Shelby Bullock’s long brown braid swoops over her left shoulder. She stands next to another drummer in the downstairs area of Community Christian Church, lightly tapping her tenor drum in practice.
“One, two, one, two, three,” says Bullock, 18, flicking her wrists as the beaters brush over the drumhead.
The Winnetonka High School senior is playing in her first concert for Winter Storm, a bagpiping and drum event held earlier this month at the Marriott and Community Christian Church near the Country Club Plaza.
The Winter Storm concert caps an annual weekend of events dedicated to Scottish Highland art forms, and nearly 1,000 people are waiting upstairs at the church for the sold-out show to begin.
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In a few minutes she will be one of the drummers accompanying the bagpipers of the St. Andrew Pipe & Drum Band to kick off the Winter Storm concert. They would stand spread out in a circle, and Bullock and other drummers would, every so often, rhythmically twirl their beaters overhead as they played.
A wide range of people play in the band, from teenagers like Bullock to musicians in their 50s and 60s. Seasoned musicians who serve as instructors play alongside others who have picked up the pipes and drums in recent years.
It has already been a long day for Bullock. She has just come from an all-district high school music event.
Still, she’s nervous.
“You have to be spot-on, and there will be so many people out there,” she says.
She started playing the tenor drum last March when she was pulled into the drum line at one of the St. Andrew band practices she attended with her dad.
Before long she was part of the band because they needed a drummer for a competition in Chicago.
“They threw me in there,” she says.
Bullock didn’t have previous drum experience, but she’s been playing the violin since she was 4, and her dad is a music teacher in the Northland. She plays in high school orchestra and other area orchestras.
The tenor drum was frustrating at first, but she caught on in less than a month to compete with the group at the Chicago event.
Now she’s caught what she calls a “Scottish bug” and also takes Highland dance.
This is her first Winter Storm, and she had fun telling her classmates what she would be doing.
“It’s a great conversation starter,” she says. “They ask, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’
“I’m going to be wearing a kilt.”
Winter Storm is the yearly highlight of the Kansas City-based Midwest Highland Arts Fund, a group geared toward keeping alive Scottish Highland art forms through bagpiping and drumming education. Each year in January the organization holds master classes, competitions and the Winter Storm concert for its big annual event. The weekend draws pipers and professional musicians from all over the country, Canada, Scotland and Ireland to the Kansas City Marriott Country Club Plaza at 4445 Main St. and the church nearby at 4601 Main St.
“It’s an amazing weekend and one of the top events in the world,” says organization president Cliff Davis, who resides in Topeka. “It is highly recognized as one of the top three events of piping and drumming. It’s definitely the biggest and largest in North America.”
Midwest Highland Arts Fund was incorporated in 2001 as a nonprofit. It was born from the nonprofit William Jewell College Kansas City Caledonian Pipe Band, which had folded. Members came together to create another group that would promote the Scottish art forms through education.
For that first weekend in 2002, organizers tacked fliers on bulletin boards to attract people for its event.
“The first year we actually expected 30 or 40 people for the workshop, and what happened was 105 people showed up,” Davis says. And that was before social media, he adds.
The continued public interest motivated them, and the weekend grew.
Now the piping and drumming contests accompany the workshops, and cash prizes are given to winners. Instructors travel from overseas, and those attending can meet the big names in international bagpiping, such as Roddy MacLeod, a highly regarded piper and instructor.
Solo competitors number nearly 200, while an estimated 300 people attend workshops on bagpipes as well as on the tenor, snare and bass drums, which are often used simultaneously with bagpipes to create the Scottish sound in pipe bands. Others come for the sold-out concert at Community Christian Church.
“It just started as word of mouth, and I don’t think anyone thought it would become what is has,” says Matt Kline of Sugar Creek, one of the weekend’s original instructors and original Midwest Highland Arts Fund board member. He connected the weekend’s success in part to its timing.
“In January you have nothing going on bagpiping-wise,” Kline says. “People want instruction and to keep up on their skills, and this (event) lands at just the right time.”
“Are you here to get your pipes fixed?” instructor Kline asks someone entering a meeting room on the third floor of the Marriott.
Kline pauses from inspecting the bagpipes of J.T. Taylor of Oklahoma City, whose chanter — the part of the bagpipe that creates the melody — is out of balance.
“These sound awful,” says Kline, 32, laughing. “I tell you what, I’ll give you 50 bucks for them.”
Next up for fixing is Carl Hicks of Salina, Kan. Hicks places the pipes on his shoulder and begins to blow. Kline leans over and checks the pipes as he plays. Then Kline walks over to a table with a bag to find a tool to shave a reed for Hicks to make it easier to play.
Hicks resumes play. The sound is sharper and louder this time around, and Kline nods his head approvingly.
“Much better,” Hicks says.
Kline is used to solving problems. He is a police detective in Sugar Creek in his professional life.
The lifelong area resident grew up in the south Kansas City area and has been piping since he was in grade school.
As a child he attended the Highland Games in Kansas City with his dad. His first interest was in drums.
“I decided I wanted something harder and tried the bagpipes,” he says.
He excelled and traveled to Scotland to compete. Kline later joined the St. Andrew band and became an original board member of Winter Storm.
“They wanted to bring a weekend of bagpipe education,” Kline says.
With the highest achievable grade “open-level piper” title, backed by much experience, he knew many people in the piping world.
“I had a lot of contacts,” he recalls. He asked friends and his former instructors to join up for the weekend and became one of the weekend’s first instructors. He’s one of the longest-serving teachers there.
His favorite moments are watching kids receive instruction for the first time and then watching them three years down the road compete at high levels.
“Those kids take off, and it’s amazing,” he says.
Sixteen-year-old Griffin Hall paces in his dress kilt, jacket, kilt hose and footwear on the second floor hallway of the Marriott.
His anxiety has been building all day. At any moment officials will come to get him so he can tune his bagpipe for his upcoming competition.
“If you don’t know what’s going on, your nerves go every which way,” he says. “I just try not to think about it and relax and have fun.”
But he had already been there several hours, his parents and grandparents from Oklahoma standing with him waiting for their cue that he was about to compete.
As pipers weave between minglers on their way to events at Winter Storm, Griffin’s mother, Jenifer Hall, explains the appeal of the annual event.
“For Griffin, these guys are like Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger walking down the hall,” she says. “Roddy MacLeod was sitting in the other room, and Griffin has a (documentary) of his at home.”
The tension lightens as the conversation shifts to where Griffin usually practices.
“At the house,” Jenifer Hall laughs. “We have to be careful, but that’s what practice chanters are for,” she says, referring to the instrument that is significantly quieter. “The police used to be called to the house. The Overland Park police would come by and say, ‘Griffin’s sounding a lot better.’ But no one calls (in a noise complaint) anymore.”
An official comes to tell Griffin it is his turn in the tuning room.
Griffin walks briskly down a corridor into a small meeting room. Griffin and his dad, Bill Hall, enter. His dad reaches to help him take off his jacket and then sits down, holding the jacket, along with a plastic water bottle.
Griffin takes the pipe pieces from his case and puts them together. He places the instrument on his shoulder. Pink sweeps over his pale face as he blows. Wails fill the room as Griffin taps his foot in time, and his fingers move rhythmically over the pipe holes. When he stops nearly five minutes later the silence is startling. He drinks from his water bottle, cracks his knuckles and starts up again.
Griffin knew he wanted to play bagpipes four years ago when he listened to the pipes in the movie “How to Train Your Dragon.”
What was the instrument making that sound in the movie’s score?
He learned about free piping lessons at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Wornall Road, whose band has had a history of keeping the Scottish tradition alive for more than 50 years.
Griffin’s interest came naturally. He comes from a musically inclined family — his dad, Bill Hall, runs the American Opera Studio and has a background in voice and opera. His mom, Jenifer Hall, is a jazz singer.
“When I got my practice chanter all I wanted to do was play,” Griffin says.
He attended Winter Storm for the first time in 2012, and he returned to watch the competition in 2013.
He started playing gigs with the St. Andrew band, and pipes became his life.
“It’s pretty much my everything — I eat it, live it, breathe it,” he says. “It’s a time-consuming and expensive hobby.”
Bagpiping has become part of his daily education, as he is home-schooled. He studies Scottish history and uses math in relation to his bagpipe music.
“His passion is truly bagpipes and that is what we go for,” Jenifer Hall says. “He’s writing about bagpipes and enthralled in the Scottish life, and there’s always a story behind (the songs) — it’s a battle of a family or someone’s lost a cow. It’s interesting to me when music can stand the test of time.”
The next year, 2014, Griffin competed at Winter Storm and won first place in the Grade 3 division.
Each contest is about playing better and making the pipes sing a bit more, a bit louder, he says.
He would be competing in a more advanced division, Grade 2, for this month’s competition.
“I’ll be working up to a new standard,” he said a few weeks before the contest.
Inside the competition room, Griffin Hall’s parents take their places in the right-hand corner facing the stage. His mom sits a few rows ahead of his dad.
Griffin walks through the corridor and steps on stage. He starts to play and slowly places one foot in front of the other as the pipes blare. His parents each hold their phones up to record the moment.
During his march across the stage, Griffin has found his groove. One judge leans back in his leather swivel chair and shuts his eyes, listening. As the tempo picks up the judge sits upright but keeps his eyes closed.
Griffin wraps up his set as his fingers rapidly cover and uncover the pipe holes. He stands directly before the judges as the music stops.
“I’m glad to get that over with,” Griffin says outside the competition room. “I’ve been festering in that all day.”
His composure loosens as he checks to see if any saliva might be caught in the instrument and is surprised when he finds none. The poised performer is gone and the 16-year-old boy has returned. He is ready for more food because the burger he ate a half an hour ago no longer sates him.
“Now you sit and stew in your juices,” he says. He wouldn’t be sticking around to listen to the rest of the competition.
“It just messes with you, and there’s nothing I can do right now,” he says.
A few hours later, at an awards ceremony, an announcer called Griffin’s name as the division’s winner, and a gold medal was placed around his neck.