Canadian piper Amy (Goble) Garson was the first woman ever to be invited to compete at the prestigious invitational Glenfiddich Solo Piping Championship (now widely known as ‘the Unofficial World Championship’ for solo pipers) at Blair Atholl Castle in October 1988. This historic event met with lots of media coverage and hype at the time, but who is this talented lady?
Amy was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1958. "My mother, Barbara Goble (nee Amey), is a retired court stenographer born in Montreal Quebec. She has some Scottish connections as she is related to the MacCrimmons of Alexandria, Ontario, and also distantly related to the Frasers of Inverness, Scotland. My father, Max Goble, now deceased, was a Government of Canada stationery engineer born in Aetna, Alberta of English descent."
Amy’s father served in WWII in the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish and marched into battle hearing the bagpipes. "He was a non-musician," says Amy, "but a piping enthusiast who listened patiently for hours while I practised. Actually, I got into bagpiping unintentionally. I was the Highland dancer of the family. I began lessons at the age of 6 and pursued this until I was in my late teens. I hold a Highland dancer’s Scottish Official Board Teacher’s Certificate. My younger brother was meant to be the piper of the family. When he hit his early teens, he rebelled at the prospects of wearing a kilt and loathed practising. I used to pick up his practice chanter and mimic the movements. On occasion, I would sit and wait for him during his lesson and eventually decided to take up the instrument."
Amy graduated from Confederation High School with First Class Honours, a Royal Canadian Legion Scholarship, and a Samuel Springer Scholarship. She attended Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree (History) in 1980 and a Bachelor of Laws Degree in 1983. She articled at the private sector law firm of Soloway Wright, Barristers and Solicitors, and was called to the Ontario Bar of the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1985. She also qualified as a solicitor at Law Society of England and Wales in 1992.
Though piping has been very important in Amy’s life, she also achieved a Grade 9 level in piano from the Royal Conservatory of Music, and learned to play clarinet. She enjoys downhill and cross-country skiing, cycling, and cooking.
Amy’s first piping teacher was David Benyon, of the Campbell Pipe Band, based in Ottawa. "From him, I learned to execute doublings consistently aiming for perfection. I spent the better part of my first year working on exercises on the practice chanter before touching my first tune."
Later, she studied with renowned teacher, P/M John T. MacKenzie, of the Glengarry Pipe Band in Maxville, Ontario. "This was mainly light music tuition in a group setting on Saturday mornings at Glengarry District High School, but I enjoyed private tuition at P/M MacKenzie’s home run summer schools. I also studied with James McIntosh, formerly of Dundee, Scotland now residing in Pittsburgh, PA. I met Jimmy at the Northern Ontario School of Gaelic Arts summer school in Timmins, Ontario in 1974 where I studied Piobaireachd for two weeks each summer for six years. I learned the art of Piobaireachd through song and Jimmy’s interesting stories of how he was taught the tunes by the famous ‘Bobs of Balmoral’, Bob Brown and Bob Nicol, and I corresponded with Jimmy by cassette tape during the school year, building up quite a repertoire of tunes."
It was at Timmins that Amy met her husband Ken, also a piper, in 1976. They studied piobaireachd together for many years at bagpipe summer schools. He was a great sounding board for her when she reached the pinnacle of her success and is still her greatest supporter.
Besides piobaireachd instruction, Amy also received light music instruction at the Timmins summer schools from well-known Scottish teachers such as Seumas MacNeill, John D. Burgess, Duncan Johnstone and Kenny MacLean. She attended other summer schools as well, including the Balmoral Piping Schools, in Edinboro, PA where, from 1980 to 1983, she received piobaireachd tuition from Jimmy McIntosh for two weeks during summer months as well as light music instruction from P/M Ian MacLellan of the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.
Amy has had a very impressive solo competitive career. She became the first woman to win the Silver Medal for Piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting in Inverness, Scotland 1981. "Prior to this, I was relatively unknown on the international stage, and here I was, the first woman to be awarded the Silver Medal at my first appearance at this contest. The victory was all the more rewarding given that I was vehemently criticized by a notable Canadian piping judge for competing in a contest that was, in his opinion, well beyond the scope of my abilities."
Amy went on to confirm her rightful place in the International solo piping scene by placing third at the Argyllshire Gathering Gold Medal competition for Piobaireachd in Oban, Scotland in 1984, and third, fourth and fifth for the Northern Meeting Gold Medal for Piobaireachd in Inverness, Scotland between 1983-86. She won the Cambridge, Ontario Piobaireachd Society Gold Medal in 1989 and the Gold Medal at the Fair Hill Games in Maryland in the mid 1980s as well as the Gold Bar for former winners in 1988.
The first pipe band Amy played with was the Campbell Pipe Band. "It was a non-competing band," Amy explains, "so we played on parade mainly. Later, I competed with the Glengarry Pipe Band at Grade 4 and Grade 3 levels and after that with the Dunvegan Pipe Band at the Grade 2 level."
Amy was named a member of EUSPBA Judges’ Panel in 1988 and has officiated as a solo bagpipe and pipe band judge at numerous Pipers’ and Pipe Band Society of Ontario Games as well as at Eastern United States Pipe Band Association competitions.
"I have taught students privately on occasion at the amateur Grade 1 and 2 level when time permits, " says Amy, "but being a full time lawyer in the Department of Justice and mother of three children, I have very little spare time these days to dedicate to piping. In the future, I hope to have more time to spend on pursuing my bagpipe interests. Throughout the year I manage to pipe for Highland dance competitions, which helps build stamina and puts me in a good position to return to the competition field some day."
Based on her own experiences as a learner, Amy has some advice for young players. "Sing your tunes as you play them and this will help bring out the music. Don’t despair with those exercises – practising them really does help you get beyond the technical challenges and can only help you express the music better.
"Historically, women were not recognized as top class pipers in the bagpipe world," says Amy. "It was not until 1976 that women were permitted to compete at the premier solo bagpipe competitions at Inverness and Oban. Throughout my piping career I have faced some negative bias from various judges. There have been occasions when fellow competitors and other judges have acknowledged that I have been robbed of a prize simply because I was the wrong sex. Despite the adversity and bias, I have persevered with competitions simply because of my love of the instrument and its music. I have had much success and believe that the women of today will continue to have greater successes."
Piping standards, in solo and band events in Canada and the U.S., have risen steadily over the past two decades. "This is due to a large extent to the increased accessibility of good teaching from all corners of the globe and the sharing of knowledge," says Amy. "Continuing education programs for piping judges including annual seminars have improved the standard of judging. Publication of results has fostered greater accountability.
"It is important to continue to bring in role models who offer recitals, workshops, and summer schools to young pipers and lower grade bands. The exchange of ideas will help generate enthusiasm.
"Ideally, it would be helpful if North America could host more high profile, international solo bagpipe and/or band competitions since the annual trek to Scotland to compete at the premier competitions there is cost prohibitive for some and the system to qualify for the invitational contests is very subjective and cumbersome. In addition, perhaps Pipe Band Associations, Piper’s and Pipe Band Societies and Piobaireachd Societies around the world could band together and work towards a common goal of developing a new internationally sanctioned world class contest involving a host country rotation for a major solo bagpipe competition and world pipe band championship. Such a program could offer piping enthusiasts at some point in their competition years an opportunity to participate in and learn first hand from high calibre performances outside of Scotland. After all, bagpipe music has grown in popularity over the years and has taken hold in many different countries. Perhaps it’s time the world-class competition arena shifted its venue periodically."
Despite her busy family life and career commitments, Amy has managed to keep active in the competitive bagpipe community. We look forward to hearing more about her bagpipe pursuits in the coming years. "It brings me great satisfaction to know the bagpipe tradition will continue to live on in my family as my 14 year old son is currently a grade 4 solo bagpipe competitor."