Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Taking it to the next level

Improvement in piping is about incremental progress. It’s frustrating when you work hard and you never seem to get any better, but the truth is that you’re improving whether you realize it or not. Try an experiment sometime: record something you’re working, then record it again in a few months, and compare. You’ll see progress, I promise.

Sometimes, though, change can come much more rapidly. Maybe it’s a new way of thinking about an embellishment or a tune. A statement from your instructor might just make everything make sense, or a bit of wisdom from a fellow player might make it suddenly click. That’s not to say that you’re ready to play for a gold medal, but there’s a steeper slope in your improvement curve that really helps your playing.

A change to your instrument can also help. Maybe a new chanter is the ticket: it has just the right tone, or the shape or hole spacing is just different enough that it fits your hands better. A new reed might do it too. I’ve had some chanter reeds that are a joy to play, that make the whole chanter resonate under your fingers like it’s alive. If you find one of those, hold on to it for as long as you can.

What did it for me recently was new drone reeds. For almost all of my piping career, I had played eZee drones. They’re a great reed, and they served me well for many years. At the beginning of this year, however, I decided to make a change. Based on a recommendation that they would work well with my pipes, I went for Crozier drone reeds with glass fiber tongues. [Note: apparently the glass fiber reeds are no longer available. From what I’ve read the carbon fiber tongues are equally stable but a little buzzier]

It took about a week of playing for the reeds to settle in, and they have been fantastic. In short, they have the holy trinity of requirements for drone reeds: they are easy to work with, sound great, and stay in tune.

They’re as easy to set up and adjust as the eZee drones, unlike some others that require a hex wrench and seem to need their own pit crew. At first I had trouble getting them in tune and almost gave up. I finally figured out that they have a much wider harmonic range than the Ezees, and I wasn’t used to hearing that when tuning. Once my ear developed a bit I was able to get them in tune, and when I did it was a “Holy geez” moment. My pipes have never sounded better.

There were two correlated benefits that came from these reeds. The first is that I really had to fine-tune my chanter to blend with the drone harmonics, resulting in a much more refined bagpipe sound. The second is that they are less susceptible to changes in blowing pressure, and I’ve had to learn how to blow to keep the chanter in tune with them. So changing my drone reeds has led to an overall improvement in my pipe sound.

It’s paying off in competition, too. I won the first competition I played with them, and that was the first piobaireachd competition in which my pipes were fully in tune at the end. In a more recently competition, the judge told me after the event that of the eight players in the event there were only two people whose drones started in tune and stayed that way, and mine were one of them.

So for me, this has been a great investment in my piping, and is a reminder that what has worked in the past isn’t necessarily the best option.

A piobaireachd for your Saturday

This recording popped into my life last week, and if you’re a fan of piobaireachd it may be worth a listen. The tune is The MacKay’s Banner, the player is me, performing for judge Ian MacDonald at in the grade 1 piobaireachd event at the British Columbia Pipers’ Association Annual Gathering on April 3, 2015 in Surrey, BC.

This was the winning tune, and I was obviously quite happy with that. Happy listening!

Check off one more state

You may have been following my Piping Quest, in which I am checking off each U.S. state in which I play, with the ultimate goal of collecting the whole set. This week while at a conference, I was able to play in Hawaii, bringing my total to 23 states plus Washington, D.C. and a few other places.

I had been in contact with the proprietor of several Irish pubs in Honolulu, including Kelley O’Neil’s in Waikiki. A short walk from my hotel, I played for a while before the band started up. I even got a couple of free drinks out of it!

A letter of apology to my reed

Dear Reed,

It’s been a few months since I’ve thought about you, and for that I’m sorry. That was when I pushed you to the side and started looking elsewhere for the same happiness I had with you. I was at my best when we were together, and then I started thinking that maybe our best days were behind us. That was a mistake on my part, and I’m sorry.

The funny thing is that I don’t even know what you are, or where you came from, or when we first got together. It’s been at least two years, I know that, possibly even more than three. Our early time together wasn’t rough, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. We worked it out though, and once we got used to each other you became the one thing I’ve always wanted: a rock-solid reed that was the perfect mix of strength, tone, brightness, and balance. I knew that when I started playing my chanter sound would be nothing less than fantastic. That feeling of confidence when I would pick up my pipes was truly empowering, and I really was at my best when we were a team.

Then things started going south. It wasn’t anything you did, just the normal course of aging, and I started to be unhappy. That was a mistake. I thought the grass could be greener, and had forgotten how long it took to find the happiness you and I had. I looked for that happiness with three others, and while they were ok they couldn’t replace what you and I had. That grass was definitely not greener.

Then my thoughts turned back to you. You’ve always been there, in my reed case, even when you were shunned, waiting for me to see the error of my ways and come back. And when I did, your response was the best I could have possibly imagined. You took me back without shame, without arguing, and without spite. Those first few notes reminded me what I had been missing, and thank you for being so awesome.

So I want to apologize for trying to replace you, and I want to say that you for taking me back. Even after not being played for several months you are better than any of the others ever were, and now after a few sessions I see that it was a mistake to ever push you aside. I realize now that what we had was something truly special and not easily replaced. You have apparently forgiven my cheating heart, and for that I am grateful.

I feel like we can still go great things together, and I’m truly, truly excited by that thought.

With much love and gratitude,


Keydet is under construction

You may notice that the site looks different, and that’s because there’s an upgrade and transfer in progress. The appearance won’t change much, but it will take me some time to get all the photos, videos, and sound files associated with the correct posts. In the meantime, if you come across a Piobaireachd Wednesday tune you’d like to hear, shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to get that up in a timely fashion.


What motivates you to compete?

A friend of mine is working on an academic paper, and recently asked me what motivates me to compete. I’m not doing as many solo competitions as I did in the past, but it’s still a valid question. There has been a lot of discussion on the merits and drawbacks of competition, but that’s not the topic of this post.

The question was simply this: What motivates you to compete?

My response to him was this:

Solo competition is one of the few opportunities a piper gets to play for a truly informed audience, even if that audience is only one person. For me, solo competition is a chance to get an assessment of my playing ability from an objective source.

Solo competitions give me a reason to practice. Unless I have a performance coming up, I’m not likely to get the pipes out to just play, like how in school I wouldn’t sit down and do math problems unless they were assigned (although I have to admit that that now that sounds kind of fun). Preparation for a competition also keeps me honest in my playing, to make sure that I seriously practice and don’t just play. When I know the audience knows what it’s supposed to sound like, I’m pretty inspired to practice hard to make it right.

I also found competitions a chance to build character. It’s terrifying to be in front of a judge, and when you willingly subjecting yourself to that you learn a lot about yourself. I love the feeling of being nervous, and it’s so satisfying to mentally conquer the fear, suppress the nerves, and play a good tune. It’s a rush, and honestly that’s what I enjoy most about competing.

So what about you? What motivates you to compete?

More evidence that the piping world is full of good people

I’ve commented before that pipers and pipe band folk tend to be good people. Anyone who has spent any time at all around a pipe band will recognize this: bands are just fun to be around, and are generally full of good people.

Another thing about pipe band folk is that they tend to be people of integrity, and love to do the right thing. An example surfaced recently as a Scottish band found itself with some extra money and decided to donate it to charity.

The West Coast Highlanders of Scotland Pipe Band was a cobbled-together group of folks from various bands. I should probably mention that the extra money they had lying around was prize money from their first competition. How great is it that they won the first competition they entered?

Oh, and by the way, that competition was the Worlds. Yeah, Grade 4B World Champions, right there. No big deal.

So they got together and had a vote, and unanimously decided to donate all £1000 of their prize to the Bone Cancer Research Trust.

Talk about above and beyond the call of duty.

So why that particular charity?

After the Worlds last year, Fiona Morris was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Fiona is a tenor drummer with Boghall and Bathgate Caledonian Pipe Band; you may know them as the band that placed second at the World Championships a few weeks ago. She went through a barrage of chemotherapy treatments, lost her hair, nearly lost her leg, underwent surgery to replace a section of her bone with a titanium rod, and battled back to join her band in time for the competition season.

She’s been in every one this season. Fighting spirit.

In May, Fiona announced a fundraising campaign for BCRT after her experiences. The pipe band world picked up the banner and ran with it, gleefully buying the wristbands that Fiona was promoting and holding raffles and auctions. She set up a donation page with a goal of £500; that goal was met in a very short time, and as of this writing has exceeded that goal by £10,000.

Not bad, piping world, not bad at all. Keep doing the right thing.

Reflections on 15 years of piping

It occurred to me recently that as of today, I have been playing the pipes for a decade and a half. It was 15 years ago today, on August 18, 1998, that I had my first lesson on the practice chanter. Twelve months after that date, I had learned a bunch of simple tunes, traveled to several places in the US to play, and traveled to Scotland, where I heard (and met!) some of the best pipers and bands around.

I will say that I was extremely fortunate to have been taught correctly. My first instructor, Burt Mitchell, is an incredibly talented piper who was himself taught by some damn fine pipers. It’s thanks to him, in no small way, that piping has been as important to me as it has for the last 15 years.

I’ve lived in a number of different places since I started, and in every one of them the piping community has opened doors for me. Some of my best friends are ones I’ve met through piping, and if it hadn’t been for this odd little hobby I’m certain our paths would never have crossed.

I’ve been able to travel thanks to piping, and that’s what led me to start this little map; as of this writing, I’ve played my pipes in nearly half of the United States. I’ve been to Scotland twice, and 50% of my visits to Mexico and more than 85% of my trips to Canada were either specifically for piping or because I was a piper.

But most of all, I’ve enjoyed the simple act of playing. When I played the trumpet in grade school, practicing was a chore. With the pipes, I don’t feel that way; they’re just fun to play. I love setting up shop in a small corner of a park somewhere and getting lost in the music for the next hour.

When I was talked into playing the pipes 15 years ago, I never dreamed there was this much to it, or that I would become so engrossed in this world. Call it serendipity if you like, but I’m glad it’s happened, I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad I share a small part of it with you. Thanks for reading!

Don’t miss the Worlds!

This is Worlds weekend, and as far as I’m aware the grade 1 contest is again being streamed live around the world.

This year the format is different, with all grade 1 bands playing a medley and an MSR in a qualifying heat on Saturday and the top 6 bands in each heat playing another medley and MSR contest on Sunday. There’s been a lot of discussion about this new format, including some criticism in how the changes were decided upon and made public, and it will be interesting to see how it’s received.

In the meantime, this is pretty much what I feel like, along with everyone else who would rather be there than watch it on the computer:

Courtesy of Pipe Band Jungle.

Can you print a set of pipes?

I posted the other day about replacing the sole on my practice chanter by using a 3d printer to make a new one, and that got me to thinking. I don’t know much about the technology, but it’s pretty clear that the machines are becoming more affordable, and therefore more widespread, and their products are starting to show up everywhere. Online communities have sprung up to share ideas and sell products, people own them to make useful (and useless) things for themselves, and the company I work for was presented with a model of the reactor we’re designing that was made with a 3d printer.

Sooner or later the 3d printing is going to make its way into the piping world. The logical follow-up to my practice chanter sole is adornments like ring caps and projecting mounts, but what about things that contribute to the sound, like bodies for drone reeds? Or the tongue for that matter? Reeds for a practice chanter, or even a pipe chanter? A whole set of drones?

If you can build a CAD model of something, you can print it, and the pipes present some pretty simple shapes that are well within the capabilities of a 3d printer.

Now I’m not saying this is necessarily a good idea, but you never know until you try. If you hear anything along these lines, please let me know.