When Cameron Braithwaite was just 9 years old, he left his mom a note that read, “all I want to do is play the bagpipes.”
His mom, Hillary, said if she could find a teacher they would make it happen.
As luck would have it, she ran into a bagpipe teacher at the grocery store the following week — and the Braithwaite family’s journey into the world of bagpipes and Scottish snare drums began.
One of Cameron’s first teachers was Zach Lees, who introduced the Braithwaites to their local community’s “pipe band,” the Garden Valley Pipe Band which meets weekly at a park in Lindon, where the Braithwaites live, and teach free lessons. Hillary Braithwaite said she went every week with her kids, while Cameron continued to learn to play the bagpipes from Lees.
Lees also got Cameron’s younger brother, Ethan, involved by handing him drum sticks and encouraging him to play along on the Scottish snare drum. According to Hillary Braithwaite, Lees recognized Ethan had talent and encouraged him to pursue the Scottish snare drum. Ethan, now 14, was 11 at the time.
Ethan practiced with Lees for hours on end.
“He (was) very inspiring. He got me going and it got to the point where we played together, side by side,” Ethan said. “It was like a brotherly connection.”
Ethan competed with the Garden Valley Pipe Band, with Lees at his side, and the two of them won several awards soloing, with Lees playing the bagpipes and Ethan on the Scottish snare drum. Last year, Lees and Ethan went to the biggest pipe band competition in the western United States, the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games in Pleasanton, California. It was an eye-opening event for Ethan — even though he had swept local competitions, he didn’t even place in the top 20 in his division. However, it served as motivation to just get better.
Then, on Jan. 28 of this year, Lees died by suicide. Hillary Braithwaite said Lees’ death rocked the bagpipe world, and took its toll on Ethan, who had lost not just a mentor and a close friend, but the only teacher who could help him continue to grow and improve.
Ultimately, Ethan and his family decided he would join another Utah band, the Utah Pipe Band, which meets in Sandy. They also found two different teachers, one based in Chicago and one in Canada, who continued to teach Ethan over Skype.
“Ethan’s goal was to get to Pleasanton and this time (place) ... and in order to do that we decided, we better join a band that has pretty good drummers,” Hillary Braithwaite said.
Ethan worked hard to improve, practicing for hours every day and on the weekends. The Braithwaite family has several noise-cancelling headphones around the house for family members to use when the noise becomes too much, but they all support Ethan and Cameron. He plays because he enjoys it — but he said drumming has extra meaning to him now, following Lees’s passing.
“I use drumming like as a memory of Zach and other people I knew that have passed away,” Ethan said. “It helps a lot, playing, knowing that he played along with me. So I just keep going at it, keep practicing. And it’s very fun too, I love it too, but knowing that my brother, (Zach) ... loved it too and loved playing with me.”
Ethan wears a rubber bracelet around his right wrist memorializing Lees. His mom said she’s never seen him take it off.
At the end of August, Ethan and his family flew once more to the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games in Pleasanton, along with the Utah Pipe Band. In the past year, Ethan has risen in skill level from grade 4 to grade 3 — the highest level of Scottish snare drumming being grade 1, and the lowest being grade 5. Ethan is one of the youngest grade 3 drummers.
In grade 3, there are three competitions for drummers — and Ethan took first in one of them, along with being nominated as the “best up and coming drummer of the games.”
“Once I got that award, just in my heart I kind of dedicated it to (Zach), because he’s the one that started me up, he’s the one that helped me,” Ethan said. “We could feel that he was there, too.”
Although the Braithwaites haven’t found any Scottish ancestors in their family tree, they said Cameron’s and Ethan’s involvement has brought them closer together.
“It’s been life-changing,” Hillary Braithwaite said. “It’s taken the dynamics of our family and made us incredibly close.”
For anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available through the Utah County Crisis Line at (801) 691-5433 and through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
The Crisis Text Line is also free to use if talking on the phone is an issue. Text HOME to 741741 or download the SafeUT app, a crisis chat line for Utah.