Alexander “Sandy” Keith was born in Glasgow, Scotland and began learning to play the pipes at the age of eleven in one of Glasgow’s Boys’ Brigade Pipe Bands. Later, he began to receive instruction at the newly created College of Piping. “My first lessons,” Sandy explains, “were from other students who were called ‘Junior Instructors’. These were students who could play at least five tunes well. ‘Senior Instructors’ were students who had passed the Elementary Certificate and could play at least twelve tunes well. The College’s Co-Principal, Seumas MacNeill, who was on top of everything, closely watched this program.
“After a few months, I began to study with Seumas MacNeill, the co-founder of the college, who became my principle teacher.” Over the next few years, however, Sandy also studied with Bob Hardie, John Garroway, Charles Scott, and the blind piper, Archie MacNeill, uncle of Seumas.
“The teachers were paid by the City of Glasgow. We contributed six pence a night to cover the cost of electricity and coal. This principle stayed with me for the rest of my life, as I have never charged anyone for a lesson.
“Every piece of music I learned was written out by hand, which was a great way for us to learn to read the music carefully. I still insist that my students today write the music out for the pieces I am teaching them.”
Later, Sandy received one-on-one instruction from Peter MacLeod Sr. As a young player, he and others would go to the Highlanders Institute on Elmbank Street where they would sit and listen to the professionals play, and wait to be invited to play a tune. Sometimes that invitation would come late in the evening; other times, not at all. It was really a big thing to be asked to play. “One night, I was asked,” continues Sandy, “and after I played my tunes, Peter MacLeod told me to start coming to him for lessons. He never asked me if I wanted to come, he just told me to show up on a Saturday morning. He had a reputation of being a very crotchety man, and it was true. I don’t ever remember him telling me I played well. Sometimes, when I was playing, I would be sure that he had fallen asleep, but if I played anything wrong, I soon found that he wasn’t sleeping. His wooden leg would bounce and vibrate and he would scream and shout at me. His daughter used to tell me, ‘Don’t mind him; he’s harmless’. Peter attended all of the indoor amateur contests in Glasgow and, if you played well, he was very pleased, but if your playing didn’t please him, he would get up and stomp out, letting everyone know he was not happy with your performance. Cranky, yes, but he was a musical genius and took me to another level of piping. To this day, I still use many of his ideas.”
When Sandy was 17 and one of the top amateur pipers in Scotland, his family immigrated to Canada and settled in Hamilton, ON. He entered competition at the Open level in Ontario and was a consistent prizewinner. While in Hamilton, he received instruction for about two years from Pipe Major Archie Cairns (see Celtic Heritage, May/June 2000) and at the age of 19, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force Pipe Band where he received instruction from John T. MacKenzie and George Grant. “This was probably the biggest break I ever had in piping,” Sandy goes on to explain. “They taught me how to play with, and how to run a band. The first band I taught was located in Trenton, ON, and it was there that I found out how difficult it was to be a pipe major.
“That summer, I was asked if I would like to join the Hamilton Police Department. I eventually did join, and became its pipe major. The band became a much sought after show band, but I yearned for the competition field, so I joined the Erskine Pipe Band which started up in 1971 and competed at the Grade 3 level.”
When the Erskine band was advanced to Grade 2, Sandy became its pipe major and led it up to Grade 1. Among his students were Scott MacAulay, now Director of the College of Piping & Scottish Performing Arts in Summerside, PEI, and Ian Whitelaw, who later made his mark on the piping scene in California.
In the 1970s, Sandy purchased a condo in Clearwater, Florida and went there three or four times a year for several years. While there, he helped out the Dunedin Highland Games organizers and spent some time teaching piping to students in the City of Dunedin’s school programs. In 1979, he was offered the job of Director of Piping for the City of Dunedin, but was unable to take it at that time. In January of 1982, however, he moved permanently to Dunedin, and took over the management of the various piping programs, which included the Dunedin Middle School’s Grade 5 pipe band, and two Dunedin High School Pipe Bands, in Grade 5 and Grade 4. The City also had two adult bands, one in Grade 4, which served as a feeder band for the other which competed at the Grade 2 level. “I had adult and senior high school players teaching in the school system with me, but I set up the curriculum and it has been very successful over the years.” That is a bit of an understatement, to be sure. In all, he has 5 prize-winning bands under his tutelage. Many of his pupils are now teaching and winning many of the awards Sandy won a few years ago.
Sandy has delighted in listening to some of the finest solo and band performances that anyone might hope to hear. I asked him to list some of the performances that he would never forget. “One was when I was judging Bill Livingstone,” he said, “and asking him to play “Donald McLean’s Farewell to Oban”. I only wish I could have recorded this performance – it would have been a clinic on the tune that so many people try to play.” On another occasion, he was judging the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band at the Santa Rosa, California games. “They played a March, Strathspey and Reel that I could find absolutely nothing to criticize.” “Just Excellent” was all he could say.
And then there was a Piping Recital in Miami, Florida in which he had some input. “Bill Livingstone agreed to play the piobaireachd “The Lament for Mary McLeod” and I arranged for the audience to have a copy of the music,” Sandy explains. “Bill gave a short history of the tune and explained how he would be playing it. Everyone followed along with the music and thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful performance.”
At the same Recital was Alasdair Gillies. “He tuned his pipes and played for what seemed like forever, no more tuning, just some of the best playing I have ever heard, on an excellent pipe.” The third piper at the Recital was Bruce Gandy, “before he became a gold medal winner,” adds Sandy. “However, on this night, he proved that he was already a winner.”
For some time, Sandy has served as the president of the Southern United States Pipe Band Association. The active competition season in the South is at a different time than that of the Northern US or in Canada. “Our season runs from November to April,” explains Sandy. “The rest of the year, it is too hot to play pipes outside, so we practice inside. If we’re going to Scotland for competition in August, however, we practice outside on Saturday mornings, under the large shade trees.”
Sandy remembers the people he spent quality time with and greatly admired over the course of his long and significant piping career. “Seumas MacNeill was my teacher and idol,” he says. “Scott MacAulay was a talented student and remains a close confidant. Stirling McMurchy was a great friend, Ozzie Reid, an honest and interesting friend, and Bob Shepherd was someone I have found to be helpful, informative and a man of great compassion.”
Sandy has published an exciting new tune book, “The Florida Collection” of bagpipe music, much of which is his own compositions. It is a compilation of tunes he has collected over the last 25 years. He continues to return to Canada regularly to judge at band competitions in Ontario and is a regular also in PEI, at the Summerside Highland Games run by his former student, Scott MacAulay and the staff of the College of Piping and Scottish Performing Arts. He also returns to Scotland every year either to compete with his Grade 2 band or just have a good listen at the Worlds.