While bagpipes probably don't top the list of instruments people want to learn, they were No. 1 for Andra Stoller.

Since leaving the Air Force after six years of active duty to raise three kids, she felt antsy.

"I was twiddling my thumbs and thinking, 'What will I do?'" said Stoller, pipe major of Pikes Peak Highlanders, who will be at the Pikes Peak Celtic Festival in Colorado Springs Friday through Sunday. "And I thought, 'Let's play bagpipes.' For an ancient instrument, there's a lot to it. And to make it sound good, you have to be familiar with the instrument and know how it works, not just how to play it."

Of course, being of Scottish heritage and regularly attending Highland Games as a kid didn't hurt.

Stoller has been with the local bagpipe group for nine years and played consistently for eight. As pipe major, she chooses the music and ensures regular practices, training and high-quality music.

"It can be quite a bit some days," she said.

It's all worth it, though, when the Highlanders enter contest season, which begins this weekend at the Pikes Peak Celtic Festival and runs through the Scots on the Rocks Festival in Moab in November. The Celtic Festival will be in Memorial Park.

Preparing for a competition is no small job. Stoller's been working since last summer, choosing tunes, meeting event requirements and getting input from Highlander pipers and drummers.

"We want to sound like we're one bagpipe," she said, "so you have to have your tuning very clean and play in unison to be solid."

About 12,000 people attended the Celtic Festival last year, said festival director Joe Poch, who revitalized the event in 2013 after it was disbanded in 1999.

Bagpipers, Celtic bands, Irish dancers and Highland Games athletes come from around the country to compete and perform. This year's festivities include performances by popular bands Seven Nations and Young Dubliners, a kilted Braveheart 5K Run, whiskey and scotch tastings, Irish and Scottish cuisine, a chance to learn about clans and societies, plenty of Guinness beer and fireworks on Saturday.

A highlight is the pipe band contest. Pikes Peak Highlanders will be one of eight pipe bands competing for prize money and bragging rights. Bands perform in the afternoons, and solo competitors, including Stoller, will play in the morning. At noon Saturday and Sunday, all the bands come together and play - about 200 people on pipes and drums.

"Everybody loves a good summer festival," said Poch. "People can get down about the same carnival-type of festival. This is unique. It offers engaged entertainment, and it speaks to people's souls."


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