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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Fresno Stag and Thistle Pipes and Drums

Feb 23, 2017 12:07PM ● By Jordan Venema
Get Your Kilt On
March 2017
Story by Jordan Venema

Oh, when the band comes marching in, there’s no mistaking that familiar hum and drone. However you feel about the bagpipes, there’s no denying they conjure pretty universal images, like Mel Gibson in a kilt or a glassful of golden scotch. The Highland bagpipes are like the Fender guitar of the instrument, the gold standard of bagpipes.

The Scots may have popularized the instrument, but there are hundreds of variations of the pipes across as many regions: war pipes and pastoral pipes, border pipes and small pipes, pipes from Poland and Sweden, the Balkans and Belarus, Russia and Turkey, even Egypt and the Persian Gulf. In fact, the world’s largest manufacturer of bagpipes isn’t Scotland, but Pakistan.

The bagpipe didn’t even arrive to the British Isles until the Romans arrived, and no, Nero wasn’t playing the fiddle while Rome burned; a truer translation of texts actually suggests he was playing an instrument more like a pipe. 

It’s been 2,000 years since Rome burned, but the pipes are still droning on, and thanks to local band Fresno Stag and Thistle Pipes and Drums, the instrument continues its inexorable march.

The Stag and Thistle began in 1990, and pipe major Mark Little has been with the band almost from the start. 

“I’ve been in Fresno since the beginning, and I knew all the people who joined the band, but at the time I was already playing in The Clan Campbell Pipe Band in Modesto,” says Little. After Clan Campbell disbanded, many of those members joined Stag and Thistle. Now the band has about 15 members, some of whom have their roots in Fresno’s McLane High School. 

“We have some pipers in the band that are McLane alumni,” says Little, referring to the school’s unique band, the McLane High School Highlanders: Pipes and Dancers. “I was a part back in the ‘70s, and so were my sister and younger brother.”

The Stag and Thistle actually holds practice in the McLane High School band room every Thursday night from 7 to 9 pm, but they also encourage new pipers and students to attend lessons at 6 pm. 

“All we require for a new student is that they get a practice chanter,” says Little, referring to the flute-like part of the instrument. “A chanter has a blowpipe on it, and you learn the basic fingering of the chanter and then you learn grace notes, and then we progress to easy tunes and you can start learning actual music.”

A practice chanter costs about $60, but the lessons offered by Stag and Thistle are free, though Little admits the lessons also benefit the band. Most kids grow up wanting to play the guitar or drums, or learn a more “traditional” instrument during their stint in high school band, so finding dedicated pipers can prove a challenge.

  “We do teach for free, and that’s an incentive for people not having to pay for the lessons, and that does help us out,” Little says. 

The biggest tip Little offers to those interested in learning the pipes: don’t hyperventilate, which is easy to do, since 95 percent of playing the bagpipes is blowing. But there’s a technique, he explains. 

“The ultimate success of playing the bagpipes is keeping a steady hum that doesn’t waver,” he adds. “When you blow into the bag, you let your arm out while keeping pressure on the bag, and when you take a breath you squeeze with your arm to keep the same amount of pressure on the drones.” 

The other five percent of playing the pipes, then? “That’s just moving your fingers,” says Little.

So for those who pick up a chanter and perfect the technique of creating that steady hum, they can aim to join Stag and Thistle as they perform along the circuit of Highland games throughout the Central Valley.

“We pretty much play in Northern Central California, and we’ll do the competition for Sacramento, Bakersfield, Pleasanton,” Little offers as examples. “We know we’ll be playing the Modesto games, and we can only play so much on St. Paddy’s Day.” 

Never mind they’ll be playing Highland pipes, and not the Uilleann pipes, the Celtic counterpart. Still, these marchers, pipers and drummers will stir something deep inside whoever is within earshot. “Bookings are first come, first serve, though,” adds Little. 

Potential pipers are encouraged to join the band on Thursday nights, and while newcomers will have to get their own chanters, Stag and Thistle will provide the kilts. •

Fresno Stag and Thistle Pipes and Drums

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