Inside the Circle with Max Kuniansky, Piper & Retired Business Man
When and why did you start playing drums? Why a pipe band?
I started in 1986 when I was in my early 30s. My best friend from high school had taken some lessons. My wife and I were visiting him in Boston and he played a few tunes for us out on the Boston Commons. I thought it was really interesting and if he could do it, I could do it. Also, at the time, I was looking for something to balance out the stress of work. I am retired now, but at the time, I had a very demanding career and felt so one-dimensional. I needed something on the side as an escape. That is one of the reasons I have stuck with it for so long. Playing the pipes enabled me to emotionally survive when things at work got really hard. So, I like that side of it.
I grew up in England and have always loved things that are British and anything that is tied to history. Also, at the time, I was very interested in English and Scottish folk music. Pipes combined all of those things for me.
Is your family musical?
Yes. My dad played piano around the house when we were little so that was a big part of it and I played the violin when I was in grade school.
Who was your first teacher?
Judson DeCewran a band called the Royal Canadian Legion Pipes & Drums down in Miami and I went and saw him and a bunch of other bands at the Miami Highland Games and picked that band because there were some players in it that were my age – not a lot of old guys. I didn’t want to be in band of all old guys and now I’m the oldest guy in this band! He was a terrific job and I still talk to him. He sent me a collection of pipe music books that go back to the 1930’s.
Describe your practice routine.
When I first started, I practiced half an hour a day, almost without fail. I think that is really important for people who are just starting. It’s kind of like going to the gym. You can go once a week for two hours but apart from making you sore, you don’t make much progress but slow and steady is the way to do this. Now that I am retired, I have the luxury of being able to play a lot more often so its not unusual for me to practice for an hour or two a day. I have a written practice plan that has columns for each day of the week and rows for each thing I want to practice; including specific tunes or certain exercises. I go down the column and check everything off – from light music exercises and tunes to piobaireachd exercises and tunes. I just go down the list. I know how long I am going to practice and what I am going to accomplish.
How do you balance piping with other obligations in your life? Family, job, etc. and what inspires you to stick with it?
I don’t! I don’t have to anymore. I’m retired.
I like the comradeship of being in a band and I like making music. I had a business career which probably seems kind of pedestrian to some people but I loved it. This is something different and it’s something I can do. It’s not something everyone would dare to do or to put themselves out there for public display. I’m pretty comfortable with that and now that I am retired I have time to explore piobaireachd – something I didn’t have time for before. That is a major reason for me keeping it up right now. I feel like I will be a much more complete piper if I can do develop some expertise on the piobaireachd side. I want to do that while I still can. There will come a time when I will be too old but right now I feel like a million bucks!
Who are your favorite musicians?
On the piping side, because I come from an earlier generation, the guys that I really look to are Alasdair Gillies, Sandy Jones, Michael Cusak, and Jimmy McIntosh. I had lessons from all those guys – mostly in piping camps. Sandy Jones, in particular, is someone I had a lot of contact with early in my piping career (if I can call it that) and he had a lot of influence on me.
On the popular music side, I find myself listening to a lot of ambient and electronica now. Not dance music but older Euro bands like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. I am catching up on some that stuff and I also listen to a lot of classical music.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance and competition?
I try not to be too hard on myself and recognize that everyone makes them but at the same time, I try to keep them to a minimum. Perfect performances are pretty few and far between even among professionals. But when they do happen, try to recover from them, very, very quickly and keep going at all costs. Some people might not even recognize your mistake.
What advice would you give to a new student/musician just starting out in piping?
Practice every day and practice slowly. Don’t try to play fast. You have to be able to do the basic movements and play the basic tunes properly and slowly before you play them at performance speed. I always practice slow. If you practice slowly for long enough, you will find you can play everything at performance speed without any problem; but, you’ll never get there if you don’t start slow.
What do you think it takes to make a great/the best piper?
Natural ability. That is one thing that I have learned, there is always someone better than you. You can practice and practice. Here’s a story…I was playing a competition tune called the Siege of Delhi at a Highland Games in Florida a long time ago and I was warming up. I was playing off to the side by myself. One of the really good pipers in our band came over and said, “Don’t play it like that; play it like this!” He didn’t even know the tune, listened to me for a few minutes and then played it better than me. I thought, “That man has natural ability.” I can practice from now until doomsday and I will never reach the level of someone who is really gifted. Everyone has their thing that they are good at. Some people are great dancers, some people are good at math – I’m not good at either one of those! Some people have great interpersonal skills and some people just have natural musical ability. My parents use to tell me, I could be anything I wanted. That’s not right. I couldn’t be a ballet dancer. I could take all the lessons in the world, and I couldn’t be. Of course, I don’t want to but you get the point.
Where would you like to see the band in the next 5 - 10 years? What do you hope to accomplish personally as a musician in the next 5 - 10 years?
5 – 10 years is a long time in this industry. I think the goal is just to keep the group together. I would definitely like to see us still competing at the Grade 4 and Grade 5 level. I’d also like to see us financially viable. As Band Treasurer, I’m supposed to be thinking about these things. That means keeping the bank account up. So, I want us to make money. Lots and lots of money!
Personally, I definitely want to compete for the first time in Piobaireachd this season. I would like to be able to say that I did that and can play several piobaireachds over the next several years. Piobaireachd is the “undiscovered country” - not everyone likes it but as you get into your piping, if you get into piobaireachd, you are getting into something that is really, really old. It goes back a long way and has been passed down from person to person before there was written music. It is a folk art. Something that poor people could do many years ago – all you had to do was cobble together this primitive instrument and pass down music through the generations. From father to son and mother to daughter.
How would your life be different if you weren't a piper?
It wouldn’t be as rich, for sure. I wouldn’t have as many friends. I wouldn’t have as many interesting stories to tell my wife when I come home. Just overall, life wouldn’t be as full or as rewarding. Everybody needs something that makes them feel competent and skilled at – it helps round out your life and your self-image in a way that is very good for a person.
What other instrument would you most like to play if you weren't a piper?
Probably the violin. I played it when I was in grade school and junior high. I loved playing in the orchestra – pulling together and making this big sound.
What is your favorite thing about being a piper in the Las Vegas Pipe Band?
Good fellowship. Comradeship. We’re all pulling together as a team.