Suddenly the music was over. The step dancers flitted off the stage, the melody of the bagpipes faded, the beat of the Bodhran drum fell silent. And the audience that had been mesmerized by the free afternoon performance at the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts in Summerside, PEI, was left wanting more -- exactly as the college had intended. The afternoon showcase is a brilliant teaser for the $10 evening concert series, and I found myself heading straight to the ticket booth like a child under the spell of the Pied Piper.
A not-for-profit school that teaches all realms of the Celtic arts, the College of Piping transforms itself into one of Prince Edward Island's prime entertainment destinations for the summer tourist season. "We recognized that we needed to do other things besides teaching to generate money," says College Director Scott MacAuley, clad in a traditional Scottish kilt. MacAuley calls it a marriage of culture and tourism. Others might call it inspired: The College of Piping is a magical place to visit.
The afternoon mini-concerts in the outdoor amphitheatre cover the spectrum of the college's disciplines -- Highland dancing, step dancing, bagpiping, Gaelic singing, drumming, fiddling and the tin whistle. Hosting everything from the wistful notes of the bagpipes to dancers that seem never to touch the ground, the stage is a whirlwind of activity generated by the school's instructors and students.
And no evenings are the same. On Monday nights it's The Island Show, a showcase of singing, songwriting and storytelling, featuring local performer Alan Rankin (who is not related to Canada's famous singing family). On Tuesday night it's Hold the Haggis -- an evening of Scottish comedy, as well as song and dance. Wednesdays, renowned PEI group, the Fiddlers' Sons, brings the traditional songs of the island to the stage, ranging from toe-tapping jigs to mournful songs of the sea.
On Thursdays, the college showcases its students and staff in the popular Come to the Ceilidh, featuring the College Pipe Band and Dance Company. If you can only make it one evening, make it this one: Last summer it regularly sold out all 500 seats in the amphitheatre.
This year the college is also expanding to host Ceilidh on the Road at Charlottetown's Confederation Centre of the Arts, starring award-winning Gaelic singer Patricia Murray. McAuley touts this as a celebration of "the rich Celtic arts," with dancing, music and song, but if you've ever heard Murray's velvety voice, you won't need the sales pitch. This series runs to June 14 and from Sept. 20 to Oct. 14.
The college also offers tours led by students around the large two-storey house, located near the water on the east end of Summerside; my own guide, Highland dancer Lori Targett, is still breathing fast from the performance as she leads me downstairs. Indeed, the flurry of activity surrounding the school is invigorating. As Targett comments, "Every room here double-duties as a practice room." Bagpipes blare from the board room. Downstairs, the enchanting voice of Patricia Murray wafts from another room, practising a mere few minutes after the afternoon performance has ended.
Murray has won a prestigious international award for Gaelic singing at a contest held in Inverness, Scotland, and is one of the college's brightest homegrown stars. But her success is just one of the signs the school is achieving status on an international level. The college started in 1990 with a mere 30 students; now it has 600 on its roster. Although 90 per cent are Islanders, some have come from such exotic places as Kuwait, Australia, and Hong Kong. "They've even come from Scotland," says MacAuley proudly. And the College Pipe Band has clinched the North American Piping Championships as well as major awards in Scotland.
Aside from the concerts, there is also a CD series, Ancestral Voices, and a gala performance at Charlottetown's Confederation Centre for the Arts is scheduled for Sept. 16.
"All the profits from these endeavours go to fill up the slack," says MacAulay. The result: a great deal for visitors in a stomping ground of Celtic talent. Kimberley Fehr is based in Toronto.
IF YOU GO
The school. The College is located near the waterfront in Summerside, PEI, at 619 Water St. E. Call (877) BAG-PIPE or visit http://www.collegeofpiping.com , to order tickets online. The concerts. The free half-hour afternoon concerts run Monday to Friday at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. and tours of the school are offered between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. The evening concerts run June 26 to Aug. 31, Mondays to Thursdays at 7 p.m., and usually last two hours. Facilities have been expanded this year to cope with the increasing number of concertgoers. Tickets are $10 for adults, $9 for Seniors, $7 for students and free for preschoolers. Ceilidh on the Road runs Wednesdays to Saturdays, as well as the occasional Monday from May 31 to June 14 and from Sept. 20 to Oct. 14 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown. Tickets are $20. The end of summer Come to the Ceilidh gala performance takes place on Sept. 16 at the Confederation Centre. The island. For more information on the Island, call Prince Edward Island Tourism at (888) PEI-PLAY or visit http://www.peiplay.com .