Standing on the Casper Mountain with the fog rolling in after the recent Beartrap Summer Festival, people were in a hurry to leave, before conditions for driving became dire.
But many stopped for just a moment as the astonishing and plaintive sound of old-world bagpipes penetrated the still air, filling up the fog.
More astonishing than the eerie music, however, was the sight.
The bagpipes were being expertly played not by a bunch of old-timers. It was group of teenagers, gathered in a circle for an impromptu jam session.
A drummer faced off against a bagpiper as they played, like it was some kind of musical contest. The drummer twirled his sticks in the air — a trick learned at a world-class workshop in Canada — while opposite, a different member of the band played a haunting melody. Other members of the band tapped their toes, unconsciously keeping time as they watched. The performance of the two was hypnotic and looked effortless.
But looks are deceiving.
Hours and hours of practice went into that one easy-breezy moment that so delighted the crowd.
“You don’t want to play poorly, because this instrument played poorly is not OK,” Lander Pipe Band’s leader Melissa Bautz told Cowboy State Daily. “And I actually am really picky with the students. I’m like, ‘You’re not ready for primetime until I tell you (that) you are.’ I won’t let them be in public, because, I hate to say it, but I don’t want my students to be the person who made someone hate bagpipes because they were played poorly.”
Right now, Bautz has three students who are still training in the backstage wings, so to speak, getting their sounds ready for public performances.
“We do have a great time, but with the kids and the beginners, I give them the evil eye if they make those bad sounds,” Bautz said.
That might seem mean on the surface, she admits. But she’s also seen that it really motivates the students to practice. They know it’s the key to earning their ticket for the really fun stuff — traveling all over the West to show what they can do with their instruments.
Training Includes A World Class Experience
“With the piping, I’m high enough level to train the beginners all the way to intermediate,” Bautz said. “So, I’m pretty close to the exclusive trainer of the pipers, however, what happens when people get to intermediate levels, they need to be exposed to other instructors.”
To make that happen, the band raises funds to send the students who are ready for the experience to a workshop in Canada, called the Piping Hot Summer Drummer.
“It’s a total immersion class,” Bautz said. “All-day performance by students, and our instructors all night. These are the best instructors in the world. They bring them over from Scotland, New Zealand, and Canada. It’s amazing.”
Two batches of Lander and Casper youths have gone through the camp so far, with a third batch preparing to go next year.
“We have some who went back in 2019, but they need a refresher now,” Bautz added. “You know you gotta go back every once in a while.”
An Old-World Band With A Mission
When Bautz moved from California to Lander one of the first people she met was the band’s co-leader, Bobby Johnston.
“I was renting an apartment from Bobby’s great-aunt,” Bautz recalled.
The day Bautz came to town, Bobby’s great-aunt called to tell him about her new tenant.
“(She) told me about Melissa because I’ve always wanted to play pipes,” Johnston said. “So, my great-aunt, she says, ‘Hey there’s a woman who’s renting our house who is a professional piper from California.’”
Johnston didn’t need to hear another word.
“I hung up the phone with her and immediately went up there and knocked on the door and said, ‘Hi, I’m your new best friend!’,” Johnston said.
“That’s kind of how it started,” Bautz agreed. “So, Bobby was learning and another fellow was learning, too, and then (a third one named) Mack. So, there were three adult men learning close to the same timeline.”
During the same timeframe, the band of beginners suddenly found themselves with a larger mission, one that motivated them all to get better and keep going.
“After (9/11), the one-month memorial was on October 11 and all around North America, all the pipe bands decided that at local time, 3 p.m., that we’re going to go to our local parks and we’re going to play a memorial, because everyone wanted to do something,” Bautz said. “So, we thought, well, let’s do it, you know, and we played some basic music. It wasn’t fancy, but it was appropriate.”
The music may have been basic, but the experience was intense.
“I think we just all kind of agreed, it’s like, well, that codifies it. This is our thing. This is what we’re here for,” Bautz said. “This is how we’re going to align, you know. A band whose mission would be to honor veterans and first responders.”
How Youths Came To Dominate An Old-World Band
When Johnston’s son was 11, he decided he wanted to learn to play bagpipes, just like his dad. That proved to be a domino effect. A couple of years later, Johnston’s other son also started playing bagpipes, to follow in his brother’s footsteps, and Bautz’s son decided to play drums.
“Then all these other friends of theirs —acquaintances, siblings — it just became like a youth-dominated band, which is exceptional,” Bautz said.
While the band initially was Wyoming-centric, and was always at the Highland games in Jackson, which celebrate Scottish heritage, Bautz wanted to broaden the focus.
“We don’t want to become a big fish in a small pond,” Bautz said. “We need to compete against other bands, make sure we do things properly, so we don’t ever, you know, fall short.”
That has the band traveling all over the West, playing at Highland games in various states, as well as competitions and other events that honor veterans and first responders. The recent Beartrap Summer Festival appearance, for example, was part of a fundraiser for first responders in Casper.
Building For A Future
With 17 members and growing, the Lander Pipe Band, formerly Lander Valley Fire Department Pipe Band, is renaming itself and is working on grants to help new members with the costs involved in becoming part of the band.
“The uniform itself probably costs about $350 to $400,” Bautz said. “These acrylic kilts are about $100. They used to be $80.”
The bagpipes, meanwhile, for a beginner, cost about $1,000. The band has three loaner sets right now, and is working on a fourth loaner set, so youths can give it a try first, before investing a lot of money in an instrument.
Then there are the training trips to Canada, as well as remote lessons with world-class instructors from Vermont and other places. Some of the band’s members are also from Casper, and join practice sessions remotely.
“We do have a good time and, you know, they get a lot of pizza,” Bautz said. “When we travel, we usually go to the pool at the hotel and we try to make it fun. It’s a lot of work, too, but it’s worth it. It’s fun winning prizes when you’ve worked hard, and you get first place.”
Bautz hopes she’s laying a foundation for the band to continue after she’s no longer leading it.
“The way I word it, people think it’s dark,” Bautz said. “But, when I’m long gone, if it was meant to be that piping, bagpiping and drumming should still be a thing in Central Wyoming — if it doesn’t happen, it won’t be because we didn’t try to teach. I would hope that the kids want to keep it going, and that the tools are there to enable that.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.