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  • Writer's pictureDiocese of WNC

Fifty Years and Counting: NAAPD International Music Organization has its Home in the High Country

By Keith Martin

Those of us who live, work, play, worship, shop, or visit Valle Crucis on a frequent basis know that summer has finally arrived in the High Country when the sound of bagpipes fills the air and the precision beat of drummers can be heard throughout the valley. It can mean only one thing: the North American Academy of Piping and Drumming (NAAPD) has come home for the summer.

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, this annual pilgrimage to the sacred grounds of the Valle Crucis Conference Center (VCCC) has brought as many as 311 musicians together for a month-long residency during which the NAAPD provides, “the finest quality piping and drumming instruction available.”

July 19, 2020 marks the exact 50th Anniversary of this international non-profit music school, which was started by the late John McFayden of Glasgow, Scotland, and his former student, Pipe Major Norval "Sandy" Jones in 1970. Over a dozen professional teachers conduct five week-long sessions with classroom instruction on all aspects of piping and drumming. For the first seven summers, the NAAPD operated out of the Crossnore School near Lenoir before outgrowing their facilities and relocating to Valle Crucis in 1978; they have been at the Conference Center ever since, a span of 43 consecutive years.

VCCC Executive Director Margaret Love says, “Hosting the NAAPD is like having an extended family reunion every summer. There is a sense of ‘welcome home’ as each week's classes arrive. The bagpipe and drumming school connects us to the larger community, to a sense of heritage and history, and reminds us of our purpose as a ministry of hospitality. Plus, hearing pipes echoing across the hills is always tremendous.”

Sandy Jones and his Family Legacy:

Co-founder Norval "Sandy" Jones, Pipe Master Emeritus, is the director of the NAAPD and began piping at the age of eight under George Mars of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He served with the U.S. Air Force Pipe Band, and was its Pipe Major for eight years, often performed for Presidents, Heads of State, and dignitaries of foreign nations. Sandy continued his studies with Jack Chisolm of Inverness, Scotland and is the author of the book, “Beginning the Bagpipe: A Teaching Method for the Practice Chanter.” He travels throughout North America judging at highland games, conducting workshops, and performing at recitals.

Sandy retired from The Citadel in Charleston, SC where he taught bagpipes for twenty-five years, but is currently active with the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and the

Charleston Scottish Games. In 2017, Sandy was awarded the prestigious Balvenie Medal at the Glenfiddich Solo Piping Championship in Blair Atholl, Scotland.

He celebrates his birthday each summer at the VCCC, and will turn 82 on July 17, 2020.

Love says that “Sandy’s talent and teaching skills are unparalleled and celebrated around the world, but his quick, dry sense of humor and his strong sense of integrity are what make him stand out.”

“Sandy is not a tall man,” said Love, “and he is not loud unless he's piping, but he has a presence about him that calls people to attention. When he walks into a crowded room, cane clicking on the hardwood floor, noise tends to cease around him like ripples of silence. While his colleagues are not shy about joking with him, there is an unspoken understanding that Sandy is in charge. He has not hesitated to remove students who cross behavior lines - especially when it comes to bullying - and he has a very low tolerance for musicians who do not take the academy seriously.

“On the other hand,’ Love is quick to add, “Sandy has been known to support students who cannot afford to participate in the NAAPD, and students know that if they need anything at all, his door is open. He has a special sensitivity to younger students who are homesick. Sandy and his wife of 50-plus years, Dorcas, are one of those couples that set examples for love. Dorcas has a movie-star look about her; Sandy sometimes wonders aloud how she ended up with him.”

Their daughter, Cathleen Jones Nixon, is a Family Nurse Practitioner with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and serves as Administrative Director of the NAAPD. Cathleen is a renowned bagpiper in her own right and, keeping with family tradition, her son Cameron is an instructor at the music school. Nixon notes the close friendships that form among people who attend NAAPD. “When I was a teenager, I communicated throughout the year with friends I met at the piping school by writing letters, and we were excited to see each other at various Highland games throughout the summer.”

The current generation of students communicates with each other daily through texts, Snapchat, and social media, according to Nixon. “Different times, but still the same friendships form. Many people ask to room together each year in “their own” same room.”

Over the years, couples have met at NAAPD, fallen in love, and married. Sandy believes there have been at least twenty marriages over the years, including at least two weddings that have taken place at Valle Crucis. “My daughter, Amelia and her husband met at the piping school in when they were ages nine and ten. They were married in Bishop Johnson Hall in 2018 and had a wonderful ceilidh (Scottish party) in the Apple Barn.”

While other annual events such as “Singing on the Mountain” and the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain have been cancelled, the NAAPD is continuing their teaching tradition. According to Nixon, “This year, we are going to celebrate a half-century of the piping school and registrations started out like gangbusters! Then Covid-19 hit and registrations halted, but so far, we have 108 people signed up this summer,” with additional students registering up every week.

Love says that the VCCC staff “always look forward to hosting the pipers; some musicians have been visiting every summer since the school in 1970. The staff and the pipers have a great relationship; there are pranks pulled every year although those pranks have mellowed over time.” Nixon said that several of these pranks involved livestock, such as chickens, goats, and even a pig that was “gifted” to her father after Sandy told one group of women that their room was a pig sty at room inspection.

Sandy says that, “Being in residence at the Conference Center for piping school purposes merely means residing there, versus being a day student. However, it means many more things to the students. I have heard a few folks over the years mention they attend just for the opportunity sit on the porch and observe the beautiful valley. Others attend because they love the mountains of western North Carolina and would rather be in Valle Crucis than anywhere else.”

Jones notes that students who have attended NAAPD for several years have become friendly with folks in the Valle and enjoy coming back to see them. “The Valle and the mountains remind some of them of Scotland and they enjoy playing their pipes in that atmosphere,” he said. “One of the reasons they enjoy coming back each year is because they just enjoy how friendly folks in Valle Crucis have been to the piping school for so many years.”

When asked to explain how the NAAPD ended up at the VCCC, Sandy recalled meeting an elderly fellow at the Highland Games who asked how the school was doing. “After telling him of our dilemma (outgrowing the Crossnore School facilities), he introduced me to Welch Tester, then the director of the Conference Center… and the rest is history. Even better, the man who introduced us, Joe Mast Clark, had been raised in the valley and was a member of the Clan Cameron at the Games, which is also my Clan and the Tartan both Cathi and I wear. We began having the school at the Conference Center the very next summer in 1978.

“I cannot say enough about Margaret, past VCCC directors, and the employees of the Conference Center,” said Jones. “All of them have been so kind and personable to the students and many have made life-long friendships. I know Mildred Tester (the recently-retired 92 year-old cook after whom the VCCC Dining Hall is named) receives many notes, cards, and good wishes, and she in turn keeps in touch with several of them. I know there are people who attended years ago who bring family members and friends to see the place they remember so well, just like elderly folks do when showing where they attended school in their younger days.”

It’s all one big, happy, and very extended family. Happy 50th Anniversary to the North American Academy of Piping and Drumming, and welcome home to the High Country.

(Keith Martin is a member of Holy Cross, Valle Crucis and on the board of the Valle Crucis Conference Center. This story first appeared in Carolina Mountain Life magazine and is reprinted with permission.)


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