Ian Lyons: A Piping Life

This was the first interview I ever did.

It started me on this path of writing about and photographing the same subject, often at the same time.

Ian Lyons has been a great mentor to me in my piping, and has tried to help me improve my playing.  I think at times he probably wanted to scream, but has never given up.

Both Ian Lyons and David Macdonald have been formative in my love of the bagpipes, both for different reasons.

It's been an honour to write about them and their many skills with this unwieldy, often frustrating and misunderstood instrument.

The original appeared in Piping Today, a little over 2 years ago.  Since then, it's been a privilege to have interviewed some of the guiding lights of the piping world and have had my musical taste taken on many twists and turns. 



Ian Lyons: A Piping Life….

Reaching the pinnacle in piping, or any endeavour for that matter, takes persistence, a solid work ethic and a not inconsiderable amount of talent.

Staying at the top requires so much more.  The pressures of work, family and the perfection demanded by the best bands in the world often extract a heavy toll on an individual.  There is, of course, the support of being surrounded by elite players and knowing that the intensity of daily practice and sometimes two or three sessions a week with the band will assist with the attainment of the goal: Winning the World Pipe Band Championship.

Unless, of course, you live 10,000 miles from the band hall.

Ian Lyons has been guest playing for Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band for the last three years, this last year getting his hands on the coveted Grade 1 trophy.  If this was his only achievement in piping, given the tyranny of distance and the pressure to “hit the ground running” with only a few full band practices before the Worlds, it would be impressive.  It’s not, however, his only achievement of this kind. Ian first helped lift that particular trophy with Victoria Police Pipe Band in 1998.

FMM however, represents only a brief period in an impressive piping career; a career that is not yet over.  Two Grade 1 World Championships. Victoria Police in 1998 and FMM in 2011. 17 top six finishes at the Worlds, 5 Australian Championships, 4 North American Championships, Ulster Championships twice, the British Championships, the European Championships and the Champions of Champions Title in 2010 & 2011.

Add nine years as a guest player with 78th Fraser Highlanders and a 20 plus year career with Victoria Police Pipe Band and their numerous recordings; solo success in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, teaching, judging, bagpipe development and innovation, starting a successful piping business and you get more than just a glimpse of a “Piping Life”.

His father, William Lyons BEM, initially taught Ian. His father being a strong personality, former Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards in the same era as P/M's Angus MacDonald, Dixie Ingram and Jimmy Banks would enforce a solid grounding on the chanter. “Alan Gourley from Banbridge Pipe Band pretty much took me under his wing. He pretty much let me get on with it in my own way, in my own time.  I was actually quite a slow starter on the chanter, and it wasn’t until I was nine that I progressed to a sheepskin goose, corks in the stocks, that sort of thing. I spent a year or so on that until my first parade at the age of ten. My practice at home was, on occasion, very strict. Rattling across the knuckles kind of thing. There were a few tears…”

In many ways the strictness of Ian’s early tuition informed how he starts young pipers. He doesn’t force his younger students to practice. Part personal philosophy, part experience, part being a father.  “I don’t force or pressure young kids to practice.  They’ve got such a good grasp these days of learning; computers, games, all these things help them. Unlike 25 years ago, when we were learning, they pick new skills up so easily, they hardly have to do the skill and they’ve got it. The last thing I say to a young student, even with Zeb, my son is “Go home and practise this!”

“I have always emphasised the need for a strong grasp of the scale.  I teach it thoroughly focusing on learning and developing three particular skills.  The development of good habits, excellent basics, is the key.  Progressing to the next level for the student is almost a ‘moment of clarity’ for them. The student will almost always tell you when they are ready. Force them to do anything and they will probably walk away. You can set goals for them, but they have to be nurtured in the pursuit of those goals.  There is a time where actively encouraging a student is important, especially as they grow older and the desire to improve and develop becomes stronger.”

Blowing excellent tone and having a stable, well-balanced and harmonic pipe is a hallmark of Ian Lyons playing.  It is interesting to note that Ian can move between the worlds of synthetic and cane with ease and can produce a sound that meets the critical benchmark set by luminaries such as Richard Parkes when playing cane and sheepskin or receiving “Bagpipe superb throughout. Strong presentation” on Piobaireachd critique sheets from Bob Worrall when playing synthetic.

“I’ve always been a bit OCD, a bit obsessive, about sound.  When I was 14 my father asked me to tune the Banbridge Pipe Band by ear.  I was able to do it, for some reason.  I’ve always been good with that. I’ve never had an issue about tuning my pipes.  Later on, I learned everything I know about setting up a Pipe Band and getting good tone from my time with Victoria Police and then perfected those skills during my time with 78th's.  The time we spent at Victoria Police as a group, talking about it; talking about tone, was just mad. Years of it.  In any normal persons time frame, it would equate to about thirty years of talking about tone. Not just two practices a week, we were continually talking about tone, perfecting it, not just achieving it.  My Dad instilled it in me early on, “If you can’t blow tone, you just won’t get there.”  In the 1980’s, in a lot of the top bands, Pipe Majors would pick players based on their ability to blow tone.  It’s different now, you have to be both an excellent player and have excellent tone.”

Looking at that period, and the Victoria Police pipe set up, Ian has a different view than some on the Victoria Police sound.

“Until I came to Australia, I’d only ever played sheepskin and cane. I’d barely ever seen a synthetic bag or a plastic reed. We knew that the sheepskin and cane system was hard to run in Australian conditions. In Victoria Police, we developed our own sound, our own distinct formulae. It worked, and we stuck with it.”

We always used cane as a benchmark and tried replicate that sound as best we could with synthetic, but knew deep down that synthetic could never quite get us there. The pay off was the stability and longevity in our, sometimes, extreme weather conditions.  Having vision and faith in a sound that was distinct and identifiable as their sound, may have been the key.

“Aim for developing excellent tonal quality. Stick with it. Develop it. In a lot of ways, we had an advantage in that we had control. Our system of the time was not overly affected by weather. It could have been hot and sunny or lashing down.  We could control our instruments regardless of the climate.  Bands these days seem to be searching for something or often, searching for “something else”. They listen to a band that has a great sound and chase that instead of developing, working and sticking to a system that suits them.

This excellence in tone was developed early, and continued to evolve in that short but impressive Victoria Police “Era”.  In this game changing period, Victoria Police Pipe Band produced some of the greatest recordings and live performances ever.

“Nat Russell was the “Grand Architect” of that whole period.  His leadership and drive was the key to Victoria Police.  Intelligent leaders use all their skills to get the best out of their people. Nat was making everything happen at the time and our constancy as a team was an essential part of it. There has been talk in the past that Victoria Police was a “guest player project”. Untrue. We won the Worlds with 14 pipers, 10 of which were there from beginning to end. It was truly a Champion Team, not a Team of Champions. Most of what I learned about sound within Pipe Bands and developing tone, I learned from Robert Crozier and Ross Bates.  Every single step of the development of our sound was discussed hundreds of times. The quality, characteristics and combinations of reeds, chanters, drying systems was thrashed out on a continual basis.  Three to four times a week.  Hours at a time.”

There is no doubt that Victoria Police was “the” formative influence on Ian Lyons’ development as a Grade 1 Player and Pipe Major in Australia. Yet Ian plays sheepskin and cane with FMM.  In Australia, he plays his own synthetic bag, valves and drying system developed with Nigel Hyland, and moves comfortably between the two.

“The ultimate drone sound comes from cane, but it does come with its own pitfalls. Cane is the ultimate bagpipe reed sound but the right synthetics can create a great bagpipe sound as well.  Moose products were developed to make piping a more accessible hobby to more people. The synthetic revolution has made it easier for kids to play, for older pipers to play.  It’s made it easier to set pipes up and not have to play them every day, or having to spend great amounts of time re-seasoning bags and keep drones going. It’s been of great assistance to lower grade bands and players; to get their pipes up, steady with good tone throughout a performance. That’s not to say we want to make it “easy”, it’s not all about that.  It assists in raising the reliability of the instrument for many hobbyist players who may otherwise give up due to the vagaries of cane, regardless of the climate.”

That Victoria Police experience and the antipodean influence to feel free to push the traditional boundaries may have influenced Ian in his product development, but he is a still a traditionalist when it comes to competition medley construction. “To a certain extent, you have to look at what judges are looking for. My Dad used to say to me, ‘No matter what you do, I will never like Heavy Metal music’.  That idea goes for pipe bands as well. There are some fantastic compositions out there. They’re technical. They’ve got heaps of harmonies, however, you’ve still have to appeal to the demographic to which you’re playing. Judges are part of your audience.”

When asked how that sits with the ground breaking way Victoria Police influenced medley construction, Ian believes that it is about keeping the interest of the judges.  “Medleys sometimes have too much going on, too many harmonies and too much for the judge to absorb.  Keep it simple. Select tunes that work well together, have some new music within the medley, but it has to work with the whole of the medley.”

The most successful music changes your perspective without you truly knowing it.  This could be said for much of the music that came made up Murray Blair’s “Philharmonic” collection from the 90’s. It was cutting edge composition, game changing even, but never seemed to overpower the traditional nature of the music and the use of the scale and balance.  The tunes still work within the context of a medley.

You can see this in the fact that these tunes still appear in many medleys alongside very traditional strathspey and reel combinations.

Like most great pipers, Ian has had many influences on both his Band and Solo careers.  “In Northern Ireland, early on in my playing career, it was very much dominated by Bands and Light Music Solos. I joined the RUC Pipe Band as a teenager and was competing at the Junior level in solos but only light music. I got my first Piobaireachd from my father, but it was more a case of “learn the music and figure it out”.  He’d sing me the tune and answer questions about the music, but it wasn’t until I travelled to Canada with 78th Fraser Highlanders and stayed with John Cairns that I discovered how the Canadian guys were “engulfed” by the Solo scene, which occurred on the same day as the pipe band contests.  I wasn’t really keen on it from the start, but the opportunity to learn from John was too good to pass up.  Once I started to compete, especially at Maxville with MSR’s, there was an expectation that I’d play in the Gold Medal.  I didn’t move through the ranks, as you would say in the RU Brown Piobaireachd contest in Adelaide, Bronze through to Gold medal.

The work ethic required to master set lists is well documented.  The strength of competition in Canada also provided a clear delineation of what was required.  Even before the “hands-on” mentoring of John Cairns and the inspiration and discussion with Bill Livingstone, Ian had the drive and work ethic required to succeed.  Formidable for their record, work ethic and their pursuit of excellence, these two stellar Canadians had a great influence on Ian’s development in both Piobaireachd and Pipe Band competition.

“John Cairns basically took me on as an adult learner when it came to Piobaireachd.  I set myself a goal in 2005. I’d give it 5 years, with a goal to play in Scotland at the major solo contests.  I believe I had the piping skills and the tone to take to John, the interpretation of the music came from John.”

Advice for young pipers comes from all corners of the piping world. Much of it polarises opinion. Much of it misses out on a very important point.

“The main thing I was encouraged to do by my father was not be afraid of your pipes.  So many players learn how to play. That’s it.  While they play very well, their Pipe Major tunes their drones, they play, they go home.  I think it’s really important to experiment with your pipes. Work your own reed, mess with it, carve and file it until you break it. Many pipers ‘think” they know how their pipe works. Take your pipes apart, learn how they work. Experiment.  In judging, I find that so many pipers present with pipes that are in tune, but their drones are merely a constant in the background.  The quality is not there because they haven’t spent time discovering the difference between acceptable reeds and very good reeds. Therefore, they have missed out on the ability to create a really good balance between chanter and drones and broad, vibrant harmonics.  You learn this through experimentation and discovery.”

Ian is in strong demand as a judge, tutor and recitalist in Victoria, but also Australia-wide and in New Zealand.  He has been a key member of the Victorian Pipers Association, raising the profile and quality of solo piping in Victoria.

“When the VPA started 8 years ago, we only had 2 or 3 people playing Piobaireachd. Now we have almost 20, from adult learners and young novices, up to A Grade players.  I don’t see myself as an expert teacher of Piobaireachd. I see myself as someone who can give a piper a good start, someone who has competed at a relatively good level and teach what I’ve been taught.  Not many people teach Piobaireachd in Victoria, so if I didn’t do it, the opportunity would not be there for others to experience it. Hopefully, this will continue and the enthusiasm will grow, going further a field to develop their skill and passion for the music.  The more enthusiasm there is, the greater the opportunity to run seminars throughout the state, to bring out the top teachers.  The resources are also there through CD’s, the Internet and SKYPE to assist the learner in their education.

Solid preparation for any competition is a key feature of Ian’s life in piping. “Practice for me is a continual thing. I don’t actually look at it as “practice time”.

Working towards a World Championship I see my “practice” as anything up to 6 or 7 hours a day, whether it’s playing at work, playing after work at home, on the chanter or singing through the tunes. It’s all part of it. Getting on the pipes is part of the conditioning that you do. Many people say ‘Practice makes perfect’.  I believe Bill Livingstone says it more accurately: ‘Practice makes permanent’. To me, when you’re trying to compete at a certain level, you can’t kid yourself. The preparation has to be there.”

Ian credits his wife, Rebecca, with providing him with a key to his successful remote preparation for any Worlds campaign.  “From a really young age I’ve had a vivid imagination about my playing.  I’ve learnt how to copy how other players play whether it be through mimicking recordings or from within the circle.  It’s like cloning. I’ve only ever had to make a few minor adjustments to fit in.  With Field Marshal, and like 78th Fraser, I always imagined playing with the band.  I always practised as if I was playing in a performance.  I would tune up, get my pipes going and visualised Bill Livingstone or Richard Parkes in front of me.  So when it actually came up to playing with the band, I had already been playing with the band for months, albeit in my own lounge.  I’d been through so many performances even before I’d set foot on the plane.  It had to feel natural.”

Ian uses the technique Rebecca calls ‘White Lighting’.  “In the weeks before the performance, but especially the night before, you visualise ‘The Perfect Performance’, imagining it as being surrounded by a bright white light. This represents the perfect execution of the performance. On the day, feeling and remembering the bright white light becomes the trigger for that same ‘Perfect Performance’ you have rehearsed and practised up to the day.

So, what does the future hold for Ian Lyons? The “Moose” and "Bagpiper" brands are gaining extreme popularity and a reputation for excellence in design and performance across the piping world. The Victorian Pipers Association, of which Ian is a key judge, organiser and Players Committee Chairman, is going from strength to strength.  He continues to have success with his Grade 2 band, Moorabbin City Pipe Band, recently attaining a clean sweep in the first contest of the season.  Rebecca runs one of the most successful Piping and Dancing supply businesses in Australasia.  His daughter Shoshanna regularly places well in Highland dancing, regardless of in which hemisphere she competes.  Zeb, the latest Piping Lyons has just moved onto the pipes.

“Deep down I am a Pipe Bands man. Having played with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Victoria Police, 78th Fraser Highlanders and now with Field Marshal for the third year in a row, the desire is still there. I’m addicted to the Worlds. It’s the Olympics of Piping.  Last year was my 22nd Grade 1 World championship and I’ll keep doing it… until I can’t.”

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