Benjamin Miller celebrates the 25 Anniversary of this unique event

Held in the idyllic setting of Vermont's Green Mountains, the Vermont Bellows-Pipe School prepares to celebrate it's 25th consecutive year in the coming August. Founded by piper and pipe-maker, Hamish Moore, in conjunction with Vermont-based piper, Matt Buckely, the Vermont School has long been known for excellence in smallpipe and Border pipe tuition in the Northeastern United States.
For a number of years the School was held at Buckley's home in Richmond, VT. Recently, the program has been moved to a larger location at the home of piper, Bret Hamilton, a longtime student of the School and friend of Buckley. Bret's home is only just down the road from the previous location and boasts large fields, a small pond, and a few outbuildings, also serving as a small horse farm throughout the year. The beauty and serenity offered by this picturesque location are only matched by the warmth and hospitality afforded by Bret, along with his wife Melissa and their children.

The School is held each year at the start of August, just before the annual Piper's Gathering weekend that is run in the nearby city of Burlington, VT. The five-day program incorporates daily piping classes that focus on ear-learning, technique, and repertoire, as well as a variable range of side workshops that have focused on topics including Scottish step-dance, fiddle, whistle, and playing for dancing. The School's approach focuses contextualising on the bellows-pipes as a member of the wider Scottish traditional music idiom, targeted at teaching pipers to play musically, and along with other instruments or dancers. Nightly sessions incorporating fiddle, guitar, flute, whistle, etc. are a regular highlight of the week, where participants can put their new skills and tunes to work.
The school began after a chance meeting between Hamish and Matt in 1985 at a week long workshop in Elkins College, West Virginia, where Matt was attending at as a student. after some thinking over a few bottles of beer near the end of this week, the idea for a school in Vermont was hatched. The pilot week for the School would come to fruition in 1988, with a small class of seven students and Hamish as the sole instructor. Hamish notes that pipe maintenance has always been a large task at the workshop, especially in the early days, when students and makers were less familiar with dealing with the maintenance and upkeep issues particular to the Northeastern states.
This issue, along with the growing class size, as the program grew in popularity, eventually led Hamish to bring in a guest tutor each year, to help with the teaching and provide a bit of variety in the instruction. The first outside instructor was an American piper named Greg Morrel, who Hamish met while teaching at another school in California. Over the past 25 years, instructors have included personalities such as Gary West, Iain MacInnes & Annie Grace (all from Scotland), Ryan MacDonald (Cape Breton), Ellen MacPhee (Prince Edward Island), Timothy Cummings (USA), as well as Hamish's son, Fin Moore.
In addition to piping tuition, other instructors have been incorporated over the years to provide further variety and perspective on the Scottish music tradition. These musicians have included Sarah Hoy (Scot) and Andrea Beaton (Cape Breton) - fiddle and Scottish step-dance, Norman Chalmers (Scot) - concertina, and Laura MacKenzie (USA) - whistle.
After teaching along side Hamish for a number of years, Fin has taken over the reigns for the majority of the organising and teaching that goes into the Vermont School each year.  Fin's drive and passion for the School is evident in his teaching and overall character throughout the week. This is little surprise, as Fin was in attendance as a guest or as an instructor for the majority of the School's history, watching as it grew over the years.
What Makes VTBPS So Unique?
Aside from the extremely high quality of instruction and the scenic location, there is one other attribute that truly sets the Vermont Bellows-pipe School apart from other piping camps and workshops. This is the emphasis on community as a vital part of our musical tradition that is inherently built into the structure of this program. There is no other piping workshop that I have attended, or heard of, where the number of participants is deliberately kept so small and students are encouraged to live in the same home as the tutors for an entire week. Camping on the premises has been the primary form of accommodation since the School's foundation 25 years ago. While some participants occasionally opt for the more plush setting of a local B&B or Hotel, commuting in for classes every day, there is a core group that will pitch their tents outside the house every year.
This means that you are not only interacting with the instructors and their music during class hours. You share the same kitchen, the same breakfast table, and relax with a beer on the same porch after the day is over. For those living on site, meals are handled in a communal manner, with a different pair of participants cooking for the group each night.
Payment for the meals is handled with a jar, to which each participant adds their contribution to the cost of food for the evening.
Following dinner, a few drinks, and the usual banter, tunes generally spring up to accompany the washing of dishes, perhaps while someone tests out a recently fitted set of new drone reeds. Once these tunes begin, the session that follows normally dwindles on until the wee hours of the morning, when the tutors and the more resilient of the class realise they do need some sleep before their early start the next morning. Any hangovers are dealt with in the usual manner -- Black coffee and poached eggs, courtesy of Fin, being my personal favourite. Wash, rinse, and repeat until Friday.
As well as the deep bonds and friendships that grow amongst the tutors, hosts, and participants, year after year, the School has also developed many close ties to the wider musical community of Vermont. It is not uncommon to have a few drop-ins from local greats on the folk, or 'trad.' scene, such as renowned uilleann pipe-maker Benedict Kholer, or the well known Old-time fiddle and banjo maestro Pete Sutherland. This provides a wonderful exchange of tunes and insights that go well beyond the normal bounds of the Scottish tradition, and is always a highlight of the week for tutors and participants alike.
It is no mistake that these tunes and friendships have flourished so naturally in this setting. Not only is the workshop held in one of the more beautiful areas of the world, it is also all happening in what is, perhaps, a more natural environment than that utilised in many workshops. The tradition of sharing tunes, stories, songs and even a few drinks, is not one that occurs naturally in a conference centre, or a rented university campus, and while there are many wonderful workshops that continue to flourish in these other settings, there are very few that take place where our tradition came from -- in the home.
While many of us have heard stories of the idyllic 'kitchen ceilidh', few of us get the chance to experience these sort of events in this day and age. The Vermont Bellows-pipe School is one place where this still happens, without any encouragement, or spectacle.
Another attribute that makes the Vermont School different from many other piping workshops is it's method of teaching tunes in class. While many programs use written music as the primary way of transmitting tunes, or reserve this technique as back up if learning 'by ear' fails, the VTBPS has always insisted on sticking to aural forms of transmission. Most commonly, tunes are taught by repetitively demonstrating a given bar, phrase, line, part, or even an entire tune, depending on the groups ability level, and encouraging learners to join in as they begin to pick up the melody.
While this often begins as nearly organised chaos, once a group starts to feel more comfortable with this methodology, tunes become increasingly easy to pick up in larger and larger chunks. 'It's taking away one stage of learning,' Fin explained, 'So, instead of having to learn how to play with the music there --which can take "X" amount of time, then you play it with the music for awhile, then you have to learn how to play it without the music-- It is taking away that step, and though it might take a little longer to begin with, there is a much bigger chance of the tune sticking, and becoming easier to play. [...]
You might need to hear the first phrase of it again, but once you've got that first phrase, you can pick up the rest of the tune quite quick. Another thing is that there is not the barrier of quite crudely written music in front of people,' Fin continued, 'They [the students] are just playing it the way you are playing it, rather than having to interoperate what is written on a page, that usually isn't exactly what you are trying to play --Whether you put dots and cuts or leave them open, its not exactly how you are going to play it anyway.' [Fin Moore, 31/10/12] Despite this approach, written and recorded music is always made available to all students after the week is over, allowing participants to keep learning at home after the workshop.
This aural learning method also encourages the social aspects of the tradition, noted Sarah Hoy, suggesting that since the participants are not dependant on sheet music and music stands, they are more likely to engage with each other in late night sessions. This, she said, plays a part in helping the students to see the 'bigger picture' and 'the point of it all'.
One final characteristic that sets the Vermont School apart from other similar programs is the natural way things have seemed to evolve over the course of the past 25 years. From the original 'pilot' year with seven students, to the addition of each new instructor and the addition of other instruments and classes, everything has seemed to flow and evolve quite 'organically', suggested Fin, Sarah, and Hamish. There has never been any significant advertising or any conscious push to make things change or expand. The School seems to have just grown along with the personalities that have become involved over the years and the needs of the students. 'Everyone always brought something completely unique to it all', said Hamish, 'I can't imagine another regular piping camp that was anything remotely like the anarchy of this, and the good fun.' - [Hamish Moore, 31/10/12]

A kitchen session at this year’s event: Neil MacMillan’s head,an unidentified fiddler,Timothy Cummings & Dominique Dodge

Looking Ahead...
The Vermont School has seen several important changes in the past few years. The largest of these is the program's relocation to the home of Bret and Melissa Hamilton. This move has provided more space for camping, teaching, and practice space, as well as generally giving everyone a bit more room to breath. Also, the past three or four years have seen a boost in fiddle and dance classes, alongside the usual piping tuition. This has been made much more feasible by the extra space available at the new location, and should continue to be an important part of the program from here on out.
Despite the larger location and the extra classes that have been made available to those who want to diversify their week, it does not appear that the School will be getting much bigger, in terms of the student body. The organisers have estimated that the new premises will not hold more than 40 people comfortably, including staff. Keeping things on the small side, for the sake of preserving the community spirit and integrity of the program, will remain a priority. The plan is not to expand this workshop in size, really, just to keep it going on as it has from the beginning, says Fin.
The Summer 2013 Vermont Bellows-pipe School has been set for 29 July - 2 August 2013 in Huntington, Vermont. Instructors have yet to be announced. Please see the website for more details: