The St. John’s Pipers of Ocean Springs, MS

The St. John’s Pipers of Ocean Springs, MS


Random Thoughts on Piping

8 Jul 2024

Artificial Intelligence and Piping?

Unless you've been living under a rock the last couple of years, you've no doubt heard of artificial intelligence (AI). 

Whether you think it's an amazing tool that will change all of our lives, a herald of the robot apocalypse, or you just don't really care, there's no denying that it's completely revolutionized many industries in the last 12 month - including music. But will it have an impact on our beloved little niche of the music world here in bagpiping and pipe bands? 

Undoubtedly... yes.

Look, the possibility of AI generating music isn't just a futuristic dream - it's already happening. But could an AI ever write a completely original bagpipe tune? Well, it's not only possible, it's already in practice. It doesn't exactly do a great job... yet (because, I’m told, the datasets are too small so far), but it won't be long until that's a reality.

While AI may struggle to compose a flawless bagpipe tune, its potential as an assistant is undeniable. Suppose you need to harmonize your bagpipe compositions. AI could easily handle this by drawing on its vast music theory database, likely exceeding the average person's capabilities. AI can also tidy up rough drafts, transforming bullet points into well-structured paragraphs, making the creative process more efficient. It can also be programmed to omit embellishments or simplify scores, or to compose new ones.

 Its usefulness isn't limited to composition alone, either. Imagine recording a bagpipe performance and wanting to improve its quality. AI could be your mix-and-master tool, elevating your sound to professional levels. Need a social media strategy for your band? AI can already devise you a reasonably decent plan, and even write the posts for you (you probably want to edit them before posting though - it's still not the plainest writer unless you give it very specific prompts). 

All of this does raise some interesting philosophical (or possibly ethical) questions, though - should we be adding more data to AI's dataset, possibly at the expense of our future by making our current lives a bit easier? Will that speed up AI's inevitable rise as the dominant composer, producer and social media magnate of the piping world? Will the artform evolve and flourish or die and be replaced as a result? And could AI ever replace the raw emotion of a human piper playing human-composed scores? 

And how would this affect live performances, or competitions, perhaps with judges decisions subjected to AI review? Or perhaps even eliminating human judges altogether? 

I would love to hear your feedback about the impending AI-driven future of our ancient artform. Send your comments to billthedoc (at) - I’ll publish these as a collection if we get enough feedback!

1 Jul 2024

It’s the Start of the Competition Year - Again …

So, pipers (and drummers), here’s a question asked nowhere - would you rather perform at a wedding, or compete solo in front of a judge? 

Most, if not all, pipers would tell you they'd infinitely prefer the first. After all, it's far less nerve wracking to play in front of a crowd of appreciative – and already emotional – family members - and you’re usually getting paid for it, too, always a plus - than to perform a technically challenging tune for an expert listener in front of fellow pipers looking to score higher than you.

So what are the dangers of solo competing that our fight-or-flight response would tell us to avoid? 

Will you have to... perform under pressure to an educated audience of skilled pipers? 

Will you have to... face your nerves in a stressful performance environment, and see how your skills hold up under pressure? 

Will you have to... receive targeted critiques that expose your weaknesses?

The answer to all of these is, of course, "yes". But they aren't the "dangers" our fear would tell us they are. 

They're actually spectacular opportunities. 

Competing as a solo player can be daunting – at first. It’s costly - you have to get there, pay an entry fee, stay somewhere, and make the return journey as well. 

And it’s nerve-wracking because your pipes must be perfectly ready with no leaks and great reeds, they must be in tune, your tune must be automatic and polished, and then there is the judge… judging you. 

But it's also an incredible chance to perform for an educated, attentive audience, who can offer unique insight to help you improve as a player. 

At weddings or funerals, the crowd might not notice or even care about whether you play a D throw consistently, or hit that hornpipe strike completely rhythmically. But at a solo competition, you're playing for people who truly understand and appreciate the nuances of bagpiping. Where else can you enjoy this opportunity to demonstrate your abilities, learn from mistakes in a (mostly) supportive environment, and refine your abilities by tackling areas for improvement head-on?

 Adjusting to the competitive environment can be tough, especially if you've had negative experiences in the past, as we all have. Reading critical feedback on a judging sheet can be disheartening, but it's important to remember that the goal is to improve. For the most part, judges' comments will be constructive and supportive. But even if you do receive negative feedback, if taken constructively, it can still help you develop as a performer. Discussing your results with your teacher, pipe major or mentor helps here. 

Another common trap some pipers fall for in solo competing is playing solely for the prizes. Music is a form of self-expression, not just a means to win medals – because at the end of the day, what have you really won? A subjective prize for playing the best on the day in one person's opinion? From personal experience, most prizes don’t begin to reflect the time, effort or funding you have poured into this little hobby of ours, despite the ego feedback “winning” gives in the moment.

If you hang your hat on winning, you're leaving yourself open to major disappointment the time you have a great run at your tunes, but don't place. Maybe the other competitors had better runs that day. Maybe the judge preferred a different tune or was focused on different issues to the ones you felt you nailed that time. Either way, focusing too much on accolades (over our progress as a musician) can lead to burnout and a loss of passion. Instead, enjoy the process, focus on improving your playing, and let any placings be a natural byproduct of your hard work and passion.

It's also important to manage how you receive feedback. Judges aren't there to be mean – they're providing you with feedback to help you grow, not to demoralize you. Consider that they have to listen all day to several dozen pipers at multiple levels of talent playing multiple tunes with pipes that may not be perfect, all nervous as cats, with very few opportunities to stand up, stretch, go to the bathroom, drink a water or even to eat, and you’ll understand why the judge’s comments on your score sheet are often brief, terse and critical. Consider those comments thoughtfully, however, look for patterns or consistent pickups about your playing, and integrate objective, achievable adjustments to improve them into your practice routine once you’re back in your own environment.

If you're considering stepping into the world of solo competitions, embrace the challenges and enjoy the ride!

14 Jun 2024

Hector the Hero

“Hector the Hero” has become a popular fiddle tune in slow 6/8.  Some play it in a more upbeat way, as a waltz, but after learning the history of the tune, I find it difficult to play in any other way than as a lament.

On March 25, 1903, one of the heroes of Victorian Scotland, Hector Macdonald, known as “Fighting Mac,” returned to his room from breakfast at a Paris hotel and shot himself. Two days later, the great fiddler and composer James Scott Skinner wrote one of his most famous and moving tunes, “Hector the Hero.”

Raised in a small town near Dingwall, north of Inverness, Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald had risen quickly through the ranks of the British army, distinguishing himself with feats of daring, discipline and leadership in Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, India and South Africa. There were those who dubbed him the greatest Scottish soldier since William Wallace. Macdonald had been appointed aide-de-camp to both Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, and was feted throughout the UK, though his humble origins did not prepare him for the gushing plaudits of society. His high position in the army was made possible by the Cardwell Reforms of 1871, which allowed for promotion based on merit, and abolished the purchase of commissions in the army by well-off seekers of glory who were not always the most qualified of military leaders.

That morning at the Paris hotel, Macdonald was startled to see his photo in the international edition of the New York Herald, accompanied by a story about “grave accusations” of “immorality” against him. Macdonald, who was commander of British forces in Ceylon at the time, had been given an ultimatum in London by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Lord Roberts (whose life Macdonald had saved in combat in Afghanistan), to either leave the army or clear his name via court-martial. He was on his way to the court-martial when he made his fateful stop in Paris.

Before making that journey, however, Macdonald had paid a secret visit to his wife and 15-year-old son in Edinburgh. Nobody even knew about his 1884 marriage until his wife presented proof to authorities so she could take charge of her husband’s funeral arrangements. This was certainly a shock to Macdonald’s brother, who arrived in Paris to retrieve the body, only to find it gone. It was also a shock to the Scottish societies who then pressured Lady Macdonald to allow a public funeral with full honors. She refused, citing personal reasons and her husband’s wishes. Perhaps in his last visit to her, he had indicated his intentions. We’ll never know. We can only guess, based on the way some in the military had treated him.

After three overnight journeys by ferry and two trains, Hector Macdonald’s body arrived in Edinburgh for a private funeral at Dean Cemetery at 6am on Monday, March 30, 1903. By Lady Macdonald’s strict orders, no military from Edinburgh Castle were permitted to attend. The following Sunday, however, some 30,000 mourners stood in line at the cemetery gates so they could pay their last respects to “Fighting Mac.” Memorials were later built at the cemetery, as well as in Dingwall and Mulbuie.

Three months after his death, Macdonald was exonerated by a commission report stating that no evidence of a crime could be found, and blaming the scandal on “vulgar feelings of spite and jealousy in his rising to such a high rank of distinction in the British Army.”

Channeling the feelings of the nation at the time, James Scott Skinner’s manuscript of “Hector the Hero” describes the tune as “The Coronach – all crying together.” A coronach is a Gaelic keening song, usually improvised at a death, funeral, or wake. The first part of his tune, Skinner wrote, represented a “coronach sighing through the trees,” and we can hear what he means when we listen to Skinner’s own recording of the tune. He played the first part entirely on the A string, with harmonics and slides up and down the string expressing the feeling of heavy sighing. The second part of the tune moves into a mournful and poignant minor key.

Skinner’s “Hector the Hero,” has become a staple of Scottish music. It is a beautiful lament written in slow 6/8 time, which is something like a slow waltz, though a lament is rarely used as dance music. A prolific composer, fiddler, violinist, and dancing master, James Scott Skinner was a Victorian Scottish hero himself, attracting thousands to his concerts, and composing over 600 tunes, many of which are still central to Scottish traditional music. His funeral in 1927 attracted 40,000 mourners, including his friend Harry Lauder, walking behind the pipes of Pipe Major G.S. McLennan.

On the back of the manuscript for “Hector the Hero”, Skinner urgently wrote, “Play in the Kirk on Sunday & get the Minister to announce, as this is a national Calamity – my eyes are full.” He asked his publishers to make the tune available immediately, and managed to include it in his magnum opus, The Harp and Claymore, which was published in 1904. The tune was marked “suitable for pipes – piano – violin.”

My first rather unremarkable encounter with the “Hector the Hero” was merely on paper in The Harp and Claymore. It was when I heard the moving rendition by the great fiddler, Buddy MacMaster, from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, that I realized what a great tune it is.

The tune took on yet more meaning for me when I learned that Buddy MacMaster chose to play “Hector the Hero” for the funeral of his mother. I recently asked Buddy’s niece, Andrea Beaton, in her own right a well-respected Cape Breton fiddler, what she knew about the tune. She wrote that “it’s always been referred to as a funeral tune, as far back as I can remember. It’s how I remember my elders talking about it and where I heard it played most often.” The Cape Breton fiddlers have it right. Skinner wrote the tune as a lament, expressing the grief of a nation.

Skinner himself recorded “Hector the Hero” in 1905, 1910 and 1922. I’m not sure that most contemporary players of the tune know much of its origins, but it has nevertheless become popular for its beauty. It was recorded by the Bothy Band in Ireland in the 1970s, by Celtic Fiddle Festival (a trio of Irish, Scottish and Breton fiddlers), by Tommy Peoples, and by various pipe bands. The Scottish folk-rock band Wolfstone recorded it on fiddle, and the Transatlantic Sessions series features the tune as played by Aly Bain and Jenna Reid. Tony Cuffe and Tony McManus recorded solo guitar arrangements of the tune, and bands like The Munros turned it into an upbeat tune played on electric guitar.

There was hope for more information about Hector Macdonald during the centennial of his death in 2003, since military archive material held by the old India Office in London were classified for 100 years and then released. One researcher into Macdonald’s life, Dr. Kenneth MacLeod of Ullapool, had left an extensive letter about his research with solicitors in Dingwall, and upon his death in Massachusetts in 1998, required the papers to be sealed until the centennial. Alas, in 2003, nothing new was revealed, or perhaps whatever was found was kept under wraps by someone for future release.

Without documentation, the story of Hector Macdonald remains a tragedy clothed in mystery. But thanks to James Scott Skinner, we have a beautiful tune to commemorate “Fighting Mac.”

©2019 Ed Pearlman

Why D-Day Still Matters.

In 2024, American ideals are still worth fighting for.

Eighty years ago, the world suffered because one man in Europe had seized control of his country’s military, industry and the press. He did away with checks and balances by appointing sycophants to run the government and using the courts as instruments of control. He quashed all dissent at home and demonized groups of his own country’s citizens. Once this authoritarian had complete control of the levers of power, he unleashed his country’s might on its neighbors. Europe and the world watched while the countries he invaded crumbled. Some tried to appease and accommodate him but failed. He soon occupied virtually all of Western Europe, including France.

His name was Adolf Hitler.

Britain stood firm. He unleashed waves of bombers and U-boats against Britain.

The United States stood firm. He unleashed more U-boats against the United States, beginning with American ships on the Atlantic coast and then across the North Atlantic.

Thus, 80 years ago, we defended ourselves and our allies by launching a naval armada of some 7,000 ships and almost 160,000 American, British, Canadian and French troops. They crossed the English Channel to land under fire on the occupied beaches in Normandy. Another 13,000 American soldiers came by parachute and 4,000 by glider, all to engage in ferocious fighting on enemy-held shores and in Normandy’s towns, farms, hedgerows and roads. We and our allies had one goal: to take back what autocracy had stolen.  

The price was high. More American soldiers and sailors died on June 6 than were killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By day’s end, 2,501 Americans had been killed, along with another 1,900 allied soldiers, sailors and airmen. These men and women of D-Day opened the beachhead for more than 1 million more American and allied troops to flow into Normandy and Brittany during the next five months. 

When those battles ended, 230,000 allied soldiers, sailors and airmen were killed, wounded or missing. The United States bore the brunt: 29,000 American servicemen and women had been killed; 106,000 more were wounded and missing. 

The price of liberation was high for France as well. Over 12,000 civilians died during the invasion and in the campaigns that followed. Shells and bombs wrecked their villages and cities. Land mines replaced crops and cattle in their farms and fields. The fighting destroyed the harbors and ports and smashed the rail lines. The pivotal city of St. Lô was so utterly destroyed that when Samuel Beckett arrived as an ambulance driver, he designated it “the Capital of the Ruins.” Despite the extraordinary cost of the battles for Normandy and Brittany, grateful French civilians welcomed American soldiers as liberators, as heroes and as friends.

After 80 years, does D-Day still matter?

The opportunity in 1944 for an American army and navy to unravel from racial, religious, economic and political differences was real: Those soldiers’ and sailors’ ancestors had fought each other in America’s most destructive war, the Civil War, 80 years before Normandy. The racial, political and personal convictions left by that war endured in 1944. But the things that those soldiers and sailors had in common endured as well. They had lived together through the Great Depression, with its joblessness and poverty. They had endured the loss of our heartland in the Dust Bowl, with its migrations and abandonment. And they had seen firsthand how their country emerged from those disasters to create jobs, building dams and skyscrapers; manufacturing cars, boats and airplanes; and building railroads. The soldiers and sailors who landed in Normandy lived in a country that provided real hope for them and for their families, not just the bankers, lawyers and doctors, but also the farmers, welders, riveters, fishermen, dockworkers and nurses. 

They were impossibly young. The majority of those who fought and died were in their early twenties. They loved music, dancing, movies and jeeps. They loved baseball. Two semi-pro players who competed against each other in peace are buried within yards of each other in Normandy. 

In sum, they came from a land where freedom meant that instead of dreaming, they had hope for their futures. Instead of wishing, they had opportunity. And despite partisan divides, they knew that it was more important for them to band together to fight, not as Texans or New Englanders, or as children of immigrants, or as Democrats or Republicans or baseball players, but as Americans, united in the belief that some things are worth dying for. They went to war against authoritarianism to preserve the American ideals of liberty and opportunity, goals that America itself had not entirely achieved but knew to be worth the fight.

The immensity of their sacrifices is hard to grasp. Perhaps it is more important to grasp why they were willing to make their sacrifices. The ideals worth fighting for in 1944 are the same ideals that were worth fighting for in 1776, in 1861 and today. 

Elections are all that prevent the establishment of authoritarian governments like that of World War II Germany. There are no free and fair elections in Russia, Venezuela, Syria or North Korea. Their rulers have taken power and, in the process, systematically excluded from participation in their fig-leaf elections those who oppose them. They have removed checks and balances from their governmental institutions. They have appointed judges who find ways to enforce their political will. Their legislatures enact laws that institutionalize them. Their military institutions take up arms against their own citizens.

We are not immune. All that must happen for an authoritarian to take control of the United States is that voters do nothing. History teaches that when any one man can undermine elections, the judiciary, the free press and institutions of government, democracy dies and autocratic rule fills the void. 

Democracy is hard. Our American practice of it often is uneasy and sometimes messy. Even so, our democracy is much better than government by an authoritarian. These ideals mattered in 1944 to the men and women of D-Day and throughout the world at war. They matter as much today. 

And if remembering those who died on the beaches and battlefields of Normandy on D-Day, if visiting their cemeteries to honor and give thanks for their service is painful, we must remember that those men and women are buried there because they fought for democracy and against authoritarianism. 

The surest way for something so bad to happen again is for good people to stand on the sidelines and watch. It also is the surest way to build more cemeteries for the heroic men and women who will be called on to defend what America stands for.

That is why, 80 years on, D-Day matters.

4 May 2024

Practicing Piping in Today’s Really Hectic World

One of the biggest impediments to getting better at bagpiping, I believe, is to stop playing the bagpipe (believe it or not).  It’s really that simple. I probably don’t need to list them off for you, but aside from our duties, responsibilities, and perhaps even our bad or non-productive habits, there is always a need to practice - that is, if we are proactively trying to improve (or at least not get worse). If you are a beginner, practicing is absolutely necessary because a new student has to repeatedly commit to practice, or they will never play well enough to matter. There really isn’t any way around that.

But perhaps if we already reached our initial goals, whether it be playing with a band, playing a favorite tune, or whatever, shouldn’t we set new goals and targets? Or do we let our skills rot away because of excuses?

When a student is young, like between 7 and 27, for example,  they usually have a lot more empty time on their hands. This is a double edged sword because although they have more time to practice, they also have more time to waste. If they are practicing daily, then they have more luxury to not practice as efficiently. Assuming, that is, that they are, in fact, practicing.

As a person gets older and their time becomes saturated with other obligations, then they need to be more committed to scheduled practice if they want to get better. The younger person who once had the luxury of extra time has to either sacrifice time from non-bagpiping activities or get more efficient with their bagpiping practice. This is the prime reason many young people give up their hobbies and outside interests when they get older. And that’s a shame, because younger people tend to have the ability to learn much faster - it’s all about neuroplasticity.

Older adults however, if they are focused, can usually find a few minutes a day to practice. Whether it’s 5 minutes or 60 minutes, they can do it - if they don’t make excuses.

"If you want to do something you’ll find a way, if not, you’ll find an excuse." -Jim Rohn

You see, there’s always something we can use as an excuse not to do something - the phone ‘dings’, the dog starts barking frantically, the spouse wants attention, there’s a document you need to attend to now, and so on.

Piping  practice is perceived to be a low priority problem, not the solution to a quiet mind and a tranquil heart. If you look at practice as a means to break the hold of interruptions, though, all the other intrusive details of our lives become unimportant.

Once the excuses are gone, and assuming you don’t have the luxury of time of a school student, then how do you get the most of your time?

First rule, if time is an issue - DO NOT PRACTICE SOLELY ON THE PRACTICE CHANTER.

Limited time to put in? Just play the actual bagpipes. It is more difficult and exerting to do so. Therefore you are better off doing so if you only have a limited amount of time. Nobody cares about the great highland practice chanter; it’s the bagpipes that count.

Can’t play the bagpipes because of (insert excuse here)? Then figure out a way to make it work. Unless you can't honestly play on the bagpipes, then, and ONLY then, pick up the practice chanter.

The practice chanter is best suited for playing exercises to get the fingers moving, the tune automatic and the timing right. I’ll use it in group settings because that’s really not a good time to have everyone up on the pipes. I understand it is not easy to do this, but if we could work an hour every day on the pipes, and an hour every other day on the chanter, I think we would all be seeing rapid improvement.

However, this depends a bit on your level - the newer you are to the pipes, the more value to the chanter work and the finger exercises. However, you will not master steady blowing and confident playing without many hours on the bagpipe, so by reducing your bagpipe practice time, you are delaying your progress.

It’s your time. Time is limited.

8 Mar 2024

All About Drone Ribbons

The piper stands in full regalia, his pipes tuned, the music of the pipes washing over the crowd. You look at his pipes … he has a tartan sash woven through his drones, fluttering in the breeze and looking tremendous, making the iconic picture even more so. 

What are those? They are called drone ribbons, and they have been around for centuries; the origins lost in antiquity. Most pipers just don’t bother with them. However, think of the iconic bagpiper, and you can’t see the pipes dressed any other way.  Some historians say drone ribbons may be as old as the addition of a second drone to bagpipes, and likely were an identifier for the audience to who the piper’s patron was. Nowadays, though, these strips of fabric just add a decorative flair to your drones. They can be as simple as black for a funeral or a tartan matching your bag cover or as elaborate as flag colors for a national holiday or as wild as tiger stripes.

There is - as with all things associated with the bagpipes - a price for this decorative touch to your drones. Some of the stiffer drone ribbons have been known to act as a sail in a strong enough wind and blow the drones forward right off a piper's shoulder. The ends of even a light-weight drone ribbon have also been known to flap up over a drone top and knock out a drone, and even heavy wool ribbons do this in heavy winds. A ribbon simply passing over a drone top can make it sound unsteady. I know of one piper who experienced this while piping next to a heater vent in a church, adding a loud disharmonious warble to his otherwise beautiful lament! Due to the host of potential problems, drone ribbons are NOT recommended for competition. Drone ribbons also add to the weight of a set of pipes, particularly if they are six feet of 16 ounce wool - remember, that is doubled, because there is one ribbon in front of the drones, and one in back.

Most of us will only use drone ribbons for very special occasions: wedding, funeral or playing for some official event. Bands will often only use ribbons with full military style dress, such as a "Number 1" uniform—spats, horsehair sporran, feather bonnet, etc. Unfortunately, sometimes poor pipers use any distraction they can get to remove attention from their playing, and that can include drone ribbons.

Drone ribbons should never be used wrinkled. Rather than enhancing the performance, much like a wrinkled shirt, it may end up being an unwanted focus. It's best to avoid storing the ribbons with your pipes in your pipe case any longer than you have to. If you can manage store the ribbons flat separately and install them at the venue, that's best. Wool is less likely to wrinkle than polyester or silk which wrinkles badly. Ribbons are best stored loosely rolled or gently folded with nothing on top of them.

How to secure the drone ribbons.

As I said previously, your store-bought drone ribbons come in pairs. One passes in front of the drones, the other behind, and are positioned right over the drone cords holding the drones in place. Some cheaper commercial drone ribbons come with Velcro or snaps pre-installed, which, if you have your drone cords set specifically for your style of playing, can prove quite challenging when attaching them over your cords. Most come plain, with the intention of the piper using whatever method and positioning that he or she prefers.

Methods of securing drone ribbons are almost as varied as pipers. The most common modern methods are Velcro or snaps, but you may also see them tied in place with sewn heavy string (or thin ribbon), or even zip-tied. I have seen ribbons held with safety pins, staples, and other means.

• Safety pins are easily adjustable but may come undone with handling (or heavy wind!) and can often be easily noticed.
• Staples are also easily adjustable, have the same drawbacks as safety pins but also will typically damage the fabric with each insertion and removal. Some pipers use a mini-size staple which helps ease the eye-sore issue, but not the damage issue.
• Velcro, which I prefer because you usually cannot see it, is hidden between the ribbons. Once sewn (or hot-glued) in place it is not easily adjustable although the strips do not have to align perfectly to hold. The only real downside to Velcro is the hook side can catch and fray delicate silk drone ribbons. Snaps or string ties may be a better consideration.
• Snaps are sets of round clips that are sewn onto the inside of the ribbon. They are discrete, they usually hold even under drastic winds, and they are simple to attach and detach. However, they are not easily adjustable and once installed, are considered permanent. (If you do manage to remove them, they leave weakened fabric behind.) Snaps must be aligned perfectly to hold. So-called push snaps are visible on each side of the ribbons and can be distracting. Snaps are available in different colors so it may be possible to camouflage their use.
• Ribbon or string ties are sewn in place so are not easily adjustable, however, they are less work than Velcro to remove and sew again. These you will want near the top edge for two reasons. One, to allow the ribbons to hang down with gravity and second, to allow access to tie them. If they are placed in the middle, thin drone ribbons will flop over and droop, and stiffer drone ribbons will make it difficult to tie them in place.
• Hair bands are a much less orthodox method of securing. These fabric covered elastic rings—about 1" (2.5cm) in diameter—once sewn between both ribbons, slip over the drones and into place. You can either use three (one for each drone top) or four, the fourth positioned for the bass drone bottom section—which requires removing the top sections of the bass drone so it can be slipped over the bottom section. These, like string ties, should be sewn somewhat near the top edge of the ribbons.
Making your own drone ribbons.

Drone ribbons can cost as little as $30 for a quickly made set out of inexpensive material or as much as $80 for a high-quality set out of heavier tartan wool ordered from a email store. Depending on your budget, patience, access to fabric and equipment, you may be better off simply purchasing a set of drone ribbons. But if you can't find what you want, are on a tight budget, or simply have time to kill, make your own.
Choosing material for drone ribbons.

Be careful with solid colors if you are trying to match colors in your kilt, particularly with reds. It's better to go too dark than too light, because any color difference will be less noticeable, but also because it won't show dirt as easily. One approach to using solid fabric is to use one color for the front side and a contrasting color for the back (often dominant colors from the kilt). It's not see all that often, but the effect can be quite striking.

Drone ribbons are typically cut from what's called "tie-weight" tartan, that is, material with an appropriate thickness to make—you guessed it—ties! Enough of this material, about half a yard, can run $30 or more. This material usually comes in a maximum width of 54" (1.4m) which is about 20" (51cm) short of the desired length of drone cords. This means that you will have to extend the fabric, just make sure to correctly match the pattern when doing so. The tie-weight tartan also has a smaller tartan pattern which works nicely with the narrower applications such as ties . . . and drone cords!

Sometimes clan associations already have 2" (5cm) wide tartan ribbon already pre-hemmed. Some pipers prefer a bit wider, but is an acceptable solution.

The poor man's method is to go to a local fabric shop and purchase a roll of tartan ribbon. If they don't have what you are looking for, it's something you can find online, such as by doing a Google search for "Tartan Ribbon".

Cutting and sewing drone ribbons.

Completed drone ribbons are usually between 2" (5cm) to 3" (7.5cm) wide. While you might think it'll look impressive, don't make the drone ribbons much wider or you run the risk of them interfering with tuning—you need a secure handhold on the drone!

You will want to hem the material down each side of the length. You will fold about 1/4" (6mm), then fold the same amount again, hiding the original edge, then it will be sewn. A completed hem is often about 1/4" (6mm). This means before you cut the material, you'll want to add 1/2" (12mm) on each long side to allow for the hemming.

When cutting tartan material, you want the pattern ("sett") symmetrical down the length of the ribbon.

Traditionally, the ends are cut to into a mild "V" shape to create to "tails." This "V" is usually not hemmed and allowed to fray a little bit for decorative effect. Some pipers opt to simply have blunt ends to their drone ribbons.

And there you have it! Look out for heavy wind!

19 Feb 2024

Making Band Practice Count

Sunday practice at the Church was blessed with the unexpected arrival of James and his wife - and Matthew, the P/M of Hub City Highlanders in Hattiesburg. What made this such a pleasure was that James and Matt are simply excellent pipers, which made all of us old folk want to play better and sound better, and James’ wife is an accomplished tenor drummer, so Eyler wasn’t lonely.

Usually, we will hack our way through a few sets and call it done, but this was different because we heard two very accomplished pipers playing our tunes the way they were actually meant to sound. 

James spent time with us tuning our chanters so that the blend was almost perfect, something we have not been doing in forever, and Matt’s participation showed us when to air up, strike in and cut off. All in all, it was one of the best band practices we have had in years.

James and Matt also played their pipes for us, tunes they are working on and tunes they play as part of their own repertoire, and let me tell you, they are excellent musicians. The quality of playing was outstanding. 

It is essential, especially for inexperienced or beginning pipers, to listen to pinnacle players. Hearing correctly executed grace notes and embellishments creates a memory the journeyman piper can compare his or her technique to, and the timing of a perfectly executed (or near-perfect) march, strathspey and reel settles into the memory and creates an increase in standard in our practice as individuals.

Matt asked us if we were getting the most out of our band practices? Honestly, no. Which made me think. Most of us show up like clockwork to band practice each week – maybe even a few times a week. But are we showing up a way that doesn't just improve our own playing, but also helps the whole band to improve?

Imagine you're on a basketball team, and when you get to practice, one of your teammates has showed up without running any drills at home, without warming up, and expecting the coach to give them some instruction on how to shoot three-pointers, because they're still 'not getting it'. Do you think the rest of the team is going to get much out of their hour or so of precious time together when that one teammate is going to dominate the coach's attention, and not be up to the same standard of play as the rest?

The opportunity for the whole group to progress together is lost for the night, because "that guy" needs special attention during time set aside for the whole team.

Band practice is a similar situation. It should be about settling ensemble parts and running tunes, not teaching individuals how to tune their pipes, how to execute the strike in, and stuff that should be habit by now.

There's an old saying – any group is only as strong as its weakest link. And while part of that means helping our less skilled players develop, another huge part of it is taking responsibility for our own commitment.

Being in any ensemble means committing to working on our own individual weaknesses during our personal practice time, so we can arrive at band practice with our individual skills polished, our instrument maintained and ready to play, and our mind focused with a positive attitude and a growth mindset. That way, we're a stronger link, ready to spend that time together ironing out band-level issues. Band practice should focus on developing the group, not the individual.

Whether it's tuning, striking in on the beat, working on transitions and breaks, reinforcing sets and tunes, or just fine-tuning the act of playing together, band practice is where the band as a unit grows, learns, and improves together. Bad practice and lazy preparation transition into poor performance. When the band does perform for an audience, those slap-dash habits are further exaggerated by the stress of performing, and the effect is just poor music. Not something we can be or should be proud of.

So, next time we step into that practice room, bring the right mindset, dedication, and preparation. Know the tunes and the embellishments. Strike the perfect balance between our individual responsibilities and those of the band. Make each practice session count. But most of all, remember we are part of the music, and strive for the sound of competence. 

12 Feb 2024

“Blow Tone” - do WHAAAT?

Has your Pipe Major or instructor ever told you to “blow tone” or “blow steady”, but never really explained what those terms mean or how to make them happen?

Me, neither, but I have sure heard it a lot during my piping career, especially competition feedback, or when pipe majors setting up their bands.

You’ve heard the word “tone” before I'm sure, so it’s easy for you to imagine that all, or at least most, pipers know exactly what the word means.

But do we, really?

On the other hand, “blowing steady” means just that, blowing and squeezing the bag such that the pressure inside the bag always remains constant, regardless of the note being played or the tempo of the tune. I even invested in several fancy gadgets that proved I was blowing steady - a nice constant 22 mm Hg, according to one dial, whatever that means.

Many pipers, unfortunately, believe that blowing steadily and good “tone” mean the same thing. But you can have a remarkable ability to blow steadily, yet produce poor overall tone. How can that be?

The answer lies in how we achieve a great tonal quality of our bagpipe. Really, it’s not just a technique, there’s a bit of physics and dark magic involved. Great tonal quality, or “tone”, occurs not simply by blowing steadily, but by blowing at a high enough pressure that the chanter reed vibrates with such energy that it produces all of its potential harmonics or overtones all the time it is sounding. That’s the physics, right there. Now for the dark magic …

Obviously, to achieve a great tonal quality, we want to maximize those harmonics so they can resonate with the harmonics that our drones produce. The more harmonics and resonance, the more musical our bagpipes become. We call this skill “tuning”, and it is not a skill that is easy to learn. However, once learned and practiced, it is pure magic - a bagpipe in tonal balance is a delight to both hear and play. 

So the big question now is no longer "how steady can I blow?" It's, "how do I find the blowing pressure that produces my chanter reed’s maximum harmonics and resonance?"

Even though this sounds complicated, it's actually pretty easy. Any piper will tell you that every chanter reed is unique, even those made by the same manufacturer. So, each reed has its own "sweet spot," that point of vibration where all the richness of the reed is present.

It's often a surprise to learn how high the pressure needs to be to get to that spot on the reed. The trick is to then ease off slightly while keeping your blowing and squeezing pressure constant. That's where the manometer becomes a handy visualization tool, not for measuring steady pressure, but for finding the “sweet spot” for the chanter reed.

If you can blow consistently at the sweet spot, steady blowing will become automatic and natural, the your pipe's overall tonal qualities will vastly improve. Strive for the harmonics, and the technique of blowing steadily will follow suit.

Discovering the sweet spot is a transformative journey for any bagpiper that will forever improve your bagpipe sound. Just remember that no two reeds are ever alike, and that what might be perfect for your current reed will immediately change when you (eventually) realize that your workhorse reed has finally uttered it’s last crow and blithely pop in a brand new one. Ah, it’s the circle of piping life, right there. 

5 Feb 2024

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect …

Sunday practice this week was utterly amazing. Our drones were all in tune, our chanters all SOOOO close, the cutoffs were crisp and sharp, our rhythm was good … and we played so well, even with all the usual breakdowns, missed and flubbed notes, the occasional reinterpretation of the tune (old habits) and forgetting which second part goes with Corriechollie and which with Terribus …  Our visiting piper friend James was incredibly helpful with his advice and demonstrations, and I felt inspired. 

Do you want to sound just like your favourite pipers? Maybe we all do, to start with. But after a while, most pipers realise that true satisfaction comes from being able to create any musical ideas or interpretations that you want to – not just copying others. James has it. And I confess - I haven’t played in some time, so I am rusty. And jealous. He is SO good, it makes me crazy, because I used to be there. 

Which brings me to the point of this - practicing perfectly. I have gone back to the Green Book, and I am again working through the exercises at about 42 beats per minute. I’m working on accuracy, not speed. It’s boring as f … um, watching paint dry, but it is disciplinary and it is productive. Each time you practice productively, you're investing in skill capital. Building up strong foundational skills (or rebuilding, if, like me, you definitely skipped some of the important stuff in your early development) is the bedrock of having the kind of creative freedom we all strive for.

Practicing exercises repetitively can feel like a 'waste of time' or like you're stepping backwards to work on your fundamentals again. Working on crisp, controlled gracenotes isn't ever much fun, and can feel like boringly tedious work, especially when your bandmates are having fun jamming out tunes at full speed while you're working hard.

But the beauty of investing in fundamentals is that they compound, and complement each other as you (re)develop.

Those gracenotes? Combine them, and you have clean, controlled embellishments in record time. 

That birl? Slow it WAY down, and get it right, to the point you can hit it every time.

Playing new music to practice sightreading? You're also working on cleaner scale navigation, new combinations of melody notes and embellishments, and your understanding of new rhythms and musical patterns.

It's important to remind ourselves of this as we go through the improvement process. It can feel like we're desperately far away from achieving creative freedom while we're working towards it, but if you look carefully as you go, you'll notice that you're already reaping plenty of rewards along the way.

30 Jan 2024

Bagpipes and Upper Respiratory Infections - Just Say No.

I’ve been quite ill for more than a month now - some little upper respiratory virus got the better of me while I was traveling, and I am still fighting the residual cough despite all attempts by my doctor to calm it down. Inhalers, steroids, nasal washes, antihistamines … plus the plethora of over-the-counter stuff my friends and family have provided so they aren’t being disturbed by the constant hacking and throat clearing. It’s miserable. Add to that the fact I haven’t been able to practice - even the practice chanter sets off an hour or so bout of respiratory distress. I do have an electronic chanter which has seen more use in the last 4 weeks than in the last five years, I confess, but it’s just not the same. I can fat-finger embellishments on it and not hear the mistakes, so as far as training is concerned, that’s not entirely adequate. 

There is little (reliable, accurate, medically sensible) information out there about pipers playing or practicing while ill. Much of the commentary seems to be nothing more than opinion, ranging from “suck it up” to “wait until full recovery”. So, as a physician, I consulted colleagues (physicians) who were pipers for their opinions. 

My doctor/piper colleagues were all pretty much in agreement. If your body is fighting off a respiratory illness, let it. Put the pipes down, maybe use the time to clean and hemp, perform maintenance on the instrument, sight read some new tunes. Don’t attempt even the practice chanter if you’re spluttering, sneezing, coughing. Don’t keep stressing the lungs by trying to blow your pipes. In fact, taking a break and just listening to good music for the month it has taken me to get over this latest URI has actually inspired me to make better choices. Plus, since I play with a group of passionate and wonderful people, sending them my gig requests has helped them get some work as well. 

More importantly, it has got me thinking about what precautions we as pipers take to minimise infection. How often do we clean the blowpipes and valves? How airtight is the valve? Do we let the bag dry out fully before packing it away? Is it seasoned with an anti-microbial agent? What about second hand instruments? One thing is sure - the next time some stranger asks to have a go on my pipes, I will have a legitimate reason for saying no!

On the one hand, I've been fortunate to have the experience of having many paid gigs over the last several years. On the other hand, it also means that I've had to endure quite a few situations where, within reason, I had to play a gig whilst feeling ill. No doubt about it, it's awful. And depending on what ails you, in my experience, playing highland pipes can make your condition considerably worse. Canceling an appearance is a real pain, but playing while you’re sick is a bad idea. Aside from the fact you’re spreading the disease, the effects on your system can be harmful.

I distinctly remember a particularly nasty chest cold I had several years ago, and it hit during a series of four days in a row where I needed to play for extended periods. It was a 3-day holiday weekend (Columbus Day I think) plus one more event on Tuesday. For all four days, I played usually half hour stints, 4 to 5 times each day. Whenever I felt like I was improving (headache, body aches, fever, sore throat, etc), I of course would again need to play, after which I felt worse than I did in the first place. By the start of the third day, the lymph nodes in my neck (just below my jaw) started to swell severely. The swelling became so bad that I had difficulty speaking (granted, I'm sure some people prefer me that way), and it was becoming nearly impossible for me to chew/swallow solid food.

I honestly don't know how the heck I survived all the way through the fourth day. I pulled it off, but I certainly wasn't the happier for it. I called out sick from my regular job for the remainder of the work week, as I had another full two days of playing that coming weekend. By Friday, I felt mostly recovered, but the playing from the following weekend brought it all back, and I was forced to call out again. All-in-all, that illness stuck with me for the better part of a month, same as this one. 

From a common sense and medical standpoint, therefore, you need to rest and recover, but also you don’t need to be blowing the snot you’re coughing up all over the inside of your pipes. Think of it this way… you’re supposed to trash your toothbrush after you’ve been sick (I know, I’m too cheap, too, but …)

My experiences of playing even with a common cold is that it makes the cough far worse, so now, I don't bother; I just take the time off. I’m too old to not take care, and I’m very careful with my instrument, considering how much I paid for it, not to be careful about keeping it in top condition. That includes swabbing out my stocks, cleaning out my blow stick and mouthpiece weekly, and keeping the inside of my pipe bag clean and dry.

I'd suggest perhaps just do finger exercises if you're really keen, or get something like a Deger pipe, Blair, Ross or Fagerstrom system that doesn't need blowing, and use that to keep dexterous. The accuracy will return once you’re able to blow your practice chanter without coughing up a lung. Do that for a week, then start back on the GHB once you’re better. That was probably the worst experience I ever had to deal with, but whenever I'm sick, playing highland pipes has proven to be one of the worst things I can do to my immediate health. So if you can avoid it, for your own sake, it's best to wait until you recover.

23 Jan 2024

A Very Short History of Burns Suppers

On the 25th January, Scotland and many with Scots heritage will gather together to enjoy Burns Night. Usually that takes the form of a meal known as a Burns Supper. The rest of the world are probably shrugging their shoulders and asking “What is Burns Night?”

This is a key date in the Scottish calendar. Somewhere between the more low key Saint Andrew’s Day and the bonanza that is Hogmanay. Put simply, it’s a night to remember Scotland’s best loved poet, Robert Burns and has become a celebration of all things Scottish.

First, some history. Even before his death, Burns’ cottage at Alloway, Ayrshire, had been sold to the incorporation, or guild, of shoemakers of Ayr, one of whose members turned it into an alehouse. It was here, on 29 January 1801 (they got his birthday wrong) that soldiers of the Argyll Fencibles (militia) met to hear their band play – and to use the services of his cottage in its new role. 

The first recorded Burns Supper took place at Alloway in the same year, but on the anniversary of his death (21st July). This first supper was organised by the Reverend Hamilton Paul for a gathering of nine ‘honest men of Ayr’. For some years there was a question over whether a woman had been in attendance, as one of those noted had the Christian name Primrose, an uncommon name for a man. It involved a speech and multiple toasts; to eat there was haggis (which was addressed) and, a mercifully lost tradition, sheep’s head, but given the social status of those present, refreshment was probably wine and ale rather than whisky. From records, subsequent Suppers were mostly (sometimes militantly) all-male affairs until far into the twentieth century: a curious slant on Burns’ own life as well as on the first dinner. The ‘toast to the lasses’ was traditionally thanks for the cooking and an appreciation of the women in Burns’ life, only later degenerating into a sexist (often misogynistic) rant, and more recently, a numerous appreciation of Burns’ attraction to the fairer sex.

Celebrations were held twice yearly until 1809 when participants settled on January (25th), because this fell in a slack period of the agricultural year. Commercialisation of his birthplace did little to honour the memory of his life and work, and in 1822 the poet John Keats complained bitterly of how both the ambience and the landlord of the Alloway inn degraded Burns’ greatness.

Any group of individuals can hold a Burns Supper. These blend sociability and conversation, keynotes of the Scottish Enlightenment, with more universal practices such as commensality and drinking. Sociability was (and still is) more consistently promoted by associations. Set up in the early 1800s, Paisley (which has the earliest extant minute book starting in 1805) and Greenock vie for the title of first Burns Club, but after 1810 these associations proliferated. Popularised in the press, Burns Suppers and Burns Clubs were widespread by 1830 not only in his native Ayrshire, but also throughout Scotland. The great Ayr Festival of 1844 enhanced international awareness of the celebration, and the creation of the Burns Federation in 1885 brought together hundreds of Clubs worldwide. There are as many as 400 affiliated clubs nowadays. The first all-female club was founded at Shotts in Lanarkshire in 1920, and the Federation, now based in Kilmarnock, had to wait until 1970 for its first woman president.

Burns died at a time of profound economic, social and political change when writers perceived that Scottish identity was being lost. Romantic and anti-modernist, they found in him a symbol of an allegedly uncorrupted Scotland. Burns became a uniquely elastic symbol over time and space, as valuable to those who did not know his language (English or Scots) as to those who did; from laissez-faire liberals (nineteenth century) to radicals and socialists (twentieth century); from the urban middle classes to the rural working people from which Burns and his inspiration came; from Japanese to those of Anglo-Saxon stock; from temperance campaigners to generous imbibers; from nationalists to unionists. The cult surrounding him has been reshaped multiple times in the more than two centuries since his death. Identities have moulded representations of Burns as much as Burns has formed identities, but Burns has proved a uniquely enduring and accessible icon. Celebrating the centenary of his birth in 1859, the Boston, Mass. Burns Club, founded in 1850, affirmed that there had ‘never been any national, sectional, or other bar to membership’, other than a love of liberty, ladies and republicanism.

Representations of Burns mix the particular and the historically accurate with the general and the fabricated. So too with the Suppers that commemorate him. They have been appropriated to express bourgeois male solidarity and commercial needs as much as universality, though it is possible that the enduring popularity of these gatherings lies in their safely apolitical nature.

It is curious that an invented and reinvented tradition bearing Burns’ name should have become a powerful symbol of Scots at home and, even more, abroad, when another active contribution of his has been so little developed. This was his confident and skillful use of Country Scots. Burns was celebrated in the nineteenth century for preserving a dying language, and the use of Scots dialect is integral with the Suppers. Yet it is another surrendered or suppressed tongue, Gaelic, which has been resuscitated in the guise of an independent ‘national’ language in modern Scotland. This is despite never having been spoken by all Scots, even in the middle ages, and being now spoken by just 1% of Scotland’s population, most of whom live in greater Glasgow.

 — A traditional Burns Night menu

The first course is traditionally soup, either Scotch broth, cock-a-leekie or Cullen skink – all good Scottish recipes using fine Scottish ingredients.

Haggis is then served either as the main course or an intermediate course.

The haggis is accompanied by champit tatties (mashed potato) and neeps (mashed turnip). Sometimes carrot is mixed with the neeps, although this is not traditional. Many suppers now include a whisky sauce to accompany the haggis.

If haggis is the intermediate course, it’s often followed by a main of Scottish salmon, Scottish beef, a steak pie or game such as grouse or pheasant. This would be accompanied by potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Scots are known for their sweet tooth, so “Puddin” is an essential part of the meal! It might be a traditional Scottish trifle or cranachan, a dish of oatmeal, cream and raspberries with a hint of whisky.

Finally, a cheeseboard is passed around, usually with a selection of fine Scottish cheeses such as Caboc, Arran cheddar, Dunlop cheese from Ayrshire (similar to cheddar) or a Lanark Blue, served with Scottish chutneys and oatcakes.

This can be accompanied by port or whisky and followed by coffee and tea, before the speeches begin.

 — What happens at a Burns Supper?

Most suppers start with a grace, most commonly the ‘Selkirk Grace’ attributed to Burns:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!

 — Addressing the haggis

This has become a key part of all Burns Suppers and involves the Addresser, the chef, a piper and 3 glasses of whisky (drams). It’s likely that all guests will be given a dram at this point, if they don’t already have one.

The piper leads the procession of the haggis, carried on a platter by the chef. As they circle the room, guests clap in time to the music. The haggis is presented in front of the Addresser, who will then recite the ‘Address to the Haggis’.

After the poem, the Addresser gives a glass of whisky to the chef and the piper, and invites the whole company to ‘toast the haggis’.

The chef will then take the haggis and leave the room to plate this part of the meal, but sometimes the haggis is passed around the table for guests to help themselves, adding tatties and neeps from large bowls placed on the table.

 — Speeches and entertainment

After the meal, the speeches and entertainment begin in earnest, starting with a toast to the monarch, known as the Loyal Toast.

This is followed by the main toast of the night, to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns. The Immortal Memory should be a heartfelt toast to his life and works. At more formal dinners this speech focuses on a theme of Burns’s works, ending with a toast where all guests are invited to raise their glass.

The next speech will be the Toast to the Lassies, a reflection of Burns’s ‘appreciation’ of women. Traditionally, this should take the form of a witty reflection on the relationships between Burns and his women, then expanded to men and women in general, ending with the men rising to toast ‘the Lassies’.

This is followed by the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies. Nowadays, this speech falls to a selected wife or girlfriend, who will be witty and seek to correct the previous speaker’s assumptions about the amazing creature that is woman, and their sorry lot to be the adult supervision of their men. The speech often ends with rousing applause from the women present, who then rise and raise their glasses to the men, toasting ‘the Laddies’.

At larger or more formal Burns Suppers, there may be further speeches that reflect on the guests and absent friends, Scotland and a formal vote of thanks.

The speeches are followed by entertainment – often including recitations and music, especially pipes and singing. The night should end with a rousing rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and three cheers, marking the end of a successful Burns Night before guests depart.

22 Jan 2024

When are you too old to learn or improve?

I’ve heard it said many times that “I’m too old to learn to play bagpipes” or “I’m past improving my playing”.  I do not accept the validity of these two, or other similar, statements.  I believe that age is not the barrier to beginning or improving that we allow ourselves to believe.

I base this on both my own experience teaching pipers of various ages and stages, which was supported by a recent lecture I attended at the University of Western Sydney, delivered by The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Development at the Bankstown campus.  The topic of the afternoon was “The effects of learning a musical instrument in later life”. The evidence states that learning is a process that starts at birth and ends at death. What startled me most was that the lecturers were able to demonstrate unequivocally that learning something as complex as an instrument actually improved mental and physical health in adults over a certain age. Not only did they enjoy the experience of making music, but their memories improved, their cognitive abilities and social skills were enhanced, and a lot of other benefits were shown - not relevant to this discussion, but you see my point. There is further support for my belief in a fascinating, very readable book, by Dr. Norman Doidge : “The Brain That Changes Itself”.  The ability of an aged brain to adapt, change and learn is often way under-estimated.

Lastly, I myself have experienced some elements of learning later in life, having taken 25 years away from touching a set of bagpipes, between my mid-twenties and 50 years old.  During that time, serving in the military, I suffered a traumatic brain injury - memory issues, lost fine motor skills and cognitive impairments and all - and essentially gave up on playing at all. A neuroscience worker at the VA when I retired persuaded me to pick up the practice chanter again, and while the process of relearning everything I’d ever experienced as a piper was not easy, progress was remarkable, and I absolutely changed my … tune. While I had a lot of mental pathways intact, I had a lot of work to do to relearn as an older musician.  I have felt that experience – and, might I say, been rather successful at improving.  I am now in my early 70’s and I believe I am currently playing better than I have at any time over the last 20 years, just not at the level I used to be at.

In my experience, there are a number of reasons why older learners and musicians don’t improve.  I’ll simplify my thinking a little here to make the points.  I’ll also ignore those players who aren’t bothered to try and improve, although I wonder how many are of that mind because they actually believe they can’t improve.

Of course, there is a little more complexity than this blog post will contain, because this isn’t a course in neuroplasticity of aging, but here are my opinions - your mileage may vary.

First and foremost, we believe that age stops us from being able to learn and advance. In fact, we have that reinforced by people around us all the time.   I have heard of a man in his 60s wanting to learn pipes being told bluntly “You’re too old to learn”. The sheer arrogance of that statement is astonishing, but it seems that people actually believe this. We see younger people learning quickly and conclude that our own slower progress must be due to age.  There is reason to believe that older minds learn differently and may learn new things at a different speed, but the belief that it is an obstacle is a major issue of itself, and is not supported by fact.

Older people don’t practise like younger people. The younger person that advances quickly typically does practise, even though it may appear not.  The trick is in the effectiveness of their approach to practice.  Everybody, young and mature, can gain significant advantage from practising in an effective way. 

Mature people are often distracted from practising by life events – one of the kids is sick, it’s Mary’s speech night at school, Johnnie’s doing his Master’s degree this year so he needs peace and quiet to study. These are life’s realities that restrict practice, but are not because of some characteristic of the older brain. If you practice, even in small amounts, and do it effectively, you can learn and improve, regardless of age. 

A fear of stepping outside of a comfort zone. I know more mature players who have been playing bagpipes for 40 years and upwards and show fear and doubt about trying to do something different.  By definition, if you ain’t changing, you ain’t improving.  If you’re prepared to trust your (presumably competent) tutor and make changes, you can get better. Another aspect of this mind set is when a highly advanced player joins the band, and suddenly you are all aware of how much more you have to do to improve. Accepting the challenge and asking for help goes a long way to making that adjustment - s/he might feel like s/he is unwelcome or out of place. We definitely need to be challenged, and jealousy isn’t useful or helpful in raising the standard of the group. Making challenges a positive experience shows maturity and allows us to grow as musicians.

Mature age people seem to want to build the house before the foundation slab has dried. This is a case of more haste, less speed.   A young person in my experience, will accept what their tutor asks them to do, and just do exactly that. Many pupils I have taught later in their lives are impatient to play and so don’t stop to take the proper foundation steps to learning and improving. As an example, I will ask a pupil to play the first bar of a tune and stop, so we can focus on and exercise particular things. So often, an older pupil won’t stop, will play the entire first eight bars, and the value of that moment will have been largely lost. Not surprisingly, in this manner, a rickety, unreliable, “not quite right” house gets built, and those baked-in habits are extremely hard to break.

Physical disability. The above points naturally assume a body that physically works.  Arthitis, crushed fingers, carpal tunnel syndrome and physical damage to the brain are examples of things that could hinder or even totally prevent someone from learning or improving.  However, too often I hear “My fingers don’t move as fast as they used to” and similar comments as reasons for not being able to learn.  Finger nimbleness comes mostly from the ability of the brain to send the right messages to the fingers, which is not as much of an age restriction as we often believe, but rather a lack of practice. Even an arthritic can play a tune on the practice chanter despite the physical issues of stiff joints, and doing so improves dexterity, mental awareness and all that stuff. 

Over the last fifty years or so, Bill Muzzy and I have developed our methodology for training our pupils which has proven to be very effective in overcoming many improvement obstacles, particularly relating to finger technique.  It is a particular way of engaging deeply with their brains during lessons, and which they can take away with them for their own practice, making it more effective in a shorter space of time.  Some of our pupils have laughingly nicknamed it “brain frying”, but I believe they would all now say they see the value of it.  Note that the methodology involves the tutor’s brain working as hard as theirs – so, a kind of a “mutual frying”.  This methodology is as applicable to the more mature brain as to the younger one.

To conclude this section, before you disrespect yourself by saying you are too old to improve, take note of what I have said and look for ways and opportunities to do exactly that.  And if anyone tells you that you are beyond it, treat them with the (lack of) respect they deserve.  Remember, your music is your hobby to enjoy your way, not theirs.

Making Sense of the Learning Process.

Learning any skill generally involves transferring knowledge and capability from someone else to you.  This can be direct as in face-to-face tuition, mentoring or coaching, or it can be indirect as in reading books or articles, listening to someone playing, or watching what others do.

However you learn, it is wise not just to accept what you see or hear as the correct thing to do, but to assess WHY it is the best thing to do.  In other words, whatever you learn, you should assess if it makes sense. The real question should be ‘does what you’re doing give you that “ahah!” moment, or is it merely going through the motions’?

I have seen many examples of pipers doing something because they have seen someone else do it.  By way of example, there has been a fad of playing D while adjusting drones.  Why?  Because some competent player overseas was seen doing it.  To me, this makes absolutely no sense.  The reason I recommend playing low and high A while adjusting your drones is to provide the least distracting note to be able to ignore its sound while getting the drone to set where the chanter needs it.  I can see my approach makes sense, but I can’t see how playing a D and tuning does, unless it’s part of a chanter riff to ensure the sound is pleasing to the ear. 

I have seen multiple unusual methods and logistics in tuning drones and in tuning bands.  I have seen some highly unusual ways of playing embellishments, as well as some unusual and surprising methods of practising exercises.  The question I always ask is “How does that action or sound make sense?”  Sometimes they do and I take away some new learning, but I invariably ask myself that question if I don’t get the reason right off the bat.

So, as one who is trying to learn new things, it’s good to understand not only WHAT to do, but WHY to do it that way.  When you know WHY you do it like that, you are understanding principles behind things and can then apply those same principles to lots of other situations.

We all need to learn from more experienced players, but always keep in mind that even the most knowledgeable or accomplished players don’t know everything and occasionally do things that actually don’t make sense.  I recently saw a world famous soloist tuning his drones by what I’ll call the “initial two drone” method (tuning a tenor drone while the bass keeps sounding).  While in this case it made sense to the piper, I don’t know whether he did it this way normally, or because he had a sore shoulder and couldn’t reach up to stop his bass drone. We shouldn’t assume the way others do things is necessarily valid; we should certainly always test why they make sense. Many great players achieve good results not because of how they do things, but in spite of them.

The point of all this is to encourage you to increase your learning by making sure that what you learn makes sense as you go.

Bill and I very much take this approach in our music teaching. We teach the principles and the reasons - the how and the why - not just the required actions.  Understanding the reasons why one plays a grip or a birl a certain way, or plays a specific grace note on the beat rather than the sentinel note of a turluath in certain tunes (for example), enables our students to apply their learning to many situations without needing our frequent input.

14 Jan 2024

Can Absolute Rest Be Productive?

After a long, intense competition season or a hard year of playing back-to-back events, do you ever feel a bit tired, bored or burned out? I know that I do. When you're deep into any passion, sometimes a breather feels necessary.

In fitness, it's a must – rest is a necessary part of exercise regimes to build strength and energy over time. In fact, if you go too long without rest during high intensity workouts, you risk injury! And in a creative pursuit like music, constant rehearsals, high-pressure performances, or a relentless practice routine can really suck the joy and inspiration out of what should be an enjoyable hobby.

So, should you take a break from your piping or drumming during the off-season?

The answer is yes... but also no.

Clear as mud?

After a demanding season of performances, you might crave a break from the intensity. I have done it this last year a lot, because it’s been a series of cruises and travel that has literally eaten about 6 months out of my playing time. But a total break is not be the golden ticket for everyone. From personal experience, skipping practice sessions for too long creates inertia, making it a challenge to return to your usual routine. Tunes get forgotten, fingers get slower and embellishments become sloppy. Your pipes themselves become inefficient without use, requiring increased maintenance and tuning. And the longer you steer clear of your instrument, the more intimidating it becomes to pick it up again. So don't leave it too long!

If you're finding the lure of TV on the couch, or a trip to the market, or anything else you use as an excuse for not restarting your daily practice, more appealing than picking up your instrument after a festive season hiatus... maybe you just need a bit of a break from the intensity and pressure, but not necessarily from making music. Play one tune. Remember the pleasure playing the pipes brings, and relax. Start slow, redevelop the routine, and be gentle on yourself - we are always our own worst critics, so just play for pleasure and leave the criticism for a week or so.

Use this time for lighter, less demanding music-related activities to reignite your interest. It could be as simple as taking ten minutes for practicing just one tune per day, exploring some new music, experimenting with another instrument, or even just listening to some great piping tunes. The off-season is also a great opportunity to reflect on your process, work on techniques, do routine maintenance on your pipes, or even watch YouTube videos of performances. If you feel so burned out at the end of the season that you feel the need take a complete break, ask yourself – why are you feeling that way? If high-pressure or constant performances have left you drained, maybe you need to adjust your approach during the season to reduce the intensity, so you're able to sustain momentum and consistency even after the big gig or contest is over.

We all need a bit of downtime now and then. But taking a total break for an extended time can make it much harder to get motivated again... if at all. It’s too easy to stop completely, but the effort of restarting is even more challenging. So take this time to reflect, relax, and strike a balance with lighter intensity, more creative pursuits that keep you connected to your passion while you enjoy a well-deserved rest from the high-pressure stakes of intense performance prep. Bagpiping and drumming, like any passion, should bring joy, not feel like a tiresome chore.

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P/Sgt COL. (Dr.) Bill Christmas