Ursa Beckford discovered his future at age 6, in a car on the ride back from South Carolina to the family farm in Maine. He was traveling with his older brother, Simon, his mother, Julie, and father, Peter.
It had been two very long days spent cooped up in the car. Peter, a bagpiper proud of his Scottish heritage, let his sons play with the chanter from his pipes to help them pass the time.
“We were just blowing into it, making sounds with it,” said Beckford, now 16, of the chanter, the melody pipe on a set of bagpipes. “I don’t know what happened. I was hooked. It’s addictive.”
Ten years later, Beckford is one of only three Amateur Grade 1 pipers in Maine, and is close to attaining professional status — which would make him one of a select few professionals in New England. His wins at piping competitions are too numerous to list here.
He’s a member of the New York-based Grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band, one of only three bands at that level in the United States, and one of just 41 Grade 1 bands in the world.
Oran Mor performs every August at World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland. To raise money for his trip to Scotland, Beckford will perform with his longtime friend, keyboardist Brian Stewart, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 13, at the Maine Grind on Main Street in Ellsworth. Expect reels, tributes, laments and other traditional Scottish tunes, along with some special modern songs.
Standing in his kilt and grasping his burgundy red and black wooden bagpipes, Beckford doesn’t look like a 16-year-old kid: he looks concentrated, intense, like he might be ready to lead an army of Scottish warriors into battle. When he puts his pipes down, however, he’s every bit the intelligent, friendly teenager, home-schooled by his parents and living on a perennial-growing farm in Clifton. It was at the farm that Beckford first learned the basics of the bagpipes from his father.
“In the first year, all a new player does is just practice on the chanter,” he said. “You just learn the melody. Then you start using the bag, and learning how to get a consistent sound for 10, 20 seconds. It’s hard. There’s a lot of coordination. You’ve got to make a nice, smooth sound, as opposed to a wavering kind of sound.”
Once Beckford got the hang of it, he began to study with other pipers, such as Donald F. Lindsay, a professional piper who eventually invited Beckford to join Oran Mor. In 2005, Beckford made his first trip to the Invermark College of Piping, held over a week in July in West Dover, Vt. In 2008, he went for the first time to Invermark’s school on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
Andrew Douglas, a professional piper, in 2008 founded the Piper’s Dojo, a bagpiping school in Albany, N.Y. Every month, Beckford takes the nine-hour bus ride from Bangor to Albany to attend the school, taking lessons and workshops from Douglas and from Lindsay.
“There are a lot of teenage kids that play the pipes in our band,” said Douglas, who also plays in Oran Mor. “But I think [Ursa is] definitely one of the best. He’s been a really valuable band player. He’s a much more intense student. That’s not to say others aren’t; he’s just very, very good and very focused.”
Beckford isn’t content to simply play traditional bagpipe tunes, however. A few years ago, he began experimenting.
“I’ve been adding grace notes and embellishments to it,” he said. “I’ve been trying to open up my playing so that all the notes are really clear and distinct.
I’ve been sliding my fingers off one note onto another, so I can actually get those kinds of blues notes on a bagpipe. It’s really cool.”
At Tuesday’s concert, Beckford will perform one of his favorite compositions: his take on AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” which, as fans of the band will know, starts out with a bagpipe solo. Beckford takes it to the next level, however, starting out with the original bagpipe tune before turning it into an all-out rock ’n’ roll jam. You’ve probably never heard the bagpipe played as fast and dirty as Beckford does during “Thunderstruck.”
“It’s so fun,” he said. “We do some Beatles songs, too. We’ve done ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Norwegian Wood.’ The bagpipes are a lot more versatile than you’d think.”
Beckford participates in many competitions all over the U.S. and Canada; he also sometimes leads workshops for beginner and intermediate pipers. He’s always traveling. According to Beckford, in competition every piper has their own little thing that makes them different and gives them an edge. More than that, competitions are a chance for pipers to get to know each other and learn from one another.
“It’s just a supportive group,” he said. “There are so many different kinds of pipers, with different kinds of setups and techniques, The judges give you really good advice. It’s more about just making really, really good music.”
Beckford may or may not study piping when he heads off to college in the next year or two — there are just a few schools in the U.S., Canada and Scotland that offer piping programs. But he does know that piping is a passion that will be with him for life.
“It’s just super-fun. I love it,” he said. “If I miss a day of practice, I’m dying to get back to it.”
For information on Ursa Beckford, his concerts and appearances, visit ursapiper.com.