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Category Archives: Bagpipes

A piobaireachd for your Saturday

This recording popped into my life last week, and if you’re a fan of piobaireachd it may be worth a listen. The tune is The MacKay’s Banner, the player is me, performing for judge Ian MacDonald at in the grade 1 piobaireachd event at the British Columbia Pipers’ Association Annual Gathering on April 3, 2015 in Surrey, BC.

This was the winning tune, and I was obviously quite happy with that. Happy listening!

Check off one more state

You may have been following my Piping Quest, in which I am checking off each U.S. state in which I play, with the ultimate goal of collecting the whole set. This week while at a conference, I was able to play in Hawaii, bringing my total to 23 states plus Washington, D.C. and a few other places.

I had been in contact with the proprietor of several Irish pubs in Honolulu, including Kelley O’Neil’s in Waikiki. A short walk from my hotel, I played for a while before the band started up. I even got a couple of free drinks out of it!

A letter of apology to my reed

Dear Reed,

It’s been a few months since I’ve thought about you, and for that I’m sorry. That was when I pushed you to the side and started looking elsewhere for the same happiness I had with you. I was at my best when we were together, and then I started thinking that maybe our best days were behind us. That was a mistake on my part, and I’m sorry.

The funny thing is that I don’t even know what you are, or where you came from, or when we first got together. It’s been at least two years, I know that, possibly even more than three. Our early time together wasn’t rough, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. We worked it out though, and once we got used to each other you became the one thing I’ve always wanted: a rock-solid reed that was the perfect mix of strength, tone, brightness, and balance. I knew that when I started playing my chanter sound would be nothing less than fantastic. That feeling of confidence when I would pick up my pipes was truly empowering, and I really was at my best when we were a team.

Then things started going south. It wasn’t anything you did, just the normal course of aging, and I started to be unhappy. That was a mistake. I thought the grass could be greener, and had forgotten how long it took to find the happiness you and I had. I looked for that happiness with three others, and while they were ok they couldn’t replace what you and I had. That grass was definitely not greener.

Then my thoughts turned back to you. You’ve always been there, in my reed case, even when you were shunned, waiting for me to see the error of my ways and come back. And when I did, your response was the best I could have possibly imagined. You took me back without shame, without arguing, and without spite. Those first few notes reminded me what I had been missing, and thank you for being so awesome.

So I want to apologize for trying to replace you, and I want to say that you for taking me back. Even after not being played for several months you are better than any of the others ever were, and now after a few sessions I see that it was a mistake to ever push you aside. I realize now that what we had was something truly special and not easily replaced. You have apparently forgiven my cheating heart, and for that I am grateful.

I feel like we can still go great things together, and I’m truly, truly excited by that thought.

With much love and gratitude,


What motivates you to compete?

A friend of mine is working on an academic paper, and recently asked me what motivates me to compete. I’m not doing as many solo competitions as I did in the past, but it’s still a valid question. There has been a lot of discussion on the merits and drawbacks of competition, but that’s not the topic of this post.

The question was simply this: What motivates you to compete?

My response to him was this:

Solo competition is one of the few opportunities a piper gets to play for a truly informed audience, even if that audience is only one person. For me, solo competition is a chance to get an assessment of my playing ability from an objective source.

Solo competitions give me a reason to practice. Unless I have a performance coming up, I’m not likely to get the pipes out to just play, like how in school I wouldn’t sit down and do math problems unless they were assigned (although I have to admit that that now that sounds kind of fun). Preparation for a competition also keeps me honest in my playing, to make sure that I seriously practice and don’t just play. When I know the audience knows what it’s supposed to sound like, I’m pretty inspired to practice hard to make it right.

I also found competitions a chance to build character. It’s terrifying to be in front of a judge, and when you willingly subjecting yourself to that you learn a lot about yourself. I love the feeling of being nervous, and it’s so satisfying to mentally conquer the fear, suppress the nerves, and play a good tune. It’s a rush, and honestly that’s what I enjoy most about competing.

So what about you? What motivates you to compete?

More evidence that the piping world is full of good people

I’ve commented before that pipers and pipe band folk tend to be good people. Anyone who has spent any time at all around a pipe band will recognize this: bands are just fun to be around, and are generally full of good people.

Another thing about pipe band folk is that they tend to be people of integrity, and love to do the right thing. An example surfaced recently as a Scottish band found itself with some extra money and decided to donate it to charity.

The West Coast Highlanders of Scotland Pipe Band was a cobbled-together group of folks from various bands. I should probably mention that the extra money they had lying around was prize money from their first competition. How great is it that they won the first competition they entered?

Oh, and by the way, that competition was the Worlds. Yeah, Grade 4B World Champions, right there. No big deal.

So they got together and had a vote, and unanimously decided to donate all £1000 of their prize to the Bone Cancer Research Trust.

Talk about above and beyond the call of duty.

So why that particular charity?

After the Worlds last year, Fiona Morris was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Fiona is a tenor drummer with Boghall and Bathgate Caledonian Pipe Band; you may know them as the band that placed second at the World Championships a few weeks ago. She went through a barrage of chemotherapy treatments, lost her hair, nearly lost her leg, underwent surgery to replace a section of her bone with a titanium rod, and battled back to join her band in time for the competition season.

She’s been in every one this season. Fighting spirit.

In May, Fiona announced a fundraising campaign for BCRT after her experiences. The pipe band world picked up the banner and ran with it, gleefully buying the wristbands that Fiona was promoting and holding raffles and auctions. She set up a donation page with a goal of £500; that goal was met in a very short time, and as of this writing has exceeded that goal by £10,000.

Not bad, piping world, not bad at all. Keep doing the right thing.

Reflections on 15 years of piping

It occurred to me recently that as of today, I have been playing the pipes for a decade and a half. It was 15 years ago today, on August 18, 1998, that I had my first lesson on the practice chanter. Twelve months after that date, I had learned a bunch of simple tunes, traveled to several places in the US to play, and traveled to Scotland, where I heard (and met!) some of the best pipers and bands around.

I will say that I was extremely fortunate to have been taught correctly. My first instructor, Burt Mitchell, is an incredibly talented piper who was himself taught by some damn fine pipers. It’s thanks to him, in no small way, that piping has been as important to me as it has for the last 15 years.

I’ve lived in a number of different places since I started, and in every one of them the piping community has opened doors for me. Some of my best friends are ones I’ve met through piping, and if it hadn’t been for this odd little hobby I’m certain our paths would never have crossed.

I’ve been able to travel thanks to piping, and that’s what led me to start this little map; as of this writing, I’ve played my pipes in nearly half of the United States. I’ve been to Scotland twice, and 50% of my visits to Mexico and more than 85% of my trips to Canada were either specifically for piping or because I was a piper.

But most of all, I’ve enjoyed the simple act of playing. When I played the trumpet in grade school, practicing was a chore. With the pipes, I don’t feel that way; they’re just fun to play. I love setting up shop in a small corner of a park somewhere and getting lost in the music for the next hour.

When I was talked into playing the pipes 15 years ago, I never dreamed there was this much to it, or that I would become so engrossed in this world. Call it serendipity if you like, but I’m glad it’s happened, I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad I share a small part of it with you. Thanks for reading!

Don’t miss the Worlds!

This is Worlds weekend, and as far as I’m aware the grade 1 contest is again being streamed live around the world.

This year the format is different, with all grade 1 bands playing a medley and an MSR in a qualifying heat on Saturday and the top 6 bands in each heat playing another medley and MSR contest on Sunday. There’s been a lot of discussion about this new format, including some criticism in how the changes were decided upon and made public, and it will be interesting to see how it’s received.

In the meantime, this is pretty much what I feel like, along with everyone else who would rather be there than watch it on the computer:

Courtesy of Pipe Band Jungle.

Can you print a set of pipes?

I posted the other day about replacing the sole on my practice chanter by using a 3d printer to make a new one, and that got me to thinking. I don’t know much about the technology, but it’s pretty clear that the machines are becoming more affordable, and therefore more widespread, and their products are starting to show up everywhere. Online communities have sprung up to share ideas and sell products, people own them to make useful (and useless) things for themselves, and the company I work for was presented with a model of the reactor we’re designing that was made with a 3d printer.

Sooner or later the 3d printing is going to make its way into the piping world. The logical follow-up to my practice chanter sole is adornments like ring caps and projecting mounts, but what about things that contribute to the sound, like bodies for drone reeds? Or the tongue for that matter? Reeds for a practice chanter, or even a pipe chanter? A whole set of drones?

If you can build a CAD model of something, you can print it, and the pipes present some pretty simple shapes that are well within the capabilities of a 3d printer.

Now I’m not saying this is necessarily a good idea, but you never know until you try. If you hear anything along these lines, please let me know.

The Keydet Piper gets a new sole

About five years ago, I bought a practice chanter that I quite like. It’s a regular length blackwood model made by Duncan Soutar, and for the price (less than $100 US at the time) I’m convinced there’s not a better blackwood chanter available. It has served me very well since then, and if some catastrophe were to render it unplayable, I would attempt to replace it with the same model.

My chanter has experienced some bumps and bruises, and within the first year or so of ownership it experienced its first major encounter with gravity. I dropped it from the height of my hand and it landed squarely on the sole, which shattered upon impact. I collected the pieces, stuck them back together with superglue, and it worked pretty well for a while.

Not long after that, the chanter suffered a nearly identical accident. For a reason that I don’t remember now (missing pieces? laziness? no superglue? futility?),  I didn’t try to repair it this time, and I’ve been playing it without a sole for about three years.

For some time I’ve been trying to figure out a replacement sole. I emailed the manufacturer, who was happy to send me a new one, but the cost of shipping the part from Scotland made it impractical. Buying a new chanter was similarly impractical, since I still had a chanter that made a perfectly good sound.

A few weeks ago I had a sudden inspiration. I didn’t have the machinery or tools to make a sole, but it turned out I knew someone who did: a friend of a friend had a 3D printer, which he was mostly using to make new cases for his iPhone. I emailed him a description of the piece with measurements, and within a week he had printed me a sole. Actually he printed me three, in various colors, so I can change them when I feel like it.

The new soles are definitely not as pretty as the original: I simplified the design so they don’t have the interested contours, the layers generated by the printing process are clearly visible, and there’s a faint impression of the honeycomb pattern that provides structural support to the otherwise hollow sole. I’m not concerned about the appearance; it is for a practice chanter, after all.

I’m just happy that I have a sole again.

Simplify, simplify

I can think of no instrument that has been infiltrated with gadgets to the extent that the highland bagpipes have been. There was a time that everyone played pretty much the same setup: cane reeds and sheepskin or hide bags, possibly with a tube trap. The reason for this was simply because it was all that was available.

Disclaimer: the information in the above paragraph is what I’ve been told, since my piping career doesn’t include that period.

When I started learning something about the pipes, it seemed like the the marketplace was just beginning to explode with toys and gadgets intended to make the piper’s life easier: synthetic bags, high-tech drone reeds, a myriad of moisture control systems, complex blowpipe valve systems, tone enhancers, drone valves; the list goes on.

Synthetic drone reeds range from very simple models that look kind of like a cane reed to wildly complex engineering marvels made from carbon fiber that require their own toolkit to adjust. 

Synthetic bags eliminate the need for seasoning, which is great because that stuff is nothing less than disgusting. I think there are still stains on the carpet at my parents’ house from my early attempts at seasoning, and every day that I don’t have to go through that process I’m thankful. Some folks complained that they don’t have the heft of a hide bag and it feels like they’re playing a balloon, which led to hybrid bags with a layer of leather over a synthetic bladder to make them heavier. Zippers allow us to access the inside of the bag, and grommets mean we can tie our stocks in with hose clamps and a screwdriver. 

The biggest downside of a synthetic bag is that it doesn’t absorb moisture the way a sheepskin or hide bag does, so you have to find some way to deal with the gobs of spit that you’re blowing in. It would be fairly straightforward to catch pretty much all of the moisture, and there are several variants on the idea of passing the air through a container filled with a desiccant material that is effectively cat litter. The problem here is chanter reeds are still made of cane and therefore require some moisture, so any system has to absorb SOME of the moisture but not ALL of it, and since the local conditions affect it so much they have to be adjustable. There are usually provisions for altering the amount of desiccant in a chamber or tube that leads to the chanter, and getting just the right amount is something that takes many hours.

There’s also a ton of little gadgets that you can find at a piping shop: tone enhancers to enhance the tone of those synthetic drone reeds; drone valves to make starts and stops easier; a clamp that covers three holes on the bottom hand so there’s no false tones while tuning drones; a thumb stop to correctly position the thumb on the back of the chanter; blowpipe valves incorporated into the blowpipe. 

In the 15 years I’ve been piping (yikes; has it been that long?), I’ve tried a bunch of this stuff. I’ve always played synthetic drones reeds; for a number of years I played a synthetic bag with a constantly-changing line of moisture control devices; blowpipes with integrated valves; 

For all the gadgets on the market, I’ve found myself moving to a simpler setup. I now play a hide Gannaway bag with a simple water trap made from a tube of corrugated plastic. The seasoning is easier and less messy than it used to be, and isn’t required all that often. I’ve eliminated the complex drone reeds in favor of the easy-to-use and relatively inexpensive eZee Drones. They were among the early generations of synthetic drone reeds, and in my opinion they’re still among the best out there. A simple leather blowpipe valve is all I need, though I do keep a more technologically advanced backup on hand for emergencies. 

I’m happier for the simple setup. Everything in my setup works well, and I don’t mean that it works well enough: I mean it works well. There’s a beauty in simplicity; as any good engineer can tell you, simple things don’t fail as often, and when they do they’re easier and cheaper to repair or replace than their complex counterparts. 

Simplify: you should try it sometime.