Talent and skill are two completely different things. Talent is a gift that you have been given. Skill is something that you have to earn, something that you sweat for and toil long hours for. Some have one or the other - the truly great have both.
For many pipers, a full and satisfying playing career may fit in between work and family and have highlights and lowlights, often in equal measure. For some it may be a Championship win, others might pen a tune that is played with gusto by their band mates, others might have the opportunity to travel a bit with their pipes and relive the memories and friendships made.
These achievements, or at least some of them, may encompass a lifetime of playing – or they might not.
Kyle Warren has achieved all of this and more. At 25, he has managed to fit more into his 15 years of piping than most fit into their whole life – and he’s not finished yet. Not by a long shot.
“I think I was about 8 when I started. It was just fun at that stage, when you’re that age, you look at what your parents are doing and want to do it too. My Dad, my Grand-dad and my Uncle all played, so it was a pretty easy choice for me. My Dad was stationed in Oman for about 5 years, teaching the Omani Navy Pipe Band and every year we’d go out with him for about two months. The Omani music that I heard over there was fantastic, the tune The Pearl Necklace still is a favourite of mine. I used to sing along with the tunes; but it’s funny, I never really thought it had an influence until I started writing. For a while there, it felt like every tune I wrote was in B-Minor. I played sport and I love football, but running was my thing. I was ranked nationally in the 100 and 200 meters in my age group and for a while did think about running seriously, but it occurred to me, ‘If I get an injury, that’s it, no career’. I realised there was more longevity in music.”
As much as it might seem that Kyle Warren is blessed with an enormous natural gift, an insane work ethic and maturity beyond his years; he himself is very clear that he has not done this on his own. Help comes, from many places and Kyle Warren wouldn’t be who he is without his father, his tutors, the RSAMD and the generous support of the Royal Caledonian Trust.
“I was very fortunate to be given a Scholarship through the Royal Caledonian Trust. The Trust makes available over 300 grants a year to the children of Scots who have served, or are serving, in the Armed Forces. The grant allowed me to get lessons at the National Piping Centre and later, in 2006, with additional funding from the Royal Caledonian Education Trust, I was offered a place at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Dance (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) to study for a Degree in Piping. This enabled me to concentrate solely on my studies at the RSAMD, and the NYPBOS, without the worry of having to work part time just to survive. It made my time at University really productive and helped me get the best results I could. If you have aspiration to achieve something in life whether it’s an art form, a profession or a trade, the Caledonian Trust has the potential to close the gap between what’s possible and what’s not. When I left University the relationship could have stopped, but they remain like a family to me, always there and for that I will always be grateful.”
James MacBain, CEO of The Royal Caledonian Education Trust has the utmost respect for Kyle Warren, “Despite his busy schedule, Kyle gives his time generously to the Royal Caledonian Education Trust performing at events and giving encouragement to other young people from military families who want to fulfil their educational potential, but don’t have the means to do so.” Kyle has recently been made the face of the Trusts fundraising campaign.
Kyle’s ability and his dedication was pushed early on in his career, when his father returned from Oman and took over the reigns of Clydebank and District Pipe Band. His own growth as a piper during that time led him to be made pipe sergeant.
“I was maybe 10 or 11, and on the pipes when Dad came back from Oman. He was looking for a local band for us to join, the father and son thing – have a wee tune. He joined Clydebank and District, and over the course of the next six months, he was asked to take over the band. It ended up becoming Lomond and Clyde Pipe Band. I was just starting to write a few tunes then, and really getting into my piping. One of the best things I got from that time was to actually see what went into being a pipe major. It’s funny, usually you go home from band practice and that’s it. You practice and you do what you’re told, but after band practice, you go home and don’t really think about the band, as such, until next practice. Seeing what Dad was trying to do with the band, to develop it and achieve things – it can be all consuming.”
Lomond and Clyde Pipe Band would have one of the few meteoric rises in pipe band history, going from Grade 4B to Grade 2 in 5 years.
“I didn’t really think about pipe bands in any way other than playing with Dad and having fun until then. That focus would come in handy when I started to pursue a position in Field Marshal Montgomery. It’s funny, these days, I think about FMM every day. It’s constant. First thought I have in the morning is - I have to put some air through my pipes.”
As the pipe sergeant of Lomond and Clyde, Kyle wrote some music for the band, but there was never really a plan to become a composer as such, or to take a specific musical path. That came later, with the RSAMD Degree course.
“From about 15, the music became my focus. The RSAMD course had really just started to take off and it seemed the ideal opportunity for me to expand my music. I worked on my grades, towards that goal of getting in to the RSMAD. Before the RSMAD, that sort of thing didn’t really exist. If you wanted a career in piping, it was pretty much through the Army and then in to teaching afterwards. When I applied for the course I didn’t have a Plan-B, it just kind of worked out for me. These days, having a degree from the Conservatoire is almost expected if you want to move into piping professionally. While most of my music came about when I was in Lomond & Clyde Pipe Band, some of it was written to extend the range and repertoire of the NYPBOS, so I wrote for us as well. Playing with FMM, my style of music doesn’t really fit the band, so I’ve kind of stopped. It’s only recently, with the travelling and the teaching that I’ve started a few wee tunes. We’ll see how it goes.”
When KRL approached Kyle to record an album, it was a great opportunity; and one that Kyle was not about to waste.
“I didn’t want to produce a pure solo piping album, that’s not what I’m about. The structure I was after was different, more a band album and Stevie Lawrence, the producer, supported that. On a few of the tracks, I cut the drones, which for purists might be a bit confronting, but we think it worked really well. It was definitely a band album, even though it’s just my name on the cover, and as such we didn’t want it to be music with just bagpipes dropped over the top, it had to be the whole package, so it would link together. That cutting of the drones supported the Middle Eastern / Eastern European feel right from the start.”
If the album Wanted and his tune book entitled Tunez is anything to go by, Kyle Warren’s capacity for turning out melodic, dynamic and individual music has barely been tapped. The A-Lister, Spice Island and Macpherson’s are stand out tunes from a brilliant first album. For me, these tunes are redolent with the music that Kyle experienced in Oman. The ability to capture an essence, a singularity, in a piece of music is the aim of any composer. To then be able to arrange and play it brilliantly is again a demonstration of both talent and skill.
This ability to bend and shape his music, while still keeping a capacity for the integrity of the competition field is a strength of Kyle’s playing. It shows in his performance, his recordings, in the part he takes with FMM and in his capacity as a teacher in summer schools all around the world.
“Our music is a obviously a large part of my life, but I have dance tunes and pop music on the iPod, just the same as anyone else. Chris Armstrong has been a huge influence on my playing and my writing, I remember listening to Extreme and thinking, ‘That is how I want to play’. From a complete musical perspective, I’d say Treacherous Orchestras’ Sheepskin and Beeswax is one of the most amazing openings. It’s not really folk - it’s completely different from everything. You sit back and wonder, ‘where did that come from?’ and I think a lot of how we relate and grow as musicians these days comes from Facebook and the whole social media thing. It works really well for piping. The positive aspects of social media have really broadened our horizons. All the different styles and opportunities around the world are open to you. Connections are easily made and music is easily shared and from that; friendships develop. Writing music for me is about more than just getting a tune: it’s about experimentation. Like a Hype-man in Rap (the guy who drops in a single word for the Rapper to work off) – taking an idea and letting it develop, appeals to me. Maybe using backing musicians to bring an idea into a piece of music, to improvise, to see what happens; that might be something I look at in the future.”
Kyle has an easy style about him, but also a maturity and breadth of experience that belies a piper twice his age. Is it his laid back attitude to his own talent that contrasts so sharply with his drive to succeed in the top level of competition? Kyle Warren loves the music, and seems effortlessly able to move between all of the idioms of piping. Middle Eastern riffs, Red Hot Chilli Piper interpretations, MSR expression and Breton drive. It’s a formidable combination, and one that he has used to develop as a piper.
“I went to the recording of the concert La Boum that Shotts did with Bagad Brieg when I was about 12, it was a phenomenal experience. I didn’t even know there were pipe bands in France, let alone pipe bands that did that! It’s funny, though. After that I went back to band practice in Scotland, the usual Tuesday and Thursday sessions, and didn’t think much more of it. It wasn’t until 2009 I went over to Lorient to play with Bagad Cap Caval. I’d become friends with Alexis Muenier who was also playing with Strathclyde Police. We went across on the Monday before the competition. Ali Henderson and Chris Gibb, who were competing at the Macallan competition, were there too. It was a brilliant week. Bagad Cap Caval are like the FMM of the Breton scene. It was a great intro to the Breton-style, playing great music and having your friends there as well. I had a great time.”
The competitions in Brittany are held in a football stadium, to a huge rock-concert type crowd. Kyle loved this experience, as he loves Breton music. There is a freedom in the music that comes out in his playing of Breton Air from his album.
“There are so many aspects of Breton piping that are attractive for a live audience, but also to you as a piper, as a musician. It was really refreshing to play in that style. With any piece, you might be playing, then playing drones only, then not playing – very different to a Scottish band. There might be a solo movement, then a duet, a quartet then you’re into a suite – lots of harmonies. You really have to be on the ball. Most of the pieces are 10 – 15 minutes of music. We were playing B flat chanters that year and the low-F they have with the Breton chanters is a brilliant sound. It’s still one of the highlights, musically, of my career, and playing in a stadium beats driving rain and a muddy field any day.”
You may find it quite incredible that Kyle is able to swap between all these different ideas of piping with ease, but then you realise that the 21st century professional piper is a graduate, usually with honours, of the Conservatoire of Scotland, is a composer and arranger of tunes, a multi instrumentalist and more often than not, very adept at managing and navigating the rocks and shoals of the music industry.
Even with all the skills and experience, it is strangely comforting that a piper of the quality of Kyle Warren also suffers from the same issues as most of us mortals - Finding enough time to practice.
“Practice… Hmm, I don't practice as much as I would like or should. Being so busy my time set aside for FMM is all the practice I do, really. Once you have the tunes off, sometimes there’s just the 20 minutes on pipes per day; just enough to keep them ticking over. Depending on what contest is coming up, I'll usually run both MSRs or both Medleys on the pipes. I’d like to do more, but like every one, life is busy. When you really want something, it becomes your entire focus, and when you have to, you make time. That’s when the long-term preparation comes in. You’d hope for it to be a constant, and it has to be as the competition season approaches. You can’t rely on talent alone; and skill takes years to develop.”
There is no doubt that talent and skill are different. The path to the top, of anywhere - sport, music, business, is often littered with talented people who didn’t reach their potential, or their goals. For Kyle Warren, the difference between talent and skill is simple: Talent can help you get to the top, skill is what keeps you there.
“Skill in my eyes is how to use all your varying attributes successfully. Using your strongest elements of what you do to support your weaker areas of your game (or your playing perhaps) to create an overall balance to achieve the ambition you have within your chosen field. That is skill.”
As a teacher, the skill of adjusting your expectations and style of teaching to match the students level is equally important. Kyle currently is a full time tutor with Dollar Academy, having success this year at the Worlds with both the junior bands securing top 6 results. He is also in great demand as a tutor at Summer Schools throughout Europe, America and Australia. It’s something that he enjoys, and gets a lot out of, but also something that challenges him.
“I am very much competition driven, but some of the bands I teach don’t compete at all. I find I have to adjust what I do, and help them adjust to what is needed as well. I find with some bands, their practice sessions will be more about a social chat and a coffee than getting into the practice groove. With one band, we were working on the chanters for an hour or so, and they wanted to have a coffee, while I wanted to get the pipes out. Then when I suggested, we look at the pipes for some maintenance, they’d like another break for coffee. It was a bit frustrating, but they still love the music and are a great bunch of guys - It was my expectations that needed adjusting. When you teach, you have to look at the expectations of the people you are teaching and match your methods to what they are capable of.
The desire to succeed is different for everyone, just as is the definition of success. Kyle looks at this for everyone he works with. Understanding what people want and how they define their success is essential to help people get the best out of a school; again talent and skill come to the fore.
“It's important to have talent, but talent is a variable. If something you want comes easy, or easier to you than others, you might miss out on the importance of working hard to achieve it: The struggle. I believe hard work, passion and determination are just as important as talent; sometimes more so.”
This skill, the skill he has developed through writing, performing, competing and teaching; has at its core a very important lesson and one not well known about Kyle. It is a lesson that comes from one of the hardest things we all have to do at some stage of our lives: Fail.
“I’ve not told many people this, but in hindsight, it’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me… I’ve not planned much in my piping, other than preparing to get into the RSAMD. Even then, I didn’t have a ‘Plan-B’. When I left Lomond and Clyde in 2008, I emailed Richard Parkes, to try out for FMM. FMM was my ultimate goal, it was the pinnacle in piping for me. I was coming home on the train from Uni when I received the call from Alistair Dunn. I didn’t make it. That felt like the longest hour on a train in my life as I held in my emotions till I got home, and I’m not ashamed to say when I got through the front door I cried. It was hard, really hard. It was the first, the only time I’d failed at something.”
Perhaps the best thing that can come from situations like these is the lesson itself. Failure is important… Kyle explains it well, not just from the positive of what occurred after, but from the heart of a 20 year old who, up until then, had never failed at anything.
“While it was tough, I realised that I still had that dream, that life ambition. I still wanted to play with FMM. I asked Richard what would be the best thing for me to do, to improve, to grow as a piper. His advice was simple: Get some Grade 1 experience. A lot of my friends were in Scottish Power, and I had such great respect for Chris Armstrong and the band, but I knew I’d feel too comfortable there. I think I knew immediately what the best thing was for me. I needed to be out of my comfort zone if I was going to get achieve my goal. I approached Don Bradford, Pipe Major of Strathclyde Police, and joined The Polis. I stood next to Don for that whole competition year. Strathclyde is a fantastic band and I learnt a huge amount from the band, and Don, at that time.”
It was almost at exactly the same time that the opportunity to play with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers came up; and this is where fate gives you some important lessons. If Kyle had got into FMM, he couldn’t have toured for almost 2 years with the Chilli’s, his path would have been different for that deviation.
“I’ve toured with the Chilli’s to America, Australia, Germany and Bahrain. We played a Virgin International launch in Barbados, staying in a 5 star hotel for five days before the gig, strawberry daiquiris for breakfast, that kind of thing… You don’t really expect this sort of lifestyle when you start piping, but it’s really fun when it happens – I really was living the dream. I was still playing with Strathclyde Police, and had a great and learned a lot. It was a big call to leave both the Chilli’s and the Polis, but my one lifelong piping ambition was to play with FMM - it was like, ‘I can’t do this in 20 years time, it has to be now’. I would’ve left the Chilli Pipers and gone and worked in a grocery store stacking shelves at midnight if it meant I could play with FMM under Richard Parkes. I was in Kansas at the time, with the Chilli’s when I got my chance to audition again for FMM, and this time, I felt I was ready.”
The decision to step up to Strathclyde Police worked for Kyle. When the opportunity came a second time, he was ready.
“I’d emailed Richard for the opportunity to audition, in October. It worked out perfectly. There’s no come-and-go with FMM, you’re either in or not. The commitment is to the band. So it fitted quite well initially with the Chilli’s, I played my first year with FMM, then had a quick tour in the off season with the Chilli’s, then the prepared for FMM in 2010. Now, the key is fitting the teaching and the schools in with the FMM, but FMM always comes first.”
The preparation for FMM is intense. In the off-season, the band has a chance to unwind, to clear the mind and relax. Come the first practice, though, whether in Northern Ireland or in Glasgow, the rules are the same - you hit the ground running. The players know the drill and come prepared. It’s an ethic Kyle appreciates and understands, especially when he lines up next to a guest player at The Worlds.
“I stood next to Ian Lyons this year at the Worlds, and it was awesome. He’s so solid. For guys like Ian and Robert Crozier to come in to a band like FMM just before The Worlds must feel like trying to catch an express train coming through a station at full throttle without the conductor knowing you’ve just jumped on board.”
The opportunities the best pipers get can be many and varied, and when they come, the best are always prepared – that is probably why they are at the top of the heap. Given the opportunity to play on the Disney-Pixar animated film Brave with Lorne MacDougall, Craig Munro, Kyle Howie and Willie Armstrong was an experience that Kyle loved.
“Recording some of the music for Brave was brilliant. I got an email from Lorne, and he asked me if I was free. I really didn’t know what it was all about until I got there, but it was a real eye opener. I took the train down to London and met up with the lads who were already working on the music, on the Friday. We went through the tunes and then the on Saturday, got down to business. Going into Air Lyndhurst Studios blew me away. The size of the studios, the way it all worked was fantastic. There was one desk for the audio, then another behind us for the animation. We were often playing to an animation screen, sometimes to a finished scene, other times to a basic animation. I met Patrick Doyle there, the Academy Award nominated composer who’s worked on Harry Potter, Hamlet, Thor and Planet of the Apes. My part was a strathspey, but the music wasn’t written as a strathspey, so he grabbed a pen and had me transpose it on the spot - really, really fast. He’s used to working with the best professional musicians; the guy records with the London Symphony Orchestra, so you have to be on your game. At the end, when Lorne had done his solo, Patrick got him to play for some sound effects. There was a scene where the men are climbing down the castle wall and as they hit the ground, Patrick wanted a few squeaks and squawks on the pipes. As all this is happening, Patrick is watching the screen, listening to the music, and watching us for our reactions… and we smiled. He stops and says, ‘I want to turn that smile into a laugh…. Play something to match the guys face as he pops up his head from behind the wall… much laughter.’
“It was great to be involved in something like that, to be a part of something that big. The voiceover artists were there as well, guys that we see on TV and in films, and they’re recording us with their phones, thinking we were cool. It’s great to see our instrument being respected musically, but also for it to be seen as fun. I think a lot of people, other than pipers, are taking our instrument more seriously now, and that can only be a good thing.”
Kyle Warren has it all. Success in the one of the best pipe bands in history, a talent for teaching that sees him in demand around the world, a fantastic first album and collection of tunes, a great adventure under his belt with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and an open road before him. It would be easy to be envious of him if he wasn’t such a nice guy.