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Monthly Archives: March 2009

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Tuition and practice

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.

First competition of the year is nearly here

An unintentionally rhyme in the title, but it’s true; as of this posting my first solo competition is just 12 days away. The New Hampshire School of Scottish Arts (NHSSA) school is on Saturday April 11 at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord. I’ll be hitting the pipes and the tunes hard for the next few weeks, now that I’ve finally decided which tunes I’ll be submitting:

2/4 March
Mrs. John MacColl
Major Manson at Clachanstrushal

Arniston Castle, Major David Manson

6/8 March
The Dundee City Police Pipe Band

The Massacre of Glencoe
Black Donald’s March

I’ll post my results shortly after the event, once I get to a computer again. I would update Twitter from the games, but my cell company does not allow me to send messages to Twitter’s short code number.

My next competition will be the Celtic Festival of Southern Maryland on April 25, then the Rhode Island Scottish Highland Festival on June 13. We’re jumping in fast!

Breathing new life into traditional piping

The Piobaireachd Society announced their set list for 2010 competitions recently, and it’s in quite a different format than usual.

In 2009, the set list looked fairly standard: 14 tunes for Senior competitions (submit 6, play 1), two sets of four each for Gold Medal (submit two from each set, play 1), and eight tunes for Silver Medal (submit four, play 1).

Next year sees quite a change though: Gold and Silver Medal players get a free year, where they can submit any tunes they like (eight for Gold, six for Silver) and will be required to play one tune. The Senior tune set consists of eight pairs of tunes; four pairs must be submitted and the player will be asked to play one pair.

This is quite a departure from recent years, and I applaud the Piobaireachd Society for the change. While I think I like the new format, what I appreciate most is the fact that there’s a change, and a significant one at that. I had this impression of the Piobaireachd Society as a stalwart organization as easy to change as the rotation of the Earth, but now I’m rethinking my opinion. Is it possible that an organization dedicated to upholding the traditions of piping can promote the music while still being open to change? Apparently so.

Can people really be this dumb?

A friend of mine pointed me to this file; it is a recording of an ongoing battle between a cell phone user and a certain wireless provider that shall remain nameless (but its name rhymes with “horizon”). Back story follows:

Before making a trip to Canada, the customer had called the company to find out how much they charge for data transfers while out of the country. He was quoted a rate of .002 cents per kB; this seemed so low he asked the CSR to indicate that was the actual price he had been quoted. So he goes to Canada, uses his phone, and upon receiving his bill notes that he has been charged .002 dollars per kB, which worked out to around $72. Based on what he had been quoted initially, he should have been charged more like 72 cents, or $0.72.

So he calls the company, and talks to several people, not one of whom is aware of the difference between .002 cents and .002 dollars. Listen to the recording; it’s about 27 minutes long and will make you want to pull your hair out. I lost some faith in humanity, and it really makes me upset that there are people who have a complete lack of understanding of 4th grade math skillls. As they say, 5 out of 4 people don’t understand fractions, and apparently the proportion who don’t understand decimal places and units is even greater. Sigh.

Another reason I love Mythbusters

And there are several. Here’s another one: Adam Savage is crazy. Proof follows in the video contained on this page.

Bagpipes are out of this world!

Well, maybe. This news article from One India informs me that piper Bruce Woodley from Vancouver is among the finalists for a Canadian representative on future NASA missions. I’m not very familiar with Bruce or his piping, but he won the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1993, so he must have a fairly good idea of what’s going on.

Of course one of the things he would like to do if selected is pipe in space (which I totally understand; I like to pipe wherever I go), though I don’t see NASA giving him the greenlight to bring his pipes into space. He mentions that in his interview, and also brings up some interesting points about how the pipes might work differently in space:

“I’m guessing it would be very difficult to play bagpipes and have them sound like anything we hear on the ground without redesign.”

An interesting observation, and one that occurred to my scientific mind as well. Traveling to different places even on this planet can make the pipes difficult to play, as differences in temerature, humidity, and air pressure really affect the sound. Playing at a lower cabin pressure (equivalent to about 9,000 feet or 2750 meters above sea level) in air with an elevated oxygen content would certainly argue with my pipes, so it would be interesting to see if he’s able to pull it off.

Best of luck to Bruce as the selection process enters its final process, and I’ll hope to see Bagpipes on Mars some day!

Post workshop wrapup

This afternoon K and I held a workshop at the North Conway Music Shop as an introduction to bagpipes for the general public. Two people attended the workshop, and they were a great audience. We chatted pipes and all things related (and some things unrelated) for about 90 minutes, and I think everyone involved enjoyed things immensely. The shop owner is interested in carrying some piping supplies (basic chanter and book set), which could help expand (read: create) the base of pipers in the Mount Washington Valley.

Who is your favorite piper?

My answer to this question changes on a pretty regular basis, and in general I don’t think I have a true favorite. There are so many good players out there, and it’s really hard to say one is truly the best on any given day. Here’s a list of some pipers I really like, both for their playing and their personalities. An asterisk (*) marks the pipers who have signed my Kilberry book.

Roddy MacLeod* – One of the real princes of piobaireachd. He’s a great player, and has come into his own in the last two or three years as a prime interpreter of piobaireachd. I met him as an instructor at a summer school, and I decided that he rates very highly on the “cool guy” scale, being a really laid back, funny, and genuinely nice guy.

Alasdair Gillies* – The son of a great piper himself, Alasdair has won 11 Silver Stars (for former winner MSR at Oban), a feat which is not likely to be topped any time soon. He’s truly one of the best light music players out there today, though he’s not too shabby when it comes to piobaireachd either. He┬áhas one of the most beautiful sounding bagpipes I’ve ever heard, one of the largest repertoires I know if, and his awesome piping talent seems almost to clash with his humble and unassuming personality.

Willie McCallum* – I heard Willie in a recital a few years ago, and he was introduced as “The World Hoover” because he travels all over the world sucking up the major prizes. He’s as close to a Tiger Woods as there is in the world of piping competitions, having won every major prize and most of them several times over. The Glenfiddich Solo Piping Championship, an invitational event that is effectively the world championship for solo pipers, has been held 35 times since it started in 1974, and Willie has won it 8 times. That’s right, over 20% of this championship has been won by just one man. Also rates highly on the “nice guy” scale.

Angus MacColl* – There are very few people in the world who play a 2/4 march as well as Angus MacColl. He’s also a master of the jig, and is one of those players I could listen to all day. His list of solo victories is impressive, to say the least, and he might be my favorite piper at the moment, though the last two piping CDs I bought were his, so he’s still pretty new to me.

Stuart Liddell* – The man, not the mouse. Stuart is known for his flashy playing, but my respect for him greatly increased when he released his solo CD Inveroran. It is by no means dominated by super fast playing, and even has a track of 4/4 marches commonly played by grade 4 bands. He’s had a bit of a resurgence on the competition scene in recent years, winning the Clasp at the Northern Meeting in 2007. Stuart has probably the fastest fingers out there today, and a fantastic ear for pitch and tone as well.

Jimmy McIntosh* – Jimmy is one of the largest influences on east coast piping. He was taught by the famous “Bobs of Balmoral” and brought his extensive knowledge to the US. He once told me I could win a gold medal because it’s all about “practice and tuition;” find the right teacher and devote your heart to it, and no prize is out of anyone’s reach. He was the first winner of the Glenfiddich and is well-known as an expert in piobaireachd. The man is a walking Piobaireachd Society book, and is the only person I’ve ever seen judge a piobaireachd competition without looking at a reference book. Now in his 80s, Jimmy still plays and teaches actively in the Pittsburgh area.

Gordon Duncan – An early prodigy as a young competitor, Gordon is mostly known for his lightning fast fingers and unique composing. His solo albums are among my favorites, and they show his vision for music and the differing roles that pipes can play in an ensemble. Perhaps we only saw a small part of his genius; his untimely death in 2005 (just 41 years old) was a huge loss to the piping community.

Fred Morrison* – Fred established himself as a highland piper, and won both gold medals back in the 80s. Since then, he’s turned his musical attentions mostly to the border pipes, and helped bring them to the attention of many highland pipers. Upon meeting him, it’s clear that this gentle giant with the poofy hair is a musical genius who eats, sleeps, and breathes music. Fred is one of the most sincerely and genuinely nice people I have ever met.

These are some of my favorite pipers. Who are yours?

Bagpipes rule

Just thought I’d get that out there again…. this video proves it if you don’t believe me. The piper is Glenn Brown, playing in the Ceol Beag final at Winter Storm 2009. He took 2nd place with this performance despite the silly hat.

Just a reminder to check out me and K doing a workshop at the North Conway Music Shop on Saturday March 21 at 4:30 p.m. Call to reserve your spot today!

Student quote of the day

“I know the world doesn’t revolve around me. I don’t have enough mass.”