The sound of bagpipes and drums can normally be heard resounding through the streets of Yellowknife every Canada Day, across Back Bay during the summer beer barge festival, and in local pubs on St Patrick’s Day.
But during a pandemic in which people are discouraged from transmitting the virus through respiratory droplets, it’s challenging for musicians to play wind instruments.
Lori Clark, pipe major for the Northwest Territorial Pipe Band, has been playing with the group for around a decade. She said Covid-19 has impacted the band in many ways, including the loss of their regular indoor practice space.
“We couldn’t believe that we couldn’t get together and play instruments,” she said.
That also meant cancelling annual performances like Burns Night, the band’s biggest fundraiser. But Clark said the pandemic also gave them a chance to reset.
“I think that we’ve benefitted in some ways from having to cope with all the Covid restrictions. We’ve kind-of turned them into opportunities,” she said.
The pipe band found a novel way to keep practising: electric chanters that replicate the sound of bagpipes without blowing air. Every Tuesday night, the band gathers downstairs at the city’s Royal Canadian Legion to practise finger work while socially distancing and wearing masks.
Clark said they’re polishing up old songs, learning new tunes, and taking online lessons rather than bringing in a southern instructor.
“I think all of us have agreed that we’ve learned more taking those workshop lessons than we normally would in the sort-of blitz weekend that we usually do it in,” she said.
The band has turned to incentive programs like the 100 days of practice challenge to keep motivated. Clark said she has used the opportunity to get better at tuning her bagpipes rather than relying on more experienced players.
As the NWT band is small and recreational, Clark said its members have been lucky to keep practising. Across the world, she said, many competitive pipe bands have folded or gone on hiatus because of the pandemic.
Clark now looks forward to warmer weather when the band can play outdoors together using normal bagpipes.
“For us it’s not that dire … but we do definitely miss playing together,” she said.
“We’re not sure how that’s going to sound.”