One of the finest up and coming West Coast pipers, John Sutherland was born to Susanne and Kenneth Sutherland on May 22nd, 1984 in Palo Alto, California, "but we moved one town over to Menlo Park, CA when I was four years old," says John. "Up until going away to school in Vancouver in 2002, I had lived in California all my life. Needless to say, itís been quite a process adjusting to the weather up here in BC after living in Northern California for 18 years."
Johnís mother is an independent compensation consultant and works from home. His dad is manager of environmental health and safety for Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto. "I have one sister, Katie, who is 15 years old and a sophomore at my old high school," continues John. "Katie never really showed an interest in piping or drumming but sheís a very successful competitive swimmer and swam in the Junior Nationals last year. Weíve traced our ancestors back to Golspie, in Sutherlandshire, in the north of Scotland. One of my distant relatives immigrated to Ontario and I still have many relatives living in Canada."
As a youth, John participated in Boy Scouts and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. In addition to his piping, he enjoys road cycling and participated in a number of road races while in high school. "A couple of my friends and I used to go curling regularly on Sundays but I donít get much chance to go just now."
Johnís mother and father met through piping. "My dad has been playing the bagpipes since he was 11 years old and my mother played bass drum, danced, and took bagpipe lessons for a short while from my father. I guess the piping lessons my dad gave to my mom after they started dating were less than enjoyable, however. She tells me he was a little too intense a teacher for her. They both played for a period in the Prince Charles Pipe Band, the same band my dad and I play for today. One could even say that Prince Charles Pipe Band is indirectly responsible for my existence; had it not been for the band, my mom and dad might never have met. My mom tends to stay away from the pipe band scene nowadays. She lets the boys have their fun in the band but still comes to the games to watch us both play solos.
"Piping had an effect on my life long before I actually began learning to play. When I was an infant, my father would march along to the City of Victoria Pipe Bandís "Play That Sweet Music" LP. Apparently it was so soothing that it would put me right to sleep. My parents always had to be sure that they stopped the record before the drum salute came on, however, so as not to disturb my slumber."
When John was three or four years old, he liked to imitate his father playing pipes. ""Piping-judging" was what I called it. Back then my dad was doing a lot of judging and I would often attend Highland games and watch him. One time, while I was imitating my dad, I picked up a bamboo stake from the garden and put it in my mouth, pretending to play it like a practice chanter. I ended up tripping and cutting the back of my throat with the stake. I guess I could have been scarred for life from that episode, but my interest in the instrument never waned."
After attending the Pleasanton Highland Games in 1996, Johnís father bought him his first practice chanter, "a Hardie chanter made of African Blackwood. About a year and a half later, I joined the Prince Charles Junior Band. My grandfather, Jack Sutherland was one of the founders of the Prince Charles Pipe Band along with Bill Merriman in 1968. My grandfather was originally from Vancouver and is still a Canadian citizen. I'm also told that my great, great grandfather was a competitive piper in Ontario."
Johnís father taught him regularly until he moved up to the Prince Charles Grade 2 band in the fall of 1999. "I didnít take a break from solos, but I definitely made the band my number one priority. Jack Lee (see Celtic Heritage, March/April í02) is currently my teacher for light music and piobaireachd, but Iíve also had lessons from Bruce Woodley (CH, Dec Ď95/Jan í96) and Colin Berta as well. I started playing piobaireachd in 2002 and I enjoy it more and more as time goes by.
"These people have had the biggest influence on my development as a piper but obviously my father has also been a huge influence, not only in my piping, but in life as well. We really understand each other quite well. Bruce was my first pipe major and a lot of his teaching has rubbed off on me. I know for a fact that I would be a very different player today if not for Bruce. He really helped me get serious about piping and bands. Colin Berta sort of took me under his wing when I joined the band and helped me get through my first few seasons. He is now the pipe major of the band and a very good friend. Thereís really not much I can say about Jack that hasnít been said. I feel like Iíve made a huge amount of progress as a player in the last couple of years because of the lessons Jack has been giving me.
"Most of my solo competitive experience has been in California and with the Western United States Pipe Band Association. I played for three years in Grade 1, winning all four events at Costa Mesa in California as well as the Southern California Amateur Piping Championship Silver Chanter. I did quite a bit of traveling, playing at the Nicol-Brown in Troy, New York in October 2003, the George Sherriff Invitational in Hamilton, Ontario in November, the U.S. Silver Medal in Kansas City in January 2004, and the Queen Mary competition in Southern California in February, and then competing overseas later on in the summer. Iíve moved to the Professional Class for the 2005 season.
"My first time competing with the Prince Charles Pipe Band was at Portland in 2000. I probably should have been cut from the competition unit, but I got my feet wet and that contest and got some valuable experience under my belt. Bruce Woodley would describe the cutting process as a risk/reward analysis. Is the risk of something going wrong worth the reward of experience for that player? I really think thatís a good way to put it. I was cut quite a bit my first season with the band, but the experience I gained was invaluable. The band won the Grade 2 World Championships in 2000 and moved up to Grade 1 the following year. Playing next to my dad in the circle at the Worlds in 2001 was certainly a memorable experience for me. I played in the band a year before my dad joined and I have to say that having him in the band has been a lot of fun for both of us."
In 2002, John graduated from Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, CA where he was a member of the National Honor Society. He is currently a third-year student studying psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC but comes home to play with the Prince Charles Pipe Band in the summer. "Back in Vancouver last fall, I was able to move into a house with four other guys from the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, Andrew Douglas (see Celtic Heritage, Sept/Oct í02), Chas Florio, Stephen McWhirter, and Andrew Hayes. I would certainly like to add my flat mates to the list of those who had influences on my piping as weíre constantly giving feedback to each other on our playing. Itís a very nice dynamic that we have going on in the house where we all respect each otherís opinions. Iíve been lucky in that Iíve pretty much always lived with another piper or two to get feedback and we feed off each otherís dedication and drive."
John has had several opportunities to pass on what he has learned to others. "Iíve had a few students over the years and I really enjoy teaching younger kids. Itís so encouraging to see them improve so rapidly. I taught at our bandís piping school the last couple of years and that was definitely a lot of fun as well. I also help tune up our Grade 3 band at contests and they did very well."
At the MacGregor Memorial contest at the Argyllshire Gathering in August 2004, John made it to the final six out of twenty-four playing "Lament For Donald of Laggan". In the final round, however, he was well into his tune, "Melbankís Salute" when he hit a glitch and broke down. His flat mate, Andrew Douglas went on to win the event. "It was a great experience, though," says John, "and I look forward to trying again in 2005, which will be the last year of my eligibility for that event."
Also in 2004, John played in the Nicol-Brown Invitational contest. "I placed 2nd in the piobaireachd to Eric Ouellette, once again playing "Melbank's Salute". I was quite pleased with this result, considering the year prior I had made note errors. At the George-Sherriff Invitational I placed 4th in the piobaireachd with "Lament for Donald of Laggan" and 5th overall. I decided shortly after to play open for the 2005 season. I've also applied for the Silver Medal for the first time this year. At the moment I'm still playing with Prince Charles Pipe Band as a long distance player and look forward to playing again at the World Championships this year.
"I think some general good advice that Iíve picked up over the past few years is to be patient, donít make excuses, look at the bigger picture, think of everything (wins and losses) as a continuous learning experience, have fun, and take every piece of advice you can get, whether you use it or not. I adamantly believe that the only way to become a better player is to put your ego aside and listen to what others have to say."
With an attitude like this, John will surely continue his climb up the rungs of the competitive piping ladder. You can look for his name appearing in the prizes at major professional contests soon.