Smith Spotlight #11


It probably goes without saying, but Smith Design is full of creatives. In our Smith Spotlight blog series, we’re highlighting the talent of our team and their endeavors outside of our studio. Follow along to get to know the people who make Smith Design awesome.

This month’s Smith Spotlight features the great Highland Bagpiper, Julianne Brown. Juli has been with Smith Design for 1 year and 9 months and is currently a Senior Designer. She was excited to get the chance to tell us about how she stays creative outside the office as she has been bagpiping for 34 years.

Written by Julianne Brown

I was first inspired to start bagpiping because I loved the sound all my life. A few years ago when my mom transferred Super 8 home movies to digital, we found a mysterious short clip in the mix. It was a movie of the exterior of a pub’s front door, probably in NJ by the look of it, and a large pipe band quickly exiting single file into the back of a large double cab van. The last 3 people were not pipers – but my parents carrying me as a toddler. Someone came by and shut the back doors and the van sped off—the end. When asked, my mother didn’t remember anything about the home movie. I don’t know what happened in the van, but I like to think it was my awakening to a musical passion. 

My family is not terribly musical, and my parents were a little lost on how to help me further my love of the music. They bought me a set of imported Pakistani bagpipes from a local music store, thinking that I would learn by ear. I later learned that this was a bad plan. When I took the bagpipe to a professional bagpipe instructor for evaluation of the instrument’s quality, he let me know it was good for two things: either displaying over the fireplace, or in it. 

I was not able to learn to play it until going away to college in Brooklyn. I received a new instrument as a gift from my parents and I began learning with the New York University Pipes & Drums Pipe Band. I have spent more years in the band than not, and I have some long-time friends that still play in the band. As one of their Pipe Sergeants, I help teach the band and run practices and performances on a volunteer basis. The band plays music for NYU’s graduations, visiting scholars and dignitaries, the opening of new NYU buildings and other celebrations. The band also marches every year in the NYC Tartan Day Parade and has participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I have played on the stages of many New York venues during NYU Graduations with the pipe band: Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden Arena and Theater, Radio City Music Hall, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, and Yankee Stadium (old and new) — to drop a few names. In May 2022, I was excited to play in the procession which preceded Taylor Swift and the platform party to the stage at Yankee Stadium for Commencement exercises. That’s the one time Taylor got to hear my music for a change (no, sadly I don’t have a photo of me with Taylor). 

Eventually I started to take lessons with solo instructors and compete in the amateur grades at the highland games as well. I continually study solo music with a private instructor who teaches me music for competitions and specific idioms including music for Highland Dancing. My instructor is Donald Lindsay of Albany, NY. Donald was the second American to win the Silver Medal for Piobaireachd in 1986. I look forward to my lessons with him for his unparalleled knowledge and uniquely American teaching style as well as thoughtful perspectives on music and culture. We meet for lessons via FaceTime and sometimes at workshops and the highland games. 

Piping Workshop at the Celtic Hall in Colonie, NY. Donald Lindsay is second from the right.

Much of the music I play commemorates people, events, or tells a story of some kind. My instructor always like to tell me the story behind the tunes and then we find a way to relate what it means to me as a 21st Century person through my expression of the music. I like to find different and under-rated music to play for competitions, to let people hear something less often heard that might be lurking in an old dusty manuscript in the back of a bookshelf at Edinburgh Castle. I dust it off and give it new meaning and expression.  

In September 2022, I won 1st place in Grade 2 Piobaireachd event at Capital District Scottish Games with the debut of a tune I had been studying since August 2020. It is a tune about a plucky heroine of the Jacobite rebellion time period in Scotland called “Lady Margaret MacDonald’s Salute” and it looks like this: 

(Image from Piobaireachd in time: Technology and transmission © Dr. William Donaldson Published by pipes|drums, 2006-’07) 

I’ll listen to recordings of piping music and the singing of it called “canterrach” or ‘mouth music whenever possible and then I sing it to learn it initially. Some of the music, the most ancient (think “Outlander” time period) and original bagpipe music is an idiom called “Piobaireachd” or “Ceol Mor” – the great music. Some tunes are up to 28 minutes long and it may take some time to learn. Bagpipers do not read music while performing, so there is a LOT of music crammed into my brain. 

File this under “Did that just happen?”: Playing a few tunes for Sam Hughan at a publicity event for “Outlander”  

Performing with the Orchestra of St. Lukes playing ‘Not the Messiah’ written by Eric Idle and John DuPrez of Broadway’s ‘Spamalot’

Some of my favorite places to play are at fundraisers and pro-bono events, like the Relay for Life Cancer Walk, and the Big Band fundraiser for S.A.M.H (Scottish Association for Mental Health) in Glasgow during the Worlds Pipe Band Championships week, and kid’s school music demonstrations. People are appreciative of my unusual role in helping give back. Many times, people will tell me about what the music means to them and their memories of people, and sometimes they have no words but tears. I also like kid’s funny questions about the instrument and their reactions the first time hearing it. It never gets old. The highland games and the World Pipe Band Championships are favorites as well for more than obvious reasons. 

My husband and I at the Relay for Life Luminaria Ceremony, Morris County, NJ (Image courtesy of Zoomus Marketing, LLC)

Big Band fundraiser for S.A.M.H (Scottish Association for Mental Health) in Glasgow, Scotland (I am standing behind the Mayor of Glasgow, center.) (Photo courtesy of The National Piping Center, Piping Live!/City of Glasgow/S.A.M.H.)

Coming up with new ideas is a very different process than my creative process at work. Sometimes I make music videos to listen and critique my playing and for virtual competitions. I enjoy various feeds of Piping and Gaelic music, Gaelic singing, pipe bands, world percussion like Samba and steel drum, as well as many other genres of music including opera, European classical, indie, punk and various metals. Sometimes a friend will say “I dare you to make a video of this song,” and I’ll tell them “Game on”. I covered the Tetris Theme (21K views) and ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ (35K views) and put them on YouTube. With the help of my husband, who is a former professional musician, I recorded tracks at home in my basement and foyer. It is far from perfect, and it was a fun learning experience to create these arrangements and record them. Many pipers from around the world viewed these videos and contacted me to ask for copies of the sheet music, so I let people download the files from Google drive. 

Throughout my 34 years of playing the bagpipes, I have gained a great amount of knowledge. Some of the best advice that I have received is to not be fearful of dabbling if you think that you have a good idea – just bust it out, and that validation and perfection are sweet addictions; remain motivated by purpose not comparison.

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