Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Tag Archives: Bagpipes

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.

The Best Piping Blogs (As of July 2013)

A few weeks I was contacted by someone who asked if I would want to be included in an infographic he was assembling of the top 100 music blogs. I should have suspected something was up, because 1) there’s no way my humble blog would be on that list, and 2) he was undeterred when I pointed out that there hadn’t been much activity recently. I told him to go ahead and put me on the list.

I got a followup email a few days later with my position on the list (#83) and information for posting the graphic on my site. It didn’t take me long to figure out that he worked for a website that sold coupons and was trying to get links to that site. I politely told him I wouldn’t be providing him with the free publicity.

But that did get me to thinking: what are the best piping blogs out there? I’m not talking about news sources, but personal blogs by pipers who put their thoughts out there. Here are some that I follow, in no particular order.

1. Blogpipe
Author: Andrew Berthoff

You may know Andrew Berthoff as the editor of pipes|drums, the best source I know of for piping news and results. He’s a piping and ensemble judge in Ontario, and uses Blogpipe for his personal thoughts and commentaries that are noticeably absent from pipes|drums articles. A frequent theme is getting pipers to think of themselves as musicians, and making the competition scene generally more user-friendly for those of us who are in it.

2. Jim’s McFingerwork Blog
Author: Jim McGillivray

Jim McGillivray is a well-known piper, teacher, and judge in Ontario. His prize cabinet contains both Highland Society of London Gold Medals (1985 and 1991) and a Clasp (1987), and more than a few top finishes in the Gold Medal (Canada). He is also the brains behind Rhythmic Fingerwork and Piobaireachd Fingerwork, the popular sheet music site, and is known as a dealer for antique and rare bagpipes. Frequent blog topics include practice strategies, aligning the mental side of the piping game, teaching, and instrument maintenance.

3. Dunaber Music
Author: Michael Grey

This list isn’t intentionally focusing on Ontario pipers, but they happen to write good piping blogs. Michael Grey is a top-flight solo competitor in Ontario, has a lot of top-level band experience, and has sparked much discussion and controversy with his innovative pipe band medley compositions. In his blog, he posts memories and snippets from his piping career, musical thoughts, and other interesting things to read.

4. Views From The Circle
Author: Stuart Milne (aka The Piping Nut)

Stuart is a Scottish piper who writes mostly about the pipe band scene in that venue. His posts include photos and videos taken at band contests, album reviews, and some very thoughtful comments on the health of pipe band competitions in the country of their birth.

5. Pipehacker
Author: Vince Janoski

Vince is a New Jersey-based piper who created the Pipehacker persona by writing do-it-yourself projects for The Voice, the quarterly magazine of the EUSPBA. You can save a lot of money in piping by doing things yourself, and some of his tips and projects are worth reading. He has some very useful resources, including practice suggestions (record every session, every time), downloadable practice logs, reference articles, and lots of other goodies.

6. Kaypiob’s Chanter
Author: Kayla Harper

Kayla is a good friend of mine and former bandmate, and she uses this blog to down some of her musical thoughts. She’s got a particularly good feature called Circle Sunday, in which she posts a video of a pipe band performance that caught her attention. Kayla is extremely passionate about the pipes and the pipe band world, and she has a lot of good stuff to say.

7. Patrick McLaurin’s Bagpipe Blog
Author: Patrick MacLaurin

Patrick is a Texas-based piper, and he posts a lot of interesting pieces about a lot of things. He has an interest in Scottish music that’s not pipes, as well as smallpipes and ensemble stuff. He also sound clips of him experimenting with different pipe and reed setups. If you’re a sound-junkie, it’s worth checking out.


Got another piping blog I should be aware of? Let me know and I’ll check it out.

The Keydet Piper returns

Holy cow, it’s been a long time.

After a self-imposed hiatus from blogging (read: I’ve been lazy), I’m back. It’s been a long few months, during which I’ve been adjusting to life in the Pacific Northwest. This move has allowed me to add two new states to my Piping Quest, join a grade 2 band, and enjoy the tasty craft beer for which Oregon is famous.

I’m happy to announce that with my return to blogging, I’m launching an ambitious project. The ubiquity of electronics and recordo-matics makes it a lot easier to share good music with the world, and I’ve created a website to do just that with the recordings I’ve collected.

I call it the Keydet Piper Bagpipe Recording Archive, and it can be found at

Browse through the pages and you’ll get an idea of what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m striving for a way to document contests, so I’m hoping to have recordings of as many participants as possible, not just a prize list or select few.

If you have some recordings from an event you’d like to share, I’d be happy to have them. Sean Cahill went to Winter Storm in January 2013 and was kind enough to share his recordings of both the Gold Medal piobaireachd and Ceol Beag light music events.

I’d like to have some band contests as well, but for the moment it’s just solo performances. I’d very much appreciate your feedback, so let me have it!

A whirlwind of a summer

Ok, so I think the Keydet Piper may now have returned to blogging, after taking it easy for a few months. The reason for my absence is one of simple distraction (see point #4 below). I’m not promising to return to as full a blogging schedule as I’ve maintained at some points in the past, but I hope to be able to get some posts up on a somewhat more regular basis. There’s a few things that have occurred during my absence that I’d like to address.

1. The Piobaireachd Wednesday feature was proving to be pretty popular, and I’d like to resume work on that. I don’t foresee it being a regular weekly thing, but whenever I come across a good recording or manage to record some myself I’ll be sure to post it.

Speaking of that, here’s one to hold you over. I’ve been holding on to a stack of recordings I made at the USPF Amateur Piping Championship back in June, and this was the winning piobaireachd. The player is Kirk Brunson from Derry, New Hampshire, and the tune is Lament for Donald of Lagaan; he gives a very good account of this tune.

Kirk also won the MSR at this contest, making him the overall winner of the championship. Well done to him, certainly.

2. The Worlds happened a few weeks back, and Field Marshal Montgomery once again emerged on top, winning both the medley and the MSR. I wasn’t able to watch as much of the coverage as I would have liked, but I’ve listened to a lot of the recordings that are posted at the above link, and as usual Field Marshal put on a top-notch performance. The medley contest was actually really great, and commentator Bob Worrall kept commenting about the number of bands that played well.

In my mind the big story was ScottishPower, who put in a dynamite medley performance and ended the day in a solid second place. Their medley started with The Battle of Waterloo, which is one of those tunes that pretty much everyone plays, and showing (again) that a flashy medley opener is not required to contend as a top-tier grade 1 band.

Also check out a great medley performance from Boghall and Bathgate, and just to stir up some controversy here’s the medley entry from Toronto Police.

3. We’ve also seen the Argyllshire Gathering happen, with the Gold Medal there going to Finlay Johnston from Glasgow. The other top prizes at this contest went to Peter McCalister (Silver Medal), Stuart Liddell (Senior Piobaireachd), and Gordon Walker (Silver Star Former Winners’ MSR, the seventh time he’s won it). I haven’t heard any of these performances, but keep an eye on Pipeline over the next few weeks, and hopefully they’ll have some recordings. Also keep an eye out for the Northern Meeting, which takes place later this week.

4. Holy crap I’ve moved. In my last post of any substance, I announced that I was moving west, and I’ve now had a little time to get my feet under me here in Oregon. I missed the end of the local piping season, but I’m looking forward to next year to see what it’s all about. I’ve heard the level of play here is very high, brought up significantly by the proximity to the grade 1 powers Simon Fraser University and Triumph Street. I don’t know about solo competitions in 2013, but I’ll do my best to join up with the Portland Metro Pipe Band.

So stay tuned (in all senses of the word), and hopefully you’ll see some more bagpipe-related content coming at you from the Keydet Piper blog.