Squeezing traditions

Laura MacKenzie will perform this weekend at the Upper Potomac Pipers Weekend in Shepherdstown

Laura MacKenzie will perform this weekend at the Upper Potomac Pipers Weekend in Shepherdstown

January 08, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - When Laura MacKenzie performs traditional music, she's most at home in a small, intimate venue.

The comfy atmosphere keeps in line with the theme of traditional music, which has its roots in Ireland and Scotland, and with musicians who shared their music in an informal way.

MacKenzie will perform in such a venue when she takes part in the Upper Potomac Pipers Weekend in Shepherdstown. She'll share the stage with other bagpipers, including Bob Mitchell, Jerry O'Sullivan, Eliot Grasso and Dick Hensold, and with fiddler Elke Baker at 8 p.m. Saturday at Shepherd University's Reynolds Hall.

But just because there's a laid-back quality to traditional music, don't expect an evening of lullabies.

"When I'm onstage, I'm switching from instrument to instrument," she said in a telephone interview from her St. Paul, Minn., home. "I jokingly call it 'MacKenzie's Flying Circus.'"


MacKenzie will be juggling a slew of instruments including a variety of flutes, whistles and bagpipes and a concertina. Oh, and she also sings. Her favorite instrument is as varied as the days she plays. But there is one common thread - they are all wind instruments.

She started playing the flute in fourth grade, continuing with music into high school.

"I think I tracked with music because it was there and I could do it for social reasons," she said.

Music came with her to college, where she was introduced to traditional music. She was exposed even more to the music while living in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was doing research.

"That's when I learned what traditional music was really about," she said. "And I couldn't go back to classical music. It was quite satisfying for (traditional musicians) to play in the kitchen and play with friends and other people who liked music. Rarely was there any competition. (That) was so attractive for someone from classical music."

MacKenzie learned to play her instruments, including the Scottish smallpipes, which are bellows-blown bagpipes. Over the years, she learned traditional music at the feet of master teachers and during workshops both in the States, often in Vermont, and across the Atlantic Ocean. "I didn't learn from recordings, but more from field recordings, through master teaching," she said.

As she expanded her musical horizons, MacKenzie has been recognized for her contribution to the traditional music scene. She has been recognized by the Minnesota State Arts Board as a master folk artist. She's won the Minnesota Music Academy Awards for both Celtic vocal and Celtic instrumental music. And in 2003, she was nominated for best folk/acoustic performer by the same organization. She performs as a solo artist and also with a long list of other bands and artists. One collaborator is Daithi Sproule, guitarist with the popular Irish band Altan.

She and Sproule are currently working on a duo recording project. "We're in the process of collecting material," she says.

In a world of MP3s, MacKenzie is confident that traditional music will stand the test of time. In the traditional genre, albums aren't produced as a way to boost a musician's career.

"Fans pick recordings up for a memory or a souvenir," she says.

In traditional music, it's always been about the music.

"Traditional music was largely created in an atmosphere that wasn't intended to make anyone money," she says. "... The jigs and reels were written with a deep love of music and a commitment to the past traditions and oral traditions."

If you go ...

WHAT: Upper Potomac Pipers Weekend

WHEN: Friday, Jan. 9, through Sunday, Jan. 11; various times

WHERE: An open-mic evening will be at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9, at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va. A concert will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, at Shepherd University's Reynolds Hall

COST: Tickets cost $8 to $15 for the Saturday concert.

CONTACT: Call 304-263-2531

MORE: To learn more about the Upper Potomac Pipers Weekend or download a complete brochure, go to To learn more about Laura MacKenzie, go to

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