Marching to the same drummer

Lab employee and her family perform in the Rose Parade

April 1, 2024

Sarah, Morag and William prepare for the parade to begin.

As the world welcomed 2024, millions of viewers across the globe tuned in to watch the 135th Tournament of Roses Parade. Held each year on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California, the parade is an annual tradition worldwide.

This year, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was well represented with Morag Smith, division leader of Nuclear Engineering and Nonproliferation, and her children, William and Sarah Parkes, performing in the iconic parade.

The 2024 parade theme, “Celebrating a World of Music: The Universal Language,” was especially fitting for this family affair.

Morag, of Scottish descent, recalls the spark that began her family’s musical collaboration. While researching their family heritage for a Cub Scouts project, Morag’s then-8-year-old son, William, discovered his maternal grandfather and great-aunt played the bagpipes in the 1950s and ’60s. This nugget ignited a desire to learn the bagpipes himself.

“My father and aunt were quite good, having played for over 20 years,” Morag said. “I was thrilled when William expressed a desire to learn.”

William had no prior musical training at the time, so his parents set some ground rules: Start with piano lessons to learn to read, understand and play music, and then they would go from there. William happily complied but was open about his long-term intentions — piano lessons were a means to an end: the bagpipes.

His sights were set on joining the Order of the Thistle Pipes and Drums, a pipe band sponsored by the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Santa Fe. As soon as William turned 10, the minimum age to join, he did just that.

Wanting to be included in whatever her big brother was doing, younger sister Sarah, 6 at the time, soon followed — beginning with the guitar and private drum lessons, and graduating to the band when she turned 10.

At this time, Morag was a busy, working mom as a technical leader and contributor in the areas of nuclear arms control and treaty verification. But she was also bitten by the music bug and figured if she had to attend practices with her children, she might as well join in the fun. 

Morag began playing the tenor drum. When the band’s bass drummer left, she switched over and now plays the bass, which provides a rather unique and challenging view as she marches and plays.

“I rely on the bagpiper in front of me to navigate as I can usually see the top of their pipes. If they move around something, I follow.”

Morag jokes that her view of the parade from behind her bass drum was unique.

All three are now members of the Order of the Thistle Pipes and Drums of Santa Fe, established in 1999, which was invited to march in this year’s Rose Parade.

The Santa Fe group spent seven months preparing for the parade, a routine that included marching and playing for miles to build up their endurance for the 5.5-mile parade route. They also had a distinct advantage of training at 7,000 feet.

Morag’s family anxiously looked forward to the end of December as they prepared for travel to California to meet the other members of the Pipes on Parade ensemble, a group of pipers and drummers comprising individuals from around the globe. Morag’s husband, Jay Parkes, a professor of educational psychology and currently an associate dean for the College of Education at the University of New Mexico, made the trip, too, as the family photographer and general band supporter.

Entire Pipes on Parade ensemble prior to Bandfest performance.

Although virtual rehearsals were held in December, the entire group first played together Dec. 28, just days before the big event. Leading up to the parade, the entire ensemble performed at Bandfest at Pasadena College and at Disneyland on New Year’s Eve. On Jan. 1, the drummers and pipers marched in the parade, thrilling more than 800,000 spectators, and playing as if they were longtime bandmates, ringing in the new year and truly celebrating a world of music.

“It was a wonderful experience for all of us,” Morag said. “I especially enjoyed being there with William and Sarah and seeing them performing as peers within a talented group of musicians.”