From the outside of the solid brick building, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Baton Rouge seemed quiet Saturday morning. But once past the doors, music from bagpipes and drums drifted from almost every room.
Twenty-nine musicians who share a passion for Scottish music and heritage gathered at the church to compete at the fourth annual Red Stick Regional Piping and Drumming Competition, sponsored by the Caledonian Society of Baton Rouge.
Kilted musicians and their families hurriedly walked the corridors, traveling from one room to the next.
They first needed to prepare their instruments, which for the bagpipes requires careful tuning, and then to play in front of a judge from the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, the governing body for bagpipe and drum music that sanctioned the competition.
Competitors are divided between pipers and drummers who are then split by skill level from Grade 5 — a beginner — to Grade 1 — an expert.
Those grades are not loosely defined. The association sets strict standards and determines if a musician can move to the next skill level by carefully reviewing performance sheets from past competitions.
While the competitors are separated by instrument and skill, they are all linked with a dedication to pursue a music that is hard to come by in Louisiana, with some reaching out to far-flung teachers through the Internet.
“Skype is really all we got,” said Pam Brownlee, a bass drummer from Mandeville. She competed along with her daughter Morgan, a 24-year-old tenor drummer who picked up how to play by simply watching.
Morgan, who has Down syndrome, seemed to surprise the judge at her first competition with how adept she with the instrument, her mother recalled. She has competed for about four years and won first place a few times.
The Scottish music community in the state is relatively small, but it’s close-knit. Members of pipe and drum bands typically offer guidance to anyone wanting to take up the craft.
According to Rosemary John, competition organizer and pipe sergeant of the Baton Rouge Caledonian Pipes and Drums, it is traditional for pipe bands to offer lessons. Her band teaches regularly at the First Presbyterian Church.
Baton Rouge boasts at least three pipe bands, the others being the Celtic Society's Na Cait Dubh pipe band, and Baton Rouge Pipes and Drums. Then there is the Pipes and Drums of New Orleans, which shrank after Hurricane Katrina but is on its way back, according to Steve Brownlee, Pam’s husband, who added that all the bands work together on events, like parades, funerals and memorials.
For Thomas Martin, a 21-year-old piper from Baton Rouge, collaborating with fellow Scottish music enthusiasts is the best part of playing.
“I really just like playing with the band,” he said, adding that his favorite gig is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Baton Rouge.
Martin fell in love with the bagpipe while learning about his Irish heritage. Seven years later, he is still competing, traveling as far as Colorado and earning the right to be in Grade 3.
But as Pam Brownlee pointed out, the journey of perfecting the craft of Scottish music is never-ending. She has been drumming for more than a decade and still feels the need to practice.
“I’m still trying to learn,” she said.
By the end of the day, winners were announced in 35 events. Chris Pierce, of Baton Rouge, won “Drummer of the Day.” Fred Kiffer, of Batesville, Arkansas, took first place as “Piper of the Day.” Anne Katherine Campbell, of Memphis, Tennessee, came in second in the piper category, while Robert Chalk, of San Antonio, was third.
Editor’s note: This story was modified to indicate there are at least three pipe bands in Baton Rouge, not two. The Advocate regrets the error.