Playing the bagpipes is not an exclusively Scottish preoccupation.
Daniel, AKA The Southcoast Piper, was introduced to playing the bagpipes whilst at school in South Africa. Based in Portsmouth, he plays with The Rose and Thistle Pipe Band and is obsessed, in the best possible way, with promoting and playing the distinctive musical instrument.
Daniel Del Piccolo – that’s not a common Portsmouth name
[laughs] – No, you’re quite right, it’s not. My father is from Florence originally and he eventually settled in the UK. He met my mum here in Portsmouth. Myself and my sister were born here. But then, in 1984, when I was just about seven, the family moved to Johannesburg in South Africa.
That must have been quite a wrench.
It was a little bit. I remember it being quite daunting as the new boy from the UK with the English accent. So, of course, I got a little bit of teasing, but nothing too bad.
How long were you out there for?
I came back to the UK in 2000. So sixteen, nearly seventeen years out there. I bought a house with my then girlfriend, and was lucky enough to get job with IBM at North Harbour, Portsmouth. I’d worked in IT Support for PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) in South Africa, so I joined IBM as an experienced hire. We came to Portsmouth because I have some family here and it made the most sense; as a starting point at least.
How did you come to be involved with the bagpipes?
My piping actually started back in South Africa. I was thirteen and the school that I went to was quite sports focused. They encouraged the kids, it was an all boys school, to take up playing either hockey or rugby. Neither of which were really for me, but, to get out of doing those sports, there was the option of joining the art club, drama club or the pipe band. A few of my friends had gone into the pipe band, so it made sense to follow them.
I’m wasn’t built for rugby, I tried hockey once, but didn’t like it, so I joined the pipe band
That sounds like a very odd combination of choices.
It was, but there’s a strong tradition of pipe bands in South Africa, perhaps through some historical links with the UK, via the setting up of what were called ‘Milner Schools’
I assume you had formal musical training then?
There were no formal music lessons during school hours, but we were taught to read music as soon as we started in the pipe band.
Is it possible to play the pipes if you can’t read music?
Sure. I have known players who cannot read music and who learn by ear, but it is a major disadvantage. You will never be able to play correctly if you cannot refer to the original music. We all need to do that quite often as pipers, as there is so much music to remember.
Did you perform in public while you were at school?
The school band was mainly focused around both solo and band competition. Because a lot of the schools had pipe bands, there was quite a strong competition circuit. Both for school bands and senior bands outside of schools. A lot of my weekends were spent on a rented bus, with school teachers and fellow musicians, travelling to and from these competitions. Practice was quite strict. Usually three times a week for two hours. The practice started at 5pm because the tutors were from outside of the school system, so we had to wait for them to finish their day jobs first. All in all, long hours spent at school.
Did you have much success as a school band?
Yeah we did. We generally came second. Most of the time to a particular school that had the reputation of being the best, and who nearly always won. We had a few first places here and there, but, overall, we did pretty well.
During your time at the school did you have your own pipes?
No, they were owned by the school. We were given a set of bagpipes and we used them throughout our time at the school. All the equipment was pretty old though. There were some scratchings on some of the instruments and uniforms dating back to the 1950s and 60s.
Did you continue to play after you left school?
When I started work at PWC, I took a few years out. I would play occasionally, when somebody had a set of pipes at a New Years Eve party or something. Friends were always trying to find an excuse to get me to play. Then a couple of years after I returned to the UK, I found out that there was a local pipe band here in Portsmouth. I contacted them with a view to buying a set of bagpipes. They gave me the details of somebody who could help out, and this bit is really unbelievable. When I went to meet him, it turns out that he was South African and knew all the bands in the area that I used to play. Not only that, but the set of bagpipes that he sold me, were made by the person who taught me how to play – Pipe Major Chris Mulinder.
Good grief, that is one heck of a coincidence!
I’ve found that the more things that you are involved in, or do, the more connections that you make. Sometimes, as in this case, they can be really fascinating.
So you decided to start playing again after the break?
When I bought the pipes from him, I stayed that night and played a few tunes and I realised how much I’d missed it. So I decided there and then to join the Rose and Thistle Pipes and Drums, which he belonged to, although at that point it was somewhat casually.
How do you mean?
I wasn’t as committed to the band at that point. But then I had a few changes in my personal life. I met my wonderful and supporting wife Sheena, with whom I’ve had two children, a beautiful girl and boy. During this time my whole attitude to playing changed. I realised that was what I really, really wanted to do. I was seriously bitten by the bug again.
Where does the band practice?
In Gosport (The Royal British Legion) on Monday nights and Whale Island, in Portsmouth, on Wednesday’s. Most of the pipers for the Rose and Thistle make up most of the members for the Royal Naval Pipers Society. We have quite a few current and ex-servicemen that are part of the band.
http://www.royalnavypipers.com/index.htmlThe Royal Naval Pipers Society (RNPS) was founded in 1951 and has developed to become the parent body governing piping in the Royal Navy, for the benefit of all members of the Naval Service and associated organisations.
I guess the number of musicians in the band changes; what’s the average?
It goes up and down. Most of the bands along the south coast are made up of members who might have left other bands at one time or another. Our band is probably the biggest in the south really. The most we’ve had has been up to thirty, but generally I would say the average is around fifteen to twenty pipers on parade. Then there’s a full set of drummers as well, of course. That tends to be around another ten. We even have two bass drummers.
Is there a standard number that is required to form a band?
No, not really. I’ve seen a band where they’ve had four pipers and two drummers on parades. Of course it does matter if you are a competition band because you need to meet the minimum requirements, but in order to parade about, bands tend to put out as many players as they can. The Rose and Thistle prides itself on being able to put together a large full marching band.
The most common form of pipe band, the Scottish pipe band, consists of a section of pipers (playing the Great Highland Bagpipe), a section of snare drummers (often referred to as ‘side drummers’), several tenor drummers and, usually, one, though occasionally two, bass drummers. The entire drum section is known collectively as the drum corps. The bagpipers are responsible for providing all of the melodic material in the music.
The Rose and Thistle is a parade only band. We have competed in the past, with some success in Grade 3 and 4, but it was found to be putting too much pressure on the players who had families, and those that had to travel in connection with their work.
Practice wherever you are
Where do you practice? The bagpipes are not the quietest of instruments
There’s two approaches to this. One is playing the full set of bagpipes; the other, and what most players start their piping learning with, is playing what’s called a practice chanter.
The bagpipe practice chanter is a double reed woodwind instrument whose main function is as an adjunct to the Great Highland Bagpipe
This is what I carry with me, pretty much everywhere I go. To work, on trains, on holiday, business trips etc. It’s used to learn technique, finger position and all the rudiments and tunes of course. From there you progress onto the pipes themselves. I practise with this at home because it’s quiet [laughs]. Then, when I want to play my pipes, I’ll go down to the Memorial Gardens at Southsea seafront. It’s the furthest away from the houses I can get. When I’m practicing, ideally, I want to be alone. I’m very aware that it’s a loud instrument and, as such, can attract quite a bit of interest. So I’ll only go there for half an hour at a time. But I think the setting is quite nice. Otherwise, I’ve been granted the use of a Scout Hut in Farlington that I’m able to use when it’s unoccupied. I can go in there late at night if I want to.
I just can’t help myself. It goes with me everywhere, on trains, in my rucksack at work. I’d feel naked without it. I’m a piping geek
How often does the band take part in parades?
Quite a lot. Last year we had close to forty parades. Generally all squashed into the summer months, but they can be all through the year really. That included a couple of our socials as well. We do everything from the Victorian Christmas in the Dockyard, through to various charity events. Some can be very small events at old folks home, for example, where they might just want a couple of pipers rather than a full blown marching band.
What sort of area do you cover?
We go along the south coast from Southampton to Chichester and up to around Petersfield. There have been quite a few events down at Southsea and over in Gosport. We’ve had the honour of playing at many of the south coasts big events such as the Queens Jubilee and the Torch Relay for the 2012 Olympics.
I’ve always assumed, mistakenly as it turns out, that to be a member of a pipe band you have to be Scottish or in the Armed forces. Clearly you’re not Scottish or in the Military …
[laughs] No. The only criteria is that you have the desire to play.
Are there any links between the club and Scotland?
Other than the fact that we play Scottish musical instruments no. The tartan is Maclean of Duart, the sort you would expect to see on a red biscuit tin. We don’t have any real Scottish ties. We do have Scottish players in the band. Anyone can start a pipe band and wear a tartan
Oddly, I’ve found that there are fewer opportunities in the south of England, compared to South Africa, for youngsters to get the chance to play. That’s something I would love to change one day. To somehow create those opportunities.
A natural performer
Do you, or have you, played any other instruments?
I dabbled with keyboards and pianos when I was younger. I didn’t take any lessons or anything like that. My dad is a performer. He’s been in catering all his life, a lot of restaurant managing, and he had his own restaurants. As a kid I used to see him pick up his guitar in the middle of his restaurant, he’s authentic Italian, and sing all these traditional Italian songs to the customers. Of course, they loved it. He used to just walk around with his guitar singing at the top of his voice. He’s a good singer as well. So I don’t know whether that inspired me, or whatever.
It must have had some influence?
He just loves performing; pleasing people. So I must get it from him really.
You’re quite happy to be in the spotlight?
[laughs] As a young performer I found it hard playing for people but through the years of endless hard work and practice I’ve reached a point where I can mostly enjoy being in the spotlight. I think with the bagpipes particularly, along with the dress code, it can be a very spectacular thing for an audience to experience and so I enjoy every bit of it. I still have my nervous moments when I am on stage in a theatre performing a solo piece, or live on radio like I have done before. For those types of events the enjoyment comes afterwards once everything has gone to plan. Overall I find it really enjoyable performing and get a buzz from being in the spotlight with my pipes.
What would you say your musical influences are? Not necessarily just for piping.
I don’t have a single artist that I like. As a kid I used to listen for hours to 1980’s Whitney Houston, which is probably quite strange for a young lad. But if I like an artist, I won’t just go out and buy their albums. I will be very selective about the tracks that I’ll listen to. My interests are quite broad but I love my 80’s stuff. I’m also very much a mood person. If I’m painting around the house at night say, and I’m feeling good because I’m getting something done on the house for a change, I’ll stick on Classic FM. So anything really. I do like my acid techno, I could fall asleep listening to that. I create myself mix CDs and I might have a Whitney Houston track next to a Westlife track and then like a serious hard house track followed by a bagpipe band. A real eclectic mix.
I could quite happily fall asleep listening to acid techno
Wow that really is mixing it up. Do you write your own music or compositions?
I’ve written a few tunes and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do more of. My first real performance with a tune of my own was recently when my brother-in-law, Sheena’s brother, got married. I wrote and performed a tune that I’d written especially for them, at their wedding ceremony. For that I was extremely nervous, but it went well. I really enjoy writing tunes and being able to encapsulate an idea, memory or message into a piece of music. I find it quite romantic in a way.
I bet that was well received. A really personal touch.
Yeah, it was a good feeling. After it was all over, I had it framed for them. I think they have it in the house somewhere. I’ve been trying to work out how to draw more inspiration to write music. If I’m having an emotional moment, a good day or a bad day, sometimes I sit down and try and write something to express it. I find it difficult, but I keep taking constant notes, little snippets or phrases here and there. Tucking them away, then revisit them later to see if anything comes out of it. If I’m out and about and I have a phrase bouncing around in my head, I’ll pick up my phone and hum a quick voice recording to capture it.
If I’m out and about and I have a phrase bouncing around in my head, I’ll pick up my phone and do a quick voice recording to capture it
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with a tune?
No, I’m not that bad yet. I’m too busy sleeping [laughs]. Most of the time, nothing comes of these audio doodles or notes, but, occasionally, there will be something useful.
With all your years of experience playing, have you considered teaching?
I already teach on Monday nights at my home. I currently have three students who made contact with me through a mutual acquaintance, asking if would give them some training. I am currently taking them through the basics of piping with the aim to produce some keen and well grounded players.
How are they getting on?
Very well so far. We are only a few weeks into the lessons and so we’re still on the basics. One of the common things pipers see when teaching, is that learner players want to get onto the bagpipes as quickly as possible. I can understand that need absolutely, but the reality is that it will take many, many, months to complete the basic work on the chanter. It took me nearly a year at school. Not having a good understanding, and grasp of the basics, will end up becoming a problem with playing the bagpipes later on. And the more you practice incorrectly, the deeper those bad habits sink. Teaching is great. I really enjoy it.
Is that an area that you would like to be more involved in?
Definitely. I’d love to teach. Perhaps, maybe a few years down the line, I would like to start a junior band. Up until recently I was having lessons with a piper in Glasgow called Glenn Brown. He is a professional and very accomplished bagpiper. I hope to continue these after a short break. There are so many fantastic piping groups, societies and schools out there that are really driving the popularity of the instrument. The National Piping Centre in Glasgow in a great example of this, and offers such incredible teaching opportunities to pipers. They have online lessons, which I take, various summer schools throughout the year in many countries, and they are making great use of live and recorded events with a newly created recording studio. Anyone can make use of the centre and have lessons with some of the best players in the world. One of the best things I love about piping is that most of the time players help each other. No matter who they are and at what level they are playing at. I’ve had some incredibly talented players sit down with me and offer help. I hope this always continues as it encourages and inspires people to carry on learning.
The National Piping Centre exists to promote the study of the music and history of the Highland Bagpipe.
Patron HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay, KG, KT, GCB.
Founders: Sir Brian Ivory, CBE, FRSE – Lady Ivory, DL – Sandy Grant Gordon, CBE
Do you fly up to Glasgow for the lessons?
No, it’s not something within the budget at the moment, so I’ve done them via Skype (on-line video conferencing service), which has worked very well. I have flown up to Glasgow to take a piping exam and attend one of the summer schools hosted at the National Piping Centre. Glasgow is a fantastic city. When I have gone to Glasgow in the past, the tutors at the Centre have been kind enough to take students along to some Grade 1 pipe band practices. Grade 1 is the Premiership of piping. The lessons online that I have taken with Glenn work very well.
I’m assuming that he’s not teaching you to read music, so what areas does he concentrate on?
From the level that I’m at, he expects me to know the tunes. He might give me new tunes to go off and learn, but for a lesson I’ll perform a tune that I know. From that, he will critique the performance and offer suggestions for improvement etc. It’s obviously tricky not being there in person, but, if anything, it keeps me practicing. I eventually want to compete on the solo circuit, which will mean travelling around. I would also like to join a competition band, which I’m in the process of researching at the moment. The main reason for the lessons is to ensure that I’m not getting into bad habits, and keeping up the momentum.
Would you give up the day job to pipe full time?
If it paid enough, yes. I know a few guys that do just that. There are players who busk up in London, but that’s not something that I, personally, would be comfortable doing. I do have a side business [ www.southcoastpiper.co.uk] where I offer piping for weddings, funerals, parties etc. This is something I can only do on weekends, but that works well, because most of the requests I have had are for weekend weddings and parties.
It must take up a lot of what little spare time that you have?
Time wise, piping has been quite intrusive. With the band practice twice a week, teaching, personal training, going off late at night for my own practice, it doesn’t leave much time. So I have to be very organised, and it requires a lot of dedication. The private work is very rewarding though. I’ve had some fantastic feedback and testimonials. I want to be known as a good piper. One of my aims is to show people that piping isn’t just Amazing Grace and some of the other tunes people might have heard traditionally somewhere. When you say ‘bagpipes’ to someone, they imagine a kind of dull drone where a whole bunch of pipers play Amazing Grace or Scotland the Brave. But there’s a lot more to it than that, a lot of very exciting compositions. With the South Coast Piper venture, I hope that I can raise the awareness of the breadth of pipe music available.
Name that tune
Do you have a particular style that you would say you play?
Pipe music can be categorised into different genres and time signatures. There’s something called Piobaireachd, (pronounced: ‘pee – brock’) which I would call a classical style of piping. Somebody playing a Piobaireachd tune could typically play for between eight and twenty minutes long. The structure is that you have a Ground or Base melody, then there are different variations of that melody to allow the player to demonstrate a variety of piping techniques. So it has a slight melody to it, and that will change ever so slightly throughout the piece. It allows the judges to assess your playing technique; how well you control and phrase the music. That’s one section of piping.
Pibroch, piobaireachd or ceol mor is an art music genre associated primarily with the Scottish Highlands that is characterized by extended compositions with a melodic theme and elaborate formal variations. Strictly meaning ‘piping’ in Scottish Gaelic, piobaireachd has, for some four centuries, been music of the Great Highland Bagpipe.
Then you have the standard stuff that you would hear a piper play. That can be categorised into Strathspeys, Marches, Reels and Dances etc. so you get different time signatures and phrasing. That’s where I feel that I fit, because I think it’s where some of the more exciting playing is happening. People are composing really interesting music and tunes for the pipes. And the top pipe bands out there, are putting together some spectacular performances.
You’d like to compete as a soloist. Do you prefer to play solo or in a band?
Both. As long as I’m playing, I’m not worried either way. Competing doesn’t bother me, but I’d prefer it as a soloist than with a band. The added pressure and responsibility of not letting the others down, takes away some of the pleasure. Obviously, putting in the time to practise and the travel etc; means that you really want to get a result, so that’s an added incentive. I’ve not really latched on to competition circuit so far, because of the amount of travel involved. It would mean having to fly to Inverness and Glasgow, possible four or five times throughout the year. So, I’ve not done that yet, but it’s hopefully something for the near(ish) future.
What’s the best part about being in a pipe band?
It’s difficult to explain to somebody who’s not in one, but it’s quite a unique experience. The camaraderie is great; you get to meet so many interesting people. The opportunities are fantastic. I’ve ended up in situations with my pipes that would just not be afforded normal members of the public. I’ve played on board a yacht, with Sir Robin Knox Johnson, for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. I’ve played at mixed martial arts events; I’ve played alongside Dolly drummers at a Sheik wedding. All sorts of unusual places and events.
The opportunities are fantastic. I’ve played on-board a yacht, with Sir Robin Knox Johnson, at a Sheik wedding, and at mixed martial arts events
Playing the pipes has enriched my life a lot, I think. I owe a great deal to many people over the years. First and foremost in that list will be my wife and family. My wife for putting up with all the bagpipe related business and my family for putting up with having to hear my learn when I was younger. All of my various piping teachers over the years, Pipe Major Nathan Colbern, who gave me the opportunity to be Pipe Sergeant of the Rose and Thistle Pipe Band for many years, Glenn Brown for all the great help and advice and band visits. The Scottish Piping Society of London and all my piping friends. There are way too many to list.
A special thank you to Sheena, Daniels wife, for loaning him for yet another photo shoot and to Daniel for his patience and assistance.
Web Links and References of interest
The Glasgow National Piping Centre GNPC)
Glenn Brown (GNPC Tutor)
The Scottish Piping Society of London