In recognition of Robbie Burns day on Jan. 25, bagpiper Geordie Young serenades his dog, Blarney, at Okanagan Lake.
By JAMES MILLER
Ever since he was a young lad, Geordie Young wanted to play the bagpipes.
"From the time I was six, every Thursday night I'd be sitting on the sidelines watching my dad play in a pipe band and when I turned 11 — the right age to start — I took it up," said Young, the pipe major with Okanagan Caledonia Pipe Band.
That was 39 years ago and today Young remains one of the most accomplished players in the Okanagan Valley, twice participating in the World Pipe Band championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
"The players there are at such a high level," he said of his experiences in worlds which included an eight-place finish in 2007 with a band from Chilliwack. "It's like you're a rock star or the Vancouver Canucks stepping onto the ice for warm-up because you'll have a few hundred people just watching you practice. It's televised and there's huge screens around the park."
Young teaches a handful of students ranging in age from 11 to 53. He said the Internet has made bagpiping a lot easier in terms of finding and sharing music but the same computer generation has made it harder to attract youngsters interested in learning the instrument.
"It's probably the most difficult instrument to learn to play well. It's multi-functional. You learn to play with your fingers far from your body, then how to control you air, blowing and pressure into that skin bag and thinking about what you're doing and to have these all combine together," he explains.
Young has great memories of his first teacher Nigel Alakija and at the age of 15, he made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up competitive hockey to focus on his piping.
Young still owns the set of bagpipes he purchased in 1970 for $1,000 which have, over time, increased in value to over $10,000. An average starter set now ranges between $700 and $1,000.
He's extremely proud of his Scottish heritage and is always studying the history of the instrument.
"Most people think bagpipes came from Scotland but it actually originated in the Mediterranean with snake charmers," he explains.
Another fun fact — Phil Collins, best known as the drummer with Genesis, knows how to play the bagpipes.
Young appreciates when bagpipes are featured in mainstream music. Rod Stewart often includes local pipers in his live shows while the top selling single by Wings in the UK was Mull of Kintyre, which features piping during the musical bridge.
"Copperhead Road (by Steve Earle) doesn't have bagpipes in the song. That's manufactured. AC/DC... that has bagpipes. A piper can tell the difference."
Young is a regular at parades and special events across the Valley and at this time of year he's in high demand with today being Robbie Burns Day, which celebrates the legendary Scottish poet (1759-1796). The Caledonia Pipe Band is hosting its 13th annual Burns supper (which is now one of several in the area), Saturday at the Royal Canadian Legion in Penticton. He's also played "so many I can't remember" funerals and weddings.
And he never tires of playing Scotland the Brave.
"Scotland the Brave, A Scottish Soldier and Amazing Grace, I've been playing them since I was 11 but I understand that to carry the culture, those tunes are very important just like Robbie Burns is with his poems. He wrote Auld Lang Syne... a song everyone knows. Those songs are the crowd pleasers and you don't have to be Scottish to recognize them."
Young is able to explore alternative songs and greater challenges with a band from the coast, Greighlan Crossing.
This weekend's Burns supper has become an unofficial Penticton tradition. In addition to the Scottish dinner with haggis, there will be dancers, gaelic singers and pipes and drums. His 27-year-old niece Brianne, the other piper in his family, is among the musicians performing.
"It's by far our club's most successful fundraiser of the year but more importantly we want to share the legacy of Robbie Burns, sell our culture and have a lot of fun."
Tickets are $30 and available at Carl's Flowers on Front Street or from the Royal Canadian Legion.
Young dismisses the one myth about his instrument.
"You don't have to be Scottish to play. We welcome everyone. If you see a piper anywhere, when they're done playing, go up and ask them a question. They'll be happy to answer," he said.