Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Monthly Archives: February 2008

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You’re traveling without what???

As you may have guessed from the title, I am traveling. I’m off of school this week (February vacation), and have traveled to Virginia to spend some time with the girlfriend and the parents. I’m still there, writing this post on an ancient (and dying) hp laptop, far from my beloved Macbook.

So what am I traveling without? Two things actually: the first you might guess from the last sentence, and that is my computer. Staying in a resort in the Shenandoah valley without wireless internet (at least without free wireless internet), and not really needing my computer to do schoolwork, I decided to leave it at home to make one less thing to travel with. I have missed it a little bit, but it’s kind of nice find things to do that don’t involve a wireless internet connection.

The second item is the big one: my bagpipes. This is the first time in recent memory that I have traveled without pipes, and for much the same reason that I left the computer at home. Staying in a condo I thought I’d let the neighbors have a little peace and quiet; besides, the resort’s policies specifically prohibit “loud and annoying activities.” I don’t think the pipes are annoying, but they are definitely loud.

So I feel somewhat naked traveling without those two items, but it’s a lot easier to get through the airport with only one bag. Besides, I have plenty of time to waste when I get back.

The answer

The title of my last post posed a question, and the answer is: a lot. We ended up playing two rounds of the trivia contest last night, and won both rather handily. The first game was against a group of lawyers from a local law firm, and the second game was against a team of elementary school teachers. The second game was a lot closer and all came down to the choice of categories. In both games we were able to build a big lead by choosing the right category of questions: in the first game our categories were Sport and Geometry, in the second game it was Math. We were also able to steal quite a few in the first round, so we’ll advance on the the third round. That game will happen on March 14. The games are shown on TV, and if they happen to find their way onto YouTube I’ll be sure to post them here.

Just how much useless knowledge do we have?

We’re setting out to answer this question this afternoon. Reprising our role as a team of three nerds in the Mount Washington Valley Dollars for Scholars Trivia Contest, myself and my fellow teachers and friends Chris and Joe will be taking on another team fielded by a local school, business, or organization to see who knows the most useless stuff.

The games take place at a local TV studio and will be shown over the next few weeks, and consist of three rounds of ten questions each, then a final round of one question. The first round is untimed, but incorrect answers give the other team a chance to steal the points. The second round has a time limit of around 60 seconds, and the third round is toss up questions. In the final round each team wagers a certain number of points and writes their answer on a small white board.

We found last year that we have a very strong team, as we swept through five rounds. Our strengths emerged thusly:
Joe: pop culture, music, movies, sports, math
Chris: geography (especially world capitals), science, math
Nate: science, the Bible, Monopoly, math, area codes

We had a few beefs with the contest last year. First: in a different game, the correct answer to a question was “Edinburgh,” as in the city in Scotland. The contestant responded with the correct pronunciation: Edinboro, and the host nearly didn’t give them credit because her card said “Edinburg.” Argh!
Second: a question posed to us in tossup round in the final game was “In what state would you find Andrews Air Force Base?” I buzzed in and answered “Maryland;” being from that particular state, I’ve driven past the place several times and know precisely where it is. I was told that I was wrong, the other team was awarded points for their answer of “Virginia,” and we ended up losing the game. After the fact it was researched and it turns out, lo and behold, that I was right! What kind of idiot makes a quiz show and doesn’t research the answers? Apparently, the kind of idiot I’m on my way to see tonight.

So I’ll keep you posted on how the contest goes. Let’s hope they a) have hosts who know the correct pronunciation of words, and b) have the right answers to all the questions.

One of those rare days

Usually when I practice, I finish feeling sweaty and exhausted. I just finished playing today, and for a change I’m feeling sweaty and exhilarated. It was a rare practice session when my fingers were working pretty well and the pipes were sounding really nice, and after 45 minutes with nearly rock-steady drones I’m feeling almost prepared for my first competition. This is really exciting because the first competition is over eight weeks away, and if things keep going like this I have a feeling I might play pretty well. It’s very exciting!

The lies they told us in school

I don’t remember much about my kindergarten experience, except that it wasn’t really my thing. I never did like to draw, color, sing, or do any other fun stuff like that, and the parents always put me in morning kindergarten (back when it was only a half day), so I was never awake. Maybe another reason I didn’t like it, but didn’t realize it at the time, was the lie that was perpetrated for generations before me that Columbus sailing to the New World proved the Earth was round.

I still don’t see any great reason to celebrate Columbus Day (except for the day off school of course; I’ll never turn one of those down). He missed his target by 12,000 miles (not to mention a whole ocean), never actually landed on the mainland of either continent of the Americas, enslaved the natives, and due to his navigational prowess gave them a name that lasted for centuries: Indians. One thing he did not do, however, was prove the Earth wasn’t flat.

Granted I don’t know the opinion of the common person, but it was a well-known fact among the scientific community that the world was nowhere near flat. A few indicators: when a ship sailed over the horizon, the hull disappeared before the sail. During an eclipse, the shadow of the Earth on the moon was clearly round. The north star Polaris is close to the horizon at the equator. Shadows don’t all point in the same direction.

The shadows thingy mentioned above was actually used to calculated the circumference of the Earth by Eratosthenes some 200 years before the birth of Christ, and he got it pretty close (within 5%-15% depending on which definition of the stadion you go by). This measurement came several hundred years after Pythagoras and Plato had decided the Earth was round, although they didn’t have any evidence besides their own reasoning).

I’ve asked around a bit, and most of my American students weren’t taught that Columbus disproved the flat Earth. That means that somewhere in the ten years between my kindergarten experience and theirs, someone seems to have gotten their heads together and started teaching the truth, or at least not telling outright lies.

Why I wish I lived in Scotland part 2

The National Piping Centre in Glasgow has announced their spring recital series, and it’s another reason I’d like to live in Scotland. As you’d expect from The Piping Centre, the lineup is pretty impressive. There are two in particular that strike my fancy (though of course I’d like to go to all of them): March 6 with Fred Morrison and Finlay MacDonald, and on May 22 with Angus MacColl and Gordon Walker.

Fred and Finlay are both very talented highland pipers w`ho are branching out: Fred is exploring the border pipes and Finlay with adding the highland pipes to other ensembles. As you can see from the vids, they’re both very good at what they do.

Angus and Gordon are among the top of the solo pipers today. They’ve combined for an impressive resume at the most prestigious contests, and any recital by either of them would surely be an afternoon of some of the best piping on the planet. A single recital with both of them will be the type of event that doesn’t happen very often. What a birthday present that would be!

Back to blog roots/A new tuner

I’ve decided to make this blog more focused on piping. Although I will still blog about other things that are on my mind, I’m thinking that maybe if I try to put in more piping related posts I might have bagpipes on the brain, which would make me more inclined to practice. We’ll see how that goes.

So here we go.

It was brought to my attention last night that there is a new electronic bagpipe tuner on the market. It’s made by Mark Saul, a well-known name in the piping scene, and is somewhat revolutionary. First let me give a rundown of what else is out there.

1. Ears. The first bagpipe tuner, always available and very cheap. It takes a long time to develop a good ear and tune effectively.

2. Korg Chromatic Tuner. A good low cost option. It’s not specifically designed for pipes, but works well to set the low A in a band and quickly tune drones.

3. Yamane Bagpipe Tuner. A very nice tuner, but not at all low cost. Made specifically for the pipes, the analog scale makes it easy to read the pitch, and it’s easy to calibrate without worrying about numbers. It’s not affected by background noises that can throw off the Korg, but again in a band setting it’s really only good for setting the Low A and drones.

The new tuner by Mark Saul is a complete reinvention of the process of tuning the bagpipes. It’s designed to tune each chanter note individually, as well as each of the drones. It mounts on the blowpipe stock for easy viewing, and its pickups mount to the stock of each drone and the chanter with regular electrical tape (which every piper should have lots of). The estimated retail price is $300 US, toward the upper range of the prices, but it’s more versatile than the Yamane listed above. It can be a valuable teaching tool and really handy for tuning bands, especially lower grade bands. There are some videos on YouTube showing demonstrations of the tuner.

The bad news is that when used by a band, Saul suggests that every member of the band have this installed on their pipes. That makes for a significant investment on the part of the band. With the tuners listed above, a band can easily get by with just one unit for the band.

So this brings me to my thoughts on tuners in general. They’re fine for a band, but I don’t recommend them for players tuning for solo work. I shudder when I see soloists, usually in the lower grades, using a tuner to get ready for their competitions. First, the chanter only needs to be in tune with itself; unlike most (ok, all)other instruments, it doesn’t have to match a pre-determined concert pitch. Second, as you use the tuner, your blowing pressure (especially for lower grade players) is almost guaranteed to change from tuning to performing. Changes in pressure drastically change the pitch, and if you tune at one pressure and perform at another the tuning is all for naught.

The big reason I don’t like to see soloists tune with electronic devices is this: I feel a good piper should be able to tune chanter and drones by ear. A tuner can help a piper get in tune, so he/she becomes used to what a well-tuned pipe should sound like, but there’s also a tendency to tune with the gadget then not think about tuning after that. After all, if the gadget says it’s in tune, it must be. Players need to keep in mind that the judge is listening with ears, and will comment on poorly tuned pipes regardless of what the tuner says. No matter how cool gadgetry gets, a piper needs to be able to tune his/her own pipes by ear. If the ear knows what to listen for, you never get a false reading, and if the batteries run low you have bigger troubles than an out of tune set of pipes.

So the bottom line on tuners is this: when used wisely by someone who can tune pipes by ear it’s a valuable tool in a pipe band’s arsenal, but shouldn’t be relied upon exclusively, and the solo player should use it sparingly and only as a practice tool. That’s my two bits.