By Scott Williams

Gail Brown was born in Hamilton, Ontario on November 14th, 1953 to Norman Robert and Margaret Gloria (Stark) Brown. The Starks were from Scotland, as were Gloria’s mother’s people, the Kerswills. The Starks were also connected with the Chisholms, so Scottish blood runs strong through Gail’s veins. Gail, however, was the first piper in her family. “I was the oldest of seven children,” she explains. “My mother always wanted to be a piper herself, so she had it in her mind that her first born was going to be one. When I was seven and a half, Mom sent me to the Milton Girls’ Pipe Band which had a couple of pretty good instructors. You know yourself that when you have a young person that shows promise, you sort of just latch right on to them. You give them that little bit extra at a lesson because you know they can do what you ask almost right away. Well, I guess I was one of those kids. Don Demming and Pipe Major Allan Munn taught me, and after several months, they decided they should pass me on to someone who could take me farther. I was the youngest in the band, you see, only a little kid. Most of the others were women, in their thirties and forties perhaps.

“I went to the Dundas Pipe Band, under Pipe Major Bus Featherstone, who was a wonderful player. He took a keen interest in me. But I was so little, then. I remember falling asleep at the table, and they just kept playing their chanters all around me. When it was time to go home, they woke me up! “

I was so fortunate that I was able to study with these people when I was young, they were so helpful. Those were the days before ‘payment for instruction’. These people taught me for nothing.

“I paid for lessons when I started with John Wilson in 1967, however,” Gail continues. “His time was so sought after, he could have filled every hour of the day with lessons. I was in his classes for four years and then I started doing monthly private lessons in his home. John didn’t spend a lot of time with exercises and drills. Basically, he taught us the tunes, and when new movements appeared, we practiced them right in the tunes. We didn’t take them apart and analyze them. John taught us according to how quickly we could pick it up.”

Gail started piobaireachd with John Wilson. “I don’t think you could be in his classes if you didn’t want to do piobaireachd. The classes were sort of split, half light music, half piobaireachd, but as you progressed, the piobaireachd got more intensive treatment. John sang a lot when he taught us - not real canntaireachd, but his own vocal imitation of the sounds the chanter makes. I had a pretty good ear, and I could pick up the nuances of the tunes from his voice. I could do on the chanter what he was doing with his voice. I remember the very first tune he started me on - “Lament for Sir James MacDonald of the Isles”.

“But I was so into pipe bands then! They were my priority, followed by light music. Piobaireachd was at the bottom back then, but today it would be different, perhaps even reversed. How I wish now that I had focused more upon piobaireachd, but my true love was pipe bands. I was crazy - nutty about pipe bands!

“John really polished my playing. I have a tape made when I was sixteen, and I was playing quite well then. We don’t have enough recordings you know, of the great players who came before us. Take Alex Duthart - the drummer. We don’t have much of him playing alone, and he was the greatest! God, I wish we had a hundred times more of him on tape! Alex was one of the greatest influences in my life. I had the privilege of playing with him, and I mean solo as well. We would be someplace and he would say, ‘Let’s play a big set, Gail. What do you think? Get the pipes out.’ And oh, it was wonderful. He was the best, really. “

John MacFadyen invited me to come to his summer school but I just sort of ignored it then. I had the band to play with! Why would I want to go and study piobaireachd? About seven or eight years later, when I thought about it, I went, ‘Gail, you were so dumb!’ I didn’t take that opportunity when it was handed to me, and the other guys, like Bob (Worrall), and Bill (Livingstone), and Jim (McGillivray), and Ed (Neigh), they all went to John for the piobaireachd and just ate it up. I wish now, that I had done it too, but you can’t change the past, only the future.”

After Dundas, Gail went with Bill Robertson for a while, but his band didn’t compete. “My parents thought I should go to the Highland House Highlanders Pipe Band, which had quite a number of young people in it,” Gail explains. “The band was out of Woodstock, and was under the direction of Alex Robertson. It was in Grade 3, and we went to the World’s in 1968, my first time in Scotland. Overall, the band was very successful. A lot of us were about the same age and we grew up together. Alex was a very strict pipe major, very demanding, and produced an excellent band. Later, the band joined the Galt Highland Fusiliers. We won the Sir Harry Lauder Shield as Grade 2 champions at Cowal in 1970, a really big deal back then.

One of the pipers from the Highland House band, the late Duncan MacLachlan, took Gail to visit his mother in Shotts. While they were there, he took her to a Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band practice and she met Pipe Major Tom MacAllister Jr., and the other pipers and drummers in the band. “I immediately became kind of a Shotts groupie,” says Gail. “I hate to use that term, but I really was. I returned to Scotland several more times and kept turning up at the band hall. I had asked Tom if I could play with the band that very first night, you know. And he said, ‘Oh hen, I just don’t know, you’re far too young, and besides, I don’t know how the lads would take it, hen.’ In Lanarkshire, you know, everything ends with ‘hen’. So the next year I went over and bugged him again. I got to play for him that time, and I was very nervous. He didn’t say anything, but I think I impressed him a little bit.

“Finally, in 1972, the band came over to the Scottish World Festival in Toronto, and my family hosted a huge corn roast and barbecue for a lot of the Scottish bands. It was there that Tom realized that I just wasn’t going to give up until he let me join. I told him he’d better send me the band’s music because the next year, when I finished high school, I was going over to join the band, and he did!”

Gail moved to Scotland in March of 1973. “I taught piping for about eight or nine months after I graduated from Grade 13, saving every penny, and then went over. I didn’t have to get a work permit, or get a job. I had saved enough money to see me through the year. I went to the band practice and played with the band a couple of times, on trial. I was terrified, especially those first few practices, and I just wanted to blend in. Soon everyone sort of accepted me and it got better. I lived with the MacAllisters, and just played pipes. I still have my own room there, you know, my old bedroom. I go over just about every year, and the room is always there waiting for me.”

Gail played with the Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band when they won the World’s that June, the first female piper ever to play in the World’s with a winning Grade 1 band. “You know,” Gail explains, “I felt like a freak, every contest with Shotts! I was the only girl piper in the Grade 1 bands, you see. No one had ever done it, and I knew that. I had to be better than a guy had to be. I couldn’t let my guard down for a moment, I couldn’t make a slip or the eyes would be on me. It wouldn’t matter one bit that Tom was like a father to me. If I couldn’t cut it, he would have dropped me. He’d have had no choice. But I was able to play well enough, and soon I was accepted.

“There were some really good players in the band, you know, at least a half dozen who were Open calibre. Nowadays, looking back, people say what a low sound, and what a heavy drone sound, and how could you ever begin a medley with “Peter MacKenzie Warren” and win the World’s! Well, hey, at that time, that was revolutionary stuff, and a brilliant “MacKenzie Warren”, even on a flattish pitched chanter, with an immaculate drone sound was just delightful! People today really slam the bands of old, you know. They slam Red Hackle and say they just played the big black notes, and stuff like that, but I was there, and I knew a lot of them, and I know there were some remarkably good players in those bands.

“We played in fourteen contests that year, and won eleven of them including the World’s, the Scottish, the British, and Cowal. We didn’t win the European, though, and that was in our home town of Shotts. It was so windy there. One guy’s feather bonnet blew off, and another guy’s hackle blew straight up in the air. It kind of un-nerved everybody, and I started laughing. Tom MacAllister wanted to throttle me, because I was right beside him. So we didn’t win that one, or the CNE, which was disappointing because my whole family was there to watch.

“We played a lot of the little contests too. I remember the first time we got to wear our number two dress, and what a relief that was, not to have to wear the full military outfit. That’s something else bands of today can’t appreciate - the showmanship that was involved in those days. Every band was so well turned out, full military kit, everything. Comfort didn’t enter into the picture back them. Not only did you have to play well, you had to look good or your reputation was shot. Playing a six and a half minute medley in full military dress with the full plaid and belts is a heck of a lot more trying than playing in a white shirt and kilt! We wore our full dress at the CNE. All the Scottish bands did.

“It was all very exciting. I came over to Canada with the band for the CNE, and I came back for a month’s holidays in October, but I didn’t return home for good until the next March. I had a fabulous year, and I learned so much. That’s where I developed my ideas about tone, you know. Tom MacAllister over there, and then John Elliot over here - they were my two big influences when it comes to tone.”

When Gail returned to Canada in 1974, she started entering the Open competitions at various games around Ontario. “I didn’t really work at it then,” she says. “I won more awards before I moved to Scotland than after I came back. My heart was still in Shotts, and I didn’t want to be back here. I just went through the motions. I didn’t want to play with a band here. It just wouldn’t have been the same.”

Gail has since become one of the most active teachers of piping in Ontario. She started teaching when she was just 13 years old, and by the time she was 19, had about 35 students. She became PM of the Hopedale Pipes and Drums of Oakville, which soon after became the Oakville Optimist Pipe Band. “They were a tremendous group of young people to teach,” Gail remembers. “They simply ate it up!” Under her leadership, the Oakville Optimist Pipe Band won the Grade 4 North American Championship and the Ontario Championship Supreme in her first year. For the last nine years, she has been teaching piping full time. Her Milton Optimist Pipe Band won the Juvenile World Championship in 1994 and in 1997 they won the Grade 3 title. Like many young bands, however, the kids grow up and leave. “I have former players in every Grade 1 band in Ontario - the 78th Frasers, Toronto Police, Celtic Flair, Peel Police, all of them. I am so very proud of this. So many of my students have gone on to higher levels.

“I had one young piper leave me before I thought he was ready, though,” she remembers. “He was my pipe sergeant, and I was depending on having him for one more year. He had been with me from the day the band was created, and marched by my side in our first competition when he was only about nine or ten years old. When he left, I was devastated.”

Her new band had a great first season in Grade 4 in 1998 and has continued on its winning streak. In 2000, for example, it was undefeated in Grade 4 and upgraded to Grade 3 at the end of the season.

1998 was a rough year for her, however, as she was battling cancer. Luckily, it was discovered early. Her left breast was removed in June, but Gail never missed one of her band’s competitions. “I was there to set them up even though I couldn’t play with them,” she says. “I didn’t really take long enough to recover before going back to the band, and my sons were scared stiff, my father and mother too. It changed our outlook on the value of life, how precious every moment is, and how you should live your lives positively.”

Gail underwent a second surgery in November, 2000. She came through it well and was sent home to recover, but she slipped on her back steps and fractured her spine. Subsequently, she developed pneumonia. The road back to good health has proven to be a bumpy one for her.

During these recent months of convalescing, Gail has had time to reflect on her long piping career. “To me,” she says, “working with kids is the most rewarding aspect. I’ve achieved a lot of personal awards during my years, but there is nothing that can compare with having your own students, whom you have taught from scratch, reach the highest levels. I’ve always believed that when you give, you get back, and I’ve gotten back so much from my students.

“I have a reputation for being stern, strict, demanding, but I’m not really as hard on the kids as people think I am. There is a time for fooling around, and we do that, but practice time is serious time. I demand their full commitment, and 95% of the time, I get it. My teaching style is different than most people’s, I suppose. I try never to set a goal that is too high for my students. I want them to finish each lesson feeling they have accomplished what we set out to do. I use the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association Tutor. I find the exercises useful, and all the basic information correct and exactly what you need to reach a good grade 3 or 4 level. I’ve been using the system for about 30 years and it certainly has never let me down.

“I teach almost all of the pipers in my band their solo competition pieces as well as the band’s repertoire. I choose tunes to suit each one individually. They’re not necessarily favourites of mine, and certainly not the tunes that are currently in vogue - “the flavour of the month”! I consistently use the Ross settings, but I also find excellent tunes in the collections of John Wilson, Donald MacLeod, John MacFadyen, and Seumas MacNeill. I even use some of the Scots Guards tunes.

“I teach my students to play piobaireachd as well as the light music, and many of them have reached the highest amateur levels. I also develop all the band’s medleys. I select the tunes, put them together, and develop the harmonies, changes, and breaks. Sometimes the kids offer suggestions, but their experience is usually quite limited, and they trust my judgment.

“My bands participate in a lot of community activities. We play for parades and concerts for the local legion and the hospital, for example. The band rehearses in the hall at my own Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and we play at their annual church dinner. We run a Robbie Burns night, and so on.

“But sadly, Milton has never recognized the band for what it is, and this has hurt. For example, when we were going over to Scotland in 1997, I asked that the band members be given T-shirts that had “Destiny Milton” on them, which was the town’s theme at the time. I was told we would have to pay full price. Then I asked if we could have ball caps instead, and was told that we would have to pay full price for those as well. They eventually gave us 15 tacky plastic pins! When we won the World Championship for Grade 3, we were on national TV, Continental Radio, and in all kinds of newspapers, but we didn’t have any kind of formal acknowledgment from our own town and mayor! “

My bands have not had many internal problems. Sometimes I have a little trouble with parents, mostly fathers who can’t seem to believe that woman can lead the group without them telling me how to do it! I’ve talked to other leaders of juvenile bands, and every one has told me that most of the problems they’ve encountered have come, not from the players, but from the parents who are being ‘over supportive’. I know some instructors who have resigned because they can’t handle the heat from the parents.

“Every September, I give my speech to everyone new, the players, but especially the parents. I tell them straight out that the band is under my authority, and plays by my rules, and that I am not about to change anything I do or the way I do it to suit them. If they are not willing to accept this, I would be pleased to show them the door, but if they stay, if their child is to be in my band, they must be willing to abide by my rules. The speech works pretty well. I haven’t had any problems in three or four years.”

Gail has taken her bands to Scotland on numerous occasions. “I feel that in Scotland you find the highest level of bands in each grade,” she explains. “The main reason I take the kids over is to compete at the highest level they can, but I also allow for days off so the kids and the parents can travel and do historical or cultural activities on their own. I expect that every member will be at every practice while we are there, but after practice and between competitions, their time is their own. In 1994, we won the Juvenile World’s. In 1995 we placed second in the Juvenile. In 1997 we won Grade 3, and 1999 we placed fifth in the juvenile, with a second in the piping. We are hoping to return again in 2001, and I’m really pushing for the drum corps to improve.

“Piping and pipe bands have been ‘it’ for me. Most of my life revolves around them. I’ve composed a few tunes over the years, but not many. I wrote a two-parted strathspey in a minor key called “Canadian Glenn” - for my son, which was played by the Toronto Metro Police Pipe Band. I wrote a reel called “Hose and Hightops” that the Royal Ulster Constabulary Pipe Band have played in their Grade 1 medley for the World’s a couple of seasons, and I’ve written a two-parted 2/4 march called “The Mouse Hunt” which my own band used as an opener different years off and on. It’s one of my real favourites - great for a drum corps - nice and bouncy - lots of big notes, and in a major key. I’ve also written a four-parted competition march called “Glen Road Gardens” that some of my students have used with success in solo competitions. I occasionally do workshops. I was Archie Cairns’ principle piping instructor for the first two seasons of his London School of Scottish Performing Arts. I’ve done workshops with bands in the area and have been to Chicago several times.”

Gail is justifiably proud of her three sons. “My oldest boy, Graham, turned nineteen in December. He has been the drum instructor of the Milton band for several years. He has won the North American Championship, the George Harrison Invitational Drumming Championship, and has been named the Open Drumming Champion Supreme for Ontario. He wants to make his living in some way connected with drumming. Right now, he has about 14 students.

“Glenn, age 17, is the piper, and has pretty well picked things up by himself,” she continues. “He has had some lessons in piobaireachd from Michael Grey and Bill Livingstone, and has a terrific ear for sound - I attribute that to his playing in the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band with John Elliot for two years. He won the Nicol-Brown contest two years running. Last fall he played in London, England, where he won the London Society Targe for the MSR, and back here, in Hamilton, he won the George Sheriff invitational. Next year, he will turn professional.

“Glenn’s twin brother, Blair is an Open professional drummer, and has followed in Graham’s footsteps. He won the George Harrison when he was fourteen. That was one of my proudest moments. Glenn and I played for him in that contest - the MSR, and the Hornpipe/Jig. He was North American Champion, and this past season was the Championship Supreme winner in the Open Drumming.

“All three play with the 78th Frasers, and Blair also plays lead drum with my band. Unfortunately, he can’t play with two bands in Scotland next August as he can here in Canada, and he has decided to play with us instead of with the 78ths, which was a very hard decision for a young man to make. He is committed to the kids, and couldn’t leave them on their own. The boys played with the 78ths, Shotts and Dykehead, Field Marshall Montgomery, and the Vale of Atholl in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow last August, which was a real thrill. Their own personal goals are set pretty high, and they are working hard to achieve them. One is to someday play with my old band, the Shotts and Dykehead, and they may get to do this within the next year or so.”

Gail is always optimistic, and has set some goals for 2001 - to support her sons in reaching their goals, and to try to keep healthy - “to walk without falling down the stairs would be a great first step!” she says, jokingly. “My band has some pretty high profile performances coming up, and we are preparing to record our second CD which will be released by April. It will have about a dozen tracks by my senior band, including some solo tracks, and a couple of tracks by my novice band too. We’ve been developing a little choir in the band, and we’re thinking about singing a couple of tunes as well. The band will be travelling to Scotland in August and plans to take in five competitions there. We are working and practicing extremely hard and hope to do well. Most of the learning of tunes will be done by January, and the rest of the lead-up time will be used to develop our ensemble, blowing a good tone, etc..

“I plan to continue to teach my students, work with my band, and do what I can to enhance the careers of my three sons. I want to keep judging as I have done throughout North America these past four years, and especially ensemble judging if the occasions come up. I am still learning every day - whether by listening to other bands, conferring with my colleagues, or listening to my own students, who have taught me a lot over the years. I plan to keep at it as long as I am able.”

Copies of the MacDonald Caledonia Juvenile Pipe Band’s new CD can be obtained by writing to Gail at 365 Pearl Street, Milton, ON L9T 1M6.