I’ll admit it, I’ve been spoiled. Having spent the past three school years in northern New England, I’ve gotten very attached to low humidity. It makes the heat of summer much more bearable, and to be honest the heat of summer isn’t that bad either. I’m in Maryland now visiting family, and it’s much more humid here than where I’ve been, and it’s playing havoc with my pipes.
Moisture with pipes is a trade off. Too much causes the chanter reed to go dull and flat, and synthetic drone reeds will shut off. Too little and the chanter becomes thin and chirpy; neither is great. Enter the moisture control system to regulate (not eliminate) the moisture in the bag.
I use the Achiltibuie system designed by Bruce Hitchings at Highland Reeds; the canisters plug into the bottom of my drones so all the air that gets to the reeds has to pass through the drying agent. I found the included gel pellets had limited effectiveness, so I replaced them the rocks from my old Ross canister and they work great.
The Maine winters are so dry that I didn’t have to change my rocks between October and June. Seriously. You can hear the thin top hand on some of the videos I posted from my early competitions, which is a result of not enough moisture.
Humidity is a constant feature in the mid-Atlantic, and the good thing is it makes my pipes sound better. The bad thing is that it’s harder to control; after about 45 minutes of playing yesterday and 30 minutes today, I had drone reeds shutting off. So I’m back to dealing with moisture for the time being, and it’s not my favorite thing in the world. I’ll survive though.
I got a call about playing a wedding a few weeks ago. I get many calls like this; last year I played a dozen weddings between May and October, so it’s not unusual for me to get a phone call like this.
What made this particular phone call different was that the bride and groom didn’t know there would be bagpipes, and the groom’s father was arranging for me to be there as a surprise. I am skeptical about this sort of thing, since bagpipes are not everyone’s favorite sound and it would be very awkward for me to start playing and the bride turn around and say, “Oh yuck, I hate bagpipes. Go away.”
I mentioned this to the father, and he assured me that this scenario would happen. Turns out they had recorded pipe music to be played during the ceremony and had desperately wanted a live piper, but due to financial reasons had to eliminate the piper. The groom’s father saw this as a problem he could fix, and so he contacted me.
The ceremony was a Catholic mass, and I arrived in town about halfway through. One nice thing about a Catholic mass is that it’s almost always an hour long, so I had a very good idea of when it would end. I found the church to make sure I knew where it was, then kept driving and found a parking well out of earshot in which to tune up. Upon my return to the church, I parked myself in front of the main doors and waited for them to open.
They opened and the bride and groom exited the church, walked down the steps, then turned around to greet their guests. I wasn’t hiding, but I don’t think they registered my presence as they turned; they must have looked right at me. When I started playing, though, they definitely noticed me, and the look of surprise, wonder, and delight on their faces was a great thing to behold.
It’s nice to get paid to play bagpipes, but it’s so satisfying to know that I have a part in someone’s special day. I love this job.
This was posted today on pipes|drums: BBC Scotland to stream World’s live from Glasgow Green. Very much coolness here; all of the Grade 1 band competitions will be streamed live on the internet, starting with the qualifying round and going straight through the finals and awards ceremony. Again I say very much coolness.
I’m also happy to see that the recordings will be available on the website to those of us stuck outside the UK, which was different from last year. Since I won’t be able to watch the performances live, I’ll have to check out the on demand videos.
For the past few years, the DVD of the Grade 1 qualifying round and finals has been pretty popular in the piping world. I assume there are still plans to release a DVD, but I don’t know for sure. Either way, this is an example of technology being used to spread the good word about piping, and I’m very excited to hear about it.
Yesterday I posted about a friend of mine who had survived a plane crash. Pretty amazing that he was able to walk away from the plane, which was completely destroyed.
I have to admit an incorrect assumption; my last sentence indicated that I thought the pilot would agree with me that it was just one of those things that happens. I got an email from him yesterday afternoon in which gave the following quote:”My Guardian Angel apparently was with me – I walked away basically unscathed.” Note the capitalization too.
It doesn’t seem like his style, but surviving something like this could certainly make you think about such things. It could be one of things that people say; my mother always like to say “knock on wood,” but I don’t think she seriously believes in it. It could be the same with the lottery ticket comment that spawned the post in the first place, said by the DPS just to reiterate how amazing it was that the pilot survived.
Does he believe he was saved by a Guardian Angel? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter though; I’ll eat my humble pie with a side of humility.
I’m departing from the bagpipe theme for this post to comment on an article that appeared in the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday: “Mail plane pilot unscathed after crashing on Islesboro.” Read it, then come back.
This article is interesting to me for two reasons: first, I like to hear of people surviving things that could very well kill them, and second, the pilot is a friend of mine. First and foremost, I’m glad that he’s ok. I haven’t spoken with him since this happened, but I did send him an email to say that I heard about his incident and that I’m glad he came out of it intact.
Before I started talking about the article, there’s something you need to know about me.
I don’t believe in luck. I’m not superstitious, and therefore I don’t believe in good luck, bad luck, lucky charms (except the cereal of course), unlucky charms, curses, jinxes, omens, guardian angels, blessings, or predestination. Call me a naysayer if you wish, but I prefer skeptic. That doesn’t mean that I doubt things, but rather that I apply some common sense before deciding to believe in them. While we’re on the subject, I do believe in coincidence, that things can happen and not mean anything, and that dreams are just an excursion of the subconscious and don’t reveal any truths or premonitions. I don’t believe that bad things (or celebrity deaths if you like) come in threes, and I don’t believe that there is an energy field created by all living things that permeates the universe and binds it together. This last one is why I’ll never be a Jedi Knight, which is too bad because it would be so cool.
So let’s get back to that article. There’s a quote I’d like to comment on, which comes from Fred Porter, the director of public safety in the town where the crash happened: “[The pilot] was a little shook up when I arrived on-scene. It’s one of those good stories. This is a good day for him to buy a lottery ticket.”
Now I were the pilot I’d be shook up too (maybe shaken up, but this is Maine and we don’t talk that way). The fact that I know the guy is a bit unsettling, so I can’t imagine what he’s been feeling. I also agree that it is “one of those good stories.” Like I said above, I like hearing about things like this. I also like stories of people overcoming tremendous adversity to achieve their dreams, so I’m a sucker for the human interest stories broadcast during the Olympics.
But the last sentence I don’t like, the one I highlighted in bold. Yes, the guy survived plane crash, and I’ll say he got lucky in regards to the circumstances of the crash (completely contradicting my earlier paragraph, I know), but I’ll attribute his survival to his training and experience as a pilot instead of the guardian angel looking over his shoulder.
What I like even less is that it implies that one lucky thing carries over for the rest of the day. If he had gone out and bought a lottery ticket, his chances of winning the jackpot would have been… the same as if he’d bought a ticket any other day of the year. Even if he had a certain amount of luck for the day, I’d say that he used up all of it in the crash and wouldn’t have any left over for the lottery. There’s also the fact that the drawing wouldn’t be on the same day as the crash, so I’m sure that would make things a bit more complicated. True there are daily drawings, but if it really is his lucky day why settle for the small jackpots?
I always think of this sort of thing when I’m watching sports. Athletes themselves tend to be very superstitious; tales abound of players wearing the same socks or not washing their undergarments when they’re playing well. Sometimes the fans are just as bad: I remember an NFL commercial a few years back where a guy in a bar was watching the and waved his pickle at the TV in disgust; the next played they scored. The pickle waving is now a tradition in the bar whenever the team needs to score. It happened once, so it must work, right? A bit closer to home: my dad has a football jersey of a certain player on his team, and he stopped wearing it while watching games because it seemed that every time he wore it the team lost. I explain it this way: think of the tens of thousands of people watching a game at the stadium, and the millions more watching at home. How do the actions of just one (or a small group) of those people affect what happens on the field? It doesn’t, of course.
So no, I don’t think my friend was having a lucky day when he survived the plane crash, I think it was just one of those things that happened, combined with his 20+ years of experience as a small plane pilot. Some of you might not agree with me, but I think the pilot would.
In the 2008 season, the Toronto Police Pipe Band started a number of heated discussions with the unveiling of their new competition medley. This wasn’t a medley, it was actually a composition with just one name. Composed by Michael Grey, “Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions” can be interpreted as a statement on pipe band compositions, much like the Shotts turn at the Worlds in 2008, though a bit more drastic than that. Michael Grey makes no allusions to his dissatisfaction with the pipe band set competition (MSR), and I see this medley as a statement that the medley competitions should be altered as well. The medley sparked many heated debates about things, and if nothing else it started a dialogue.
So the Toronto Police are at it again. This year they’ve unveiled their new medley, entitled “Idiomatica.” Here’s a video of them at the Georgetown Highland Games on June 13 (sorry, unable to embed it here). Link will open in a new window.
Here’s my verdict: I like it. I felt it a bit closer to the traditional style of medley than last year, with the exception of the intro. I’ll be honest, I was tapping my foot almost the whole medley. It’s very interesting musically, and while there are a lot of harmonies I never felt like they were overdone, but rather provided a nice departure from the single voice of the bagpipes that’s usually heard.
I’m not wild about the intro, especially cutting out the chanters as they turn around. There’s nothing in the rules that says they can’t, but it’s one of those things that has to be done well or not at all. The rogue note that escaped from someone’s chanter ruined it for me. It seemed to me that the whole intro was different just for the sake of being different. There might be another message there, but that’s how it came across to me.As the medley went on I really got into it, really enjoyed it.
The final verdict: I like the composition, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it in a competition. Your thoughts?
The results from my solo piping competitions.
Rhode Island Scottish Highland Festival, Richmond, RI, June 13, 2009
Judge: David Bailiff
Tunes played: Arniston Castle, Major David Manson
Judge: Lezlie Webster
Tunes submitted: The Massacre of Glencoe, Black Donald’s March
Tune played: The Massacre of Glencoe
Result: 1st, AGL
Event: 2/4 March
Judge: David Bailiff
Tunes submitted: Major Manson at Clachantrushal, Mrs. John MacColl
Tune played: Major Manson at Clachantrushal
Event: 6/8 March
Judge: Chuck Murdoch
Tune played: Dr. Ross’ 50th Welcome to the Argyllshire Gathering
My next solo competition is tomorrow, the Rhode Island Highland Games. As usual, I’ll update here with my results once I get back to a computer, but I’ll also be updating Twitter throughout the day. I was hoping to be able to tweet from other games I’ve been to this year, but at the time my cell phone provider wouldn’t allow messages sent to Twitter’s number. I’m with a different company now (I won’t say which one but the name rhymes with “horizon”) and I’m able to tweet remotely. So follow me on Twitter to see how my day is going!
I get most of my piping-related news from pipes|drums, an online magazine that updates every few days with news, advice, polls, and other tidbits related to all things piping. It’s assembled and edited by Andrew Berthoff, a piper and judge based in Toronto, and is a good one-stop shop to keep updated with what’s going on in the world of bagpipes.
A semi-regular feature is an interview with a well-known figure in piping, and the current interview is the third installment of a chat with Willie McCallum. Willie is without question one of the top pipers in the world today, and one of the most wildly successful competitive pipers of all time. I saw him in recital once and he was introduced as “The World Hoover” because he goes all over and sucks up all the prizes. To say that he’s a good piper is like saying that Tiger Woods is a good golfer: true, but somewhat of an understatement.
The full text of the interview is for paying members only, but there was a quote that really stood out for me. In the second part of the interview, p|d acknowledges that even the great Willie McCallum doesn’t always finish first, and asks how he deals with not winning. Willie’s response:
I was always taught to be dignified whether you won or you didn’t win… So if you play well and you win, great; you don’t go crowing about it; you just enjoy the moment. If you don’t win, you take it on the chin and you move on and you congratulate the guy who won. It’s a healthy way to be.
What a fantastic quote, and a lesson everyone can learn. I will certainly try to keep this in mind during my competitions, and I advise others to do the same. It is a healthy way to be, and life is too short to get upset about things you can’t control that really don’t matter in the long run.
This article was posted at pipes|drums today: Williamwood Pipe Band Plays at the top of Ben Lomond. The Glasgow-based pipe band lugged ten sets of pipes, two snare drums, a tenor drum, and a bass drum up the 3200 foot peak, and played at the top. The band did the climb as part of a fundraiser, which was deemed a success. This sounds like my idea of a good time!
I like hiking quite a bit, and here in western Maine there’s plenty of opportunity for it. There are dozens of mountains that provide day and overnight hikes ranging from short and steep to long and gradual to long and steep, but what most of them have in common is a fantastic view at the top. No one can argue that Maine is not a beautiful state, and from the top of a mountain on a clear day you get a chance to see a lot of it.
One of these days I’d like to pipe on top of a mountain, but haven’t done it yet for a very simple reason: to pipe on a mountain, one must get pipes to the top of the mountain. I hike light, usually with just a waist pack: water bottles, granola bars, a flashlight, camera, handheld GPS, and first aid kit is my usual gear. I like having my hands free for walking and don’t like to carry anything. Carrying a bagpipe case up a mountain, even with a shoulder strap, is not something I’d like to do, so my only option would be to disassemble my pipes completely and pack everything gently and neatly in my backpack.
It’s not terrible, and I’ve thought of doing this, but just haven’t gotten around to it. It would be a matter of doing it on a day when the weather cooperates and I can persuade someone to tag along as a photographer. If I’m going to play on top of a mountain, I want the experience documented!
Then there’s the other question of hiking in a kilt. It raises a lot of concerns, not a single one of which I would like to address in this post. In a future post perhaps, one that is likely to be not safe for work (or at least not safe for polite company).
Update June 7, 2009: The Williamwood Pipe Band has photos on their website of their journey. Check them out, they’re great!
On Memorial Day weekend I was asked to play at a church service in the nearby town of Freedom, NH. Memorial Day is a day that is very important to me, and it was an honor to return to this church for Memorial Day this day. I though it very appropriate to participate in this celebration of our freedom in the town of Freedom. The gentleman who organized the service is a good friend of mine, a fellow graduate of VMI and veteran of the Vietnam War.
He sent me a followup email this afternoon, including a few photos that were taken at the event. I don’t know exactly who took the photos, but thanks to my friend Wayne for sending them to me. I include them here, along with a comment from a member of the congregation: “Guest musician Nathan Wahlgren contributed greatly to the experience of honoring all of our military personnel.”
And not the good kind, either. I was playing outside this evening, and was driven inside by the arrival of a few dozen black flies. They are annoying little creatures that swarm and bite, but they generally give some warning by crawling around on the skin before they dig in. They are quick though, and hard to swat.
As the sun was going down I had a cloud of these buggers around my head and arms. Every few minutes a breeze would pick up and chase them away, but as soon as it died down they were back. I couldn’t wait to finish my MSR; as soon as the reel was done I wiped a few flies off my arms and went running; I finished my practice inside.
At least the mosquitoes weren’t out too; I don’t think I could have survived an attack from both!