Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Monthly Archives: February 2009

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Louder than bagpipes

It’s a documented fact that bagpipes are loud, and it has even been discussed on this very site. In many cases the sound is not overbearingly loud, even indoors (with the right conditions), but there’s no mistaking there’s a piper nearby. Turns out, though, there are some things that are louder than bagpipes. 

Example A: Drunk people. Several years ago, I played at a bar on St. Patrick’s Day with a few friends. There were five of us, and we were standing in a circle with our chanters nearly touching. I was playing the pipes myself, with four other pipers within five feet of me, and I couldn’t hear bagpipes. It’s probably one of the loudest situations I’ve ever been in, and it was just screaming people. 

Example B: Teenagers. Tonight I played for Fryeburg Academy’s Winter Carnival Dance. The dance took place in the school’s new fieldhouse, which is a massive structure, and I led the processional as the queen’s court was introduced. The screaming and applause of a few hundred teenagers were so loud that the sound of the pipes was drowned out for all but the very closest people. I could barely hear the pipes myself, and I was playing them. 

Interestingly enough my colleague who was announcing the court said she could hear me as if I were standing right behind her.  She was halfway across the room, on the other side of the mob of dance goers, so it must be some trick of the acoustics in the building.

Apples to Bagpipes?

I was playing a game of Apples to Apples yesterday; great fun, highly recommended. I was judging this particular round and the green card that was flipped up was “Perfect.” One of the red cards played was “Bagpipes.” If that’s not a clear winner, I don’t know what is.

Death of the paper era?

I’m reading a book at the moment, and it’s very entertaining. Terry Pratchett is a very entertaining writer with a nice dry sense of humor, very much in line with Douglas Adams, another of my favorite authors. The book follows the adventure of an unwilling postmaster as he struggles to restart the derelict post office in the city. It has been made obsolete by the Clacks, a system of signal towers linking cities in the world much like telegraph lines. Where it would take several months to deliver a letter to a distant city by coach, the Clacks can relay the message from tower to tower and have it arrive in a few hours. The post office still has a chance because the Clacks has become inefficient, unreliable, and corrupt. If you’ve read the book, don’t tell me how it ends because I’m still working on it (3/4 through).

With the advent of all the high tech gadgets in our lives today, there has been some discussion about eliminating all paper from our lives. This would basically serve the purpose of making landfills very happy, paper companies very upset, and crossword enthusiasts very confused. It would also change my job quite a bit; it’s much easier to solve a physics problem with a pencil and paper than on a computer screen. I don’t think we’ll see a completely paperless society, at least not in the near future, but there have been some important changes. 

I’ve actually been largely paperless for some time now. You’d never know it to look around my apartment or desk (I am a teacher after all), but I do my best to not add new paper things. I no longer get paper statements from the bank or paper bills from credit cards or utilities. I barely look at bills besides the amount I owe and when I owe it by, and it just makes more sensitive waste that I need to be careful about throwing away. 

How do I survive you might ask? I get by. The phone still works and no one has come to take my car back, so I can only assume the payments I make electronically get to the correct recipient. I get a little upset when people send me something “for my records;” I’d much rather have an electronic copy of a document that paper. Two reasons: my cell phone can’t hide under it, and things don’t get lost on my computer. 

So the point of this is that while the amount of mail I get hasn’t changed a whole lot, them amount of worthwhile mail I get has decreased quite a bit. Lots of credit card offers, lower car insurance, and, as I’ve noticed while delivering mail to the boys in the dorm, lots of information from colleges. Most of these things don’t get read carefully, some don’t even get opened, and all but a very few of them will be discarded within an hour of them entering my apartment. I get quite a few letters addressed to me, but very few that I will actually read.

I figure that something like 91% of the written personal correspondence concerning myself these days is handled by email (text messages make up approximately 4% of the rest). It’s better in many ways: cheaper (read: free), faster, doesn’t clutter landfills when deleted, and gmail does a better job of filtering junk messages than the USPS. Better though it may be, getting a picture of an envelope on your computer screen just doesn’t match the excitement of getting a real envelope in the mail.  

Perhaps this post should be titled “Lament for the Decent Mail,” or “Death of Written Personal Correspondence.” You decide.

They all sound the same

There has been discussion in the piping community about how to expand the art, and to increase bagpipe appreciation among the casual listener. Especially in something like piobaireachd, piping seems to be a very niche art with a (relatively) few dedicated members, surrounded by a lot of people who like bagpipes but don’t really know anything about them. Part of this is that they really do all sound the same. 

Many people make this statement, and it’s an easy generalization to make. This is partly because the tunes are unfamiliar to most people, but I think mostly because many tunes have the same structure. If, for example, the third part of a march is identical to the first part except for the first phrase in each line (“The 71st Highlanders” comes to mind), it’s next to impossible to distinguish what is being played now from what was played a few minutes ago. 

I like to think that most people can distinguish that there are some types of pipe tunes that sound different than others. In addition to the obvious difference “fast” and “slow” playing, there are some tunes for marching and some tunes for dancing. Even within these broad categories there are a variety of types of tunes and time signatures, which to most people, especially musicians, should sound different. I’m not talking about listening to a piper and saying “Oh, that’s a 2/4 march compared to a 6/8 march,” but being able to identify something different after hearing one right after the other. I would like to think this at least, but it’s not always the case. 

My best example of this came after I had played a few tunes for a non-piping audience; I started with the hornpipe Duncan Johnstone and then played the required Scotland the Brave. Mind you, these two tunes sound very different, especially when played back to back. The hornpipe has a lot more notes and is played faster, so the transition has not only a tempo change but also a time signature change. A member of the audience was surprised when I told her I had played more than one tune. What shocked me the most about this is that this particular individual was a experienced violinist with a degree in music (and perfect pitch, but that’s a different story). Even to her trained ear as a professional and classically-trained musician, it was indistinguishable.

This is probably one reason most people who like pipes don’t actually know a lot about them. It takes a lot of careful listening over a period of time to be able to identify tunes by type, and even longer to identify them by name. Your casual piping fan probably won’t spend enough time listening to pipes to really begin to hear the differences, and for this reason there will be casual bagpipe fans, but there will never be a large following of the general public. 

Bagpipes and the public

As much as I hate to admit it, not everyone likes bagpipes. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but there are people dislike or even outright hate bagpipes. Just do a search for “I hate bagpipes” and you’ll find a plethora of sites devoted to the hating of the instrument I love. 

I have this theory that goes like this: “If you don’t like the bagpipes, you’ve probably never heard them played correctly.” I will be the first to admit that listening to bad bagpipes is a terrible experience. The best way I’ve found to describe it is sushi. Good sushi is a wonderful dining experience, but bad sushi will have you in the bathroom retching your guts out. Bad bagpipes have a similar effect. 

The problem is that most people don’t have an opportunity to hear good piping. If someone only hears pipes that sound like this, or this, or this, there’s no wonder the instrument has a bad reputation. Those performances have all the musicality and tonal quality of banging pots and pans together, and most people would recognize that it isn’t really music. 

So the question is how to expose the general populace to better piping. It doesn’t have to be top-notch playing, but it should be close to in tune with correctly-played embellishments and some sense of rhythm. I offer a two-part solution.

First, if you are a decent player, play often in the public eye (or ear). I play outside all the time when the weather is nice, and your local park is a great place to get some playing in while exposing the non-piping public to decent playing. The more they hear good piping, the better off everyone will be.

Second, educate the poor pipers that most people usually end up hearing. Once a piper learns how to tune his or her pipes, the result is much more pleasant on the ears. I think the problem with a lot of the buskers and street bands is that they haven’t been taught properly in the first place, so they themselves don’t really know how the pipes are supposed to sound. 

There’s my recommendation for how to improve the pipes’ public image: better pipers should play more where the public can hear them, and we should all work together to improve ourselves and our peers as pipers.

Random Piping Video

Here’s another random piping video I found. Pipe Major Gordon Walker is certainly one of the top solo competitors on the scene today. He has won both gold medals (Oban in 1993 and Inverness in 1994), and is one of a very few people to have won the Glenfiddich in back to back years (2007 and 2008). This video is one of P/M Walker playing his arrangement of what has become a staple of performances among the top players, The Mason’s Apron.

I’ll come right out and say that I’m not crazy about this particular arrangement of the tune. It’s flashy, and lots of little runs take away from what I consider to be segments vital to the tune. That being said, it’s a good listen and is extremely well played. When you’re talking about this particular musician, though, to say that he plays well is a “No duh!” statement, akin to  saying Hendrix was a good guitar player, a puppy is cute, or January in Maine is cold. The video is an entertaining use of three minutes, and it’s fun to hear a top competition pipers cut loose and play something fun. 

There is something interesting about watching Gordon play: his bag is huge! Gordon is not a tall man, and his pipe bag seems to be abnormally large for someone of his stature. Obviously it works for him, and when it comes to things like this I subscribe to the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought.

Maine Highland Games

I’m happy to be organizing the solo piping competitions at the Maine Highland Games on August 15, 2009. For details about the competitions and to download an entry form, visit this website.

Sound samples added!

I’ve been in the process of migrating the previous Touch of Scotland website to this blog, and this morning moved over my page of sound samples. All the same tunes are on there, though I would like to update them with some new recordings of better quality. Feel free to leave comments if you are so inclined.

Top 5 favorite movies

My all time top five movies, in no particular order.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A prison movie set in Maine from 1947 to about 1967. This is one of only a few movies by director Frank Darabont, but everything came together in this one. The script is superbly adapted for the screen, the acting is top notch, the music compliments the action but doesn’t distract from it, and you empathize with the characters, from hardened felons to the guards. I hope this is one for all time… I hope.

Band of Brothers (2001)
A World War II miniseries that originally ran on HBO, Band of Brothers follows the men in an airborne company in the 101st Airborne Division. It is based on a book of the same name by the late Stephen Ambrose, and features probably the most accurately portrayed interactions of soldiers ever committed to film. The dialogue is realistic, the characters are well developed, and the battle scenes are gritty and bloody, but never gratuitous. The focus is indeed not on the battles, but on the men fighting them.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Based on a Tom Clancy novel of the same name, this is one that relatively few people think about in their favorites list. It was the first movie I saw with Sean Connery, and Alec Baldwin puts in a convincing performance as Clancy’s recurring CIA operative Jack Ryan. He doesn’t have quite the same star appeal as Harrison Ford, who played Ryan later in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and I think the action sequences are more believable for a CIA desk jockey than in later Jack Ryan films. It plays on the fears of the political tension of the Cold War, the potential destruction of the world through nuclear war, and the fact that the US and Soviet navies could have launched the missiles to destroy the world in a matter of hours and no one would have known until it was too late. There is one ultimately quotable line is this movie, especially if you do a good Sean Connery impression: “Be careful what you shoot at. Most things in here don’t react too well to bullets.” 

Pulp Fiction (1994)
It’s hard to put this movie into a category, and even harder to describe the plot. In my opinion it’s Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, and is just a rocking good time. The first time I saw it I was thoroughly confused until about 2/3 of the way through, then I couldn’t stop laughing (“Oh man, I just shot Marvin in the face!”). It’s one of those that improves significantly with repeated viewings, and you really gain an appreciation for the brilliance of Tarantino’s vision. 

Airplane (1980)
A spoof of disaster movies like Airport and Zero Hour!, this is without a doubt my favorite comedy. It is king of the sight gag (“All right boys, let’s get some pictures”), and so many classic lines came from this movie. It was Leslie Nielsen’s first comedic role, and Kareem Abdul Jabar makes an appearance as the plane’s first officer. This movie has to be the greatest comedy ever made; I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.

I am a sci-fi snob

I consider myself to fall into several categories of nerd: bagpipe nerd, computer nerd (sort of), science nerd. The last has also turned me into somewhat of a science fiction nerd. I will admit I haven’t read enough to consider myself a true buff, but I do recognize good sci-fi when I read it.

And yes, I prefer to read sci-fi than to watch it, either on TV or in a movie. The written word allows for a much more detailed and vivid description of the world inside the author’s mind than a film, and it just makes you feel smarter to read it. The world created by the author is what is really interesting to me, especially if there’s lot of detail and the science is good. I recognize that it is called science fiction for a reason, but there is a certain amount of reality required to make the suspension of disbelief easier. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Orson Scott Card are among my favorite authors who have made extremely detailed and believable futuristic worlds.

The reason for this post is this article I found this evening: 10 Things Science Fiction Got Wrong. Things like this don’t really ruin a movie for me, but stories that get it right are just that much more believable.