Sounds of the Isles come to Croydon

See the competing pipe bands march into formation for the Victorian Pipe Band Championships on 24 March. Pictures: TANYA STEELE.

By Mikayla van Loon

For those planning to attend the Melbourne Highland Games and Celtic Festival this year, they’re in for a treat with the Victorian Pipe Band Championships also running on the day.

Seeing entries from across the state, it will be a show of talent and togetherness as bands put their best foot forward for the competition in Croydon on 24 March.

Pipe band coordinator for the festival Mick Ryan said despite there being five high level grades and then the school age competition, Victoria only has a singular band in grade one and currently no bands in grade two.

But luckily with 19 bands registered and 26 competitive performances across grade three and grades four A and B, Mr Ryan said calibre is not questioned.

For an audience, Mr Ryan said hearing and seeing the skills of the pipe band is unlike anything else.

“The band marches into a circle and plays. There’s two different elements, there’s a marching element and then a medley element,” Mr Ryan said.

“[A circle] is not always the best for the spectators because they’ve got their back facing out, but the idea is that they are facing one another to get the very best out of the music.”

Judged on the drumming, the piping, the ensemble, dress and sometimes drill components, Mr Ryan said one small element can make a big difference to the overall performance.

“There’s not much between the bands at the highest levels in their grades. So lots of different things can affect it, who turns up on the day, if someone’s sick, and their best player is missing, the band can’t form as well.

“At that level, the slightest mistake can cost you first place or a second place.”

While some tunes may be repeated by the different bands Mr Ryan said “even that’s interesting to hear the differences”.

Hosting the championships is shared among the state’s highland festivals each year but with the Croydon gathering the only one for Melbourne and its outer suburbs, seeing it locally isn’t always easy.

The best part of the day for Mr Ryan is right at the end when all the bands come together to play.

“At the end of the day, we have a mash band where all bands come together and they march up playing and that’s quite spectacular. You could have hundreds of people. It’s like a giant pipe band and people enjoy that spectacle,” he said.

As someone who began learning the bagpipes as a boy in 1956, Mr Ryan has dedicated much of his life to playing with the likes of the Edinburgh Tattoo and the Ringwood Pipe Band, teaching up and comers, as well as being vice president of Pipe Bands Victoria and regulating competitions to keep them fair.

Mr Ryan said Australia and Victoria have always had a strong relationship with pipe bands, leading the way on many of the innovations to improve the bagpipes as an instrument.

“Some of the innovations in the modern bagpipe, such as synthetic bags and reeds made from cane and moisture control systems, all of those have been pioneered in Australia.

“Interestingly, the Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association was the very first pipe band association in the world. It’s now coming up to 100 years old. It’s somewhere around six or eight years ahead of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association being formed.”

Seeing the interest as a teacher of the bagpipes at the Ringwood Pipe Band, Mr Ryan said most recently there were 20 learner pipers ranging from 10-years-old to adults.

“Like any movement, it waxes and wanes as years pass, but we’re on the up at the moment.

“The last person to graduate from our learning program to actually playing in the band was 14.”

Although “not easy to play, it’s not impossible to play either” and Australia has produced some of the world’s best pipers and drummers over the years.

“In 1998, the Victoria Police Pipe Band won the grade one World Championships, which is the top pipe band in the world.

“So, we’ve got people up at that level, as well as the majority of people who play at grade four B level but they play for their communities.”

Despite the festival bringing together the best bands from the state, there will be so much more to explore as well, with Highland, Scottish and Irish dancing, heavy games, traditional Celtic food stalls and folk music.

Gates open at 9am with the festival finishing up at 5pm located at Eastfield Park, Croydon. Tickets can be purchased online here,