Posted in Features, Top Features

SFU Pipe Band: a campus treasure wrapped in tartan

The internationally renowned band is everything from an active, noisy campus club, to a loving community

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Image Credits: Rachel Wong, Emma Wu

No SFU event would be complete without the presence of a piper.

The SFU Pipe Band’s roots are deeply intertwined with the university, and their reputation is internationally renowned. But here at SFU, students sometimes are unaware that they are in the midst of true musical brilliance.

webbagpipes_emmawu copyA peek back in time

As The Tartan explored in a previous feature, on April 1, 1981, then-SFU president George Pedersen was on the lookout for a steady performing unit for the university. Pedersen tasked John Buchanan and Ian McGregor, both then-members of SFU’s administration, to approach the City of Port Moody Pipe Band to ask them to become part of a larger band for the university. Promised with a small operating budget and a brand new Fraser tartan, the SFU Pipe Band was born.

The band was led by now-retired pipe major Terry Lee and his brother, pipe sergeant Jack Lee. Terry held the position as pipe major for 36 years before his retirement, and in that time, the SFU Pipe Band grew from an unknown to a well-respected and recognized name in the international piping community.

Under Terry Lee’s direction, the SFU Pipe Band went to Scotland to compete at numerous World Pipe Band Championships, consistently placing in the top three before finally winning the world championship in 1995. Their success continued the year after that, “making the SFU Pipe Band the first band from outside of the United Kingdom to win the World Championship more than once,” according to the band’s website.

Aside from its success in competitions, the SFU Pipe Band has also performed in a number of famous venues all over the world, most notably Carnegie Hall in New York, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in Scotland. They have released a number of recordings, video documentaries, and concerts, achieving for themselves critical acclaim and recognition worldwide. The SFU Pipe Band name has become so well-known that more and more prospective members look to come to Vancouver in hopes of becoming a part of the band.

There are currently 48 members of the band, which includes 26 pipers, 12 snare drummers, 8 tenor drummers, a bass drummer, and a drum major. With such a large ensemble, there is an absolute need for cooperation and teamwork, something that various members of the pipe band point to as being a key component to their overall success. I had an opportunity to talk with some of the members of the pipe band and tell their stories and hear about what makes the SFU Pipe Band so special.

A new pipe major awakens

After Terry Lee retired as pipe major, the obvious question was who was going to succeed him as leader of the pipe band. This role was appointed to Alan Bevan, who currently holds the position as pipe major.

From a young age, Bevan had always been interested in bagpipe music, listening to LPs of pipe bands that his parents had. “Growing up in Abbotsford, there was a pipe band there and the pipe major was taking on new students. I started learning when I was seven and just ran with it,” Bevan said.

Once he joined the SFU Pipe Band, he quickly rose to become one of the world’s top pipers. He was in the band for five out of the six past world championship wins, and has also won numerous awards and accolades for his solo playing.

Bevan was no stranger to leading a pipe band when he was appointed as pipe major of the SFU band. Prior to joining the SFU Pipe Band in 1995, he was pipe major of the competing Abbotsford Police Pipe Band.

As pipe major, Bevan physically leads the band as conductor while also playing at the same time. In a group that is so large, strong leadership is paramount, as all the other pipers and drummers watch him closely for musical direction. Bevan also makes the final call on decisions such as music selection for a performance.

Titles and decisions aside, Bevan said that the reasons why the band has been so successful for so long is the stable leadership and the real sense of family among all the band members. “We all support each other in the band,” Bevan said. “[The pipe band] is a great organization to be a part of.”

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A group drawing students from home and abroad

Derek Milloy is a elementary school teacher by day and also an active piper in the SFU Pipe Band. When asked about how piping came into his life, Milloy described it as a “happenstance type of thing.”

Milloy grew up in Minnesota, and when he was 7 years old, a highland dance teacher moved into his town and his parents thought that it would be of interest to him. “I didn’t want any part of the dancing, until my parents told me about the swords,” Milloy said with a laugh. “But I was very intrigued when I saw the bagpipes.”

Fast-forward to his university career, and Milloy didn’t know what he wanted to study. His deciding factor came down to whether or not the school had a strong piping scene, and this brought him to SFU.

Over the time that he has spent with the pipe band, Milloy’s achievements with the band so far have come from when the band has come together in various ways. Musically, Milloy talked about the perfect sound that is achieved altogether as a group: “When we achieve what we are really striving for, it is enough to keep you going through the sad times. . . [It] keeps you hungry for more.”

The band has also come together at various times to support members of the piping community that may be going through difficult times. Milloy found himself in a difficult time when his wife Darleen Miharija, an accomplished SFU piper as well, passed away. The piping community rallied around him and supported him.

In remembering his late wife, Milloy is thankful that he was able to share his love for piping with her: “When you are able to share something with someone that you love, the feeling is beyond compare.”

“This isn’t Rotorua anymore,” laughed Louise Bentley, another band member. At 15 years old, she is the youngest member of the SFU Pipe Band and also is here strictly for the pipe band. Hailing from Rotorua, New Zealand, Bentley’s first trip to Vancouver was when she was only 12 years old. This is the first year that she came by herself, and will be staying until August of this year.

At such a young age, Bentley has already been given recognition of her efforts: in 2014, Bentley received her first scholarship for the Piping Hot Summer Drummer program, which is held for two weeks in the summer at Silver Star Mountain. She received a second scholarship to return in 2015.

Prior to getting involved with the pipe band, Bentley credits her interest and love for the music to her father.

“My dad played the drums, and he would take me to go listen to bands,” she added. “I knew I didn’t want to play the pipes, and I had no idea that drummers were a part of the band.” Bentley remembers one experience that put her on the path to becoming a snare drummer. “After a performance, I was the kid that went up to the drummers and asked, ‘Can I tap your drum?’” Bentley said with a laugh. “It turned out that this drum belonged to Reid Maxwell, SFU Pipe Band’s lead drummer.”

Bentley has since come a long way, with her trip to Vancouver enabling her to play with the SFU Pipe Band for the very first time. Her ultimate goal is to win the World Solo Drumming Championship, something that no girl has ever won before: “I hope to be the first!” Bentley said.

This is what dreams are made of

When asked how she got involved with the SFU Pipe Band, Tori Killoran called the entire experience “kind of a fluke.”

“I was put in combo dancing as a child, doing tap and jazz,” Killoran said. “There was a workshop put on by a highland dancer, and my parents put me in it. It was pretty much just jumping up and down a lot, but I loved it.” In particular, Killoran suggested that it was the music that she was dancing to that drew her in.

Now a third-year criminology student at SFU, this is Killoran’s second year with the SFU Pipe Band. She started playing at the age of 10, and remembers well the struggles that came with playing an instrument that requires so much breath support.

“You don’t start playing the full instrument right away, but when I did start, I remember feeling really light headed,” Killoran recalled. “Thankfully, my instructor constantly encouraged me to keep going, and I did.”

For Killoran, playing with SFU was the ultimate dream come true. Having come up through the Robert Malcolm Memorial Band program, she started practicing with the SFU Pipe Band during the 201415 season. May 2015 was a time that Killoran would never forget.

“I received a phone call from Alan [Bevan] who invited me to go to Scotland with the band, and that I would become a full-fledged member in September,” Killoran said. “I cried because I was so happy that my dream was coming true.”

The very first song that Killoran played with the pipe band was an arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”: “It was so memorable because everyone in the band was so ready for the whole audience to hear it. I was numbed by how incredible the experience was.”

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SFU’s Pipe Band stands tall in campus community

Throughout your time at SFU, there will be many times where you will be able to hear a piper play. But listening to the entire pipe band — with all the bagpipers and drummers together — is a completely different experience.

The SFU Pipe Band is an amazing part of the SFU culture. Band manager Robert MacNeil said that the pipe band really does take the SFU message of ‘engaging the world’ very seriously through the various commitments that they have, one of which includes playing at the Port Moody Royal Canadian Legion’s Remembrance Day ceremony. The pipe band has played at the ceremony every year for the past 40 years.

Bevan said that the pipe band “carries the torch” for SFU and serves not just as ambassadors for themselves, but also for the university. This is something that the band takes extremely seriously. Wherever they go, Bevan said, they bump into people who have gone to SFU and remember the pipe band.

When Killoran talks to her friends about the pipe band, she finds that everyone she talks to says that they “feel a certain connection” to the band, even though they might not physically be playing in it.

“To have the pipe band there, people tell me that they feel directly connected to it in some way,” Killoran said. “It gives the community its SFU stamp.”

So the next time you’re at an event and you hear the tell-tale sound of a lone piper, imagine that times 20, with drums and incredible precision and choreography. This is the SFU Pipe Band, and they are incredible.
Special thanks to Jack Lee, Kyle Wallis, Robert MacNeil, Alan Bevan, Derek Milloy, Louise Bentley, and Tori Killoran for their time and help on this piece.

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