Bagpiping Resume for John Eric Partanen
I have been piping now for over 60 years. My piping career began when I was as a Freshman at La Habra High School, La Habra, California. My first piping instructor was Mr. Bob Hart. Just after I was handed my first set of pipes, which were Pakistani, my Father changed jobs and went to work for Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California. So I handed back the Paki pipes, but Bob Hart let me keep the Paki practice chanter which I still have. Several months later my Father came across I fellow in the parking lot at Lockheed who was practicing on his practice chanter. This fellow was in the San Francisco Caledonian Pipe Band at the time and said I should come to the next band practice as P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay from Scotland would be there to begin instructing the band. Now while I was in the La Habra High School Pipe Band, one of the pipers brought in a 33 LP record: Scottish Bagpipes which featured P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay performing three solos for highland dancing. I thought after hearing these recordings that I would love to be able to play pipes that well. And now, suddenly I had the opportunity to meet this man. This was in 1957 and I was just 14 years old. I dug out my Paki practice chanter and practiced, and practiced, and practiced for the next week. When I met Donald for the first time I stumbled through Scotland the Brave as best I could. Donald smiled, and then showed me how to do a Low A Taorluath. I was to work just on that movement, nothing else, until he got back to me. When Donald came back around to me he asked me to play the Low A Taorluath, which I managed to do slowly, and with the big low G’s he wanted, correctly. Donald gave me that famous rosy cheeked smile of his and asked if I wanted to take lessons. Well of course I did. Donald turned to my Dad and told him where and when I should be for lessons, and then instructed me to work on nothing else but the Low A Taorluath until he saw me again. And so, my lessons with Donald began in 1957. I’ve written a jig entitled “Lessons with Donald”, a copy of which is enclosed. The only other person with a copy of this tune, until now is Martha Yates, a piper with the MacIntosh Pipe Band who also had lessons from Donald.
In 1959 I was initiated into the San Francisco Caledonian Pipe Band. Some of the pipers in the band at that time included Vic Biswell, Charles Dawson, Ozzie Reid, Calvin Biggar, Bruce Flood, and bunch more whose names I can not remember. Two other young pupils Donald had were also initiated: Curtis Sisco and Mike Averal. Our initiation was a solo performance of an MSR: Lady Elsbeth Campbell, Donnie Ferry, and Duncan Lamont. In April 1959 Donald announced that he would take a band comprised of the best eight pipers and the existing drum section to Scotland to compete in the World Pipe Band Championships. All the pipers would perform Lady Elsbeth Campbell, Donnie Ferry, and Duncan Lamont in a competition to gain a slot in the competition band. I turned in a performance that won me a slot. A great number of other pipers did not win a slot. Those pipers made an appeal to the Caledonian Club of San Francisco. The Caledoinan Club called Donald in to include member pipers from the club. Donald wouldn’t budge: Eight pipers only and he had already determined who those eight pipers were. The Caledonian Club withdrew its support. This divided the band. The eight pipers, including myself, and the best of the drum section formed the City of San Francisco Pipe Band in 1959, a Grade I pipe band. Donald, withdrew, but continued to teach his students, I among them. In 1959 the City of San Francisco Pipe Band competed in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Petaluma. We were second to the Highland Society Pipe band headed up by Jimmy MacColl, and managed to squeak by the Los Angeles Pipe Band headed up by Jimmy Thompson. The Canadians up in Seattle cleaned our clock, but Curtis Sisco, Mike Averal and I competed in our first Novice piping competitions. I was first in the 2/4 March and second in the Strathspey and Reel and won the Novice aggregate cup. Curtis Sisco and Mike Averal were right behind me, and together we managed to shut out all the Canadian novice pipers. Donald was very pleased with all three of us. For the contests in Petaluma that year I had to compete in the Amateur Class and won no prizes, but the judges were pipers I had out performed that evening Donald had chosen his eight best pipers. The same was true for my second season as an amateur piper. Those guys weren’t going to give me a prize: They were going to “teach me a lesson”. In 1960, then the P/M of the City of San Francisco Pipe Band appointed me as the Pipe Corporal. Also in in 1960 Donald returned to Scotland, but we continued to exchange tape recordings, and so my lessons with Donald continued.
In 1961 I graduated from High School, and my senior trip included four weeks in Scotland. Donald met me at the airport, and off we went to his house. Donald had been telling me I should compete in Scotland, and I was prepared. Over a glass of scotch, Glen Grant as I recall, he informed me that I had to compete in the Open or Professional Class as I was not from Scotland. I told Donald I wasn’t prepared for that, but he told me I would do just fine, and poured me another shot I guess because he thought I looked like I needed it. So off we went in a couple of days to Airth, Southwest of Glasgow. Some of my competitors were Jimmy Young, John Burgess, Seamus MacNiell, and John MacFadgyen. In the pouring rain I managed to keep my drones going and my fingers from slipping off the chanter and took a fourth prize in Strathspey and Reel. I won ten shillings. Donald, standing at the edge of the beer tent was beaming. All the prize winners pooled our earnings and managed to buy a round for ourselves and all the other competitors that day. That’s how it was in those days in Scotland: camaraderie at its best. The rest of the contests that summer were tough, but I managed another fourth place in the jig contest at Arasig, again in the pouring rain. And so, in 1961, at the age of 18, with only four years of piping experience began my professional piping career.
I returned to the Bay Area in 1961 in time to compete at Petaluma in the professional piping contests. My entry was not welcomed by some of the local professional pipers who had previously been judging me in the amateur class. I placed ahead of them, and this did not make them very happy and made very unpopular with these competitors. Playing well does not always make you win friends, and tends to make enemies.
I continued to play as the Pipe Corporal for the City of San Francisco Pipe Band until 1963. That year Vic Biswell graduated from college and took a job in Eureka, California. This left Charlie Dawson as the Pipe Major, and myself as the Pipe Sergeant. Charlie did not want to be the Pipe Major, so we had a meeting and decided to begin a search for a Pipe Major. We began courting Jimmy Yardley. When Jimmy Yardley agreed, the band brought him and his family down to San Francisco from Powell River, B.C.. We got Jimmy a job, rented a house for his family and paid off his debts at the Powell River Company Store. But then, Jimmy Yardley demanded a salary which was not in the original agreement. The band said ‘No”. So did Jimmy Yardley. The band appointed me then as “Acting Pipe Major” until we could find another piper to be the Pipe Major. This was early 1964 when all this took place. I managed to hold the band together, with help from some really good players: Bill Merriman, John Paterson, and Willie MacEarland, along with Jack Sutherland and Jerry Golanty. When I learned that Donald shaw Ramsay was coming back to San Francisco I was determined to recruit him as our new Pipe Major. About the same time Vic Biswell informed us that he would be coming back to the Bay Area and would play with us but not be an official in the band. It was June 1964 and the band was having two practices a week to prepare for the band contests in Southern California. On one of the Sunday afternoon practices in San Rafael, California, Donald Shaw Ramsay showed up with his family. I was having trouble getting things “tight” that day. Donald called me over a couple of times and offered me some hints. They helped, but not enough. I was beginning to wonder if we should go on down to Los Angeles, but then Donald stepped into the circle with his pipes. “Here’s what you should do,” he said striking up his pipes and demonstrating the set for us. Then he turned to me and said, “Play it with me John,” which I did. Donald went round the circle and had all the other pipers play the set with him, and in minutes,…minutes,… we were a pipe section. Then Donald called the drum section over, and we were no longer a struggling pipe band,… we were a Grade I pipe Band.
Jimmy Yardley found out what had happened and at the next Wednesday evening practice he showed up and announced he was going to be the Pipe Sergeant. “No you’re not,” said Donald: “John Partanen will be my Pipe Sergeant.” The Drum Section and Bill Merriman ran after Jimmy Yardley and convinced him to come back. That summer we were awesome! It was a small pipe section: Donald Ramsay, myself, Jimmy Yardley, Vic Biswell, Bill Merriman, Charles Dawson, and one of Vic Biswell’s former students, John Pierce: Just seven of us. The Drum section, near as I can remember, was George MacKay on Bass, Jack Sutherland and another fellow whose name I cannot remember on tenors, John Paterson as lead tip, Willie MacEarland, and Jerry Golanty on snare. This drum section was just simply awesome as well. Every contest we went to that year, and there were only three: Los Angeles, Redwood City, and Santa Rosa, we blew everyone away. We should have gone to the World’s that year; we might have won, or at least been in the top four. But alas: No money! And alas, good things never seem to last. In early 1965 Donald was offered the opportunity to go back to Scotland as the Pipe Major of the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band. After Donald left, Jimmy Yardley was elected Pipe Major of the City of San Francisco Pipe Band, and Jimmy picked Bill Merriman to be his Pipe Sergeant. I continued to play with the band until January 1967 when I graduated from San Francisco State College with a commission in the U. S. Air force and left the Bay Area on active duty. During those years from 1959 to 1967 I was privileged to play in one of the finest pipe sections, and with some of the finest musicians in our art, at the time, anywhere in the world. I learned so much from all of these fine gentlemen. I wish I could back in time and stay there and play pipes with these men forever.
Of special interest in 1963, the three major bands in California: the City of San Francisco Pipe Band, The Highland Society of Los Angeles Pipe Band, and the Los Angeles Scottish Pipe Band decided to form a pipe band association. Over a few months drafts of proposed bylaws and contest rules were exchanged. The City of San Francisco Pipe Band manager,, Mr. Irwin Phillips, the Drum Major of the City of San Francisco Pipe Band, Mr. Glen Smith, Mr. Jerry Golanty who shared office space with Mr. Phillis, and I would get together over tea at Irwin’s offices on Taraval Street in San Francisco and go over the drafts from the two bands from the South and draft our suggestions until all three bands agreed. From this agreement the Pacific Coast Pipe Band Association was founded, which later evolved into the Western United States Pipe Band Association. I am therefore one of the few living original founders of the Western United States Pipe Band Association.
From 1961 to 1967 I was also competing professionally and doing pretty good. But Jimmy MacColl and Jimmy Yardley kept taking all the first and seconds leaving me with the third places. I think I got Jimmy Yardley one time in a Strathspey and Reel contest, but could not catch Jimmy MacColl. I was also recruited as the piping instructor for the San Francisco Boy Scout Pipe Band. Jack Sutherland and Jerry Golanty were already working with the Scout band drum section. Between the three of us, and the pipe section being comprised of young pipers like Rueben Santos, Ian Kelly, Hugh Kelly, and Ken Briggs this pipe band began winning contests everywhere it went. When I got my orders from the Air Force I managed to talk Bill Merrimen into taking my place as the piping instructor for the Scout band. Bill did a great job. From the Scout band was born the Prince Charles Pipe Band, and later from Prince Charles the Culloden Moor Pipe Band. But Bill Merriman can tell you all more about these bands than I can.
The six years or so I was in the Air Force I was not active with any bands. Duty kept me from contests, but I continued to play. I have some rather interesting photos of me in “full battle dress” piping a company of base defense forces around Tan San Nuet Air Base just outside what was then Saigon, Vietnam. That was fun, but also serious business especially when the base was rocketed during one of the infamous North Vietnamese Tet Offensives. I guess then, that I am one of the few American pipers that has actually played pipes in uniform under enemy fire.
In 1975 I was out of the Air Force and had settled in San Bernardino, California. There I began teaching pipes again, and not long after started a pipe band. We were known first as the City of San Bernardino Pipe Band, but later became known as the Gordon Greys. I left San Bernardino and moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1978. The remnants of the Gordon Greys later became the foundation under a young piper named Kevin Blandford for the R.P. Blandford and Sons Pipe Band of Redlands, California. I was Kevin Blandford’s first Pipe Major.
From 1978 to 1979 I was Pipe Major of the Argyll Pipe Band in Phoenix, Arizona. One evening after practice I announced that the Drum Sergeant’s girl friend, a very good tenor drummer was , “in the band”. This divided the band. Some members insisted there could be no females in a pipe band. I told them this was 1979, not 1879, and that she was “in”. Some players left. Chris Hossack can be contacted to verify this story. Fritz Hoffman was also there that night as I was trying to recruit him as a piper in the band. After that night, what was left of the Argyll Pipe Band became known as the White Cockade Pipe Band, and since we had all the good talent, we managed to maintain our status as a Grade III pipe band in the WUSPBA. I left Arizona for the Bay Area in 1981. Chris Hossack took over the band, and the band’s name was changed to the City of Mesa Caledonian Pipe Band. I played with Chris’s band in 1983-1984 before moving to Salt Lake City. I also played with the Mesa Caledonian Pipe Band again in 1997 to 2000.
While in Salt Lake City, Utah, I played a short time with the Utah Pipe Band. Andrew Morrill was Pipe Major of this band at the time. Andrew and I had an unfortunate falling out. So I investigated maybe playing with the Salt Lake Scots. The hypno-therapy sessions and being asked not to use my old set of Lawries but a set of Gibsons was too much for me. When they asked me to play Gibsons I asked them, “What would you have me do with the Lawries?” “Give them to a student piper to play,” was their answer. They wanted me to give a $10,000.00 set of pipes to a student to play! So I put out a call for pipers and drummers to form a new band, and pipers and drummers showed up. We were trying to come up with a name for the new pipe band after a few weeks, and one of the members of one of the other two bands remarked we were all a bunch of black sheep, and that then became the name of the new band; A’ Caora Dubh; The Black Sheep in Gaelic. I was Pipe Major of this Grade IV band from 1992 to 1995 when work again took me away from the area. A’ Caora Dubh did not survive my sudden departure.
The summer of 1995 I was in Alberta, Canada working in Calgary and Edmonton. I competed in solo contests while I was up there taking two third places and a fourth place in Open Piobaireachd. I was fourth and fifth in the Ceol Beag contests.
In late 1995 I moved to Santa Maria, California, and I began teaching pipes again. Some of my students included Paul Dunn and Fred Payne. In 1998 I formed what is still known as the Central Coast Pipes and Drums, a “street band” headquartered in San Luis Obispo, California. Another good player that emerged from this band was Bob Lund who currently plays with the Irish Pipers of San Francisco.
In 1999 work forced me to move again, this time to Bakersfield, California. I have been in Bakersfield since, except for one year, 2005, I was in Cheyene, Wyoming. Cheyene was a big mistake, and very cold, but that’s another story. In 2003- 2004 I was the Pipe Major of the Stainislaus County Sherriff’s Pipe Band, a Grade IV band headquartered in Modesto, California. When the band manager of this band took a job in Tucson, Arizona, this band “evaporated”.
In 1999 I wrote The Lament for Princess Diana which gained me some international notoriety. I was invited to join the Piobarieachd Society in Scotland, and sponsored in by the late Angus Macdonald, Jimmy Young, and Dougald MacNiel. This lament may be heard on a recording, “First Impressions” by the Mesa Caledonian Pipe Band released in 1999. This tune was published in the Piping Times in 2000. Also in 1999 I put out my first C D, “Good Stuff”, followed by a second recording “Armed and Dangerous” with my old friend Mr. Iain Sherwood.
In 2000 I completed the “Shadow Judging” requirements established by the WUSPBA. I “shadowed” solo piping contests in San Diego with Dougald MacNiel from the College of Piping in Glasgow, Scotland. At Monterey I “shadowed” band piping on one day, and band ensemble the next. Jammie Troy, formerly with the City of Victoria Pipe Band, Victoria, B. C. evaluated my score sheets in Monterey. At Pleasanton I “shadowed” again, band piping on Saturday, and band ensemble on Sunday. Gavin Stoddard, former Pipe Major and Director of the Army School of Piping in Edinburgh, Scotland evaluated my score sheets in Pleasanton. Robert Hackney, Pipe Major of the Nicholson Pipe Band also “shadowed” with me at all these contests. In October 2006 I “shadowed” the Grade I Piobaireachd at the Angus Macdonald Memorial Contest with Jimmy MacColl as the judge and evaluator of my score sheets. I am currently on the “A” list for Ceol Beag, or light music, and for Ceol Mor, or Piobaireachd. I am on the “B” list for band piping and ensemble with the WUSPBA.
In 2004, while attending the 100th Anniversary of the Piobaireachd Society, I sat for the exams at the College of Piping in Glasgow, Scotland and gained my Senior Certificate from the College of Piping and the Piping Institute. I was also given the great honor of being asked to perform at the Piobaireachd Society 100th Anniversary Formal Dinner. My tune was Sir Ewin Cameron of Lochiel’s Salute. Sir Ewen Cameron was known for taking a “big bite”, so it seemed to me that the tune was appropriate during the dinner.
At the WUSPBA Annual Meeting in 2006 I was asked to revive the Southern Branch of the WUSPBA which had been inactive for over a year following the death of Kevin Blandford. This was a difficult undertaking as all records for the Southern Branch could not be found. I did manage to locate the bank account with the help of the Treasurer of the WUSPBA and gain those funds and open a new account. New Bylaws were required which I wrote and had ratified by the Southern Branch membership on February 17, 2007. Also at the Southern Branch meeting called for on February 17, 2007 I was elected President of the Southern Branch. While I was President of the Southern Branch the branch supported three piping and drumming schools; two in Southern California, and one in Northern Arizona. Scholarships for members of the Southern Branch were offered to attend these three schools. The Southern Branch supported the Angus Macdonald piping contest and the Harry Moore piping contests. The practice of handing out annual awards to the branch champions for piping, drumming, pipe bands, and drum majors was re-initiated. The Southern Branch always had a designated representative at each contest held within the Southern Branch geographical area, and at many of these contests the Southern Branch had a pop-up erected for the representative. From 2006 to 2011, the Southern Branch became the most active of the branches within the WUSPBA under my Presidency.
In 2011 I was appointed the Piping Education Commissioner by Jeff Mann, then the President of the WUSPBA. While in this position I developed three certificate programs similar to the piping certificate programs offered by the College of Piping and Piping Institute, but specifically to address the needs and skill levels of members of the WUSPBA. The three certificate programs were for Ceol Beag or light music, Ceol Mor or Piobareachd, and for Canntaireachd. In 2015 the President of the WUSPBA, at the time Andrew Morrill, informed me that the piping education program and position had been deleted by the WUSPBA.
In 2013 I founded the Kern County Pipe Band headquartered in Tehachapi, California. The Kern County Pipe Band is comprised of local pipers and drummers from the Bakersfield, California and Tehachapi, California area. The band, and I teach and assist the Highland High School Pipe Band from Bakersfield, California. We are also instructing the Bakersfield Fire Department Pipe Band. The Kern County Pipe Band is a Grade V pipe band currently comprised of 10 pipers, 3 snare drummers, 1 tenor drummers, a bass drummer and a Drum Major. The Kern County Pipe Band proudly wears the Black Watch Tartan.
For nearly 60 years I’ve won and lost more professional solo contests than I care to remember. I grew up in a Grade I pipe band back in the 60’s when Grade I bands had to have three MSR’s and before the medley event my former instructor, Donald Shaw Ramsay, invented while with the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band. I have formed and been Pipe Major of five pipe bands four of which continue to this day. I have played with 10 pipe bands: One a Grade I pipe band, one a Grade III pipe band, and eight Grade IV and Grade V pipe bands. I’ve taught more people to play pipes correctly than I can remember. I currently have two YOUTUBE instructional video series: One for beginners and one for Piobaieachd: I help hundreds of pipers around the world to learn how to play pipes correctly. In 1976 I wrote my own beginner’s tutor, based on the methods used by Donald Shaw Ramsay to teach me piping. In 2003 I completed an advanced tutor for Piobaireachd including Canntaireachd. I’ve helped more people to appreciate pipe music and pipe bands than can be numbered, and I continue with this to this day. At most of my professional contests, and with Piobaireachd in particular, I make it a point to inform the audience of the history, or story behind the tunes I’m about to perform. I still compete professionally and plan to do so until at least 2021 when I will have been competing professionally for 60 years. So many good tunes: So few years!