The Skirl O’ The Pipes

Terry Lee (l) hands over the pipe major position to Alan Bevan (r). The two are pictured at Burnaby Mountain Park, an official SFU pipe band rehearsal location

He didn’t want the band to miss a beat. So when Simon Fraser University pipe major Terry Lee came to the “comfortable decision” to retire as leader of SFU’s world-renowned pipe band after 36 years, he looked no further than his inner circle, handing the reins seamlessly to award-winning piper and SFU alumnus Alan Bevan (BA’99).

“It’s not very often that a retiring pipe major has the good fortune to pass the torch to one of his own great pipers, and a double gold medallist – that is what we have in Alan,” says Lee, who announced his retirement during an informal band dinner at his Coquitlam home last fall. While Lee will no longer compete with the band, he will carry on performing, tuning, and instructing.

Bevan, a 37-year-old Abbotsford lawyer, is one of the world’s foremost pipers. He earned gold at two of the world’s most prestigious piping competitions, both held in Scotland: the Northern Meeting in Inverness in 2008, where he has also won silver, and the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban, last August. Bevan joined the SFU band following its first-ever world championship in 1995 after a successful run as an aspiring young pipe major for the Grade 1 Abbotsford Police Pipe Band.

Bevan and his wife, Bonnie (CLA’95, BEd’95, PDP’95, GDED’03), both SFU alumni and band members, were raised on the pipes. The two met through piping and began dating as members of the SFU band. Earlier, their studies – Alan majored in history and Bonnie became a teacher – overlapped for a time, and they occasionally saw each other on campus. Now they live and breathe the music that sets their schedules and bonds their family, since their son Alistair, 11, plays in the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band (SFU’s junior band system), and son Callum, 9, is also learning the pipes.

“I have loved pipe music for as long as I can remember and have always wanted to play,” says Bevan, who, as a child, created his own bagpipe by wrapping blankets around his mother’s practice chanter. He credits a strong teacher who gave him excellent fundamentals early on for developing his approach to bagpiping.

The piping Bevan family: from left, Alan, Alistair, Callum, and Bonnie Bevan play the pipes together.

When he was 11, Bevan attended the SFU Pipe Band’s first Highland Arts Festival and soaked up instruction in courses given by both Terry Lee and Terry’s brother Jack, the band’s pipe sergeant. Four years later, the SFU band, together with the B.C. Pipers’ Association and the Abbotsford Legion Pipe Band, raised funds to send him to one of the premier contests for top amateur pipers from across North America, the Nicol-Brown competition. The first piper to participate from the Pacific Northwest, he swept the event, winning four firsts and a fifth place. His success paved the way for annual trips by local top amateur pipers to the event. He later became one of the senior instructors for the band’s Highland Arts Festivals, held across North America, and he now regularly teaches at its Piping Hot Summer Drummer School at Silver Star near Vernon.

“From a young age, Alan was destined to play a significant role in the SFU Pipe Band,” says band manager Rob MacNeil. “He has developed into a great player and an instructional and tone leader, and he has been the face of the confident SFU piper immortalized in the band’s Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House concert posters that are still displayed in the AQ’s south concourse. He also personifies the band’s and the university’s mission of providing excellence in performance and teaching to the broader piping community, both locally and internationally.”

Bevan has performed with the elite SFU band at Glasgow’s World Pipe Band Championships 18 times. It’s 22 for Bonnie, who has tossed a cap in the air for each of SFU’s six world championships (to Alan’s five, since he was not yet in the band for its first big win).

The couple have also shared the professional silence when SFU finished just shy of top spot – having landed second place nine times – and rallied to raise their collective spirits on the road back to Stirling, their temporary home while in Scotland, as they regrouped for yet another year of preparation.

“We both really live for the excitement of the run-up to the world championships,” Bevan says. “For the few weeks leading up to the Worlds, the band practises every day, and the sound of the pipes and the band overall just keeps getting better and more refined. It is a huge rush as the excitement builds toward the big day, and we can’t wait to let all the hard work show.

“One of the first things I noticed when I came to the band is how forward-looking it is, and how the band’s leaders keep everyone focused on the future,” says Bevan. “Each year that we won a world championship, Jack Lee would make a point of calling us ‘former World Pipe Band Champions’ at the fall’s first band practice, emphasizing that the past is the past, and that it was time to start working toward the next year’s Worlds.”

The Lees, who together have led the SFU band since its inception, have always preached that they can’t take success for granted, and that’s where leadership is key. “It is really great having Alan Bevan take the reins as our new pipe major,” says Jack Lee. “Alan is a terrific piper  – one of the world’s best. As SFU alumni, Alan and Bonnie are enthusiastic about our role in engaging the community. To that end, Alan also continues to assist with the instruction of our junior program, the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band.”

“I have loved pipe music for as long as I can remember and have always wanted to play,” says Bevan, who, as a child, created his own bagpipe by wrapping blankets around his mother’s practice chanter.

Bevan will keep expectations high. “I’ve learned practical skills from playing in the band, working on the musical arrangements, and participating in our tuning team,” says Bevan, who, for nearly 10 years, has served as the chair of the B.C. Pipers’ Association adjudication committee, which is responsible for qualifying and training solo piping and pipe band adjudicators in high-quality assessments of piping and band competition performances. “But I’ve also learned more general lessons about leadership, people management, setting and meeting challenging goals, and how to put things in perspective and bounce back stronger than ever from a setback.”

Bevan’s own career has been highlighted with many achievements. Besides his gold medals wins, he has won major contests in Scotland, including the jig events at both Oban and Inverness in the same year (2003), and then during a banner year in 2009, he was named the overall winner at the famed Donald MacLeod Memorial competition in the spring and took the Masters’ Invitational solo crown just days after the band’s 2009 Worlds win.

“As you get ensconced in a career and start a family, it gets tougher to make the time to practise,” says Bevan, who started 2014 with a new job as an in-house counsel with ICBC. “You give up most of your holidays for band trips, practice weekends, and competitions. But it’s what we love to do. It’s been a part of both of our lives since we were young children. We tell our non-piping relatives and acquaintances, who sometimes have trouble understanding why we’re still so involved in piping, we really don’t know how not to do it.”

Even once learned, he concedes that bagpipes are difficult instruments to play. “You’re not only trying to play well technically and musically, but a huge part of the battle is to get the instrument itself to sound great and stay in tune for the entire performance. It’s a constant challenge. It’s probably impossible to attain perfection, but that’s what we constantly try to achieve.”

That means practising most evenings in the Bevan house even after the boys are put to bed. “Sometimes the boys are awake and listen to us play, but it’s not loud enough to prevent them from sleeping,” says Bevan.

“We are very proud that our sons have shown a passion for the music and we’re excited to watch their progress as they learn,” says Bonnie. “We hope they chart their own courses, but it would be great to all play in the same band one day.”

Both boys have been to the Worlds with their parents, and this year Alistair will compete with the Robert Malcolm Grade 4 band at the competition this August.

The elite Grade 1 band that Bevan now leads numbers nearly 50 talented pipers and drummers who come from all walks of life, most either local or from across Canada and a few from the U.S. and Europe. Some are also SFU students.

“We have a lot of very talented people in the SFU band, and some might think that keeping everyone’s ego in check would be a problem,” says Bevan. “To lead a band of SFU’s calibre, one has to foster an environment where everyone knows they are contributing and having their voices heard, to make effective use of the talent pool, but also to be a leader and make the decisions that have to be made for the good of the band.”

What’s foremost in Bevan’s mind is building on the band’s momentum, one of its greatest strengths. “Mostly what’s on my mind is how to keep improving our sound and our playing,” says Bevan. “I think all the members of the band want to come out of the starting blocks with a bang this season.

“We want to let the piping world know that, despite the changes we’ve gone through over the past few months, the SFU Pipe Band hasn’t missed a beat; we’re as strong as we ever have been. We will be a force to be reckoned with at the Worlds in August.”

Terry Lee

It has always been about the music for Terry Lee, who led the six-time world champion Simon Fraser University pipe band as pipe major for 36 years. Lee’s run as pipe major is one of the longest in the history of Grade 1 pipe bands, and by far the longest run among bands currently competing in the top grade.

The enduring leader has led the SFU band into the Grade 1 arena at Glasgow’s annual World Pipe Band Championships more than 30 times – and rallied the band to dozens of other championship titles, including in North America and Australia.

At the heart of his leadership has been a love of interpreting the music and fine-tuning the sound and quality of his band. His penchant for perfection is also reflected in their many high-profile performances: at Australia’s Sydney Opera House, New York’s Carnegie Hall, Utah’s Mormon Tabernacle, Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre, and in 2012, a return to New York to perform at the famed Lincoln Center.

It is also a family affair. His son Alastair is an accomplished piper in the elite band, while daughter Fiona, newly graduated from SFU, is a champion highland dancer.

Last August’s Worlds marked his final march as pipe major into competition. BBC commentators called him “Dr. Lee,” after he and brother Jack, the band’s pipe sergeant, received honorary degrees from SFU in June. The competition was held over two days last year. Lee led the band to a top spot on the first day, then on the second day battled rain and wind – which abated for the other finalists – to finish fourth.

“We’ve had such a terrific run over the years, being in the top three more than 20 times and maintaining a high level of respect from the world piping community,” said Lee.

Both Lees received a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General in 1999 for their contributions to piping, culture, and youth development. Their work with young pipers continues, 20 years after the formation of the band’s junior system, the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band.

Lee will continue to perform with the band. He’ll accompany a contingent of band members to Scotland to play at the Harris Tweed Hebrides 2014 Tattoo in Stornoway in the week leading up to the Worlds.

Photograph of the Bevin Family: Courtesy Christina Toth/Abbotsford TImes, Photograph of Terry Lee: Marianne Meadahl