Andy is a third generation bagpipe player on the Kansas City St. Andrew’s Pipes and Drum Band. Founded in 1962 by Wallace McKee, Andy’s grandfather, the pipe band, as well as the heritage of the McKee’s, has played a prevalent role in the entire McKee family.
“It’s really a tradition in my family,” Andy said. “Sometimes I joke that we’re sort of like the mafia of Kansas City Highland Arts.”
At age seven when most kids were learning their addition and subtraction, Andy was learning how to play the traditional Great Highland bagpipe from his dad. The Great Highland Bagpipe originates from Scotland and consists of a bag, chanter, blowpipe, two tenor drones and one bass drone.
“There’s the traditional stereotype of the bagpipes sounding like a dying pig,” Andy said. “But if a bagpipe is well tuned and well played, it’s a really beautiful thing.”
Andy continued to learn the bagpipes, even traveling to Ontario, Canada several summers to study at the Ontario School of Piping under the teachings of some of the best pipers. Andy has competed in many solo competitions throughout the years and has had great success competing at the Junior Novice level.
Just this last year, Andy started competing as a piper in the St. Andrew’s competition band. The competition band travels to play against other bagpipe bands.[media-credit name=”Grace Heitmann” align=”alignright” width=”167″][/media-credit]A typical pipe band consists of bagpipers, Scottish snare drummers, bass drummers and tenor drummers. Out of the roughly 50 members of the St. Andrew’s Pipe Band, pipers make up a little more than half of the musicians in the band. There are about 10 snare drummers, two bass drummers and three tenor drummers as well. And, of course, there were the McKee’s.
“[While competing] at Chicago, it was either a quarter or a third of the Kansas City [St. Andrew’s] Pipe Band was made of McKee’s,” Andy said.
In the pipe band competitions, each band is ranked in grades to determine their competition. The grades range from one to five, Grade 1 being the highest and Grade 5 being the lowest. St. Andrew’s Pipe and Drums band took a hiatus of competing over the past couple years but recently started competing again in Grade 4.
To compete, a pipe band selects several bagpipe tunes (not songs) and forms them into a compilation. The band makes sure that the compilation, called a set, includes tunes that the band thinks the judges will like. The pipe band must play the compilation to show both the strengths of the pipers and drummers as well as the cooperation between the two.[media-credit name=”Andy McKee” align=”alignleft” width=”225″][/media-credit]“There are usually different competitions for different kinds of sets,” McKee said. “The sets we play [in competitions] are quick march medleys which are sets made up entirely of different march style tunes.”
The bagpipe competitions take place at what’s called the Highland Games. The Highland Games typically last a couple days, depending on their location. The games are held all over the world, especially in Canada and Scotland. The Highland Games honor the Scottish and their lifestyles and traditions. Events include Scottish bands, Highland dancers, Scottish clans and bagpiping. Kansas City hosts their own highland games during June in Riverside, Mo. but they do not include bagpipe competitions.
Over the summer, Andy and the pipe band competed in the Chicago Highland Games. Two weeks ago, the band competed in the St. Louis Highland Games. Although the pipe band did well in Chicago, the band only managed to get fifth place out of six in St. Louis.
“We kind of blew the start and it didn’t go so well after that,” Andy said.
But Andy’s favorite part of playing the bagpipes is the history and heritage behind it.[media-credit name=”Andy McKee” align=”alignright” width=”180″][/media-credit]“The majority of the music is very old and has a very deep tradition,” Andy said. “[There’s] just a massive variety of heritage in bagpiping that you don’t really find in a lot of other instruments.”
Bagpiping has slowly become more mainstream and part of the modern world. Once mostly confined to the British armies in the 18th and 19th centuries, countries all over the world are playing the bagpipes and adding their own style to the music.
“I think that’s another great thing — the new sort of piping culture that’s emerged all over the world,” Andy said. “It really is a cool thing to see how bagpipes are being transformed from a very insular instrument to something a lot more worldly.”
But whether they’re in an AC/DC song or Paul McCartney song, Andy and his family hope the bagpipes will always be revered for their great sound and rich heritage.