Pipes & Drums take centre stage at the Royal Winter Fair

It’s not often a group of teenagers gets a chance to be front and centre at a big-city showpiece gala with 100 years of history behind it, but that’s exactly what the St. Andrew’s College Pipes & Drums got on Nov. 2 at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.

Founded in 1922, The Royal, as it is known, is the largest indoor agricultural fair in the world. It takes place on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, where the distinctive Coliseum Arena was built specifically to house it. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, The Royal had prepared an extra elaborate opening gala in the 7,500-seat Coca-Cola Arena adjacent to the Coliseum. Acts in attendance included Blue Rodeo, The Tenors, and the RCMP Musical Ride. Well-known Canadian TV personality, Rick Mercer, emceed the evening.

This was not a simple march up and down the arena floor for the Pipes & Drums. In fact, they had been tasked with developing a marching routine and musical arrangement that would blend seamlessly with a country-rock tune sung by up-and-coming country performer, Sacha. 

Planning began weeks in advance, with Director of Pipes & Drums, Matt MacIsaac, arranging the music and Band Officer, Jamie Inglis ’91, creating the choreography that would have the band form a “100” in the middle of the arena floor just before playing along with Sacha’s new song, I Call It Country.

The challenge was to prepare 30 boys – many of whom had only played one performance with the band – to master a routine timed to the second and measured to the metre under the bright lights of a high-end production. Rehearsals were an education for the students as they got a glimpse at what goes into a large-scale gala event: allocation of space, security, meals, sound checks, rehearsal timings, handlers, and, most of all, sound, colour, and movement.

And there were plenty of rehearsals. The band spent nearly two full days rehearsing music and walking through routines at the venue. Their single rehearsal with Sacha proved that much work still needed to be done before the performance. 

As showtime approached, the atmosphere at rehearsals became more intense. The goal was to ingrain the routine into the minds of these young men so they could walk out onto the arena floor to face 7,500 people, a blazing light show, a very loud band, and still hit all their cues. 

As a prelude to the big show, a mini-band of four pipers and two drummers marched in dignitaries and performed at a $1,500-a-plate gala dinner to much acclaim.

Showtime arrived with the students well-prepared but nervous. Four attending teachers said some silent prayers as they stepped back to let the band move onto the floor. The Drum Major gave the command, and the Pipes & Drums were on their own in front of thousands. Four band members wore headpieces into which on-the-beat cues were relayed. A layer of dirt over the arena floor for the dog and horse displays added to the surreal environment. Sacha came down off the stage to join the band on the floor as the arena rocked. Resplendent in red scarlets, spats, Gordon kilts, and feather bonnets, the band captured the visual attention of the entire crowd as they moved through their formations toward Sacha’s finale.

It seemed like it had hardly begun when the band was making its exit to the closing bars of Sacha’s song and the tumultuous response of the crowd. Now out of sight, there were high fives and congratulations all-round for a job well done. Sacha had a quick visit, and then it was time to gather the gear and head for the bus.
Head of School, Kevin McHenry, attended the performance. “Our Pipes & Drums performed brilliantly at the 100th anniversary of the Royal Winter Fair,” he said. “It was an immense honour to be invited to this high-profile event, and our students took full advantage of the opportunity.”

Matt MacIsaac heaped praise on the band for mastering the floor routine while remaining fluid. “We worked really hard on the music and the formations leading up to the night,” he said. “We were playing a familiar piece for us over Sacha’s song, though we had to adjust the style and tempo to suit it, and there was no margin for error. Coupled with some last-minute formation and positioning adjustments on the day of the show, it was a lot to ask, but the students stepped up massively and shone that night.”

The midnight bus ride back to the school was one of complete silence as performing intensity yielded to fatigue and much-needed sleep. Such is the price of playing front and centre.

Story by Jim McGillivray
Executive Director of Pipes & Drums
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