been a piper for 43 years, having started when I was seven. My dad was a founder member of the Drumlough Pipe Band, which is the band I am in now.

It tends to be a family affair with father, sons, daughters, nieces and nephews all carrying on the tradition and getting involved.

My own son tried it for a while — but he didn’t get the bug the way I did. While my wife isn’t involved, she has always supported me from the sidelines.

Since I started piping I have practiced every week with rehearsals twice a week.

I’ve always loved it. It is a great way to meet people and make new friends and we are like one massive family.

Competing does take up a lot of your time so you have to be dedicated in order to be good.

People sometimes think piping is for old men but more young people are coming along.

They love being part of a big organisation and the fellowship it brings and, of course, the atmosphere of the events.

They post on social media from the events and I would say there are more young people getting involved now than ever before.

Then you have the stalwarts like my dad who is still piping away in his 70s and who will be competing tomorrow.

What I love about piping is it is open to all — it is cross community and anyone can give it a go.

There will be 117 bands taking part tomorrow, so that will be a great spectacle.

Some of the best bands in the world will be taking part. It is also a great event for the local economy, research shows that similar events in Scotland brought in over £1.5m in revenue.”

‘Being a drum major is a skill and an art ... it takes work to perfect’

David Brownlee (44), from Enniskillen, is a homeless officer with the Housing Executive. He is a drum major in Derryclavin Pipe Band, Co Fermanagh. He is separated and has two children Kayla (7) and Aaron (6). He says:

Since I was seven I have been a drum major. I joined the band as my dad was in it, as well as my cousins, aunts and uncles — and it seemed like a lot of fun.

Piping is something that carries through generations and we have people of all ages in our band.

Being a drum major is a skill and an art form. It takes a lot of work to perfect it.

As well as constant practice you need to be fit enough to take part at competition level. It is like any sport — you need to train and be match fit.

My job is quite stressful at times, but when I am being a drum major that is all I can focus on. I can’t afford to lose my concentration, as I might drop the staff and it also has to move in time to the music.

My children haven’t joined the band yet and I would never push them into it. My son Aaron is showing an interest in playing the drums, though, so it may be something he develops an interest in at a later stage.

In the winter months, I take part in a school to coach young drum majors which is for all abilities. There are definitely more young people getting involved with the band. Being a drum major is no longer seen as a role for an old man who walks in front of a band with a stick — younger generations now see it as a skill.

You also learn a lot about life as a group when you experience the successes and failures of competition together.

The bonds made in the band last a lifetime and coming together at competitions is like a reunion with families and friends.

I’m proud to be involved.”

Belfast Telegraph

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