By Scott Williams
Ed Neigh, the second son of Ed and Charlotte Neigh, was born on May 22nd, 1945 in Galt, Ontario, which is now Cambridge, and raised in nearby Stratford. His mother worked for the Stratford Festival and his father, who was a school teacher and vice principal, also worked as the Festival reporter for the local paper.  “It was quite exciting,” Ed recalls. “Theatre people were always around. We never knew, when we came in from playing, whether it would be just the family for dinner or whether some high commissioner from some third world country was going to be there, or some Hollywood movie star. The theatre was a part of our lives. I probably saw every performance during the first ten years of the Festival.”

         Ed received a degree in History and English from Sir Wilfred Laurier University and has taught high school for thirty years. Currently, he’s a secondary teacher/librarian in the small rural town of Listowel, north of Kitchener. “It’s a great place,” says Ed. “It’s like going back in time twenty-five years or so, where kids say please and thank you. It’s a happy place where people tend to get along. I live in a town called Wellesley, a Mennonite town, where the horse and buggy is a common sight on the streets, even today.” A teacher as well, his wife, Margaret was born and raised in Burnside, Rutherglen, just outside of Glasgow, Scotland and was at the University of Glasgow when they met. They have four children. 

         Geoff, Ed’s older brother, expressed an interest an interest in learning to play bagpipes first. “When I said I’d like to do that too, my father said I was too young. The day after Geoff’s first lesson, there was a picture in the paper of the chanter class and there was someone from my elementary school class who was younger than I was. I said that’s it. If he can learn, I can learn too. I really started more out of thrawnness and stubbornness than out of any love of bagpipes.”

         About a year after they started, the boys went to watch the local band getting ready to play in a parade. “They struck up and played the first two tunes we had been given,” says Ed,  “The Brown Haired Maiden and Teribus. I turned to my older brother and said, ‘That’s really neat. Why don’t they teach us something like that?’ You see, up to that point, I couldn’t even recognize the tunes I was learning! It was startling to realize that this stuff could become music! I was an athlete in school, a hockey player, football, basketball and so on. In the early days, piping was just another athletic event which involved a lot of precise finger movements that had to be performed correctly. It was something I did because I had success with it. I wasn’t particularly passionate about it, not back then.”
           Ed’s high school had a cadet corps and there were enough young pipers and drummers to form a cadet pipe band. He went to band practice two noon hours a week. The guys were from several different bands and wore different uniforms. “If we were missing a bass drummer,” Ed recalls, “then I would teach someone to play. It was the same with the tenor drummers - I learned how to swing and then taught others how to do it. The last couple of years, I ended up running the band.”     
         Ed also played in the Perth Regiment Pipe Band, a militia band that started up and got a Scottish affiliate during World War II. “The man who taught us was basically self taught, a man named John Skinner, and he was not a bad player. Every time he’d run into someone who knew how to play, he’d ask them how to do something, so he kept expanding his knowledge that way. He had fairly correct execution and a good sense of the music. His idea of practicing, however, was to sit down with the chanter and sight-read every tune in a music book. He was an excellent sight reader, but I don’t think his memorized repertoire was ever very large.”

         When he was fifteen, Ed went to Gordon Tuck for lessons. “Gordon was pipe major of the St. Thomas Legion, later to become the St. Thomas Police and then the MacNish Distillery Pipe Band, a top Grade I band. He was a man who’s place in piping history, unfortunately, is very underrated. He was the first person ever to set pipe chanters together the way we do today. He had this crystal clear tone in the early sixties that the bands in Scotland weren’t getting till the middle eighties! He had an amazing ear and was fanatical about bagpipe tone. I wanted to go to him for lessons but my parents wouldn’t drive me. John Skinner announced that he wanted to go for lessons too. He used to drive me every second Sunday, 120 miles round trip, but he didn’t really want lessons. He just wanted to make it possible for me to have them. You couldn’t do more for a kid than this guy did.”

         “Gordy Tuck was certainly the best player of light music in Ontario at that time,” says Ed, “but there was no one in my area teaching piobaireachd so I didn’t learn it until I was about twenty-two. When you learn something at twenty-two, you don’t forget it. It took me years to develop a decent crunluath, but I’ve never lost it.”

         Ed piped at the Stratford Festival and held down another job at the same time, saving up enough money to go over to Scotland for a year. “I knew, from reading the Piping Times,” he says, “that the premier piobaireachd player at that time was John MacFadyen. As soon as I got there, I went along and introduced myself to the great man and asked if I could come to him for lessons. He taught me for that  winter. It wasn’t like you had your hour once a week; I went at least three and sometimes five times and I spent the next fifteen years going to his summer schools.”

         John MacFadyen was an elementary school teacher in Barrhead. Ed and a Scot named Dugald Murdoch, who had emigrated to New Zealand, would go along after school for lessons. During the hour, John would play a piobaireachd, followed by Dugald and Ed. “John would always play first. He would tell us what he was going to play and we would sit with the music in front of us and listen. In this way, he got to play his pipes and play piobaireachd between three and five times a week, and not only play, but play before an audience of neophytes who worshipped at his feet! He didn’t want to make a mistake in front of us; that would be the worst thing he could imagine! At the end of six months, I had learned only six piobaireachds, but I could stand up and play any one of those six piobaireachds today and not worry about making a mistake, I learned them so completely and so well.”

         John MacFadyen came over to the United States and, together with Sandy Jones, started the North American Academy of Piping. “Unlike other teachers who came over here and patronized us and told us we were good when we weren’t, and took our money and patted us on the head, John never told us it was good until it was as good as he could play it himself. At that time, he was the best player in the world, and it was hard to reach that level of performance, but we tried.

         “I can remember the first time I played a tune that he thought was good. It was when I was in Scotland. It had always been ‘Mr. Neigh’ or ‘Mr. MacFadyen’, and you wore a tie to the lesson every day. I remember I played the Battle of Auldearn, setting # 2. My bagpipe was really good and for the first time I felt I really played a piobaireachd. I was finished and was putting the pipe in the box when I heard this voice saying, ‘Tell me Ed,’ and I didn’t know who was talking to me because it had always been Mr. Neigh and Mr. MacFadyen before, and this voice said, ‘Which way do you go home? I thought we might stop for a drink.’ It was John MacFadyen. That was after two and a half months of lessons and I realized then that I had made it.

         MacFadyen taught many pipers, including Bill Livingstone, Jim McGillivray, John Goodenow and David Martin. For the first fifteen years of the Canadian Gold Medal, every person that won it was either a pupil of John MacFadyen or a pupil of a pupil of his. He had a tremendous influence on the development of piobaireachd playing in eastern North America.

         Another of the major influences on piping in Ontario at that time was John Wilson. He inspired a standard of judging that helped Ed and many others. First and foremost, he insisted that the bagpipe had to be in tune, and secondly that players couldn’t miss any execution or they wouldn’t be considered for the prize lists.

         “When we started going to compete in Scotland,” says Ed, “we were amazed that the top players over there missed execution all the time - not like today; the top players don’t miss execution today. But back then, that was only a minor detail if you were a Scottish player. If you were a Canadian, however, and missed even a single gracenote, you were out of the prizes, but if you were one of the top Scots and missed them, you could still win the major awards. I once complained to Michael Grey that there were two sets of rules and he said, ‘Two? I know of at least ten!’”

         Ed competed in Scotland regularly in the ‘70s and had quite a bit of success. “It has been my fate in life to have missed the major prizes at Oban and Inverness,” he says, “but I’ve had some very close calls. Whether or not I’ll ever get them now, I’m not so sure because I’m not so hungry for them any more. When I was in what you might call my prime, I was probably putting 75-80% of my energies into running a Grade I band. Still, I won most of the major North American prizes including Maxville three times, and some major Scottish prizes including the Dunvegan Medal, the march at Oban, and I played in the Silver Chanter on Skye. I was made to feel very welcome, especially by the other players who went round the games. There were days when you scratched your head over the prize lists, but the players themselves - John Burgess, Hugh MacCallum, Iain MacFadyen, and the others - treated me very well. I used to win prizes up the east coast in places like Aboyne and Braemar and I loved going to those contests because you could corner Bob Brown in the beer tent afterwards and get him to sing you every piobaireachd you wanted to hear. You just kept asking for them and he’d keep singing them to you, which was great.”

         When Ed came back from his year in Scotland, he played a last season with St. Thomas and then  took over the City of Guelph Pipe Band. It had been placed 17th in Grade 3 at the World’s the year before. Under Ed’s leadership, the band moved up to Grade 2 and played there for three seasons before moving into Grade I. “It was always a teaching band,” says Ed,  “always a band full of young people, and it was the first Grade I band in our circuit to have women players. It wasn’t that we had any special liberal sentiments, but it was a case of let the women play or we wouldn’t have enough players to compete! Some of the other bands used to complain about being beaten by women and children. They didn’t like it. We won at Maxville twice over a period of seven years, and we were second the other five times. We had major successes against Scottish bands, winning the CNE one year and placing fifth another. That was the era before North American bands could reasonably expect to win prizes in the World Championships, something that is now common.”

         In 1981, Ed’s City of Guelph Pipe Band won first in piping at the Cowal Games. “That was the year that they dropped either the highest or the lowest piping score and the two judges wouldn’t know until after they sent in their sheets which way it would go. Anyway, they dropped the low score that day and we won the piping. I met one of the judges in the beer tent afterwards and he said, ‘Ed, I placed you first today, and that likely means I’ll never get to judge again!’ It wasn’t quite true, what he said, because he has judged since. The amazing thing about that day that convinced me that we shouldn’t bother to play in Scotland again, however, is that we beat the likes of the Glasgow Police in piping, and didn’t get to walk off the field with the prize!”

         Ed taught school in Scotland in 1975-76. “My wife wanted to have one of our children over there and that mission was accomplished when our oldest daughter was born. I also wanted the opportunity to go to someone else for piobaireachd lessons, so I went along to Donald MacLeod, probably the most famous native of the Isle of Lewis, who had studied with the great John MacDonald of Inverness. I took an hour and a half lesson with him every week and during my year there we went through more than a hundred tunes. We started slow, but the pace got brutal by the time I was nearing the end of my stay. I would be getting half a dozen tunes in a lesson by that time. I was fortunate in that the man I was replacing at school was able to come back to work for half days starting in January so I had lots of free time to practice my piobaireachd.

         “Donald’s background and knowledge of piobaireachd was the complete opposite of what I had already had from John MacFadyen. John would take liberties with the tunes. He found the music in the long notes, and the short notes, he just threw away. He seemed to hold the long notes forever and make the most beautiful music. Donald, on the other hand, played the long notes in balanced lengths and had the most incredible subtlety with the short notes. It seemed that the music was all in these little notes and what he could draw out of them. Needless to say, the early part of my time with him was extremely frustrating. Eventually, because I was playing so much, and I had some excellent advice from Captain John MacLellan who was the head of the Army School of Piping at the time, I sort of put together what I liked from John and Donald.”

         Both John MacFadyen and Donald MacLeod had passed away by the mid 80’s and Ed started going to John MacLellan who had another completely different approach. “He didn’t try to teach you to play a tune exactly as he played it. He just tried to open your mind to other possibilities, and he would do this with rambling stories about someone who had played the tune somewhere. You had to be listening or you’d miss the whole point and how the story related to what you were trying to do. He was extremely knowledgeable, another man who will be missed by the entire piping world.

         “By the end of the 70’s, I was doing everything I could to get out of band work. I had four children and aging parents, and I wasn’t hungry enough for the prizes to be mean enough to make the band play the way I wanted it to. Once I started being nice to people at band practice, I knew it was time to quit! When I was fifteen, I decided that someday I would have a band that would win in Maxville and I did that in 1976 for the first time, but looking back, I think the times I enjoyed the most were those days on a Sunday afternoon in the park when the band played exactly the way I had visualized it perhaps a year before and everyone finally got it all together and did what I wanted.

         “One of the things that has happened to me as a result of being a player and learning and studying, and being quite analytical about the music, is that I’ve come up with what some might consider rather bizzar theories. In fact, I put on someone’s score sheet today (Antigonish Indoor Meet, May 23, 1998) a little maxim ‘the rounder you play, the faster you have to play’ and I put a little footnote at the bottom of the page, ‘Neigh’s Rules of Tempo, Number 117’! I hope the kid has a sense of humour!

         “But, truthfully, I have developed some theories about why we play bagpipes the way we do. In fact, I’m looking forward to retiring and being able to put this stuff in print because I’ve been using it in clinics. It’s a real thrill for me when I explain something to someone and they say, ‘So that’s how it works!’. For example, we were discussing how to play the taorluaths before cadences at the awards ceremony at the ACPBA Piobaireachd Challenge competition on Friday evening. You have a beat which has four pulses in it. Normally you start the taorluath and play that to the next Low A in the next pulse, but if you do it the way Scott MacAulay was saying, you don’t start the taorluath until the next beat. In other words, you hold it one quarter of a beat longer and that’s how it makes sense rhythmically. Then your cadence works because it becomes a triplet. That’s the sort of thing I had been puzzling over for years and if I had never gone to Donald MacLeod, I don’t think I would ever have gotten started in a lot of these directions.

         “Another thing that piping gave to me that I never expected is, when I taught people how to play, taught the band how to play, I never dreamed that fifteen years later I would be flying all over North America doing clinics and judging and so on. It never entered my head that this would happen. We didn’t realize that the standard was exploding and we were at the forefront of that. When I was a kid, a competitive career usually ended by the time you were twenty-five. Now, at fifty-two, I’m still going strong. Piping is not only for the young and spry!”

         Ed is a member of the Music Board for the PPBSO, and was chairman of the advisory council for a number of years. He judged the World Championships in 1988 and in 1996 and will be judging there again this year. He writes articles for piping magazines - The Voice, The Piping Times and The Piper and Drummer - and he has one of the best collections of piobaireachd music books in North America. “I have the manuscripts on microfilm and some of them have been converted into hard copies so, when I go to play Donald MacDonald’s setting, I just get out my book because I have the book! I also have Angus MacKay’s manuscript and the Nether Lorne Canntaireachd and the MacArthur manuscript, and so on.”

         Ed teaches a few private pupils now but plans to teach more when he retires. He does some composing and plans to release a book of his own. He has done recitals, solo recordings, and his City of Guelph band also made a recording. “We’ve been looking at putting cuts from that and other out-of-print recordings on CDs this winter - sort of a ‘Great Bands Of The ‘70’s Series’ which would include Guelph, Clan MacFarlane, St. Thomas and others. You see, we recorded all the Championship contests during the 70’s and we have all that material. There’s a lot of piping repertoire that the bands today never heard of and it will be good to get it out.”

         Ed has a head full of projects including a piobaireachd tutor. “I’m just desperate to get that out because there are areas, like here in Nova Scotia, where people are struggling to get a handle on the music. I can give them something that will help. I can explain how and why certain things work the way they do.”

         Advice to young players - “Keep on playing the traditional music. I think all the current fast, rhythmical stuff is great to get your hands going, but there is a level of sophistication in 2/4 marches and so on that will eventually give more satisfaction. Another important bit of advice - I think every piper should play piobaireachd. It is the height of the art form, the most difficult, and develops you as a player. I’m sure that if I had not become a piobaireachd player I would not have had  what is called a ‘piping career’, because jigs and hornpipes only hold so much interest for so long. You tire of them quickly.”
         Advice to teachers  - “Try every new way you can, because the way we’ve been teaching bagpipes up to now is not the only way to do it. The Suzuki teachers that my kids study violin with, even the Scottish National Orchestra Choir - their rehearsals are just like band practices. Go and learn from them.”

Advice to judges - “You don’t get to a point where you stop piping and start judging. As a judge, you have the responsibility to grow and change along with the music that is growing and changing. Judging doesn’t mean retirement from the piping community.”

Opinion of piping in the Maritimes - “I think it’s fabulous! You’ve got a lot of people here doing some great teaching. I think of the Heatherbells and their performance today, for example. I remember their first trials last year after many years of not competing. This year, they have nothing to be ashamed of. They are playing great. They’ve had a real turn around. They used to be a band that prided themselves in how well their tenor drummers twirled their sticks and now they are getting serious about how you play the music. It’s great!

         “There are teachers here with knowledge, skill, and dedication to their pupils that is just phenomenal. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen anything to compare with it anywhere else, except perhaps in Scotland. Here, you have a small piping community but such a large number with the potential to become world class players. When you sit and judge amateurs, you’re always looking for the kid that could be the next Gold Medal winner. Well, I heard lots of them this weekend. In fact, the Nova Scotian bands and soloists have done really well at the North American Championships in the last number of years and that says that you guys are really doing something right down here in regards to how to bring players along. I have a suspicion that in Ontario we burn them out with too many contests. It’s too high pressure. It’s not relaxed enough. I get the sense down here that it is less competitive, the players value each other’s friendship. There seems to be a greater respect down here for each other and for the culture that piping is part of. You seem to understand that here.”



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