There was no doubt about it. Heather Purvis was a rising star in
the burgeoning piping community of Manitoba. Already a prize-winning Open
class piper by the age of 17, as pipe major of the Heather-Belles Ladies’
Pipe Band she led her young musicians through a performance with Beatle
legend, Paul McCartney. A tune she composed following the tragic death of
Diana, the Princess of Wales was accepted and published as "A Pipe Tune
For The People’s Princess". A career nurse, she was only thirty-four years
of age and happily married with a young daughter when a debilitating
stroke brought her world crashing down around her. This is a story of a
very talented, dedicated and courageous young woman who overcame great
Heather was born in Winnipeg on February 14, 1965. "My father was an employee of the Department of Natural Resources," she explains, "which meant we moved around quite frequently. My mother, Barbara Ruth Gardener worked for as a Registered Nurse in hospitals in many of the towns we were transferred to, but gravitated towards the long-term care facilities, which was definitely her forte. We were lucky enough to have a couple of years in Winnipeg, then a posting to the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, southeast of Winnipeg for nine years, which was my home for most of my piping educational years. Later we were transferred to the town of Gimli, an ethnically Icelandic community, and I finished high school in Dauphin, a town of Ukrainian background three hours northwest of Winnipeg. Throughout all of these moves, I gained a special appreciation for the diversity associated with various ethnic groups." As well, Heather found her hobby to be unique to each of these areas and her piping talents were frequently called upon to assist with important events.
"My parents deserve a great deal of the credit for who I have become as a musician as well as for my achievements as a person," continues Heather. "They ensured that I received the musical education that they felt was so important, and that I did well in school. They told me there was no limit to what I could do but also instilled in me a sense of humility in that, while I might do great things, there was always someone who could do those things as well as I could.
"I identified with my father’s parents most throughout my life. My grandmother, her father of stalwart Scottish background from the village of Maybole in Ayrshire, was born and raised in a small town west of Winnipeg called Portage la Prairie. She was a diminutive woman who had suffered mildly from polio years earlier. Despite some physical effects, she continued to play the piano very well, and could play many old Scottish airs, strathspeys and reels, as could her mother before her. I have always been quite close to my grandmother’s brother’s family, and my cousin, Hugh Peden, is Pipe Sergeant of the Vancouver Police Pipe Band. My grandfather’s family was also of Scottish origin. He never tired of hearing me practice and, when I had my pipes handy, would always request his favourite, "The Drunken Piper".
"As a youngster, I can recall my father storing his practice chanter in the piano bench. This instrument always intrigued me and, even though my father continued to "pick away" at lessons with his uncle, it came to the point that my interest was greater than his. I can recall looking at pictures of my uncle and his son playing with the Cameron Highlanders and thought it was something that I could do. Neither my parents nor I ever thought that it was a "man’s instrument", and that it was not appropriate for me to play it. My sister, five years my junior, also began piping lessons at age 9 and became a member of the Heather-Belles Pipe Band in 1981. Kim is an extremely talented pianist, and what she was on the piano, I was on the pipes. In this way, there was always a complementary arrangement, and usually no antagonism!"
Heather’s first teacher was Pipe Major George Lawrence of Winnipeg (Transcona), but he was originally from Rothesay, Isle of Bute. He started as a piper with the Boys Brigade in Rothesay, and, as WWII broke out, was transferred with his army unit to Arbroath. He later served in Egypt, Italy, and Libya. On moving to Canada, he joined the Canadian Reserves, and became a member of the 402 Air Squadron, CFB Winnipeg as a Master Warrant Officer. He retired from the Squadron Pipe Band in 1984, after serving for many years as pipe major. During this time, he also assisted with other local Winnipeg bands. In the 1960s, Lawrence started the Transcona Pipe Band, but it disbanded in 1973. In 1984, he started the Transcona and District Pipe Band, which he taught until 2002. They traveled to Scotland in 1988, 1993, 1997 and 2001. He was instrumental in forming the Prairie Pipe Band Association, holding every executive position numerous times. He also participated as a judge, but quit in 1984 when many of his own students began to compete. Lawrence was not only an excellent, dedicated teacher but respected within the community as a selfless citizen. The St. Andrew’s Society of Winnipeg presented him with an award for his many years of commitment to Scottish culture to Winnipeg and Manitoba. He continues to teach young children. In October 9, 2003, a special evening in his honour was held, and Heather performed a tune especially written for George with a number of his former students.
"I began lessons with George in September 1973," Heather explains. "We were living in Steinbach at the time, and my parents drove me to his home faithfully for lessons once a week. They would sit and visit with Mrs. Lawrence while I received my tuition down in the basement. We would sit at his large table, and I recall a lot of emphasis placed on technique. I don’t believe I got an actual tune until I was months into learning my exercises. He was from the "old" school, where pipers were taught to place a great deal of emphasis on the left foot beat when playing 2/4 marches and the strathspey pulse was Strong, Weak, Medium, Weak. While pipe music is treated with a more sophisticated phrasing analysis today, this certainly stood me well in competitive life."
"My introduction to piobaireachd was with the late P/M Donald MacLeod . He taught at the International Music Camp, on the border of North Dakota and Manitoba, for many years. During his classes from 1974-76, I was introduced to such great tunes as "The Wee Spree", and "The Desperate Battle". He also was the one to teach me the art of circular breathing – there were not many piobaireachd players in Manitoba, never mind 10-11 year olds that could use this method for blowing the practice chanter. I distinctly recall one evening being asked by P/M MacLeod if I would blow his pipes for a while. I was deeply honoured, and quite surprised that his instrument was so easy to manage and had such beautiful, resonant tone.
"Another local instructor with whom I had the privilege of studying was P/M John Reay Sr. He was an assistant with the Heather-Belles when I began in 1978, and was one of few local pipers at the time, along with university student Garth Neel, who were providing instruction in piobaireachd. In 1997, Andrew Wright of Dunblane, Scotland judged me at the Calgary Highland Games and we struck up a friendship that continues today. He encouraged me to attend a piobaireachd school at which he would be teaching in Billings, Montana. This intensive week of study opened my eyes to Andrew’s brilliant musical interpretations, and served to enlarge the repertoire of piobaireachd with which I was comfortable performing.
"All of the instructors I have had over the years have made an impact on me in some form or another. P/M Lawrence had the most enduring impact on my solo career, and the way I presented myself when performing, which I found to be important. I always credit him with providing me with the basic to which I added my own musical skills. Donald MacLeod was likely the biggest influence in my piobaireachd career, with Andrew Wright close behind. There have never been many sources of piobaireachd education on the prairies so camps and workshops were primary sources of education."
George Lawrence was pipe major of the 402 Squadron of the Air Force at the time Heather was ready to join a pipe band. "I was really too young to become a member of the military reserve," Heather says. "I think Pipe Major Lawrence had some difficulty trying to decide where I would best fit in because the younger cadet band was not progressing as quickly as I was.. It was quite easy to pick me out of the band lineup – just look for the shortest and the one trying to take as big a step as the men in order to keep up!"
Eventually, Pipe Major Lawrence realized that this was not the ideal situation for a twelve year old girl, and took Heather out to a practice of the Winnipeg Heather-Belle Ladies’ Pipe Band, a group that both of his daughters had belonged to over the years. "I still recall the first practice," recalls Heather, "and my realization that I did not have to take such big steps to keep up as I had in the 402 Squadron band. The Heather-Belles also did not march with the high-stepping precision of the military, and it took me a number of years to deprogram myself of this as well. Thus began my involvement with the Heather-Belles, which was to last until 1999. My first loyalty continues to be to this band.
"My own development as a P/M was the result of many influences. While my various teachers provided the basics, my observation of top Grade I band pipe majors such as Terry Lee of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band were pivotal. My introduction to Terry was through workshops Simon Fraser held in the early 1980s, as well as watching them in competition both in BC and in Scotland. Another strong influence was Marlene (Stephen) Treichel, the pipe major of the Heather-Belles for 27 years before me. While we didn’t necessarily always agree on musical approach, she was what I would describe as a visionary leader in pipe bands on the prairies, and a true mentor for women in piping. I grew up with Marlene in charge of the band and, as I became more experienced, I found that few matched her passion and dedication for Scottish music, and our group of girls in particular.
"I can recall many band achievements over the years, but one that continues to stick out is one of the first years the Heather-Belles began to compete again, around 1980. The band made a trip to the highland games in Moose Jaw, SK and entered Gr. III, also playing up to Gr. II. In a whirlwind weekend, we took first place in both grades. It was a grand trip home, with an all-night bus ride back to Winnipeg, where our parents met us triumphantly first thing Sunday morning.
"The band also achieved a Best Overseas Band designation at the Rothesay Games in Scotland around 1985. It poured rain all day and we were up to our knees in muck. It was in the days of the fiber snare heads…they disintegrated before our eyes. It was a proud trip home, however. The Air Canada stewardesses treating us like royalty, and all the passengers on our flight from Toronto put up with us tuning our pipes and playing ourselves off when we landed. Anything I later accomplished with other Grade I and II bands couldn’t compare with that!
As an amateur competitor, Heather rose quickly through the ranks. "My fondest memory is my very first chanter competition, in July 1974 at the age of nine. This was a special contest, as it celebrated Winnipeg’s 100th anniversary. I was expected to play two parts of a 2/4 or 4/4 march. Instead of choosing something more appropriate to the contest, such as "Scotland the Brave" or "Mairi’s Wedding", I guess Pipe Major Lawrence decided I should be a bit more ambitious. I performed the four-parted 2/4 march called "P/M John Stewart". I recall that it was not a real challenge for me, and I assumed that every other performer was doing something equally as difficult. To his death, P/M Doug Will, who judged me that day, always recalled his surprise at this small girl walking up and playing this big tune! Unfortunately, my sister laid on my keeper trophy on the way home and broke the top off – "the only trophy I ever won!"; it was soon soldered back together!
"By the time I was 16 or 17, I was playing open contests in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Minnesota. Due to the distance between contests, as well as the limited number of contests throughout the year, it was difficult to get a lot of adjudication from guest judges, and the few times I did go to places like Santa Rosa, Calgary or Canmore, I relished the truly objective comments and found many of them very useful. As far as prizes went, I usually made the top six in out-of-province contests and frequently took home the Provincial Aggregate for Open Piping at the Selkirk Highland Games.
"I did compete once in Scotland, at Dunoon, back in the late 1970s. It was not a memory I look back on fondly. I played before a judge who either could have cared less or had a hearing deficit (I tended to hope it was the latter). Regardless, it did not give me the sense of accomplishment it should have, and to this date I haven’t returned.
"After high school, I obtained a B.Sc. degree at the University of Manitoba (dean’s honour list), followed immediately by a Bachelor of Nursing degree (valedictorian of the class of 1990). I thought of pursuing a career in medicine, but finally settled on nursing, as I could not bear to jeopardize concentrating on my piping career. I began work as a nurse in 1990 at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg on the Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery ward, predominantly part-time. In 1994 I moved to the Heart Catheterization Lab in the same hospital, assisting with heart testing.
"In November 1990, I married Gerry Wiens, a snare drummer I had known since I was nine years old. Gerry was a member of the Rivers and District Pipe Band, and also belonged to or instructed many other bands on the prairies. We became closer after he began assisting the Heather-Belles as a drumming instructor the 1980s. Gerry also taught at the QuÁppelle School of the Arts in Saskatchewan and the International Peace Gardens Piping and Drumming School, on the border of Manitoba and North Dakota. He was an adjudicator for the Prairie Pipe Band Association, and taught drumming privately for more than 10 years. We were married in a very Scottish ceremony, with P/M George Lawrence playing us out of the church, and an honour guard of sword-bearing highland dancers. The reception featured performances from both the Heather-Belles and the Stirling Pipe Band." Their daughter Caitlin was born June 6, 1996.
In 1991, Heather had the opportunity to be judged in light music by Bob Worrall of Burlington, Ontario at the Santa Rosa Highland Games in California. "Bob was kind enough to offer me lessons and, on a couple of occasions, I flew to Toronto to spend a weekend having lessons from him in both light music and piobaireachd. He caused me to rethink my phrasing analysis, predominantly in light music, which improved not only my solo performance throughout the 1990s but also the way I was to teach musical analysis to my students.
"In 1993, I heard that Paul McCartney was going to be coming to Winnipeg. Being the thrifty Scot that I was, and knowing that he had done Mull of Kintyre years before, I wrote a letter to the local concert promoter, asking if the Heather-Belles could perform this hit song with him. At the time the letter was written, the band had no idea how to play Mull of Kintyre, and we didn’t have any music for it. I never heard back and assumed that my cockeyed idea had been tossed in the trash. Amazingly, I received a phone call at work one day from another band member, one week prior to the concert. Paul’s "people" in Australia had contacted the promoter, and they wanted the Heather-Belles to open the concert with about 15 minutes of traditional Scottish music. I was too excited to keep working, and knew the band had a lot of work to do. The band gathered that night to set down a strategy for what we would play. The next day, I received another phone call; this time to tell us that the McCartney group had changed their mind and they did want us to perform Mull of Kintyre! I ran to the nearest HMV record store, bought the Wings Greatest Hits CD, and spent the rest of the afternoon writing out the score for both pipes and drums to this cool tune!
"For the remainder of the week, the group was hounded by the newspapers, TV and radio stations. The evening before the concert, we were invited to a sound check with Paul himself, where I got the opportunity to tune with him, and we all rehearsed together. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get a group portrait with Paul, but his wife Linda obliged and the band has a wonderful keepsake. By the time "Winnipeg’s worst kept secret" hit the stage the night of the concert, Paul had revved them up into a frenzy. We entered walking up a plank from back stage, and I hit the crowd first…what a rush, something I or anyone else in the Heather-Belles will never forget. While Paul never compensated the band for our performance, the local CTV affiliate, CKY TV, paid the group a sum of $1000 for five years after our show. For the members that got to play, it was the memory of a lifetime!
"In 1994, I had the honour of performing "Flower of Scotland" with the Heather-Belles and John MacDermott. At that time, Natalie McMaster was just starting to become a popular performer in backup to John, and we all marveled at her ability to dance and fiddle at the same time! I recall going for dinner with John and the crew, and Natalie didn’t say a word the entire time!
"In 1997, both my husband and I had the opportunity to travel with the Manitoba Pipes and Drums to Bern, Switzerland to be the "duty band" at the World Curling Championships. It was a great experience, especially since both Canadian teams won! I also got to perform "Amazing Grace" as a solo with English-born singer Dana Gillespie, a frequent guest on Australian singer Rolf Harris’ weekly TV program. I have played for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on at least three occasions, once as a soloist. Many government leaders have been piped into a dizzying array of dinners and meetings. I was almost ‘best friends’ with Manitoba premier Gary Filmon, as we were paired up at many provincial events!
"In early 1998, a member of the Heather-Belles directed me to a newsletter from The Piping Centre where they were advertising "The Pipe Tune for the People’s Princess" tune composition contest. I had been at the 1997 Calgary Highland Games the day that Princess Diana died, and recall vividly sitting in shock in my hotel room as the details unfolded. I guess I’ve always been somewhat of a royalist, and interested in British history. I felt truly sad for Diana’s children.
"I submitted three tunes, and didn’t think anything more of it. I happened to be attending a piobaireachd workshop with Andrew Wright in Billings, Montana when my husband called, very excited. I had received a letter indicating that I was one of the top winners. They advised me to purchase a plane ticket, and to be in Glasgow for a few days at the end of June. The Heather-Belles were also heading over to the World Championships in August, so I had the opportunity to do a little advanced PR for them as well. At the lovely ceremony held at The Piping Centre, I came in 2nd place and was presented with a beautiful set of McCallum bagpipes with silver engraved tuning slides by Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie and Diana’s butler Paul Burrell.
"The biggest challenge of my life came on January 3rd, 1999. I had been up quite late studying for a course I was taking at work, and finally went to bed around 1 AM. About 6 AM, I awoke needing a trip to the washroom. As I was heading back to bed, I began to feel odd, with a very icy, frontal headache and my right arm and leg were becoming weaker. Knowing all that I do about stroke, I was aware that these were stroke symptoms but like anyone, especially someone my age, I was in denial about what was happening. I decided I would spend a few minutes on the living room couch but, when these unpleasant feelings did not pass, I headed back to my bedroom to wake up my husband.
"I was taken to the hospital where I was employed and, once the stroke had been diagnosed, the recovery and associated therapy began. I was not able to maintain any kind of balance, and could not even sit up without listing to the right. One thing I did know, that although my right hand was weaker and my left hand had no pain or temperature sensations, I could still move my fingers well enough to play. I can recall being wheeled down for an x-ray, fingering out the music to various tunes in an attempt to take my mind off everything else that was going on. I ended up spending four weeks in the acute care hospital and was subsequently transferred to a rehab hospital for a further two weeks.
"During the early weeks of my recovery, I did wonder if I would ever play again. The stroke was in an area that might be impacted by the pressure of blowing but, when a number of neurologists were questioned, there were varying opinions. I finally decided that this was a quality-of-life issue and by July of 1999, attempted my first band competition. It certainly wore me out to be playing once again, and the question of whether to play a hard MacAllister reed or a lighter Megarity-Ross was a no-brainer. I thought back many times to the day when I had played Donald MacLeod’s sweet instrument, and was aware that I didn’t have to develop a hernia to get good tone.
In October 1999 Heather and her family moved to Waterloo, ON. "Our decision to move was prompted not only by Gerry’s transfer to a job in Toronto, but by the fact that we were friends with Jake Watson of the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band and he was living in Waterloo at the time. I took a position at Cambridge Memorial Hospital as a Geriatric Resource Nurse one year after our move. This involves assessing elderly hospital patients to assist in correcting many concerns, such as memory problems, falls, behavioural problems or functional decline. I have always pursued continuing educational opportunities and, living in close proximity to the University of Waterloo, I began working on my Master of Science degree in Applied Health Studies and Gerontology on a part-time basis.
"Just twelve months after suffering my stroke, I joined the 78th Fraser Highlanders. I had always wanted to play at the Grade I level, but never suspected my chance would come after suffering a life-threatening illness. By 2001, I had competed with them in Alma, MI and played in shows in Uxbridge, ON and Schenectady, NY. In September 2001, however, I fell ill with pneumonia and reluctantly decided, for now, playing at this level was no longer worth further health problems. For the 2001-2002 season, I joined the Hamilton Police Pipe Band, as they were moved to the Grade II level. It was a fairly successful season, and again I felt some of the same feelings I had when achieving the best we could with the Heather-Belles. In 2002, I decided to take time off to concentrate on acquiring my graduate degree. I will likely return to the competitive band scene in another couple of years when my graduate degree is complete."
Heather started her career as a piping adjudicator in Winnipeg in 1995. Since moving to Ontario, she has been named to the Judges’ Panel of the Pipers and Pipe Band Society of Ontario and is certified to judge solos and bands (Gr. II down). "I am currently judging two or three contests a year," she explains. "I have always felt as a judge that it was not my job to scare the poor Grade IV performer, but to let them put on their best show for me in as comfortable a manner for them as possible. P/M Terry Lee, Bob Worrall and Andrew Wright have always been excellent examples to me of how I would like to be perceived as a piping judge.
"While in Winnipeg, I taught a number of students, furthering them in their light music interpretation as well as piobaireachd. At one point, I was one of only two people in the entire city of Winnipeg teaching piobaireachd, a third living in Brandon, two hours to the west. I’ve resumed teaching since coming to Ontario and currently have three students. I have taught students from the young beginner to the more advanced, and the "mature" beginner. One student I had the pleasure of working with was just happy to get a few solid notes out of the chanter, a great accomplishment when one considers his two heart valves and moderately debilitating arthritis. I have also taught at local summer schools in Winnipeg and Kenora, ON. Both provided me with an opportunity to pass on skills to those whom I wouldn’t normally have contact with, who not only received information from me, but who taught me a thing or two as well.
"I would have to say that a lot of my influence as a teacher actually came from my education in piano. I obtained my "Performers in Music" certificate (Grade 11) in piano from the Western Board of Music, the University of Edmonton in 1987. With the heavy influence on musical theory, I have attempted to instill this in all of my students so that they possess the tools to correctly play any piece of music put in front of them. I take the slow and steady approach, emphasizing not only precision in gracenotes but musicality in phrasing as well. The music of Bach and Beethoven has always been of particular interest to me. The contrapuntal influence of Bach (weaving of phrases repeatedly from one hand to another) as well as the grandness of Beethoven, have certainly influenced how I write music as well as how I perform it. There is nothing shy about a great Highland bagpipe, and presenting music confidently, with style and with precision, are things that great musicians have impressed upon me.
"In 2002, I had an unusual request from a member of the Celtic Rock group Enter the Haggis. One of the members was doing a paper about women in pipe bands for a university course, and wanted my candid opinions regarding this topic. In preparing my response, I dug into some of the issues that reverberated with paternalism from my young days playing in Manitoba. While women are predominantly seen as equals in the pipe band world, there continues to be some "musical discrimination", with negative assumptions ranging from a woman’s inability to play the same "big" instrument of a man, to assuming that we don’t have the stamina to play in Grade I band. The inroads made by female pipers such as Ann Gray of Calgary (and originally from Nova Scotia) and Paula Glendinning to name just a couple has aided in reducing this negative rhetoric, but I occasionally see overtones of it. Here’s a hint to the piping community - judge a player by their abilities, not the size of their pipe chanter reed!"
After her success with my "Pipe Tune for the People’s Princess", and the catastrophic events that had such a major impact on her life, Heather decided shortly after returning from the hospital that she wanted to produce a book of music, containing not only her own original compositions, but donations of music from others. "To date," Heather reports, "I have entered all the donated music into my computer and am truly grateful to composers such as Ann Gray, Bruce Gandy and Bob Worrall and a number of overseas composers as well. The time between the project’s conception and the production of the music book has been a long one. All proceeds from the book, which I hope will be out by this summer, will be donated to heart and stroke research, from which I have truly benefited. It’s the only way I can think of to support those who supported me during some very difficult times.
"I feel that today’s bagpipe music teachers are responsible for turning out knowledgeable musicians in this Scottish idiom. If they are uncertain or lacking at some level of their musical background, I urge them to be responsible and humble enough to approach other educated sources so that they do not lead their students astray. I have also found that many teachers neglect instrument maintenance as part of a student’s tutelage. Back when pipe bags had to be tied on, many world-class players did not have the know-how to do this! Any expert musician playing in a symphony, for instance, knows their instrument inside and out – this is an expectation of playing at that level. It should be the same for the piper.
"It is important that judges maintain their objectivity. This is one of the most challenging feats, ensuring that the band or individual you are judging is being judged on the basis of their current performance, not on any past presentations. It is easy to be lead astray. No matter how long I play or judge, I will never be able to get the drive to play pipes out of my blood!!!"