Mark Elliott came to our attention when we received word of the world premiere of his work, Rachel’s March for Wind Ensemble with Great Highland Bagpipe. It was an immediate success, and is now being considered for publication.
Born in 1965, Mark grew up in Boone, NC. "I can claim some Scottish ancestry with the surname Elliott," says Mark. "I can also claim Irish, German & Italian ancestry on one or both sides of my family. Neither of my parents is particularly musical, so music was not strongly encouraged in our house as my sisters and I grew up, but it wasn’t discouraged either. As far as I know, I’m the first piper on either side of the family."
Mark and his wife Rachel, for whom the march was composed, have two children, Caroline, age 3, and Charlotte, age 1. "As we believe that music starts early," Mark explains, "and we hope that they’ll have a strong interest in music as they grow older, we sing to them all the time. Sometimes it’s ‘real’ songs, but more often it’s silly songs we make up as we go along. Charlotte’s a bit young to be singing yet, but Caroline makes up songs already."
Mark started out on trombone in middle school and moved to bass trombone in high school. His first band teachers were Dave Gaston, Charles Isley and Bill Winkler. "Though these three men weren’t teaching me piping," Mark explains, "they had – and still have – a profound influence on my music and musicianship. I learned from them how to read music, how to interpret rhythms, how to express the music and many other things. Another man who had a strong influence on me was Harold McKinney, the trombone instructor at Appalachian State University in Boone. I had taken the occasional lesson with him while I was in high school. Some years later, he invited me to play with the ASU trombone choir. That was a great experience! Imagine a room filled with twenty-five trombone players, all but one of them music majors, and many of those performance majors. That may have been the single best ensemble I have ever played in, regardless of instrument."
Mark was a bit older than many when he caught the piping bug. "Around 1990," he explains, "I went to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and heard pipes up close and personal for the first time, and I decided it was for me. I bought a practice chanter and tutor book and I thought that I’d be able to teach myself. Some time after the trip to the Games, I heard the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders Pipe Band perform in Blowing Rock, NC. The band circled up, and I was right behind Ed Krintz. I remember how reedy his pipe sounded; I had never played woodwinds, and I really enjoyed the sound."
Mark had been playing around with the practice chanter for about a year when he came in contact with Harvey Ritch, who owns a shop called Everything Scottish, now in Linville, NC. Harvey gave him lessons for a few months one on one, and then Mark attended his group lessons until he eventually made it into the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders’ Grade IV band. "Actually," Mark continues, "Harvey started and almost ended my piping career. One night I was late for my lesson and he made some remark to me about it. I was running my own shop at the time and working about eighty hours a week, so I was a bit pushed not only for time but for patience as well. When he made the remark to me, I stopped in the doorway and must have counted to ten. I let it pass, but I’m sure that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be playing today. He was pretty gruff in those days. I remember one early lesson when I had finally committed The Brown Haired Maiden to memory, and played it through on the practice chanter for him. I was pretty pleased with myself – I played it really well, I thought, and with no mistakes. I got through with it, and Harvey said, "What…was that?" It took me years to realize that he just wanted what he’s always wanted – for me to play well."
Mark attended a pair of piping schools: the North American Academy of Piping three times where he studied under Sandy Jones & Colin MacLellan, and the Balmoral School twice where he studied under Mike Cusack & Alasdair Gillies. "My main instruction, however, came from Ed Krintz, with whom I studied for six years or more. Ed was PM for the Grandfather Grade III band when I played in the Grade IV band, and later he became PM of the Loch Norman Pipe Band, with whom I played for two seasons. Ed really was the one who guided me in my solo playing from Grade III to Grade I. It was under his tutelage that I won my first light music contest in Grade I, and I inscribed the back of the trophy and presented it to him. Ed has a strong background in piobaireachd, but he is no slouch in light music, either. He took me through many piobaireachds and taught me how to bring out the nuances. Piobaireachd had always been my strong suit, but he was able to bring my light music up to par with it. The best single class I ever took, however, was from Ken Eller (see Celtic Heritage, June/July, 1995) at the EUSPBA’s Southern Branch Workshop some years ago. It was on the structure of pipe music, and I have used the knowledge I gained in it daily since."
Mark played with the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders for ten years, until he reached the top amateur grade, and then took three years off to concentrate on solos. He joined the Loch Norman Pipe Band for two seasons, until the job search forced a move to Maryland. He was able to move his family back home to North Carolina after only ten months away, and joined Grandfather again.
"In 1996, the band travelled to Canada. We were near the top of the prize list at the Grade 3 North American Pipe Band Championships in Maxville, but we won the next day in Montreal. Last year we went to Scotland and competed at North Berwick, Bridge of Allan and in Glasgow, at the World Pipe Band Championships. We played up a grade at North Berwick and beat a Grade II band, and then took eighth in Grade III at the Worlds. Not bad for a first trip over.
"The band has undergone a change in musical leadership this season, and the new PM, Justin Gonzalez, who is far and away the best piper among us, appointed me one of his two pipe sergeants. I’m delighted to share this role; it gives me a chance to contribute to the music selection, and I write virtually all of the harmonies. It has given me a chance to take some of the younger players under my wing, and it gives me a chance to hone my band set-up skills, which I will eventually need even more, as I aspire to step into the PM spot if given the chance. In the meantime, I am trying to learn all I can from Justin."
Mark competes in the US and Canada in solos, winning prizes from time to time, primarily in piobaireachd. In 2005 he finished fourth overall at the Sandy Jones Invitational. On two separate occasions he took fourth prizes at the United States Piping Foundation Championships, one in piobaireachd and one in light music. "I would have to rate my highest and most memorable achievement as winning the Senior Amateur Piobaireachd in Montreal some years ago. I played The Glen Is Mine for judge Willie Connell. I was first on the boards that day, and played as close to a flawless performance on a steady pipe as I ever have. I have the medal I won on a zipper of my pipe case to remind me of that performance.
Mark is a self-declared science nerd. "This is a result of my engineering background," he explains, "plus my interest in everything around me. About three years ago I got interested in the acoustics of the bagpipe, and my quest brought me into contact with Ewan MacPherson and John Kidd. I put together a course on the acoustics of the bagpipe, which I taught one year at the EUSPBA Southern Branch Workshop and also to the Carolinas Piobaireachd Society. We play a very technical instrument. The more we know about it, the better we can control it, and the better we will sound.
"I’ve composed a number of pipe tunes, and two of them, Bald Head Island and Rachel’s March, are published in Chris Hamilton’s Tone Czar Collection Volume I. Bald Head Island came to me on the way home after I had played a wedding on the island in the church next to the lighthouse. Rachel’s March was originally composed as a solo pipe tune for my wife to come down the aisle to. A few years later, I started waking up in the mornings hearing bits and pieces of it with other instruments – flutes, clarinets, tubular bells and such, so I committed it to paper and it evolved into a piece for wind ensemble with the pipe.
"Rachel’s March for Wind Ensemble with Great Highland Bagpipe had its world premiere at the 2005 band camp at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and it was very well received. I’ve since arranged it for brass band with bagpipe, and it will be premiered in this form at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in July 2006.
"I give recitals from time to time, both with others and as a soloist. As they are generally given to a non-piping audience, I try to play a few favourites as well as some hard-core pipe music. No recital is complete without piobaireachd, though I generally try to play one that the audience can follow easily. As these recitals are really a matter of outreach, I explain the tunes, their history and their structure."
Though Mark came to piping a bit later in life, he has had a remarkable career to date. "I would encourage pipers to compete, but not to lose track of the fact that we’re playing music, after all. I’ve tried to have the mindset that, while the judge may or may not be counting gracenotes, he wants me to play the best I possibly can. Regardless of my placing in the prize list, if I can come off of the platform and feel good about the performance, I have achieved what I set out to do.
" I would also encourage pipers to try their hand at composing. Don’t be stopped by the blank page. If you have an idea, commit it to paper, mistakes and all. It will be revised, or even criticized, but it is all a learning opportunity. The worst that will happen is that you’ll learn from it and do it better the next time.
"What I find interesting is that the top Grade I bands have a full and constantly changing repertoire, and they manage to pull off stellar performances virtually every time. For example, listen to the top bands at the World Championships – hot or cold, wet or dry, concert two days previously or not, they consistently play in excellent unison with fabulous tone. The standard there is so high that it really can’t be bettered by going into a studio. As a matter of fact, I think the studio sound doesn’t really do the pipe band justice. I’d like to hear an album recorded outside – in an open field on grass. I think the sound captured this way would be much better than the studio sound. This is where pipes and drums were designed to play, after all.
"New pipers need to learn the technique – all aspects of it. This includes manipulation of the instrument as well as mere fingering. There is no substitute, and you cannot master the music until you master the technique. Access to high-quality instruction is paramount, and it is just about universally available these days. In addition, the quality of pipes, reeds and accessories has risen with new technology. Recordings are available to listen to and learn from, and the Internet has provided a forum for people worldwide to share ideas and solutions. Still, there’s no substitute for quality practice, no silver bullet. One thing Harvey Ritch said years ago will always be true: ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.’ Practicing the mistakes won’t clear up the mistakes.
"I keep a list of reminders on the front of my solo music binder. Here’s what’s on it: Elliott’s Piping Maxims: 1. Competence is not the same as excellence. 2. Practice is not the same as improvement. 3. Play the notes; play all the notes; don’t play any extra notes. 4. To play well in front of the judge, you have to play well at home. 5. The best performance will only be as good as the worst rehearsal. 6. You can’t play the music if you’re worrying about technique. 7. "The amateur practices so he’ll play it right; the professional practices so he can’t play it wrong." (Piping Times). 8. "Talent is a myth. Excellence comes from opportunities to learn, encouragement, and regular practice." - Jori Chisholm (see Celtic Heritage, July/August, 2002). 9. Fast tempo does not win contests. Playing in control, with good technique, with proper phrasing on a good bagpipe wins contests. 10. Control! Control! Control!"