Dowco Triumph Street: The rebirth of a giant, with David Hilder

23/01/2013 § 7 Comments

Photo courtesy of Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band

Photo courtesy of Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band

There’s a saying in life that goes “form is temporary, class is permanent” and that could well be the case for one of the world’s leading pipe bands after it was arguably at death’s door. David Hilder was born in Campbell River, British Columbia and grew up in nearby Courtenay, B.C. He is married to wife Shaunna, one of the main reasons behind his descent on Vancouver. They currently live in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

After graduating from G.P. Vanier Secondary School, in Courtenay, in 1983, he began working for the British Columbia Ambulance Service (BCAS) in 1985 as a paramedic, a job occupation and title he retains to this day. Yet despite a profound career in the medical business, it was at a very early age that he was to discover something he describes as his biggest passion in life. Hilder is the pipe major of Vancouver-based pipe band Dowco Triumph Street and led his troops to an eighth place finish at the World Pipe Band Championships this past August in Glasgow, Scotland- the band’s best finish at worlds since 1979.

“I remember when I was about five years old, I was watching a pipe band parade with my Mom and Dad and I told my parents that I wanted to play the bagpipes,” he said. “There have never been any other pipers in the family so they were quite shocked and asked me if I was sure.”

Hilder’s piping career began at the local legion in his hometown under the watchful eye of a man called Sandy Stewart who was the pipe major of the Courtenay Legion Pipe Band. “My parents met Sandy at the legion and found out that he taught piping. They were then told to bring me down on this one Monday night. I was five and a half at the time and was handed a chanter.” Hilder explained that his parents were initially told by Stewart that he wouldn’t last “more than a week.” A tad of unknown irony there perhaps on someone who was destined to become one of the best pipers on the planet. He also explained that the Courtenay Legion Pipe Band was “the only band in town for miles,” stating, “It was mostly older men. There were no women at all and not many kids- that was it. A few years later, more kids started coming in and when I was 10 or 11 we had a bit of a junior band, but at the start it was just me.”

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Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band at the Pipe of Peace Concert at the SECC in Glasgow, Scotland this past August prior to the World Championships: DTSPB photo

Hilder left the island and came to the Lower Mainland in 1989 along with a friend he worked with at the ambulance service in Courtenay. “I moved over here for two things: one was to marry Shaunna and the other was to get full-time with the ambulance service.” He initially moved into the nurses’ residence at Vancouver General Hospital and was playing with the City of Victoria Pipe Band, the “premier” Grade 1 band on the island. Grade 1 is the highest and most elite status in world piping. “At the time, there were three big bands in B.C.: Triumph Street, City of Victoria and SFU. Anybody who really played on the island played with City of Victoria so when I moved over here, that’s who I was playing with. And I continued to play with them for another three years.”

At that same time, wife Shaunna, now piping sergeant of Dowco Triumph Street, was playing with the Vancouver Ladies Pipe Band of which she was pipe major. In 1992, she decided to join David in playing with City of Victoria. “We played there for a year, and the band basically diminished in that year due to lack of membership. Shaunna grew up in Coquitlam and I was living in Vancouver, so we both decided to join SFU at the same time in late 1993.”

Triumph Street pipe band was established in 1971 and was the first band outside of Scotland to with “The Sash” drumming prize. “Initially, Triumph Street was really big in piping in B.C. and had a lot of success,” said Hilder. “Like anything though membership declined, so in early 2000s the band had no membership, but a small group of people as the executive basically kept the monetary things and the society of the band going for six or seven years. I had no idea and nor did anybody else in the BC Pipers Association that that was happening in the background.”

Prior to joining Triumph Street, Hilder had significant success as pipe major of the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band at Grade 2, the “feeder” band to Simon Fraser University’s Grade 1 band. He notably led RMM to the 2006 world championship title. “SFU’s organization was set up so that they had Grade 1 all the way down through the ranks to Grade 4, and we were the Grade 2 band so essentially the farm team. We were very successful through the years, starting in the early 2000s. We were never supposed to get as successful as we did. We had a fantastic group of youth who were teachable and hungry and we just did a lot of the right things, so it all fell into place.”

Following the Grade 2 world championship win in 2006, Hilder’s RMM band were upgraded by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, based in Scotland, to Grade 1— a feat that didn’t sit nicely with the SFU hierarchy he says. “They didn’t want another Grade 1 band in British Columbia, let alone in their own organization so they wanted to stop that. They didn’t want the competition quite frankly, that’s it in a nutshell. But sometimes, it’s hard to stop a train.”

The band at BC Highland Games, Coquitlam 2011: Flickr image

The band at BC Highland Games, Coquitlam 2011: Flickr image

In late 2006, Hilder found himself without a band after the Grade 2 promotion of RMM to Grade 1 didn’t come to fruition.  He, wife Shaunna, and drum sergeant Andre Tessier felt as though they were retired until a remarkable phone call came about just before that Christmas. ““Out of nowhere I got a phone call from Tricia Chisamore, who was the lady that had kept the Triumph Street society going. And she said to me “we still have the society, we have a band, we have a name, we have a bank account, we have some kilts, a couple of bits of instruments but not a whole lot of that— what we need is people, are you interested?” So I said that I needed to make a few phone calls, I needed to contact my wife, Andre my lead drummer, and if the three of us are in agreement, which I think we will be because the band had the history, we’d be very interested.””

A few weeks later, on January 4, 2007 at the band’s AGM, Hilder was introduced as the new pipe major and leader of the band, alongside Shaunna as piping sergeant and Tessier as drumming sergeant. “There was a handoff. The Triumph Street executive said they’d like to make a motion to give us the band, the bank account, the society and sign everything over to us. So it was me, Shaunna and Andre and we made a few phone calls and emails, and we showed up with 35 members. I brought an entire band.”

Before Hilder arrived, Triumph Street Pipe Band was becoming inactive on the competitive scene. Declining membership resulted in the band not competing at all throughout 2006— changed days from the glory period of the ’70s and ’80s, that also included a fifth place Grade 1 finish at the 1979 worlds under original pipe major, Hal Senyk. “In the early years there were three top Grade 1 bands in B.C. who were very successful internationally as well as locally. It all went away, so SFU got all the good players and the cream of the crop. They were also very successful, but what happens in anything when you become the only gig in town, you become stagnant as well.”

Hilder had essentially brought his entire Grade 2, RMM team that had won the 2006 world championship, to Triumph Street. “When the break up happened in the fall of 2006 with the other organization, none of them wanted to play with anyone else- but there was nowhere for them to play. So they basically stayed in the wings waiting. They formed a band oddly enough called the nameless pipe band and they had a couple of practices and meetings and talked about what they were going to do, and they just decided to not join anyone else.”

That nameless pipe band also voted in an intern pipe major, piping sergeant and lead drummer in Hilder, Shaunna and Tessier’s absence. “We truly believed, the three of us, that we were retired and done and I guess we just weren’t!” The new image of Triumph Street Pipe Band had its first gig on January 17, 2007, merely weeks after Hilder’s enrolment at the AGM. “The show was at the Lincoln Centre in Mount Vernon, Washington. It was a really neat moment, a very nervous moment, but we went up the stairs to this theatre and on stage— the rest is history really.”

Dowco Triumph Street at the World Pipe band Championships, Glasgow Green, 2012: BBC photo

Dowco Triumph Street at the World Pipe Band Championships, Glasgow Green, 2012: BBC photo

When Hilder took over, Triumph Street was a Grade 2 pipe band. They went on an undefeated streak in 2007, winning every contest entered, including the world championships. “Success that year was excellent. We were undefeated entirely and that included winning the North American championships in Maxville, Ontario. It was a really wonderful year and a big high.”

On December 30, 2007, following recommendations by the RSPBA in Scotland, Hilder’s band was upgraded to Grade 1 by the BC Piper’s Association. “To get to Grade 1- it’s not done on a whim. There’s only 33 Grade 1 bands in the world, two here in B.C., so it’s quite an elite group. We got upgraded by the old Robert Malcolm band into Grade 1 and it got disbanded so we came out as the Grade 2 Triumph Street Pipe Band. After the BC Pipers Association formed a committee and honoured the upgrade, it was up to us to prove we should be in that grade in the fall of 2007 and beyond.”

Hilder had taken a band that was on the brink of ceasing to exist in the latter half of 2006, and led it to become a Grade 1 force a year later. “We didn’t start practising till January 2007 which is interesting because you normally start practising all winter. You need time to practise and gel and the ensemble is very important. The fortunate thing that we had was that the majority of us had played together for a few years prior as a group. But we’d taken six months off.”

In August 2012, the band finished eighth in the Grade 1 final at the world championships at Glasgow Green. For the past three years, Triumph Street has came 12th, ninth and now eighth, all at Grade 1. “I was really happy this year. The bands that placed ahead of us are very accomplished, historical bands. There’s a qualifying event for bands that day which we’ve won for two years in a row now at the worlds event. If you place in the top six at the world championships the year before, you get pre-qualified. What that means is you get a bye to the final. Everyone else has to play a third time by qualifying in the morning.”

The front cover of the band's new album: DTSPB photo

The front cover of the band’s new album: DTSPB photo

Hilder sees the qualifying process as a bit of a disadvantage to those involved in it. “The people that get pre-qualified have an extremely big advantage. They’re fresh on a couple of levels: one is that they haven’t played before the final; the other is that they get to sleep in in the morning and have breakfast. We’re on the park at 7:30 a.m. The others start to arrive around 11 and the morning qualifier goes until at least noon. Most years there are 14 to 20 bands in the morning of which six of those bands get to join the pre-qualified bands in the afternoon, so there’s an awful lot of disadvantage to it.”

This past year’s escapades at worlds confirm the band’s place as a potent force in world piping alongside local rivals SFU amongst others. A sight that was arguably unthinkable just a few years ago. “Long term, I think SFU has realized the fact that we’re both here in B.C. is very healthy. We’ve pushed each other to no end. I know we’ve pushed them to be greater, and they’ve certainly pushed us to be greater. And in the end, B.C. has two of the top 10 bands in the world.”

Since June 2007, Triumph Street has been sponsored by local business group Dowco. A man approached Hilder at the conclusion of the B.C. Highland Games, held in Coquitlam, that June and made him an offer of sponsorship. “ A gentleman walked up to me in jeans and a t-shirt, Scottish accent, handed me a business card and said he’d be very interested in talking to us and helping the band out— and off he went.”

Hilder admits that he initially literally forgot about the whole scenario after placing the business card in his waistcoat pocket. “About two weeks later, I was putting my kilt on, and I found this card and I phoned the guy. Turns out he is the owner, president, CEO of the Dowco group of companies. I called him and said I’d like to get together and have a conversation.”

Hilder explained that the gentleman and his wife moved over from Scotland years ago and formed the company. “In his youth this man played snare drum in the boys brigade in Scotland and as the story goes, he said he knew what it’s like to be in a band that doesn’t’ have a lot of funding, and be across the street from a band that has lots of funding. He wanted us to have a fair shake.”

CBC photo

Photo from CBC

In in the end, Hilder secured a sponsorship deal with Dowco. “Sponsored bands are generally Grade 1 bands. So we secured a five-year deal that year and we decided to marry the name of Dowco with the Triumph Street Pipe Band. The band had the history, so we both agreed it would be very smart to keep both names in the title.” The original name was going to be “Triumph Street Dowco Pipe Band” but Hilder said that “just didn’t roll off the tongue very well so we went back to the drawing board and said let’s put Dowco first, so we became the Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band.”

The band recently secured another five-year deal with the same sponsorship group. “I guess in a sense we have brought this band back up from its ashes. Life is that journey that you don’t normally think about until you sit down for a moment and reflect and think about it. When I was a kid, I grew up watching the Triumph Street Pipe Band, City of Victoria Pipe Band, prior to SFU being in existence. So I’ve watched this big machine walk on the field with the history there. And a band like that not being on the park for a long time, six or seven years, it’s sad to see that go. I’m just happy that we can take a historical band and rebuild it to somewhere that it’s proud to have the name back in the history of the world again.”

When asked of how far he thinks the current band can go, Hilder said, “Well, some will believe we can go all the way. I’ve won the world championships three times, I know how much work and how difficult it is to actually win it. Do I think we can do it? I think with the right belief, and the right work ethic, which I think we have, then anyone can do it. I want to break into the top six and hear our name announced over the loudspeakers at worlds.”

“Every year we have a goal, some of them are small goals, some are private goals. A couple of years ago we were twelfth, so the next year’s goal after that was we wanted single digits, and we got ninth. When we’ve set goals we’ve been able to accomplish them over the years. We like to set realistic goals. The goal, far into the future, I haven’t really thought that far ahead. But in the short term, it’s really just to play great music and continue to teach, and put a great band on the field.”

Some people are of the belief that at times you have to take a step backward to go forward again. And what’s more, I doubt many people would put it past this reincarnation and re-emergence of a piping giant, from turning into an even greater blaze of glory. But one thing’s for sure, either way, it’s going to be a fascinating watch.

Photo courtesy DTSPB

Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band photo

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§ 7 Responses to Dowco Triumph Street: The rebirth of a giant, with David Hilder

  • Lee Moore says:

    I wish you guys all the best this year. Hope the changes in the worlds format help you. Ok you have to learn another meledy but now for the for the first time in a long time all the bands are at the worlds are on a level playing field. Should be more fun?

  • Ross Armour says:

    Lee,
    The new format at this year’s World Pipe Band Championships is certainly going to be unique and interesting with the two day event format and all, but I agree, think it will create a more level playing field. I wish this band all the very best too! Thanks for your comment

  • Arthur McAra says:

    Great story – love of the music, determination and vision – great recipe.
    Best of luck this year.

  • Ross Armour says:

    Well said Arthur. This band’s music is just fantastic. Thanks for your comment

  • S. Dobbie says:

    Yes, great story – great history – grea
    t future ahead!

  • lonnie says:

    very proud of you cousin,good luck in the coming year

  • Frances says:

    Very well written,Ross ! It has been quite the interesting band to watch and to enjoy the journey as they continue to venture on “With Purpose”

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