By Cynthia Robertson
The bagpipe, with its heart-tugging, full-bodied sound, is one of the most difficult instruments to master. However, the pipers in the world-class Cameron Highlanders Pipe Band — who rehearse weekly at their home at Helix High School — make playing the instrument look easy.
The band always receives very high marks in major competitions in California and the West every year and just a few months ago in August, the Cameron Highlanders Grade 3 band finished fifth in a field of 30 pipe bands in their division at the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
Drum Major Mickie Shaw said the experience of competing in Scotland is always a beautiful one.
“This year, it rained constantly. It was difficult to play in it,” she said. “But I remember that the people back there said, ‘If we stop because of the rain, we would never get anything done.’ That really stuck with me.”
The Cameron Highlanders were one of only two bands in North America to bring home a prize out of 240 total bands in competition.
That makes band director Charles Rosenberger stand tall and proud.
As a result, spirits were especially high at the 68th Annual Tartan Ball, the most important fundraiser for the Highlanders, held on Nov. 19 at Crowne Plaza in Mission Valley. The pipers and drummers filled the ballroom with sound and the Highland Dancers leapt about as light as air.
The pipe band then returned to their weekly practice the Wednesday night after the ball.
“Rosenberger is the calmest, most gentle pipe band director I’ve ever met,” said Ian Kelly, who was Master of Ceremonies at the ball. “A lot of pipe band directors can be quite harsh and loud. But not Rosenberger. He demands hard work, but he is fair.”
The Cameron Highlanders was first formed in 1946 by Rosenberger’s own father and grandfather. One of their first performances was at the annual Mother Goose Parade in El Cajon.
Charles Rosenberger, who now directs the band, fell into step with the pipers when he was just 7 years old. Ever since he became the Pipe Major in 1970, he has been both the administrative and musical leader of the Highlanders.
When Helix High School was first opened, they needed a theme. Two younger members of the Camerons were going to Helix at the time and they proposed that the theme would be “The Highlanders” so that they could have a pipe band at the school. John Rosenberger, founder of the Camerons, was instrumental in establishing a bagpipe band at Helix High School In 1952.
“We have been associated with Helix ever since,” said Rosenberger.
Many Helix graduates have gone on to play with the Camerons and other pipe bands over the years.
One of Rosenberger’s greatest joys is seeing a piper or student become a prize-winning competitor.
“And, of course, when the whole band is successful in the competition world,” he said. “Our band has been the Western United States Pipe Band Association Champions in Grade 3 for the past two years, places fifth in the Worlds and has been moved up to Grade 2.”
The biggest challenge is keeping a group of over 60 members in three bands working and growing together and dealing with 60 personalities.
“The band is like a family,” said Bill Hoover, who has been playing the bagpipes for 12 years.
Hoover had started with the Cameron Highlanders as a drummer in 1971 while he was attending Helix High School. One evening, the drummers did not show for practice and so he asked John Rosenberg to teach him to play the bagpipes.
Hoover stayed with it. He can now play 22 songs just from memory.
“I never imagined that I would ever be able to play in front of people. It’s very addictive,” he said.
Fellow piper Kathleen Mars agreed. She has played for 37 years.
“I’ve always loved them, always used to run around and follow them in parades when I was a kid. I wanted to learn so badly how to play ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Scotland the Brave,’” Mars said.
But life kept Mars too busy until one day she was able to enroll in adult education class and learn bagpipes from John Rosenberg.
“The pipes are a whole set of skills to learn — in blowing the reed, squeezing the bag, and keeping the rhythm, and then you have to know how to play the reed,” Mars said. “Technically, it’s a simple reed to play, with only nine notes from A to G, but it is amazing what you can do with nine notes.”
Both Hoover and Mars admitted that playing the bagpipes can be difficult, sometimes even aggravating to learn. But the rewards are great, particularly since even beginning players can participate in parades.
“It took me about two or three years to play confidently in a performance,” Mars said.
Perhaps one of the best features of the Cameron Highlander Pipe Band is that lessons are free, offered for pipers and drummers each Wednesday night at Helix High School from 6:30 until 9 p.m.
“We welcome anyone who is interested in learning how to play. And you definitely do not have to be Scottish, just love the music,” said Rosenberger.
For more information, go to camerons.org.
—Cynthia Robertson is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Reach her at email@example.com.