It’s in the bag
Coley’s Point teen excels as bagpiper
It’s April 24, 2010 and Princess Anne is being met at Mile One Centre in downtown St. John’s with great fanfare. She’s there to present new colours to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
The City of St. John’s Pipe Band is there, performing before the only daughter of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Included in the band’s ranks is Blake Cranford of Coley’s Point, Bay Roberts. It’s a defining moment for the young bagpiper with an engaging personality.
“I felt very excited to be the youngest person in the band,” he recently said.
He’s already leaving his mark on the bagpiping tradition in the province. Cranford’s very first pipe teacher, David Allison, thinks Blake, “is becoming an excellent piper. He’s an inspiration to others.”
Not a bad reference for a 16year-old to add to his resume.
He’s the first to admit it’s unusual for a young person to play the pipes. “It’s not an overly popular instrument,” he said. None of his friends play the instrument, but “ they find it rather interesting, and really support me,” he added.
Cranford’s interest in bagpipes — pipes, for short — was piqued when he was 12. He was attending a summer cadet camp in New Brunswick, and listened transfixed as a pipe and drum band practiced.
“It was an amazing sound,” he remembered. “I really loved it.”
Back home, he told his parents he wanted to learn to play the pipes. The nearest band was the City of St. John’s Pipe Band. The Cranfords contacted David Allison, who took Cranford on as a student.
Learning to play pipes is a challenging endeavour. For one thing, the nine-note, woodwind instrument has its own language. Cran- ford started with a “practice chanter,” then advanced to a “practice goose” and, finally, to an actual set of bagpipes.
Pipes are unique if for no other reason than their distinctive and pronounced droning. A unique feature of bagpipes is an inflatable airbag which provides air to the sound-making components, reeds attached to pipes. “ When you take a breath, you squeeze your arm in to keep the air pressure equal,” Cranford said. “It takes a lot of multi-tasking.”
Piping is all about embellishments. “It’s really what gives a tune its rhythm and turns it into a piece of music,” he said.
Heather Ann Wright, also of St. John’s, is Cranford’s current teacher. She helps him with the quality of his playing and choosing the tunes he plays in competition.
In army cadet piping, he has achieved his advanced five of five levels and, in civilian piping, his third of five grades.
Cranford knows from personal experience the importance of prac- tice. It takes years to perfect the art, but he’s committed and determined.
Another keen supporter is Cranford’s girlfriend, Natinna Ibbitson of Moncton, New Brunswick. She’s a tenor drummer in several cadet pipe bands. Though biased, she calls him “an amazing piper.” His piping “ takes your breath away,” she added. Meanwhile, he’s modest about his abilities.
Piping is a serious investment of both time and money. A “decent set” of pipes costs about $2,000, Cranford said, though his parents paid $3,000 for his, and they can go as high as $10,000.
Yes, Cranford wears a red kilt, displaying the Maclaine of Lochbuie tartan, when playing with the City of St. John’s Pipe Band.
His piping has opened many doors. He has played in the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Halifax. He has played with the Prairie Region Pipes and Drums, Banff, Alberta. He has played for the RCMP Musical Ride. And, he has served as pipe sergeant and pipe major with the very band that inspired him as a 12-year-old in New Brunswick.
Cranford gets the occasional gig, from Remembrance Day events to helping to pipe on stage the Scot country music artist, Johnny Reid, when he appeared in St. John’s; from performances at Ascension Collegiate to a recent Robert Burns Night at the Spaniard’s Bay Legion.
Though piping is one of Cranford’s passions, his musical tastes are eclectic, ranging from Newfoundland to Russian music; from the Eagles to fellow bagpiper, Bruce Gandy.
In the short-term, he’s planning to compete in the Fredericton Highland Games this summer, both with the Atlantic Region Cadet Pipe and Drums Band and as a soloist. He’s been offered two summer jobs, to teach pipes in Alberta or New Brunswick. Either way, he can hardly believe he will be paid to do something he dearly loves.
His long-term plans are a little less definite. He would like to visit Scotland, where the bagpipe is the national instrument. He wants to pursue a career in psychology. Whatever he chooses, bagpiping will continue to be a part of his life.
“He’s got a skill that will never leave him,” Allison said. “ He’s a great role model.”
Blake Cranford of Coley’s Point excels as a bagpiper.