Michel d'Avenas and the Monterey Bay Pipe Band playing bagpipes at the Scottish Highland Games

Monterey County Herald Article

Piping Hot

by Kathryn McKenzie Nichols, Monterey County Herald

When you say that you play in a band, somehow, bagpipes are not the instrument that comes to mind first. Or even second.

Yet for a group of committed musicians in the area, the pipes are calling - and continue to do so. The Monterey Bay Pipe Band celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. If you've ever attended the annual Monterey Scottish and Irish Games, you've probably seen the band in action.

Or perhaps you have caught its act at a variety of other functions. For instance, last month, the band was featured at the swearing-in ceremony of Monterey County Sheriff Mike Kanalakis.

Under the guidance of master bagpiper Michel d'Avenas, the band has competed in the United States and abroad, earning prizes and acclaim. The band crowned its four decades last year by winning its division in the Western United States Pipe Band Association competition.

d'Avenas, who grew up in Pebble Beach and still lives there, is also known as a teacher as well as pipe major of the band. Students from Gilroy to King City, and all points in between, drive to his home to take lessons.

Not surprisingly, many of them end up in the band.

"It does something to people, when they hear the bagpipes," said d'Avenas, who took up the instrument in his early 20s and is still at it, 30 years later.

The first time he heard someone playing the pipes, he was a boy running around with his friends on the beach.

"We'd hear a piper out there in the fog, and we'd all go crazy," he said.

Band president Nancy Murray said she first started taking lessons at age 11, but then didn't practice and wasn't truly motivated to learn the instrument. In her late 30s, she decided it was time to get back to the pipes -and she did.

She's currently the only female piper in the band.

"It's a lot of fun," said Murray, a resident of south Salinas. "I just get out there and play with the guys."

Although bagpipers have long been part of the Monterey Peninsula scene, few residents here know about the 20-member pipe band, made up of both bagpipers and drummers.

d'Avenas not only leads the band and teaches the people in it, he also picks their music and arranges it. When competitions arise, he also makes travel arrangements and takes care of other necessary business.

"I'm forced to teach, really," he said. "To build a band, you have to be constantly teaching. It's a necessity.

"I figured out that I was good at it and I enjoyed it, so I kept doing it."

Learning to play is no easy task, at least for most of us. Not only must the piper play the chanter - a reed instrument that is part of the bagpipe, and carries the melody - he or she must also keep squeezing the bag between elbow and torso. That forces air through the three drones, which give bagpipes its unmistakable aural backdrop.

Still, d'Avenas insists bagpipes are not that taxing to learn.

"It's not that bad," he said. "You can become pretty proficient within a few months. Coordination between the blowing and the squeezing is the most difficult part.

"Every once in a while, someone will come along who just magically does it."

Although bagpipes are most often associated with the British Isles, ancient versions of the instrument have been found in Asia and Mediterranean, as well as throughout Europe, according to the Web site www.hotpipes.com. d'Avenas notes that there are more than 100 different types of bagpipes that can be found throughout the world.

Bagpipes and pipe bands continue to be a kind of persistent musical subculture, in the Old World as well as the New. In the United States, pipe bands are more common back East than they are in the West, d'Avenas says.

But the Monterey Bay Pipe Band is certainly a long-lived representative of its kind.

It began in 1962, and was then called the Salinas Pipe Band. The name was changed in 2001 to reflect the greater Monterey area from which its members hailed.

The band is made up of all kinds of people - young and old, hailing from all different backgrounds and cultures. Their day jobs range from students and soldiers to teachers and translators, as well as a private investigator and a beekeeper.

The band is made up of not just pipers, but also snare drummers. The drummers themselves are a force to be reckoned with - they won the coveted Archie Craig Memorial Trophy in 2000.

Members get together once a week, every Tuesday evening at York School, to practice. Because the instruments when played inside tend to be loud, "Everyone wears earplugs," d'Avenas said.

When competing (as they did nine times last year), band members wear traditional Scots attire, with kilts made of MacKenzie tartan.

Murray said she loves the experience of being in competition, both for the challenge and the opportunity to immerse herself in the experience. "

When you start to play, you forget about everything else," she said.

One of the band's most memorable experiences last year was competing in an international competition in Scotland, in which they placed eighth out of 23 bands.

The band uses its prize money to defray members' travel and equipment expenses, said Murray.

Sustaining the band is always on d'Avenas' mind, which is why he often visits schools to play the pipes for students. He is often seen at All Saints School in Carmel Valley, where he's played for the school's International Week and for graduations.

Maybe there will be a kid or two, like him, that will hear the skirl of the pipes and fall in love with them.

All contents ©2003 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.