Summer schools are a great place to meet new friends, young and old. I
attended the first Ontario School of Piping in 1998 and have returned every year thereafter. One of the finest young players attending the School was Andrew Lewis of Syracuse, New York. A quiet boy, he might have gone un-noticed had it not been for his phenomenal performance at the Ceilidh following the Instructors’ Recital in 2002. He played on an excellent instrument, tune after glorious tune, each more riveting and exciting than the one before it, finally finishing to the tumultuous applause of his classmates and teachers alike. Andrew is just beginning to make his mark on the international piping scene, but I have no doubt that he will turn many heads in the years to come. He has agreed to be the next subject for this series of articles about young pipers of North America.
Andrew Lewis was born on October 4th, 1985, to Charlie and Mary Ann Lewis. Charlie, a computer analyst at University Hospital, is a piper with the Syracuse Scottish Pipe Band and a teacher of piping. Mary Ann, a biochemist at Bristol Myers Squibb, is a piper with the Oran Mor Pipe Band. She also plays snare drum with the Syracuse Scottish and teaches both piping and drumming. She has on two occasions been invited to take part in the Nicol-Brown Invitational Piobaireachd contest in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the premier events for amateur pipers from across North America. Andrew’s sister Allison is a premier Highland dancer and is learning to play the drums.
“Piping is a major family activity for us on my father’s side,” Andrew continues. “My cousin Ian Dixon is a Grade 1 piper. Another cousin, Eric Ouellette is a Grade 1 piper. My uncle Don Dixon is a piper and my cousin Doug Dixon is a Grade 2 drummer. They all play in the Manchester Pipe Band. My aunt Kate Dixon was once a piper and my aunt Pat Ouellette was a drummer. Uncle Steve Ouellette, though not a piper, comes along to all the contests and entertains us with his guitar. My grandfather is a piper and, though she doesn’t play, my grandmother takes the coordinating role in the family Thanksgiving and Burns Night suppers by preparing a haggis and planning who will pipe it in, who pipes in the turkey, and who plays ‘Auld Lang Syne’. We have an annual family vacation in the Thousand Islands region between the US and Canada the week before the Maxville games. We work on our solo and band music, and our four girl cousins work on their Highland dancing.”
Andrew was an honours student at Westhill High School. “My favourite subjects were Math and Science,” he admits. “I also enjoyed playing percussion with the wind ensemble. I ran cross-country for our varsity team in the fall, and during the winter I skied most weekends at Song Mountain. When it conflicted with piping, however, I sometimes had to miss running practices for competitions.”
Andrew had a set of non-playing miniature bagpipes by the time he was two years old. “I got my first real practice chanter when I was nine, but I didn’t start to take lessons until I was twelve,” he says. “My father started teaching me. He showed me all the basics and taught me my first tunes, ‘Mairi’s Wedding’ and ‘Wings’, which I played to win my first chanter contest at the Central New York Scottish Games.
“When I was thirteen, Dad set me up with my first bagpipes. He helped me into the band and taught me all the important aspects of band playing. Although I could only play a few tunes, I managed to compete in Grade 5 at Fort Erie playing ‘The March of the Champions Supreme’ and came seventh! That was in 1999. I went to my first summer school two weeks later and learned an amazing amount of music from Jack Lee. I came home and worked really hard, especially on cool tunes like ‘The Blue Cloud’.”
Andrew got his start in piobaireachd from his mother. “She gave me my first tune, ‘Lament for the Old Sword’. After that, I began taking Piobaireachd from Gil Mason. He was the first to really explain Piobaireachd expression to me. He taught me my first full tune and is responsible for helping me to enjoy piobaireachd as much as I do now.”
Andrew is currently taking instruction in both piobaireachd and light music from Donald F. Lindsay. “I’ve also had some light music lessons with Jake Watson,” Andrew continues. “The rest of my instruction comes from workshops. During the summer, I attend the Ontario School of Piping in Aurora, and the Invermark School of Piping and Drumming at either Stonehill College or Castleton College. Some of the instructors I’ve had were Jim McGillivray, Alasdair Gillies and his father, Norman, Angus MacColl, Willie McCallum, Jack Lee, Andrew Wright, Alan Bevan and Adrian Melville.”
The benefits of such expert instruction began to pay off immediately. Andrew won the New England Piobaireachd Cup in Grade 4 for accumulating the most points over the entire season. “I had to play full tunes,” he explains, “not just the Grounds of tunes as I had done previously. The last competition of the series was in Scotland, Connecticut on a blustery October day. In order to get the best from my drones, I kept my warm-up to a minimum and was constantly having to remove the reeds and dry them off. When my turn to play before the judge finally came, I blew air into my pipes only to find that the air was escaping from the bag. While my mom helped me to find which reed had fallen into the bag, I suddenly remembered that all of my reeds were sitting back in the car drying off! I took off running after telling the judge that I’d be right back. Just another lesson learned - now I play a Ross canister bag!”
Andrew was the EUSPBA Champion Supreme in Grade 4 in 2000 and in Grade 3 in 2001. He was promoted to Grade 2 for the 2002 season by both the EUSPBA and the PPBSO. “The previous summer I competed in Grade 3 at Fort Erie, Maxville, and Montreal,” he says to explain the PPBSO promotion, “and I had eight first places and one third, so they moved me up. I’ve been competing in Grade 1 this past summer, but I missed out on a couple of the early large contests and missed out on a lot of points, so I’m probably out of the running for the big invitationals this year.”
One of Andrew’s most pleasing early awards was to win the Junior Amateur Piobaireachd at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville. “Most of the time,” he says,” I compete against the same people who do the local games circuit, but Maxville was the biggest, with competitors from across North America. Usually my strongest competitor was my cousin, Eric. He has the most natural talent of any Grade 1 piper in this area. He almost always puts out a rock solid performance. He and I were probably very close to being equals in piping. We each have our strong points - mine being piobaireachd and jigs, and his being the other light music. Often we don’t know which way the judge will go!”
Since moving to Grade 1, Andrew has taken a number of high placings and was named the Senior Amateur Piobaireachd Champion at Maxville this year. Though piping competition provides most young players with the incentive to improve, Andrew has also had other inspiration. “I won the annual talent show at our school two years ago, after coming second in it the year before,” he says. “I also played for the Irish dancers who entertained while the judges met to make their decision. My sister Allison and I performed in a recital at our local library this past summer.” And of course, he performed at the Ceilidh at the Ontario School of Piping. “Party music is fun,” Andrew continues, “but piobaireachd and competition light music will improve your playing the most.”
Andrew plays a 100-year-old set of Henderson drones. “I got them for my 16th birthday, and I use a c1985 Naill pipe chanter that I borrowed from my mom. I play a set of Mark Lee’s Rocket drone reeds, a Troy chanter reed, and I use a Ross canister bag to reduce moisture problems.”
Piping is a social activity, and most North American soloists also play in bands. “The first band I played with was the Syracuse Scottish Pipe Band. I competed with them for a season and still play local engagements with them. Sometimes the pipe major (Sandy Scherer) will give me a group of pipers to go over the music with, but other than that, I don’t do any formal teaching yet. I joined Oran Mor in the fall of 2001. The band has been the EUSPBA Grade 2 Champions Supreme for a few years now. We have also been in the prize lists two years running at the North American Championships in Maxville and hope to compete in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland in 2004. I was recently appointed Pipe Corporal which, in Oran Mor, is 4th down since we have two Pipe Sergeants. Basically, I don’t do anything other than play unless two other officers are absent.” Play, and play well, without a doubt.
Andrew is currently enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in the Biomedical Engineering Program in Baltimore, Maryland where both his academic and piping interests can be satisfied.