Alaskan piper thrives under mentor’s wing
Marianne Meadahl, PAMR, (in Scotland) 44-742-648-7107; Marianne_Meadahl@sfu.ca
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As a six-year-old Will Nichols was instantly turned on to the bagpipes after watching a family holiday video from Scotland. But growing up in Alaska, he soon found himself one of only a handful of kids piping.
Things changed after a fateful meeting at a piping workshop in Seabrook, Washington with Simon Fraser University Pipe Sergeant Jack Lee, who saw potential in the young musician – who is now one of the rising stars of SFU’s Grade 1 band.
Lee, unfazed by the 2,000 kilometres that separated them at the time, asked if he could teach the young Nichols.
Lessons became exchanges of videotapes – Lee teaching, Nichols playing and every few months, Nichols flew down for a personal session.
“I knew right away that Will had a lot of promise as a piper,” recalls Lee, whose family took Nichols in during his visits. When his mom Patti learned she had breast cancer, Nichols’ stays were frequent and he became known among Lee’s three pipe-playing sons as “the other Lee brother.”
“Will’s piping really took off during that time,” says Patti, now in remission. “It was the best thing that could have happened for him. The Lees have just been stellar stars.”
The Nichols moved to Blaine, Washington to be closer to the Lees and the piping world. “We soon learned that this is not just about an instrument,” says Patti, “it’s a community.”
Beyond his teaching, Lee’s advice grew over the years to influence other areas of Nichols’ life – driving, career choices, even dating. “Jack has been more than a teacher to me – he’s been a mentor in so many ways,” says Nichols, who was invited to join the Robert Malcolm Memorial Band in 2002 and has been with the Grade 1 band for the past four years. At 22, he has two world championships under his belt and a string of individual awards.
Nichols graduated this spring from Western Washington University with a degree in cellular biology and plans to become a dentist. He recently spent three weeks in Tanzania as a volunteer with a group of dentists from Medical Relief International.
Still jet-lagged from the experience, he headed almost immediately to Scotland and will catch up on practice this week. “Will is a very competitive player and I know he’ll be ready for the Worlds,” says Patti, who volunteers and travels with the band. “He’ll sometimes practice until there’s sweat rolling down his back and then he’ll say, ‘man that felt good.’