Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Monthly Archives: January 2012

You are browsing the site archives by month.

The allure of old bagpipes

You’ve probably noticed that the frequency of my posts has declined in recent weeks, and that’s due to a few life-chancing circumstances that will be announced here in time. Hopefully when things settle down I’ll be able to update a bit more frequently, but it’s also entirely possible that things won’t settle down and I’ll have to find some time to work in all the stuff I need to do. Whatever the case, rest assured that the Keydet Piper blog is not going away, and I am still floating around in bagpipe cyberspace.

I read an article is this week’s Sunday New York Times about classic violins; more precisely it was about the perceived value of class violins. The article opens with an interesting case study: 21 top violinists took a blind test in which they played six different instruments and were asked to choose their favorites. Among the six were two violins made by Stradivarius and one by Guarnerius, two of the most respected names in the field. The other three were modern instruments.

Here is where things get interesting: only 8 of the 21 players picked one of the old masters as their preferred instrument. One might ask if the old instruments are really as good as their reputation, but I think the real question to be asked is if one cannot find a new instrument that is just as good as one of the old ones.

This of course got me thinking about bagpipes (in all honesty, though, it doesn’t take much to do that), and the appeal of playing an old instrument as opposed to a more modern one. There are some key differences between what is considered an “old” set of pipes and an “old” violin; a classic set of pipes is generally more in the range of 100 years old than 300 or 400 you might find with a violin, and the price tag on a set of old pipes is usually significantly less (thankfully) than that of an old violin.

Those different aside, many pipers have on their wish lists a set made by one of the acknowledged masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Lawrie, Henderson, Glen, Starck, MacDougall, Center. But why do so many pipers want to play those old sets? Do they really sound better than a new set? Is that the only way to get a really true pipe sound?

I’ll tackle those questions in reverse order.

1. Is a vintage set of pipes the only way to get a good sound?

Absolutely not. As a counterexample I present Alastair Dunn, general manager of RG Hardie. He plays a set that was made within the last few years, and having heard him live at the Metro Cup last year I can attest to the fact that this guy knows what’s going on when it comes to bagpipe sound.

Personally, I think the sound comes more from the player than the pipes. A good player can make nearly any set of pipes sound good, but will obviously prefer a good instrument.

2. Do old pipes sound better than modern ones?

I think this is something that every piper has to answer individually. Personally, I don’t have the ear to be able to distinguish the finer points of drone sound, but I suspect that many comparisons involve some amount of confirmation bias. If a piper tells you that he’s playing an old set that sounds really good, you’re going to listen to them with that already in your head. I suspect the violinists who picked the modern instruments would never have dreamed of that if they had known what they were playing. If you expect an instrument to sound good when you first hear it, it’s likely that it will.

To answer the question, do old pipes sound better? I don’t know. There are a lot of old sets that sound great, but there are also some modern sets that sound just as good.

3. Why do so many pipers want old pipes?

Simply put, because they’re neat. Old things speak to a part of the mind that doesn’t decide things based on logic, but rather on nostalgia, beauty, sex appeal, and a dozen other intangible qualities. People want old pipes for more than sound, just as classic car buffs fill their garages with cars that are admittedly less practical than a car made last year. Pipers want old pipes for the legacy and history that goes with the instrument, to try to draw them a bit closer to the traditions of this great instrument.

When it comes to sound, it’s all about personal preference. There are plenty of well-made modern instruments that sound really good, but there are also a lot of old instruments that sound good. The key is to find something that you like and go with it.

Even though my pipes are something over 60 years old, I have to admit that I am not satisfied with them. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pipes, I love their sound, and I’ve had many other folks tell me they sound good. I could play them happily for many years, and in all likelihood I will.

But my dream is to play a vintage set from WWI or earlier. I don’t have something specific in mind, but I’d love to be able to tell people that my pipes were made in the early 20th century, and are mounted with real silver and ivory. The reason I want an old set is not based on sound, but on my own vanity.

I recognize that’s not a rational reason to want a set of pipes, but dreams don’t have to be rational.

Piobaireachd Wednesday Bonus: Catherine’s Lament

This is the next of the series of Piobaireachd Wednesdays resulting from my visit to Winter Storm on the weekend of January 13-14, 2012. I was able to watch the U.S. Silver Medal almost in its entirety; I heard and recorded 17 competitors. I won’t post all of the recordings here (as I mentioned before the tune selection was not widely varied), but I will post the prize list. The top five players ended up playing four different tunes, so I figured the repetition would be minimal there.

Here is your second bonus tune, the second place performance of Catherine’s Lament. The player is Ben McClamrock from Baltimore, Maryland; Ben plays with the City of Washington Pipe Band, and has distinguished himself in solo competitions in the US and Scotland. Having heard this performance in person, I’ll vouch for the fact that Ben’s pipes had a great sound, possibly the best drone sound of anyone I heard. It paid off well for him, and I’m sure he’ll be excited to try to move up one more place next year.
If you’d like to submit a tune to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me.

Piobaireachd Wednesday: Lament for Donald of Laggan

This is the next of the series of Piobaireachd Wednesdays resulting from my visit to Winter Storm on the weekend of January 13-14, 2012. I was able to watch the U.S. Silver Medal almost in its entirety; I heard and recorded 17 competitors. I won’t post all of the recordings here (as I mentioned before the tune selection was not widely varied), but I will post the prize list. The top five players ended up playing four different tunes, so I figured the repetition would be minimal there.

In this regularly-scheduled Piobaireachd Wednesday, we’re continue our trek up the prize list with a recording of performance of Lament for Donald of Laggan, played by John Lee of Surrey, British Columbia. John plays with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, and his father is the well-known piper Jack Lee. Late in 2010 John joined his father and two brothers in founding Lee and Sons Bagpipes, selling reeds and sheet music via the internet. As you can tell, John has benefitted from being born into a bagpiping family, and this performance earned him third place in the contest.
Look for another bonus tune to come out this weekend, and next Wednesday I’ll feature the winning tune from Colin Clansey.
If you’d like to submit a tune to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me.

Piobaireachd Wednesday Bonus: You’re Welcome, Ewan Lochiel

This is the next of the series of Piobaireachd Wednesdays resulting from my visit to Winter Storm on the weekend of January 13-14, 2012. I was able to watch the U.S. Silver Medal almost in its entirety; I heard and recorded 17 competitors. I won’t post all of the recordings here (as I mentioned before the tune selection was not widely varied), but I will post the prize list. The top five players ended up playing four different tunes, so I figured the repetition would be minimal there.

So as not to spread the Winter Storm tunes out too much, I’ve decided to do a bonus tune mid-week. You can thank me later. The bonus tune is You’re Welcome, Ewan Lochiel, played by Dan Lyden. Dan is from Baltimore, Maryland and is the pipe major of the City of Washington Pipe Band. This performance earned him 4th place in the contest.
If you’d like to submit a tune to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me.

Piobaireachd Wednesday: Catherine’s Lament

This is the first of the series of Piobaireachd Wednesdays resulting from my visit to Winter Storm on the weekend of January 13-14, 2012. I was able to watch the U.S. Silver Medal almost in its entirety; I heard and recorded 17 competitors. I won’t post all of the recordings here (as I mentioned before the tune selection was not widely varied), but I will post the prize list. The top five players ended up playing four different tunes, so I figured the repetition would be minimal there.

Working up the prize list, our fist tune is Catherine’s Lament. The player is Jamie Troy from Victoria, British Columbia. Jamie is also an accomplished drummer, having played snare with the Spirit of Scotland Pipe Band when they competed at the Worlds in 2008. As you can tell from this recording, he knows a few things about piobaireachd as well; this solid performance earned him fifth place. Enjoy!

If you’d like to submit a tune to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me.

Winter Storm piobaireachd update

I’m writing this from the lobby of the Marriott Country Club Plaza hotel in Kansas City, site of the world-renowned Winter Storm event. Most people would never guess that the center of the piping world on a particular weekend in January is in the US midwest, but it is indeed here. Lots of big name players are here, and it’s living up to its reputation of being a stunningly good time.

If you’re a regular reader you’re aware that I kinda like piobaireachd, and I spent most of Friday morning listening to the US Silver Medal piobaireachd competition. I was able to record 17 of the 20 competitors in the event, and it was definitely worth getting out of bed for. Look for a few of those tunes to be posted on Piobaireachd Wednesday over the next few weeks; especially look for Colin Clansey’s winning performance of The Bicker, and Ben McClamrock’s second place showing of Catherine’s Lament. The prize list shaped up as follows:

  1. Colin Clansey, Kingston, ON, The Bicker
  2. Ben McClamrock, Baltimore, MD, Catherine’s Lament
  3. John Lee, Surrey, BC, Lament for Donald of Laggan
  4. Dan Lyden, Baltimore, MD, You’re Welcome Ewan

You can’t tell from looking at the prize list, but the tune selection was pretty repetitive. If I had heard one more version of Catherine’s Lament I would have had it memorized; it was played five times. There were three each of The Bicker, Lament for Donald of Laggan, and MacGregor’s Salute, and only three tunes that weren’t repeated. That’s my only issue with set tune lists: there is some repetition when you listen to a contest all the way through. That sounds like a topic for another post, and for now I have to get to the registration table where I’m volunteering my time today.

Piobaireachd Wednesday: Glengarry’s March

Our tune this week is from a “match” of the Eagle Pipers’ Society. The player is Derek Midgley, who is originally from New Jersey and has resided for some time in Glasgow. He’s distinguished himself as a solo competitor in Scotland, and I think you can see why from this video, recorded in November 2010.

If you’d like to submit a tune to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me.

Piobaireachd Wednesday: Sir James MacDonald of the Isles’ Lament

Piobaireachd Wednesday is back on track this week, with another tune from the most recent online competition from Jori Chisholm at bagpipelessons.com. The player is Owen Capon, playing one of my favorite tunes: Sir James MacDonald of the Isles’ Lament. This tune landed him in the prize list of the grade 2 piobaireachd competition, placing 5th out of 12 competitors.

If you’d like to submit a tune to be featured on Piobaireachd Wednesday, please email me.

New Year’s Goals for 2012

As I’ve done for the last few years, I’m forgoing the practice of making resolutions and instead making a list of things I’d like to accomplish in the next 12 months. Some are piping-related, and some aren’t.

  1. Learn four new piobaireachds. Last year I set the goal of learning two new tunes, and finished with four, thanks largely to the newly-minted interest in piobaireachd that was behind the launch of Piobaireachd Wednesday in July. I can do that again.
  2. Be a more active solo competitor. The last two years I’ve taken it easy on the solo boards, and the few times that I did play reminded me of how much I enjoy it. This year I’d like to compete at 6 highland games, whereas last year I only made it to two. Geographical relocation will probably determine which ones they are, and time constraints will determine how well I play.
  3. Shift Piobaireachd Wednesday to include more recordings I’ve made myself. I’m not talking tunes that I play, but recordings that I make at events I attend. I picked up a new recording gadget this year, and I’m itching to try it out. I’ll be at Winter Storm in a few weeks, and hope to be able to record at least some of the piobaireachd competitions. Look for the tunes I collect  over the next few weeks. I’ll also try to grab recordings from some of the other events I attend (see #2).
  4. Learn to juggle. I’ve included it on the list for the last two years, and since those came up empty I’m going to include it here again. One of these days I’ll get to it… one of these days.
  5. Buy a house. I’ve rented for long enough, and it’s time to contribute to the economy by being a homeowner. I hope to be gainfully employed here in a few weeks, and that will determine where I do my house-hunting.
  6. Survive the end of the world in December. There are some who are certain the world will end on December 21, 2012, and I’m not one of them. It’s true the Mayan calendar ends then, but I’m wondering what they knew and we don’t?

As I’ve done before, I’ll post a review of these goals next year, providing I do #6.

What about you? What’s on your to-do list for 2012?

Reflecting: What I did in my 2011

Happy New Year to my readers (all three of you), and I hope your year is off to a good start. As seems to be the trend on blogs everywhere, this time of year is good for reflecting on the past year and preparing for the one ahead. I’m no exception, so here goes.

In the beginning of 2010 and 2011 I posted a list of things I wanted to accomplish, then reflected on them about a year later. Here’s my recap of my 2011 goals:

  1. Learn two new piobaireachds. I actually blew this one out of the water. I somehow pulled off four tunes this year, including two in September and October. In February-March I learned Corienessen’s Salute, then Lament for the Viscount of Dundee in May, and finished with Rout of Glenfruin and Melbank’s Salute in the fall. The last two were notable because I learned them in a very short time: I had both memorized and on pipes within a few days of seeing the music for the first time.
  2. Get a bagpipe sound that I’m really happy with. It seems that I accomplished this one, although I can’t exactly when it happened. It seemed that suddenly I had a good sound, and it was noted by the judges in all four events I entered in the fall online piping competition. It was a Colin MacLellan reed for my Naill chanter that seems to have done the trick, and since that’s a winning combination I’m going to stick with it.
  3. Check off three new states on my piping quest. Unfortunately this wasn’t one that I was able to do. I only managed to add one, (Washington, DC) and it isn’t technically even a state. I had been hoping to enter competitions in Connecticut and Tennessee, as well as the USPF competition in Delaware, but calendar conflicts seemed to get in the way of all of those.
  4. Graduate. I did this one! I didn’t actually walk the stage (and I won’t technically have my degree until it’s officially posted to my academic records in mid-January), but I finished the remaining 21 credit hours for my master’s degree.
  5. Work in a career-related summer internship. Unfortunately this one didn’t work out for me either, and not for lack of trying. I applied for a good dozen or so positions all over the country, and no one seemed to like me enough to hire me. I ended up working for a professor over the summer as an unpaid research assistant, which was better than nothing, I suppose.

So overall it was a mediocre year in terms of the goals I set at the beginning. In the next day or so I’ll put up some goals for 2012, and I encourage you to do the same and share yours as well.