John Bottomley was born in Florida in 1954. "When my parents moved north a year later, I decided to go with them," John jokes, " so I grew up on Long Island, New York." Johnís father is Thomas Bottomley, the first in the family to take up the pipes. "My father started as an adult and he was very clever about getting me started as well. He basically came home one day with the pipes and a practice chanter, showed me the practice chanter and said, "John, this is mineódonít touch it," then left it where I could reach it and went out to work. So I of course picked it up as soon as he was out the door. We both still play, 45 years later!
"My grandfather was born in Glasgow (Kentucky, not Scotland) but we have Scottish connections through the Glenns of Linlithgow. The Bottomleys themselves came from Yorkshire. They emigrated in 1732 so Iím as close to a Native American as anyone this side of a Cherokee. My mom, Peg Bottomley, wrote a couple of childrenís books, and says that her job in the whole piping thing is to applaud. She claims MacGregor descent. I have two sisters and a brother, all of whom played to one degree or another. We were all together in a childrenís band hosted by a Veterans of Foreign Wars post during the 1970s. Iím the only one still pursuing it, though."
Johnís father was his first teacher. "This got to be a little . . . interesting Ö when I eventually became his teacher and Pipe Major in the competition band he formed in New York City. After all, he was my dad, but I became his boss. I imagine that President Bush, Sr. and the current president Bush have much the same issue."
John did well in high school despite work habits he describes as being less than exemplary. He was a member of the National Honour Society and a competitive swimmer. "I can still do the butterfly 35 years later! The poor work habit thing kind of bit me in the behind when I went to Queenís University, where I majored in working on the newspaper and yearbook instead of going to class. In retrospect, I might have changed the balance a bit."
For his first band experiences, Johnís father brought him out to the Amityville American Legion Pipe Band on Long Island, where he was learning. "This was strictly a parade band," John says, "long on dressing sharp and shorter on playing well. They wouldnít let me play at first because I was too young, then they wouldnít let me play because my hair was too long! Iíve got an old picture of me about 10 years of age, marching alongside the band, playing along on a stick while they performed.
"I took some lessons from the pipe major of the band, but they didnít really stick. It wasnít until I met Stewart Robertson, who was a great friend of the late great pipers, Donald MacLeod and Peter MacLeod Jr., that I finally figured out that all those pesky gracenotes actually counted. At that point, Iíd been playing six years. Stewart set me straight and started me down the path Iíve been following ever since. It was when I was going to him that I began competing. Once I heard really good playing, I knew that was what I wanted to do."
By this time, piping took over Johnís life to the point that it determined his choice of school. "Queenís University in Kingston, ON was a top-level school and it also had a pipe band. When I got there, I got into the Ontario piping scene, and learned about the Guelph Pipe Band, at that time being run by Ed Neigh and Jim McGillivray, two players who were then dominating the professional solo competition scene. I decided I wanted to learn from them, so I tried out for the band and was accepted. I had some private lessons from Ed. It seemed that Piobaireachd was going to be my stronger suit while light music was going to be more of a struggle. Although I may have a ĎRock And Roll soulí, I have ĎPiobaireachd fingersí!"
Under Ed Neighís careful tutelage, John moved into the professional ranks, and took a third place in the Gold Medal contest on his very first attempt. "The other prizewinners that day were Bill Livingstone, Ed Neigh, and Jim McGillivray. They had all won the Gold Medal previously, so if there had been a Former Winners/Clasp contest at that time, they would have been playing in it, and I would have won a Gold Medal in my maiden run!
"It was from Ed that I learned the importance of rhythm in Piobaireachd, and of the beat/upbeat when you play light music; a principle he preached every day at band and in every solo lesson. I donít know if Jim got that from Ed, or if he already had it when he joined Guelph, but itís a driving force behind his "Rhythmic Fingerwork" book."
After John returned to the United States, he attended the Balmoral School a few times where he studied with Jimmy McIntosh and Donald Lindsay. "Through them," John explains, "and through the process of growing up, I gained subtlety in my playing. I still get feedback whenever I can from Ed, Jimmy, and Donald.
"I also got a remarkable amount of tuition from Iain MacFadyen and John Burgess, although neither of them knew it. I spent a winter listening to recordings of their playing over and over, and finally figured out and internalized a lot of the phrasing things they did that made their playing so great. You can talk about those things all you want, but until you start feeling it in your heart you wonít be able to play it.
"One or two lessons with George Bell in New Jersey were also terrifically productive. He gets more out of a pointed finger and a raised eyebrow than most folks do with a thousand words."
John attended the 1000 Islands Summer School when Capt. John MacLellan was running it, the Balmoral Schools, and a number of Invermark Workshops with Donald Lindsay. "They were all great - exposure to different teaching and playing styles makes you a more rounded player. Iíve been to a few workshops with Willie Connell as well, learning about the Cameron style of playing piobaireachd since most of my training has been in the MacPherson style. As a judge, I have to be aware of all these things so I can give competitors a fair listen!
"My first band experience was with parade bands, and they definitely got my interest going. When I was a teenager I spent every Friday night at a band practice, so I learned most of whatever rudimentary social skills I possess in a piping environment. I began band competition as the Pipe Major of a VFW childrenís band, which was being taught by Stewart Robertson. The band had an incredible roster of pipers come through it, many of whom have gone on to run successful bands of their own. We had at least nine Open/Professional pipers go through that group! Later, after two years in the Rob Roy Pipe Band in Kingston, Ontario, I went to the Guelph Pipe Band and got my first taste of top-level international band playing. At the time I joined, I was fairly inexperienced and it was my job to shut up and play, so I did. But I also learned a lot about running a band and achieving musical excellence."
When John went back to New York, he took over the band his father had started, the Baile MÚr Pipes and Drums. "We had a nice run for a while in the eighties, getting up into Grade 3 for a few years."
His next band was the Lehigh Valley Pipe Band, a band filled with very good players that performed well in Grade 2 for a few years. "If weíd stayed together longer," says John, "weíd have been a real force."
The last band John played in was the Oran MÚr Pipe Band, reuniting him with Donald Lindsay. "This is a very progressive band, musically, which made it great fun. I also got to play with some up and coming young players (I had suddenly become an elder statesman!). When I was the Pipe Sergeant of the band, we took our first trip to the Worldís and placed tenth in Grade 2. It was also my first trip to the Worldís, and it occurred on my 50th birthday. I thought it was very nice of Glasgow to bring all those pipers together to wish me a happy 50th!"
John started winning solo professional prizes in 1976. "Even though I might never have been the top player around," he says, "I have been consistently in the prize lists ever since. The first prizes I remember were a Professional Piobaireachd prize at Ligonier and the MacDonald Medal for Piobaireachd from the 1000 Islands School. Of course, thereís that 3rd place in the Gold Medal as well. I was the professional piper of the day for about seven years in a row at the Round Hill Highland Games in Connecticut, and Iíve taken prizes in just about every contest on the (US) east coast. I won the Robert Walker Memorial trophy for solo piping at the Celtic Classic in Bethlehem against an invited field of 10 of the countryís best players back in 1989. Iím also a regular player at the United States Piping Foundation Championships. I was first in a different sense at both the Metro Cup and at the Celtic Classic. I inaugurated both events by being the first to play at their first contests.
"When I was in the Guelph Pipe Band, as a rank and file player, we went to Scotland and took sixth place at Cowal and seventh at the European Championships in Shotts, which were very good prizes for overseas bands at the time. However, I am most proud of the achievements of the Oran MÚr Pipe Band. We proved ourselves at the international level both at Maxville and at the Worldís. This was especially gratifying at the Worldís because we were basically unknown when we got there. As Pipe Sergeant, I ran a lot of our practices, so I felt like I had really contributed to the bandís success.
"As a soloist, I think my highest achievement was qualifying for the USPF championships by winning the Boreraig Trophy. The Boreraig Trophy has a lot of great names on it, and itís an honour to me to be on the list. I am also very proud to have won the Robert Walker trophy at the Celtic Classic, but my most memorable achievement was getting the prize I did in the Gold Medal. That was great because Iíd been struggling up to that point, and it really helped validate in my own mind that I belonged in the Open, and that I was a good player. And of course I will absolutely never forget sitting in the band bus at the Worldís and finding out that Oran MÚr had gotten through the preliminary rounds and made it to the finals."
Currently John chairs the piping committee of the Bethlehem Celtic Classic. The committee has dedicated themselves to presenting a top-notch band contest with a unique format. "Whereas bands will go to the Worldís and perhaps play for five minutes and be done," John explains, "at the Classic, bands play four times, showing off their entire competitive repertoire over the course of a weekend. And the prize money is fantastic."
John has been a member-at-large on the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association in the past, putting out the Associationís newsletter on a typewriter and photocopy machine. "The good/bad old days!" quips John. "Thatís when the publication got its name, The Voice."
John also chaired the Adjudication Advisory Board and was responsible for getting ensemble judging introduced to EUSPBA by setting up seminars, running exams and getting judges certified. "Iím still involved in working on how our association handles the ensemble aspect of band playing," John adds, "as well as revising and setting judgesí exams, running seminars for judges, and writing articles in The Voice for bands."
John teaches a number of private students, and has done so for years. "Some of my students have gone on to play with Grade 1 bands and do well in solo competition, which I find very gratifying. I also teach some local bands, both competition-level and parade bands who just want to sound good. I do weekend workshops for bands, as well as offering online instruction, where a band can record a practice and I will give extended feedback on the ensemble aspects of the performance. Iíve taught at both the Balmoral School and the Invermark Workshops, although not nearly as much as I would like. Itís brutal, hard work, but Iíve never had more fun in my life than when Iím completely immersed in playing, teaching, and talking bagpipes for 18 or 20 hours a day. I would love to connect with a private academy or college to get band and piping programs started there.
"Iíve composed a few tunes. Itís not my forte, but sometimes a tune will click inside my head and, when it does, Iíll write it down. Iíve played some of my own tunes in 6/8, hornpipe, and jig contests and theyíve been well received. I have tunes out with a few people who are planning music books, but nothing has been published so far."
John has put together a number of articles for the EUSPBA Voice, "mostly focusing on ensemble, and I am currently working on a book that will cover different aspects of practicing and preparing to be a better player and competitor. Iíve made a CD recently of St. Patrickís Day music, using just my laptop software. Iím selling it locally with half of the money going to support cancer research.
"One of the things Iíve always done is look for non-competition venues to play and present the bagpipe. For a number of years, I performed at the Eagle Tavern in New York City as part of its Irish Music series. Iíve also played at Carnegie Hall with Anna Russell, and with the Boston Pops. Iíve appeared off-Broadway in a production of Richard II, and in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry V in New York City. Beverly Sills invited me to play for a reception at Avery Fisher Hall for the New York City Opera production of Brigadoon. Jobs like these, especially the Eagle Tavern, taught me a lot about being a performer, being able to interact with the audience so they enjoy the playing that much more."
Johnís advice to younger players: "Keep your ears open! There is a lot of good playing around, a lot of things you can appreciate, learn from, and use. There are recordings out there of previous generations of players, and these are starting to see the light of day. There is nothing like going back and hearing earlier master players to help refine our playing nowadays. Never stop learning.
"Go outside the piping world as well. Other disciplines have a lot to offer us in terms of improving our own art. Not just musical or artistic areas, either. Right now, there are so many good players and bands in the world that you almost canít turn around without hearing something good. The advent of synthetic drone reeds, bags, tuning meters, and so forth has made it easier to achieve a basic level of competence and decent sound. Even a Grade 4 or 5 band, if it is close to a prize in a contest, is actually a decent band. There are a lot of extraordinarily talented young professional pipers now, players in their teens who are winning prizes. Itís great for piping. And with more associations taking up formal training programs for prospective and active judges, the officiating just keeps getting better.
"One thing Iíve learned is that, because we spend so much of our time together, if we donít get along with each other, weíre sunk. Just because we compete against each other doesnít mean that the level of camaraderie among us suffers.
"There is still much we do to continue to improve the standard of playing - light music, Piobaireachd, bands. Some associations I believe are doing this already, but a unified and systematic system of tuition would be a big benefit. Itís easier said than done, of course. As a former math teacher, I believe strongly in lesson plans that can focus on long-term goals, and a bit of management technique to accurately track progress. "The increasing conversation among associations can only benefit all of us. Groups like ANAPBA (Association of North American Pipe Band Associations) facilitate this and anything we can do to encourage it is a good thing.
"My wife is an artist as well, a fifth generation knitter who has expanded into fiber arts including felting, spinning and dyeing her own wool, and multi-textile display pieces. As artists we understands each otherís pursuits, which has been a huge help, although it does mean that our schedules are remarkably complex! My daughter finally decided, just before leaving for college, to start learning the pipes herself, so it took a while but sheís hooked now.
"Iíve spent my life in a variety of positions - journalist, photography, technical editor and writer, computer network administrator, math teacher. The constant factor for me has been piping, and the people I know through piping. I wouldnít trade it for anything."