The early life of a late-start bag-piper

I was always a lazy bugger, and learning to play an instrument entails a lot of practice. So after learning a few chords on the guitar as a teenager, I decided and declared that I would never be a musician and gave it up as a bad job.

But when I retired 50 years later my world changed a bit. I am a South African by birth, but there was some Scottish blood in the ancestral line and we grew up in a household where a lot of Scottish music and poetry was heard. My dad played the bagpipes and so did my uncles, i.e. Dad’s brothers. We learned to love the Scottish culture and when I retired and finally had time to do these things, I joined the Caledonian society in Cape Town. They had a group of members who were being taught the chanter by the society’s honorary piper. I did not think I had a hope in hell of learning to play at 70 years old, but I joined the chanter group and have been attending lessons for 2 years now. One starts on the practice chanter, a small wind instrument that makes use of a plastic reed (two plastic blades vibrating against each other) to produce its characteristic but unusual sound. It has nine finger-holes on the pipe below the reed and when one blows air down the blowpipe end, it passes over and through the reed, sets it vibrating and produces musical notes. The distance from the reed to the open holes decided what pitch a note will have and it is possible to play musical scales up and down the chanter although the intervals between the notes are not the same as on modern instruments.

Chanter_1
Practice chanter

The practice chanter with its plastic reed can be played inside an apartment without disturbing the neighbours. That is why it is called a practice chanter. One problem with the practice chanter as a performing instrument though is that the musician cannot blow endlessly into the blow-stick without pausing for a quick breath. But the music does not usually allow for breathing stoppages so the effect on the listener is not very salutary. Another problem with the practice chanter is that it plays only single notes at any one time. Some notes are played very fast in quick sequences and this helps to make it more interesting but one cannot play chords on it. Both of these shortcomings are addressed to some degree by the addition to the chanter of a bag full of air and 3 other pipes that produce droning sounds at two different pitches. These harmonize with the chanter in different ways on different notes and make it sound much more colourful. So the whole ensemble resembles a sort of 5 armed octopus of quintopus if you prefer.

Neal playing the bagpipes
First lesson on the full set of pipes

Here is a picture of yours truly with his brand new set of bagpipes trying to learn the not-easy technique of keeping the bag full of air, squeezing it under the arm with a constant pressure and actually trying to play a tune all at the same time. The actual full set of pipes does not use a plastic chanter reed as with the practice chanter. It uses a reed made, would you believe it, of a special type of reed (or cane). It makes an extremely loud sound which cannot be produced in an apartment without raising a lynch-mob, and in addition, the three drones all have reeds in them as well. The sound produced has a primal quality to it that would scare off most enemies, but it is balm to the Celtic soul.

How am I doing with my learning? Well it is conventional wisdom that it takes a young man with a good ear and attitude 7 years to learn the basics and he then enters a second seven year period in which he strives to become a master. I quote from the ‘Highland Bagpipe Tutor Student Manual’. “Actually, there is an old quotation that starts ‘To the make of a piper go seven years… At the end of his seven years one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and leaning a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs.’ (Neil Munro from The Lost Pibroch 1896) This quote reflect not only a much earlier practice of several years of apprenticeship and indenture to learn the art, but also a contemporary reality.” 

I started at 70 and had never previously shown any musical talent so let’s just say I am about where I probably should be. I have learned to read pipe sheet-music however and with a bit of practice each day, my teacher is happy with my progress. The main thing is that I really enjoy it and it adds meaning to the tapering down phase of a busy life.

One of my favourite pipe tunes goes by the name of “Black Bear”, so I have mischievously created the calling card below

Black bear calling card web

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