Category Archives: Fred Payne Blog

The Ever-challenging, Always Rewarding Miwok 100K

This is Saturday, May 6. I was up at 3AM, on site at 4:30 and performing at 5:20. I should make it home by 7. For the third year “running,” I perform for the Miwok 100K ultramarathon, my most consistently challenging and always very rewarding performance.

Not only is it dark, it is cold, the kind that penetrates deep. I have two thermal underlayers on, hand warmers in my pockets, and for the first time, a balaclava on my head. It is 43 degrees with a 20 knot dry wind blowing from inland. This is no parking lot, public road, or bike path. It’s a half mile off the road near the Pantoll ranger station on Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, California. I stand by a sharp crook in the Dipsea trail at the top of a grade know as “cardiac,” and that says it all. Runners start at 5AM in Stinson Beach, 3 miles away and 1,500 feet lower. The frontrunners arrive in less than 25 minutes. I see headlamps bobbing in the distance as the sky begins to lighten to the west. I play quick marches, jigs, reels, hornpipes, everything upbeat as they make the turn to head south along the ridge.

After only 3 miles, the 400 runners are strung out for a half an hour. They all deserve the inspiration and lift of powerful pipe tunes so I try to play continuously, taking occasional brief breaks. There is a car 50 feet away with its heater running at max. I can go there if I must. After 15 minutes I can feel my fingers beginning to numb. After 20, I can’t feel the holes in my chanter. I play on, trusting muscle memory to find and cover those holes. Finally, I cannot hit a note. I stop playing, stuff my hands into the jacket, hold the hand warmers for a minute. “Play!” a runner shouts. “Run!” I reply. The warmers do the trick and I coax a few more minutes of music from my stiff, brittle-skinned fingers.

Most runners give me a high sign, a wave, or a cheer. Many point their devices at me and take pics or videos. Some actually approach and take selfies with me. Two race officials take continuous video with GoPros.

Normally, I perform in the proper uniform. This unusually dry air is colder and I wear a balaclava instead of a glengarry. It was foggy in 2015 and 2016. The dampness overwhelmed my moisture control. Reeds malfunctioned and finally shut down as the last runners went by. This year they behave better, but the dry air goes to the bone and my fingers become the weak link.

I love this gig. It is wild, close to the edge geographically, physically, and people-wise. These are the most hard-core runners I have seen. The fastest covered the 3-mile, 1,500-foot uphill first leg quicker than you could imagine, and still more than 90 km. to go after that. They’ll be at it all day.

Race organizer Tia B. and her assistant Ken (my handler for the event) talk afterward about the challenges of staging such an event. FSNB (Full speed, no brakes) is Tia’s new acronym describing the last few days before the race. “Put it in the Urban Dictionary,” I suggest. “There’s an idea. Maybe I will.” FSNB, the perfect adjective for this experience from every point of view – organizers, runners, the piper.

Thank you, Tia for hiring me once again, and Ken, for your reliable, compassionate support on the trail as well as your good conversation on a dark, cold mountain top. I hope to have the privilege of being here for you in years to come.

Runner video    

Best Of San Francisco Award!

Fred Payne, Champion Bagpiper Receives 2016 Best Businesses of San Francisco Award

San Francisco, January 20, 2017 — Fred Payne, Champion Bagpiper has been selected for the 2016 Best Businesses of San Francisco Award in the Performing Arts category by the Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program. This is the second time since 2014 that Fred Payne, Champion Bagpiper has been selected for this award.

Each year, the Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program identifies companies that we believe have achieved exceptional marketing success in their local community and business category. These are local companies that enhance the positive image of small business through service to their customers and our community. These exceptional companies help make the San Francisco area a great place to live, work and play.

Various sources of information were gathered and analyzed to choose the winners in each category. The 2016 Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program focuses on quality, not quantity. Winners are determined based on the information gathered both internally by the Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program and data provided by third parties.

About the Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program

The Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program is an annual awards program honoring the achievements and accomplishments of local businesses throughout the San Francisco area. Recognition is given to those companies that have shown the ability to use their best practices and implemented programs to generate competitive advantages and long-term value.

The Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program was established to recognize the best of local businesses in our community. Our organization works exclusively with local business owners, trade groups, professional associations and other business advertising and marketing groups. Our mission is to recognize the small business community’s contributions to the U.S. economy.

SOURCE: Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program CONTACT: Best Businesses of San Francisco Award Program Email:

Paul G. (Gerry) Priestley, 1930-2016


I performed Saturday, 11/26/16 on the beach in Aptos, California to help several generations of Gerry Priestley’s family bid him farewell. We adjourned to his house nearby to conduct a similar celebration of life with a wide circle of friends. Gerry was a remarkable man and well-loved.

He was a Marine and received a Purple Heart award for his wounds in the Korean War. While attending Illinois Institute of Technology, he designed an H-shaped interlocking brick needing no mortar. He was one of the first employees of Hewlett Packard, enjoyed a long career there, and got his industrial design MS from Stanford in 1963.

Gerry was a sailor. This activity is tremendously healing (a warrior needs that) and brings a person close to earth and elements. His daughters, Jenny, Susan, and Emily remember some great days on San Francisco Bay and the photos on his collage show him in many of the places I, myself have sailed.

Gerry’s life was full and joyful. He loved martinis in a most humorous way. In fact, he was an all-around humorist. Quotations his daughters remember: “I have two words for you, and they’re not ‘happy birthday.’” “Mary had a little lamb. Mary had a bear. I saw Mary’s little lamb. I never saw her bear.” “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary between suicide and syphilis.” “Martinis are like breasts: One’s not enough and three’s too many.”

Gerry’s house is on a steep hillside with deep forest punctuating the view of the Pacific. His bird feeders drew finches flying fearlessly within reach of a crowd of people and Gerry’s especially interested cat. Gerry loved life and people and it is abundantly clear they love him just as much. So long, Gerry. I would love to have known you personally.

(By the way, Gerry had a 1957 Black Watch Regiment Pipe Band album – priceless)

Rocky Mountaineer Luxury rail car rollout – Vallejo Times Herald


It was odd but unusually interesting recently with the unveiling of a sparkling new train coach by Canadian-based Rocky Mountaineer in the parking lot of a rustic-appearing Alstom company on Mare Island.

Only the playing of bagpipes could make this catered, media-friendly event any stranger.

Enter Fred Payne, a self-described “champion bagpiper” from Marin County who specializes in weddings, memorials, corporate events, parties and retirements. Train coach openings? In his 50 years on the pipes, it’s a first, he said.

“Thinking back all the years, I’ve never played the grand opening of a railcar,” Payne said.

Born in Orange County but raised in Oregon to escape the smog, the 61-year-old said he started this under-appreciated instrument at the tender age of 11.

“Celtic music has a unique character that I find thrilling,” Payne said. “The music feels ancient, even tunes written within the last 10 years. I feel very connected to the music, probably because of my Scots ancestry. It is very evocative. Also, the vibration of the pipes resonates through the musician’s body — a very powerful feeling.”

As performing goes, “I really enjoy using the pipes to bring out the prevailing emotion of the day, whether joy or grief.”

It was obvious joy to play at the railcar gig, judging by the grins of the roughly 35 Alcom employees who worked on the SilverLeaf coach and the Rocky Mountaineer staff attending.

Not a bad assignment, to be sure. But Payne said his “perfect gig” was a month with the San Francisco Opera, playing the bagpipe part in the world premiere of “Heart of a Soldier” in 2011.

“It was a great privilege to be an orchestra member during that time,” Payne said. “Also, during my time with the opera, I had free run of the War Memorial Opera House. I felt like the phantom of the opera with fantasies of hiding somewhere at closing time and spending the nights inside. I got to know every corner of the building.”

For the singular gigs, weddings come to mind, Payne said.

“Joy is the emotion that I most like to help bring out in people,” he said.

An emotionally difficult assignment was leading a procession of police officers and firefighters while playing “Amazing Grace” in a 9/11 commemoration in 2010 with the California Symphony at Todos Santos Park in Concord.

“I felt there was a lot of potential for mistakes and the 2,500-person audience was intimidating,” Payne said. “I felt rattled while waiting to go on, but it went off without a hitch.”

As for uneasy gigs, “there was one instance involving a drunk bride, but let’s not dwell on the negative,” said Payne.

What is far from negative is the camaraderie of bagpipers, Payne said.

“There is a very close-knit society of pipers anywhere you go,” he said. “It’s a very tight community with many long-term friendships. We get together several times a year at Highland Games and other festivals and contests so everyone get to know everyone else.”

The best pipers, continued Payne, “are closely connected to the piping community through the competitions. We learn a lot by association. Most good pipers have had a number of teachers during their careers and often have a current mentoring piper.”

Two aspects of piping are difficult, Payne said.

“First, the instrument. It requires exertion making it difficult to relax the hands while blowing vigorously and squeezing the bag intermittently,” he said. “The rhythm of blowing and squeezing is independent of the timing of the music. It never matches. It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time.”

Once past these challenges, “you have it for life,” Payne said.

The music itself is also challenging, he noted.

“Piping music is full of embellishments consisting of one or more grace notes,” he said. “Some are quite complex. So expressing a melody well while playing the embellishments well confounds many beginning and intermediate pipers.”

Basically, “it’s like chess,” Payne said. “You can enjoy it greatly as a beginner, but it is very open-ended as far as skill goes. You can always accomplish a little more than you have to date. Somewhere, there is always a better piper.”

Payne had a quick and simple answer to the No. 1 enjoyment of playing bagpipes — especially with a dreaded three-year job at a call center in his memory banks.

“I don’t have to work,” he said.

For more information, email or call (510) 926-0579.

St. Patricks Day parade in Dublin, California

2016-3-12 Piedmont Highlanders @ Dublin CA St Paddy's parade

Here I am (second row with the dark glasses) in a parade today. I like the Piedmont Highlanders, an east bay (San Francisco Bay) gig band I play with. It’s a good nurturing environment for my students to experience the camaraderie pipe bands provide. When I was 12, I played my first parade with the Walter B. Truman/7UP Pipe Band in Santa Barbara. It was the 1967 Christmas parade. What a great experience! Our uniforms then were about the same as the ones you see here except our tartan was Stuart of Butte. We wear the MacKenzie in the Piedmont band.

Liz Burko, California State Parks Ranger




I got a call to perform in the celebration of life for a peace officer to take place on October 9, 2015. I didn’t know much more than that other than it took place at Armstrong Redwoods near Guerneville, California. I have a fair number of engagements that I step into without much information, so I often do not know what to expect. I enjoy being surprised and occasionally I find myself in for something exceptional. This was one.
The setting was Forest Theater surrounded by redwoods. The sun was at the perfect angle, forming a pattern of dappled light. Among those present – her family and work associates – there was a rare atmosphere of gentleness. This was surprising because many of her State Parks friends were rangers in full uniform, including sidearms.
Of course, the most exceptional aspect of the experience were the stories of Elizabeth Burko herself. She was one of those people who had what the Buddhists call “right livelihood.” She did what she loved, protected what she loved (redwood forests, especially), and people. She loved her family, the people she worked with, and park visitors. She had one of those rare gem hearts. So naturally, she was loved in return. It showed in every eulogy by family and colleagues. Liz was exceptional.
She died young (55) after crashing her scooter when swerving to avoid hitting a raccoon. She had worked at Big Basin, and in the northern California parks and was most recently superintendent of the Russian River District. Her director called her an “old-style ranger that everyone loved.”
So, thank you for your service, Liz. I never knew you, but you and I are very much aligned in our beliefs. It was an honor to be part of your celebration of life.

Col. Harry Fukuhara


Monday, May 11 was a very special day, as I learned when I arrived at Golden Gate National Cemetery. I perform for funerals and graveside services there often and play for the Veteran’s Day ceremony every year.

When I was preparing to play for the interment of Colonel Harry Katsuji Fukuhara, a man came to thank me for appearing. He asked if I knew who Col. Fukuhara was. I did not. The man told me that he had been a very special man. So I went home and read up.

It turns out that he has a Wikipedia page about him. He was born in Seattle in 1920. When he was 7, his father died and his mother moved the family to Japan. He returned to the U.S. in 1938 and was soon in an internment camp. But he volunteered for the army in 1942 and became a linguist in the Pacific theater.

“He served in the New Guinea and Philippine campaigns, earning a battlefield commission. Toward the end of the war he was part of the force preparing to invade Kyushu, Japan. Unknown to him, as he was preparing for the assault of Japan, he had a brother who was drafted in the Japanese Army who was preparing Kyushu’s defense. Following the conclusion of the War he was sent to Japanese prisoner camps where he had to tell them of the bombing and the emperor’s surrender. About a month following the surrender of Japan during the beginning of the occupation he secured authorization to look for his mother and brother in Hiroshima. Though both were suffering from the effects of radiation from the bomb, they had both survived.” (Wikipedia)

He ended his military career in 1971 as military governor of the Yaeyama Island chain, part of the Ryukyu Islands.

“Following his military career, Fukuhara served in Federal service, again retiring in 1991. Among many decorations and citations, he earned the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Medal by the President of the United States. He was inducted in into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1988 and made a Distinguished Member.” (Wikipedia).

Here is the military hall of Fame article about him.

Col. Fukuhara died last month at the age of 95. It was a small group of mourners who attended, mostly family and colleagues. The Army honor guard was the most polished I have yet seen.

St Paddy’s is Coming Up!


Those crazy Irish are about to be at it again! A piper friend of mine calls the second week of March the “Irish Olympics” because that’s how much is going on. It’s like Mardi Gras in green with lots of whiskey and beer. I have a list of regulars who call me every year, so it can be hard to book me on the 17th, no matter which day of the week it falls. But please try! I have successfully accommodated as many as six clients in one day. If I can’t help you, I have plenty of friends in the pipin’ bizniss. So ask me! I’ll help you get set up with a piper who will rock the event. It’s the ultimate touch for a holiday like St. Patrick’s Day. Fred Payne Bagpiper 510-926-9579.

As of today (Feb. 24), I am still available from about 11:30am until 4pm. Give a call before it gets any later!

I also have openings on the weekend prior to St Paddy’s, the 14th and 15th of March. There are lots of goings on. I recommend the parade on Market St in San Francisco. My old band, the San Francisco Irish Pipers are in it every year. Go see ’em.

Pipin’ In the Cheese

Back in January, 1968 when I was 12 years old, I had been playing pipes for more than a year and a half. The Walter B. Truman Bagpipe Band in Santa Barbara, California had given me free lessons beginning in the summer of ’66 and I’d been play gigs with them for six months. As time for the 1968 Burns Supper approached, the pipe major assigned me to “pipe in the head table” (those to be seated there). Burns Night, as it’s also known, was a pretty big deal in Santa Barbara then. The Santa Barbara Scottish Society had hundreds of members and the event was in the historic El Paseo Restaurant. To be seated at the head table were the chieftain and officers of the Santa Barbara Scottish Society, the mayor, and our congressman. When I got home that night I told my mom, “Guess what? I’m going to pipe in the big cheese!” Now, mom had come from Scotland in 1948 and had lost some of her accent but never had a good command of American idioms. When she called her best friend, Willa to tell her the great news, mom said, “Och, wee Freddy’ll be pipin’ in a GREAT BIG CHEESE!” Willa replied, “That’s all I can take! I’ll attend the supper, but after that, I’ll be quittin’ the society. Who ever heard of such a thing, a cheese at a Burns Night? Will there no be a haggis?” Of course, everyone had a good laugh when the misunderstanding was cleared up. My dad, who grew up in Texas said, “Good thing you didn’t tell her you were piping in the “head enchilada!”

BurnsSupper approx 1967 croppedFulldress 1967


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