Belle Valley, Alma College bands to perform this Sunday


Editors Note: Art Smith long time advocate and President of the Belle Valley Community Band wrote the following story. Art tells the story behind the story of the collaboration between our Belle Valley Band and the Alma College Pipe Band. This special instrumental music program is for all to enjoy this Sunday, March 19 at Imlay City High School at 3 p.m
What started as a purchase while on vacation in 1995 has turned into the catalyst for the theme of the upcoming concert for the Belle Valley Community Band.

Steve Burns was, at that time, the director of music at Lapeer West High School in Lapeer MI. While on vacation in Scotland in 1995, he purchased a set of bagpipes from, where else, a store called ‘Bagpipes Galore.’

Alma College Pipe Band will perform this Sunday (March 19) at the Imlay City High School with the Belle Valley Community Band in a very special musical program. It will start at 3 p.m.

Instruments and music had been a part of Steve’s life since early childhood. He was already an accomplished trumpet player. He had majored in music studies at Central Michigan University and was in the midst of a career as a music educator for a class A school system. The challenge of learning to play a new instrument, especially the bagpipes, may have been daunting to some, but not to Steve. He wanted to do it.

But like many vacation purchases and personal promises, learning to play the bagpipes was put on the back burner with the beginning of a new school year, and the return to the realm of working class America.
Steve retired from teaching in 2007 after 30 years of being an educator and well-spoken advocate for music programs in public school systems. He continued giving private lessons when asked and provided judging duties at regional and state competitions. Steve and his late brother Dennis Burns were an integral part in the success of the Belle Valley Community Band, and Steve’s involvement continues to this day as one of the co-directors, as well as its principle trumpet player. But even with the more relaxed retirement lifestyle, hunting, fishing, golfing and traveling occupied his time, and the bagpipes still lay idle.

As with any instrument, if they are not played regularly, they decline. Valves and slides corrode on a brass instrument and reeds and cork dry out and crack on a woodwind. Bagpipes are no exception; they need to be maintained. Steve asked his music contemporaries if they knew of anyone that would repair his set of pipes, and was directed to Duncan’s Highland Supply in Royal Oak, MI. “One of the best” they said. So the bagpipes went to Duncan’s for routine maintenance. But still the promise of learning to play them was left sidelined.

Then February of 2020 arrived and the world as we were accustomed changed.

As mentioned earlier, Steve is an accomplished musician, with the trumpet being his specialty. During the summer of 2021, Steve was asked to perform ‘Taps’ at the funeral for a fireman from Leonard, who had passed away from COVID-19. As is also customary in a formal service, a unit of pipers were also asked to play, as part of the memorial. At the conclusion of the solemn service the musicians were talking, and one of the pipers introduced himself as Andrew Duncan. A light bulb went off in Steve’s head and he asked Andrew if he knew of Duncan’s Highland Supply, and of course he did as it was his business. Steve reiterated that, “You worked on my bagpipes several years ago.” Andrew’s reply was, “Probably, there are not many of us around.” Steve asked if Andrew knew of anyone that could teach him to play the bagpipes, or could give him lessons. Andrew replied, “Yup, me.”

Andrew Duncan had been playing the bagpipes most of his life. Originally taught by his mother, Andrew perfected his talents, and competed in many national and international competitions, acquiring many awards and championships along the way. He had been a member of the Windsor Police Pipe Band, and the Peel Regional Pipe Band, as well as the coordinator for the Ohio Scottish Arts School for 18 years. At the time of their meeting, Andrew was a teacher of piping at Alma College in the Highland Arts Program, as well as being the Pipe Major for the Alma College Pipe Band. Piper, teacher, business owner, he was the epitome of what Steve was looking for in an instructor. Thus began a newfound friendship and the quest to learn to play the pipes, 25 years late, but not forgotten.

For those that are not familiar with the bagpipes, they are a wind instrument made up of 4 main parts; the ‘blow pipe’ which is used to inflate the ‘air bag,’ attached to the air bag is the ‘chanter,’ which is the recorder-like portion of the instrument that is played by covering the holes with your fingers to produce the desired notes. The distinctive, cylindrical pipes that are also connected to the air bag are called ‘drones.’ They produce a series of octave notes as air is pushed through wooden reeds when the airbag is compressed by the musician. The lessons started with playing the chanter only. No blow pipe, no airbag, no drones. For seven months Steve would practice, as if playing a recorder, learning the notes, learning the fingerings, learning the music. But learning none the less. As his talents increased, the bagpipes were re-assembled, and the process of blowing to inflate the airbag, compressing the airbag with his arm, all the while remembering the fingerings on the chanter, were added to the lessons. He was becoming a ‘piper.’ Unlike many of the other instruments that Steve had played in his lifetime, one of the concepts that he found most difficult to adjust to was that the action of blowing into the blowpipe to inflate the airbag really didn’t have anything to do with actually making the note sound true. With a trumpet, air speed, lip tension and pressing the right valve at the right time were needed to produce the correct note. On the bagpipes, the two actions were completely separate from one another. Interesting. As the lessons continued, and Steve’s proficiency increased, it was time to decide what to do with this new found talent.

Enter the Belle Valley Community Band. As the band began planning its return to a performing schedule after a 2 ½ year hiatus due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Steve expressed interest in playing the bagpipes with the BVCB. With his extensive knowledge of musical scores, he already knew what pieces of music he wanted to try, and the band agreed that it was an endeavor that was worth attempting. But then something crept into the picture, nerves. It had been a long time since Steve had felt nervous performing. He had been playing his trumpet in public for what seemed like forever, in a band setting or in an orchestra setting. Quartets, quintets, octets, it didn’t matter. Even with his solo performances, he didn’t get nervous. He had been doing it for years. Nothing to it. But the bagpipes were something different. With several pieces of music selected, Steve asked for advice and a helping hand from his instructor and friend Andrew. It was decided that Andrew would perform with Steve and the Belle Valley Community Band. But wait, if two pipers are good, maybe more would be better. So with Andrew’s assistance, arrangements were made to bring a contingent of pipers and Scottish drummers from Alma College’s Highland Arts Program to join the BVCB in several selections during the concert scheduled for March 19, 2023.

The Belle Valley Community Band, the Alma College Pipe Band and a joint venture combining the two bands will perform an instrumental music program for all to enjoy.

What started with an impulse purchase and the desire to learn something new, is about to come to fruition. There is no need to feel nervous Steve, you got this.