From top left: This photo, from the mid-70s, is from the first half-time performance the pipe band gave at a high school baseball game. The Weston-McEwen Pipe and Drum Band appeared in a parade with Morrison's Academe (at the front) in Crieff, Scotland in 2005. While there, the Scotts found it odd that a regular band played with the pipe band, something unique to Weston-McEwen's band. Director of the band, Rob McIntyre, left, and the members of the Weston-McEwen Pipes, Drums and Military Band practice the song, " Scotland the Brave," during school on Monday in preparation for their upcoming performance (staff photo by Brenna Chapman).This year celebrates 50 years since the first bagpipe sounded at Weston-McEwen High School.

Every year the pipes and drums band performs at a basketball half-time show. This year they'll perform on Feb. 10 and they're lining up a special show for the anniversary, said director Rob McIntyre. They're also inviting any and all alumni to come join in the celebration.

When the school first brought back bagpipes, it was a slow transition. First the band had one bagpipe and within a few years it had four, as seen here, with one bagpipe set for each class.

contributed by Rob McIntyre

Getting started

Weston-McEwen was built in 1949 and in 1951, they had a pep band of the standard sort with horns and woodwinds and drums. In the 1950s, the pep band was accompanied by a Scottish dancing group called the McEwen Scotties who were all girls, McIntyre said, since Title IX hadn't come into effect. By 1958, the dance group was known as the Highland Lassies.

The Lassies did what McIntyre called a psuedo-Scottish dance and wore Scottish-type tartan dresses. In 1959, the school decided it might be nice if the Scottish dancers were accompanied by a bagpipe. So the school got its first set of pipes that year.

Scottish dancing and Scottish pipes were not new to the Athena area, as many of the original settlers were Scottish or of Scottish descent, says the school's pipes and drums Web page. Before World War I an "active Caledonian society" held yearly picnics with pipes playing in the city park. But after the war the pipers died without passing on their musical knowledge.

So when pipes returned to the school in 1959, students and teachers had to mostly teach themselves. Within a few years the pipe section expanded to include four sets, one for each class.

Building a tradition:

Things really began to pick up when Steve Pyle took over as director in 1968, though he had to take a few years off for military service during the Vietnam War.

"I didn't know what a set of bagpipes looked like, let alone what they sounded like or how to play," he admitted.

As a band teacher he'd learned to play all manner of instrument.

"Bagpipes are not part of that," he said. "It's a whole new world."

Like the teachers and students before him, Pyle taught himself and learned from other pipers in the northwest.

When he returned from the service in 1972, he made the band officially the pipe and drum band. Title IX took effect in 1972 and many girls switched to play volleyball or basketball, so the band became co-ed, though it was a few years before boys were brave enough to wear kilts.

It didn't help that it was the mid-70s, Pyle said, and short skirts were in. At the time a local sewing club made the kilts and they adhered to the style with hems around mid-thigh.

They had to change the kilts when Weston-McEwen began competing in pipe band competitions and had to adhere to kilt-length regulations. Over the years, Pyle and McIntyre said more and more boys have joined and now the ratio's about 50-50.

"They just had to get over the shock of wearing a kilt," Pyle said.

Pyle led the pipes and drums and regular band until his retirement in 2000. Over the years, he brought Weston-McEwen musicians on the state, national and international scene. They regularly tour the state and northwest.

"The more you travel, the more you get to be active," Pyle said. "You've got to get out there and give kids a medium to play."

The band's played at Independence Day celebrations in Washington, D.C., the first of which was in 1985.

"This was our big chance," Pyle said.

The band did well, because it was invited to play at two more events in Washington, D.C. after that.

In 2005 McIntyre, who took over after Pyle, and the band traveled to the music's homeland in Scotland.

A unique combo

When they went to Scotland and the U.K., what surprised McIntyre and the Scots, was the rare combination of bagpipes, drums and a regular school band.

In the U.S., McIntyre said people were always surprised to see bagpipes with the regular band. In Scotland, it was the exact opposite, as they were surprised to see a regular band with the pipes. In other words, in the U.S. people were used to seeing the band stand alone and in the U.K. people were used to seeing the pipes and drums standing alone.

The Weston-McEwen band (pipes, drums and band included) played with a Morrison's Academe, in Crieff, Scotland. At the time that school held the Scottish youth national champions title.

Since the combination is so unique, McIntyre and Pyle said there's very little music for the band-pipes combination. During his time as director, Pyle wrote many arrangements.

"I wrote a new show every year," he said.

McIntyre, who now writes music for the band, said it takes about six months to compose a piece.

"It's a challenge, what is possible in the scope of nine notes," which is the range of the bagpipes, McIntyre said.

This year they're preparing for another trip to the country's capitol, along with New York. McIntyre said he's been playing around with "Starts and Stripes Forever" and other patriotic tunes.

Becoming a piper

The road to becoming a piper is not an easy one. Most students start in seventh grade with a practice chanter - a recorder-like instrument that teaches the fingerings on the pipe portion of the bagpipes.

"The hardest part is to learn the fingerings," Pyle said.

The bagpipe only plays nine notes, but when a piper players, they have to hit little strings of minor notes between each major note.

In seventh and eighth grade students learn to use the actual instrument. They continue to study until they make it into the band.

It's usually a two-year program to learn to play pipes or a drum. Between the number of students who start the program and the number of students who join the band the band loses about 50 percent.

"Because it's that difficult," Pyle said, "both drumming and piping."

Weston-McEwen band is made up of about 48 students. Of those, 18 play pipes and five play drums.

Clifford Smith started drums as a freshman. Now as a junior he's the drum major, leading the pipes and drums band at Weston-McEwen.

"It's a role you continue until you graduate," Clifford said.

Along with leading the band and teaching students, Clifford helps write the drum parts to Pyle's and McIntyre's yearly arrangements.

"It's fun to do," Clifford said. "It requires some amount of creativity with the drum parts. I listen to the music and write what goes along with it, within the boundaries of what people's playing abilities are."

Clifford learned Scottish snare - which has two sets of snares in the drum rather than just one and uses drumsticks with larger heads - in about two months. Then he was teaching other students.

"He must have set a new record," McIntyre said.

Some students continue on with the practice. Both Pyle and McIntyre said they've run into former students who still play.

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