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With an exhibit at the George Bush Gallery as her backdrop, Mary Beth McQueen prepares to perform Bonnie Ann for her entry into international competition. Photos by Phil Houseal


Determined to keep improving, Mary Beth McQueen takes her piping lessons under the guidance of local piper Ian Blackie.

 For links to see and hear Mary Beth McQueen’s performance for the international online bagpipe competition, go to YouTube link .


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Mary Beth McQueen: A Piping Personality

by Phil Houseal
June 1, 2011

Not that she needed to play bagpipes to attract attention. But the 14-year-old red-haired dynamo with the great name of Mary Beth McQueen was naturally drawn to the classic Highland instrument ever since she was a wee lassie.

“It’s big; it’s loud; it gets people’s attention very quickly,” McQueen said with a mischievous smile.

It is no surprise that the Houston native and now Hill Country resident is a fiddler, bagpiper, and Irish dancer. That is the world she grew up in. Her father, Gregory McQueen, is a professional fiddler and performs with Clandestine, a Celtic group out of Houston. Her mother, Dr. Katie McQueen, boasts a background in Irish dance.

She began playing violin in first grade and started learning the pipes six years ago. Was it destiny or coercion?

“Mmmm... I’m not sure,” she said. “I kind of grew up in an eclectic musical world. I heard pipes every day; I heard violin every day. I heard that music so much I wanted to learn to play it.”

It helped that bagpipes are the ideal instrument to reflect the range of her personality.

“Friends will tell you I am loud and obnoxious,” she said. “But really I can be shy, and I can be loud. It depends on my mood.”

The girl is dedicated to both violin and bagpipes, which she refers to as “my homies,” even as she hugs them. She practices on each for 30 minutes every evening.

New Zealand transplant and now local piper Ian Blackie is her teacher. He is impressed by her focus.

“She has lots of talent, clearly, and indeed is multitalented,” he said. “I am looking to get the best I can out of her. It helps that she has the mindset that is about competition. She wants to be better than what she is.”

To that end, she is competing in July at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games held in North Carolina. She is also entering an online international competition. Contestants create, record, and post a performance on YouTube. A team of international judges reviews and judges each performer. Top prize is a week at a piping school in Nova Scotia.

Criteria include quality of sound, deportment, and dress. They also award points for creative presentation. That is why Blackie and McQueen spent a recent Saturday morning in full regalia recording Bonnie Ann inside the George Bush Gallery. (Watch 30-second video of her preparation)

Even with her mindset and determination to get better, young McQueen’s goal is not to go to Julliard or to become a professional musician.

“I’m just having fun doing it,” she said. “I want to be a scientist, personally. I’m going for marine biology.”

In this land of singer-songwriters, country ballads, and German polkas, the bagpipes are still an instrument you don’t expect to hear, and are impossible to ignore. McQueen’s schoolmates reveal a mixed reaction to her unusual talents. “Some kids think, oh my god, she plays bagpipes - is she mental? Other kids think it’s cool.” Apparently the “cool” factor is gaining, as four students expressed a desire to learn bagpipes after hearing her perform.

Just another effect of Mary Beth McQueen’s tenacious approach to life.

“My reward is knowing that unlike most people who want to do something, I stood up and did it.”