John Cantrell: Preserving the Call of the Highlands

Published 10:05 pm Thursday, December 31, 2015

Written by Vincent Verrecchio

Photos by Vincent Verrecchio and submitted


A freshman from Polk County High School has been seen playing piobaireachd and ceol beag. Fourteen-year-old John Cantrell has been noted in a Veteran’s Day parade in Columbus, in a glen below Grandfather Mountain, at a Polk County Commissioners’ meeting, and at other events and locations as distant as Stone Mountain in Georgia, and Ontario. And, he not only plays piobaireachd and ceol beag, he knows how to pronounce these types of bagpipe music and explain in detail what they mean and how they differ.



After three years of piano lessons, John at age nine, decided to switch instruments. He could have emulated his dad George who has talent with the tin whistle, flute, and harmonica, or followed exclusively in the footsteps of his grandfather Glenn, a guitar player and teacher.


“On Sunday, I would listen to Celtic music on the radio with my dad,” recalls John. ‘I really liked what Fiona Ritchie played on her show and wanted to learn the bagpipes.”


An interesting and bold choice, since there is nothing simple or straightforward about bagpipes. It seems that complexity, disputation, and contradiction are bred into the instrument and its playing. The music is equally capable pf producing goose bumps or grimaces, inspiration or intimidation, depending on the ear of the listener. A 16th century Scottish poem tells of “hieland pipes” and their “shraichs of deadlie clarions.” In 1746, Great Britain proscribed bagpipes as weapons of war because of their power to inflame rebellious Scots while terrifying English troops. The author Israel Zangwell in 1907 described, “the skirl of bagpipes…that exotic, half-barbarous sound.” Alfred Hitchcock thought that the squeal of a squeezed asthmatic pig was more pleasant.


But on the other hand, the best selling instrumental recording in the UK is the pipe version of “Amazing Grace” played by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1970. And, as John played “Amazing Grace” at a recent local funeral, one of the mourners confided to George and Glenn, “I hope John continues…that music makes me feel closer to God.”


John explains that the Great Highland bagpipe is officially classified as a double-reed woodwind similar to the bassoon and oboe. True to its complex and contrary nature, however, the bagpipe is actually a five reed instrument with a double cane reed in the chanter—the flute like section with fingering holes—and three synthetic reeds, one each in the large bass drone and two tenor drones.


“The sound vibrations from all of the reeds make the music, but the most important parts for melody and tune are the chanter and the chanter reed. I buy a box of five or ten chanter reeds, test each, and keep only the one that sounds best.”


According to John, the hardest part of learning and playing is wind and steadiness. He talks about lungpower for keeping the bag inflated, and timing inhalations and exhalation with squeezing and releasing the bag. His Dad recalls with a chuckle that when John first tried filling the bag, “He turned red and I thought he’d pass out. When he finally got sound, the dog ran outside.”


John typically practices using only the more muted practice chanter. The sound level is close to a flute. His father remembers saying many times, “John, it’s 11:30, go to bed.”


When practicing the full pipes while the family is at home, John is outside on the porch where the decibel level can reach that of a pneumatic drill. No surprise then, that pipes were used to signal and summon over the din of battlefields. When practicing alone indoors, John wears ear protection against decibel levels as high as a chainsaw.


“Fingering and learning the tunes are easier,” says John. George, his dad, remembers betting John that he could not play 20 songs in a row from memory. To George’s amazement and pride, John won.


“You have to play a piobaireachd and a ceol beag from memory in competition,” John says. “At the Stone Mountain Highland games in 2013, my first competition, my piobaireachd was the 10-minute ‘Glengarry’s Lament.’ When I play I can see the music scrolling before me.”


Glenn proudly elaborates, “Twelve years old and he won silver medals for both of his pieces in the 17 and under class. The following year he won two golds and was recognized as AGL…playing Above Grade Level.”


John explains that the Gaelic pronunciation for piobaireachd is pib-brock. “This is a more classical form of pipe music composed of a ground of melody and theme notes that are carried through variations with increasingly complex embellishments of crunluaths and taorluaths.” The “th” is silent in both. Ceol beag is pronounced “keel big” and means “little music” that includes more accessible and popular dances, marches, reels, and tunes such as “Amazing Grace.”


“All credit goes to God,” says John who has been blessed to have world-class teachers within driving distance for his family. He currently takes lessons once a week in Brevard from Sandy Jones, former Pipe Major of the U.S Air Force Band, recognized as having played at JFK’s funeral procession.


Backed with lessons, practice and more practice, annual attendance at the North American Academy of Piping and Drumming since 2011, and the experience of many public performances, John competed at the 2015 Glengarry Games in Ontario, Canada.


The class ranking system was unexpectedly different and not based on age, so John found himself competing against a few gray-haired pipers who had been there before. “You play the theme reasonably well,” wrote one judge, “But your drones were off.” John did not place. Glenn asked if he had been distracted by the nearby gunfire of the French and Indian War Reenactment or the passing freight train. Glenn recalls that John responded, “What train?”


The young man’s current thinking on not placing was that there were many talented, very determined pipers. “A great learning experience. Next time, I will just have to out-determine them,” he says with a confident smile before “striking in” to play and transport me with his haunting call of the Highlands.


The Piper Uniform
The Piper: John wears the Tartan kilt and hose flash of his MacDonald ancestors, the largest clan of Scotland. (Photo by Vincent Verrecchio)

Banjo on porch
In addition to the bagpipe, John follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, Glenn Cantrell, playing the banjo, guitar, and mandolin. (Photo submitted by Glenn Cantrell)

John takes weekly lessons from Sandy Jones, former Pipe Major of the U.S. Air Force Band who wrote the lesson book used by John’s first teacher, Ken Swinton. Mr. Swinton, former Pipe Major of the Piedmont Highlanders Bagpipe Band, passed away tragically from cancer in 2011, never worrying John with the reason for asking Sandy to take over instruction. (Photo submitted by Glenn Cantrell)

At only 14, John has already won silver and gold medals in competitions and has played at multiple public events such as the Veterans Day parade. (Photo by Claire Sachse)
According to John, the hardest part of learning and playing is lungpower and timing your breathing with squeezing the bag. (Photo by Vincent Verrecchio)

The Chanter
The most important parts of the bagpipe for melody and tune, according to John, are the chanter with nine finger holes and the cane double reed inside, similar to an oboe. (Photo by Vincent Verrecchio)