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My Story

Onstage with Cu Dubh at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, an annual, nine-weekend festival held in Crownsville, MD. Photo: David Fimbres

So if you’re wondering how a primarily Portuguese and Polish guy got so heavily turned onto the bagpipes of Scotland … here’s the whole story—thus far.


Bedknobs, Broomsticks & Polish Dancers

I’ve loved the sound of the bagpipes for as long as I can remember. The earliest exposure to them I can recall was from the old Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The highland pipes are briefly featured in that film in several parts. I would frequently rewind the tape again and again in order to listen to the bagpiping bits, with my mother constantly yelling at me about how I was going to ruin the tape if I kept it up.

The start of the battle scene from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which still gives me chills.

Around this time (approximately age 6 or so) I was also having my first experiences performing on a stage. My father was at the time involved with a Polish folk group called the Krakowiak Polish Dancers of Boston, and he had me enroll in their kids program. The language was all memorizing gibberish to me, but it was fun, and it became evident straight away that I had no hints of stage-fright of any kind.

The kids’ group of the Krakowiak Polish Dancers of Boston. I think I was approximately 6-years-old here (maybe even 5?). I’m the front-most munchkin on the right (red hat).

A few years later, my parents took me to P.E.I. for a small vacation—I believe I was about 10 at the time. One of the most memorable events from that trip was a small, harborside concert being put on by a solo piper in Summerside (presumably put on by the College of Piping).

I absolutely loved it, which was obvious as I took to dancing all over for the world to see. Honestly, I was probably more thrilled of the fact that I finally had an opportunity to listen to bagpipes for a sustained period of time (and without fear of my mother catching me rewinding the VCR). This apparently prompted someone to approach my father and say “that kid’s bitten, you need to get him a set of pipes.”

Bagpipes? “Sure.”

My father kept it in mind, and a year or two later, he got his chance to act on that fellow’s suggestion. He got the name of a local bagpipe instructor from a man working in a music shop, and randomly asked me one day, out of nowhere, “do you want to learn how to play the bagpipes?”

I said “sure.” I believe I was 12.

The teacher was Eric Armour, a piper who was teaching out of his parents’ home in Pawtucket R.I. Eric was quite young at the time, in his early twenties I believe. He got me started on the practice chanter and helped us find my first set of Highland pipes. He also encouraged my parents to send me up to summer camp at the Gaelic College on Cape Breton island.

Aerial view of the Gaelic College, in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton.

The Gaelic College was the perfect thing for me—I went for two weeks that first summer, and returned for no less than a month for each of the six summers afterward. The college had many expert instructors such as Bob Worrall, Ed Neigh, Ken Eller, Mark Stewart, Ann Gray, John Walsh, Ryan MacDonald, Bruce MacPhee … the list goes on, I know I’m forgetting at least a few. It also had many other kids in attendance who shared my enthusiasm for both piping and idiotic shenanigans.

Friends who “speak bagpipe”

The “shenanigans” bit may sound like the lesser of the two when it came to my development in piping, but in many ways it played nearly an equal part. My friends at home all thought the fact that I played the pipes was neat, but nothing beyond that. It was definitely my thing, not theirs.

The kids at the Gaelic College, on the other hand, were all into the same things I was, and they were a fun group to boot. Before long, the thought of not returning to the Gaelic College every summer was intolerable—so that, if nothing else, ensured that piping was something in my life that was there to stay. Many of the kids with whom I attended classes there went on to be lifelong friends.

I later started taking lessons from Brian Yates, who then lived in Winchester, Mass. He was keen to get me competing as a piper, but at the time I wanted nothing to do with it. There were a number of reasons for this, but most of all, I wasn’t a very competitive person.

I just wanted to play. Keeping up with my friends at the Gaelic College and the various Highland games kept me working on my playing, though not in the most disciplined manner. All-in-all, I think I started to realize that by not competing in either solo or band contests, I was able to walk about the games and truly enjoy myself—free of responsibilities.

All sorts of pipes, big and “small”

While at the Gaelic College, I really started to discover my love for the music, particularly cèilidh/folk playing. Bruce MacPhee started offering smallpiping classes at the college, and though I still enjoyed the Highland piping classes, smallpipes quickly became my favorite subject. Bruce was a big influence for me, as was Ryan MacDonald, who later took over as the lead smallpiping instructor at the college. Bruce, at the time, was also frequently playing onstage with a folk group called Slàinte Mhath, so they were a tremendous inspiration to me as well.

Bruce MacPhee and Ryan MacNeil playing onstage in the early days of Slàinte Mhath. (Image source: claddah)
Me warming up border pipes in the tuning room at the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival. Photo: Meg Sullivan

I also eventually started making frequent trips to the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival in P.E.I., operated by the Chaisson Family—who have always been cherished friends. They threw me onstage with everyone else, and I spent many sleepless nights playing tunes with all of the amazing musicians there.

I played a little bit with a few pipe bands while I was in high school, but overall I really gravitated more toward the folk side of things—so I didn’t stay with any pipe band for very long. Bands I spent some time with include the Rhode Island Highlanders and Tulach Àrd Pipe Band (which is no longer active).

My father also did all he could to “get me out there” as a piper. Not more than a couple of years into my pursuit of piping had gone by before he’d made up business cards for services from: “Nathanael Silva – Youthful Piper.” (yes, that’s how my first name is spelt) Many parades, weddings, funerals, private parties and whatnot were done over the years until college started.

Busking & party tricks

When I entered into my college years, I fell off of playing regularly, though I always kept it up to some degree. It was hard to keep doing the “youthful piper” gigs, as my semi-real first job was in retail—which is all about working nights and weekends. It became increasingly difficult to navigate doing the odd bagpipe gig with a retail schedule. Unwilling to dive into trying to get enough piping gigs to replace a regular (though meager) paycheck, piping went by the wayside.

If nothing else, piping was a fun and ruckus party trick. At one point though I ran into a fellow who was interested in busking with me on the sidewalks of Harvard Square. We spent many summer days and nights there for a couple of years, which did well for us when I wasn’t busy with college classes.

It took me a little while to figure out a career path that might suit me while I was in school. I had a couple of false starts at pursuing computer science, and eventually found my way into graphic design. I finished my degree at UMass Dartmouth, and eventually landed a job as the features designer at The Standard-Times in New Bedford.

At one point, the Highland Light Scottish Pipe Band was performing a concert at a church in New Bedford. Knowing that I was a piper, the paper’s music writer asked me to go over his article that he’d written leading up to the event. As expected, there were all kinds of glaring errors—things that were mostly only evident to a piper, but erroneous information all the same.

So I called up the main contact of the band to clarify some of the items that stood out to me. I tried to hold back the fact that I was a piper, as I wasn’t really in the mood for a recruitment pitch. Eventually I told them—refreshingly, they simply said that they hoped to see me at the show, and that was it.

I did indeed stop by the concert, and hung with the group afterward at a local bar—lots of fun, rowdy conversation related to piping. Afterwards, I thought “well this could be nice … I’d be forced to play my pipes once a week, and afterwards we can talk bagpipes over some beer.

Pipe Corporal, Sergeant, Major

Just like when I was younger, I was keen to avoid responsibility with the pipe band. I said so when I first started showing up at Highland Light’s practices. I was quite unsuccessful in this.

Almost right away I was asked if I could help with tuning the band at each practice and outing. Soon after, it was suggested I be made pipe corporal, as I was having to issue directions to players whilst tuning and it seemed odd that I should be doing such a thing without having an official position. A year later, I was asked to be pipe sergeant—a year following that, I became pipe major.

Leading the Highland Light Scottish Pipe Band during the Cape Cod Highland Games.
Photo: Charlotte Summers

It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind when I’d started with the group, though some folks had talked to me about it here and there since I’d started. It was a lot of hard work, but all-in-all seeing the group progress gave me some of the most profound thrills of my life.

Still, at any practice or outing, I was keen to finish my responsibilities as soon as possible so that fun and revelry could take over as the order of the day. I think when it came down to it, I didn’t really like having to be in charge. But, I did what I had to do.

More than anything else, the thing I found most gratifying from leading the pipe band was time spent working in an instructional capacity. I really felt a thrill in seeing progress in the band’s playing, both as a group and with various members individually.

This really got me thinking about what I truly love to do: teaching.

My mother had been a first-grade teacher for my whole life (until she recently retired), so I think I’ve always felt drawn to teaching in general. My mother spent my whole life trying to talk me out of pursuing it as a career though.

Now don’t get me wrong, she loved what she did (it showed in her work and in the reverence her students held for her), but after a lifetime of poor wages teaching in parochial schools and the endless distractions teachers need to endure, I quite understand her feelings that there are better ways out there for one to make a living.

After about three years with the pipe band I landed a better-paying job in Boston, which soon prompted my moving up that way. This was sure to cut my time as pipe major short, as any attempt at getting from Boston to Cape Cod on a regular basis was a recipe for premature gray hair.

Brotherhood of the “traveling bagpipes”

At the time, I was also getting increasingly called upon by my friends in the group Cu Dubh to play various gigs with them. I started out filling in as needed for their performances at King Richard’s Faire in Carver, Mass. Eventually they convinced me to head out to some of their gigs in many other areas, including California, Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, Ontario, Ohio, Pennsylvania … you name it really. Lots and lots of flying to play for large, rowdy crowds at a variety of festivals and gatherings … particularly renaissance faires.

Promotional photo from Cu Dubh’s first full run at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
Photo: David Fimbres

This carried on for a few years, but eventually the frequent travel and lack of down time began to really wear me out. Hopping on a flight at 5am from Logan on Saturday so that I could be at a festival site by 10am … play all day Saturday and Sunday …. then another 5am flight Monday morning to hopefully by at my desk by 9 or 10am that same day … work the rest of the week … and repeat the whole process all over again …

… such had become the norm. Yet again, I found myself fearing early occurrences of gray hair.

Also the more time went by, the more I found myself thinking fondly back on the joys I’d felt in teaching with the pipe band and with individuals. So gradually I began to wind down the number of gigs I’d travel to, and I started to think more seriously about teaching piping more regularly.

Competition—finally

My desire to teach also finally led me to consider competing as a piper. Most pipers I know seemed to go out and compete straight away when they started learning. For many reasons, I didn’t do that—mostly, it just wasn’t something I felt motivated in pursuing. I loved the instrument, and playing it to the best of my ability, full stop. Medals, trophies, and all that held no appeal to me.

But in working with students, questions would occasionally arise about competition: what they were like, things the judges listen for, etc. This really gave me pause.

So starting in 2016, I finally determined that having at least some experience with competition would truly be beneficial in making me a more well-rounded teacher/resource. I worked very hard throughout that year on my own in trying to clean up my playing.

In 2017, I went to Lezlie Webster, asking if she would take me on as a pupil and help me in getting going with competing. She graciously agreed. I continue to see Lezlie regularly—her help and experience has been invaluable.

After working with Lezlie regularly throughout 2017, I submitted my application to start competition as of 2018. Thankfully, based on my prior experience the EUSPBA music board agreed to allow me to start competing in at the grade 3 level.

All of the awards I took home from my first year competing (2018).
First place cup for grade 2 piobaireachd (in my group) at the 2019 Colonial Highland Games. Photo: Lezlie Webster

It took plenty of work, but competition in grade 3 went very well in 2018. By the close of the season, I was ranked #2 in the final standings for the grade, and the EUSPBA music board accepted my request for an upgrade to grade 2 for competitions in 2019.

Grade 2 also went quite well in 2019—I managed to take home some pretty nice prizes with some very formidable players in many contests. At the year’s end, I was ranked #3 in the grade. Piobaireachd contests went well for me in particular, with the EUSPBA board then honoring my request for an upgrade to grade 1 for piobaireachd contests for the 2020 season.

Work continues, with competition still feeling relatively new to me. There are lots and lots of really good players at these events, so I’ve got lots of work ahead of me if I’m to advance any further.

Onward … as they say.