Piper and pianist set shining example to fellow young musicians

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Two teenage Campbeltown musicians are reaping the rewards of years of hard work and dedication to mastering their respective instruments.

Pianist Emily Bennie, aged 17, has been awarded a prestigious Associate of the Royal Schools of Music (ARSM) diploma with a merit endorsement, while 19-year-old piper Ross Conner won a silver award at last Saturday’s inaugural Argyllshire Gathering Trust Youth Intermediate Championship.

Held in the chapel at Lochnell Castle near Oban, the piping competition was created by Argyllshire Gathering to celebrate 150 years since it was founded, in a bid to give solo players under the age of 22 a platform to showcase their abilities on an international scale and provide a step-up to the senior competitions.

It brought together 10 of the finest intermediate pipers from across Scotland. Ross’s fellow competitors were: Bobby Allen, Lanarkshire; Ruairidh Brown, Dunblane; Finlay Cameron, Roybridge; Hamish Drennan, Drumnadrochit; Andrew Ferguson, Dollar; Luke Kennedy, Strathaven; Cameron May, Dillarburn; Anna Smart, Dunfermline; and Brodie Watson-Massey, Edinburgh.

Ross Conner, third from the left, with his fellow competitors.
Ross Conner, third from the left, with his fellow competitors.

Judged by Ian Duncan, Archie Maclean and Robert Wallace, the championship consisted of two stages: a Piobaireachd competition followed by a March, Strathspey and Reel (MSR) competition.

It was in the latter that Ross proved his piping prowess, achieving the second place prize.

Ross Conner during his silver medal-winning MSR performance.
Ross Conner during his silver medal-winning MSR performance.

The first placed competitor in both categories was Andrew Ferguson.

A product of Kintyre Schools Pipe Band teaching programme, Ross said he was inspired by the competition’s location.

‘It was one of the best places I have ever performed,’ he said. ‘The setting was amazing and the sound inside the chapel fantastic. We all had a really great day.’

Ross Conner with his silver medal.
Ross Conner with his silver medal.

Ross has been piping for nine years and is now a member of the Grade Two Islay Pipe Band.

He has won numerous awards around the main junior events, including winning the Duke of Argyll’s Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering four times.

He also won Intermediate MSR at the Gathering in 2019 and third prize in the MacGregor Memorial in 2020.

He wasn’t the only Campbeltown representative at the invitational competition as John Wilson was master of ceremonies.

Campbeltown's John Wilson was master of ceremonies.
Campbeltown’s John Wilson was master of ceremonies.

‘My father taught lots and lots of young people and he always used to say that they are the lifeblood of the art form; that is very much my attitude,’ he said.

‘It is important that we give the younger generation the opportunity to express themselves and develop. It is especially important with piping because it is a huge part of our heritage.’

Another notable musical accolade, Emily’s piano diploma, which she was awarded while studying for her Advanced Highers in sixth year at Campbeltown Grammar School, has been described by her piano teacher David McEwan as ‘a major achievement’.

‘Emily has been an outstanding pupil from the very beginning,’ he said. ‘Starting from scratch in 2013, she has worked her way through the piano grades. The ARSM diploma is the prize for her hard work and commitment.’

Pianist Emily Bennie.
Pianist Emily Bennie.

Emily admits to being reluctant to sit any exams but was persuaded to after reaching grade five level.

After achieving grade eight – the highest practical graded music exam available in the UK – two years ago, Mr McEwan suggested she aim for the ARSM diploma.

‘I thought it sounded really good, so I chose my pieces and started working on it,’ Emily said.

Her success didn’t come without hard work; Emily aimed to practise for one to two hours every day but, with her National 5s and Highers to study for over the last two years, it wasn’t always possible.

‘When I got my results back I was so relieved to have passed and know that all the hard work had paid off,’ Emily said. ‘And I was so happy when I found out that I had gained a merit.’

Emily’s mum and dad, Sharon and Gordon, are really proud of her achievement.

‘Emily works very hard with all her music and it brings her a lot of pleasure,’ said Sharon. ‘Working towards this diploma has been really tough at times, but she stuck with it, persevered and it all came together.

‘Words cannot express how incredibly proud of her all her family are. She is amazing.

‘We are forever grateful to Mr McEwan for all the hours of work he has put into teaching Emily over the years. He has really inspired Emily.’

Piano is not the only instrument in which Emily is proficient; she is the principal euphonium player in Campbeltown Brass, having joined the band in 2015, originally playing baritone.

As impressive as her music skills are, Emily is keen to keep them as a pastime, having set her sights on a career in science.

‘Music has always been a great way for me to relax and I would love to keep it as a hobby,’ she said. ‘I hope to study biochemistry at university, but I will continue piano in my spare time.

‘I’m also very keen to join another brass band while at university.’

She added that she hopes to achieve the even more challenging Diploma of The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (DipABRSM) when she finishes her university studies.