Even for someone who is fairly removed from the bagpiping world, the success of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band seems rather improbable. What is this band based in Burnaby, B.C., doing winning all those world championships, beating out bands from Scotland and Northern Ireland and other piping centres?
The SFU Pipe Band has won the top level (Grade 1) World Pipe Band Championships six times, and placed second nine times, taking the piping world by storm – and surprise – in its first couple of appearances at the championships in the 1980s.
Leadership is a key factor – Terry Lee, as pipe major, directs the band, and his younger brother, Jack Lee, is second in command as the band's pipe sergeant and a world-renowned bagpipe soloist.
But also instrumental to its success is the band's cultivation of young pipers and drummers – maybe thousands over the years between its junior program and its summer school. The band camp – Piping Hot Summer Drummer – next week marks 20 years of teaching the Highland Arts in the Okanagan.
"It's probably one of the best in the world. People come from Australia and New Zealand, all over the entire world, to go to it, which is pretty unique. There's not many other piping schools that are like that," says Kevin McLean, 22, who attended the camp seven times and is now a member of the SFU Pipe Band.
The group was formed in 1966 – the university's inaugural year – but everything really changed in 1981, when Terry and Jack, then with the City of Port Moody Pipe Band, took it over. The next year, the band won the North American championship at the Glengarry Highland Games in Ontario.
"It was very quick. We had come from nothing. We had no track record for competitive success," says Terry, now 56. "It sort of seemed to blossom from the point we connected with SFU."
Then they set their sights on Scotland. They made their first trip there in 1983, finishing 10th. For the rookie competitors, it was thrilling.
In 1984, they stayed home to record their first album, Nous Sommes Prêts.
And the next year, they were ready.
"We went over there and kind of took Scotland by storm in '85," Terry says. "From out of nowhere, we finished second."
It was a very close second – and a controversial decision. Some felt the SFU Pipe Band should have won, but that the piping establishment was not ready to award the prize to a band that was not from Scotland, or at least the UK.
In 1987, Toronto's 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band made history by winning the championships. The SFU Pipe Band finished second, and did so again the following year. Then, over the next few years, it failed to place in the top three. The Lee brothers felt the primary reason was that the drumming was weak. So in what Terry describes as a "very, very bold move," he called Reid Maxwell in Toronto, former drummer of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, and asked him to join the SFU band.
"It's really been his arrival that allowed us to catapult to the next level, to top of the world," Terry says.
In 1995, SFU won the world championships for the first time, repeating the next year, and four subsequent times. The band has released a dozen recordings, including live performances from prestigious stages such as Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and, most recently, New York's Lincoln Center.
"We have the burning desire to be the best. Not so much for results – to keep topping our own performance," Terry says when asked why he thinks the band has done so well in the UK-dominated field.
But he says the band's training efforts have also been important – including Piping Hot Summer Drummer.
"These people are super-motivated. ... [The camp] kind of indoctrinates them a little bit and fires them up to another level."
It's been a huge boost for players such as Mr. McLean, whose interest in the bagpipes was sparked at the age of 10 when he saw Braveheart, and who pursued the challenging instrument despite raised eyebrows from friends.
"To be honest, when you first show up in a kilt or whatever, they sort of look at you funny. But when you tell them that you're going to the world championships to compete or when you win the world championships ... that kind of blows them away."
Mr. McLean credits the Lee brothers with the pipe band's unlikely success.
"They've pretty much devoted their entire lives to learning this craft, both of them. They've basically created the entire piping community on the west coast here. When they started it, it wasn't really that special, and now the SFU Pipe Band is one of the best pipe bands in the world. They've built it all themselves, they've done everything themselves, whereas people in Scotland, they've sort of always had that culture around. They've never really had to build it themselves."
After Piping Hot, the band will really get down to business as it works toward the Worlds in Glasgow on Aug. 17 and 18. SFU has not won the event since 2009; it was third last year. And the Northern Ireland band Field Marshal Montgomery, with six wins since 2002, will be tough to beat.
"We're one of the very few bands really that can challenge them, I feel," Terry says. "And on our best day, we can definitely challenge them. But it has to be our best day, simply put."