When I lived in Pittsburgh, I only lived a few miles from the home of Jimmy and Joyce McIntosh. I would go over to Jimmy’s reed shop to pick out some nice reeds for the band and for myself, and would sometimes get to chatting. I knew that Jimmy had won the gold medals, but I didn’t really think about it while I was there, he was just a nice guy. Once though it struck me to mention it, and I asked if I could see one of his gold medals.
He went upstairs and came back with a shadowbox case and a few medals. Joyce had put together his medals for him; he pointed at the medal for the Northern Meeting (1971), the Argyllshire Gathering (1978), the overal winner from the Glenfiddich (1974), and a handful of other awards. Meeting a gold medalist has a different meaning when you actually see their medals.
I commented that evening that looking at his medals was as close as I would ever come to ever having a gold medal myself, and he looked at me and said “Why’s that, Nathan?”
“Well, I’m not good enough,” I said truthfully.
“You could win one, if you put yourself to it. It’s all about tuition and practice. Find the right teacher and practice a lot, and there’s no reason you can’t win a gold medal.”
Jimmy went on to tell me about how he got back into competition. He had competed actively as a boy and teenager (he served as a boy piper with the Cameron Highlanders in WWII), but had gotten out of competitions for a while. In his mid 30s it struck him that no McIntosh had ever won any of the major piping prizes, and he decided that it might as well be him. He began seeing the famous “Bobs of Balmoral” for piobaireachd instruction, driving four hours one way over a mountain once a month. At each lesson they would teach him four new tunes (by singing the cantaireachd), which he would then have to play for them when he went back the next month. It paid off, and around 1970 he began collecting prizes.
I’m still inspired by this story. Find the right teacher and pour your heart into your practices to make yourself the best, and there’s no limit to what your piping can acheive. Tuiton and practice, that’s what it’s all about.