This is one of the questions most frequently asked of me, and it’s one that you don’t often hear asked of the top players.
I was informed of a website called Pipers’ Persuasion, which back in the early part of 2010 started sitting down with well known pipers for interviews.
I’ve embedded here the first video from the interview with Jim Wark, in which he answers the question of how he started on the pipes.
Jim is best known as a band piper, acting as pipe major of the Strathclyde Police for many years until he retired from the police force. He’s now a judge and a heck of a nice guy.
One of my favorite pipers is Angus MacColl; he’s definitely among the elite competition players on the scene today. I heard him play at the Winter Storm concert last year, and it was almost magical. I kept thinking, “Man, this is what bagpipes are really supposed to sound like.”
I came across this video of Angus playing in an instructor’s recital at a piping school a few years back. It’s hard to tell the quality of pipe sound on a recording, but this one has pretty good sound and I can only imagine how good it sounded live in person. I love the very slight crow on the high A, and the harmonics it makes with the drones is great.
In its statement, the challenge is simple: commit to practice your bagpipes every day for 30 days. Actually carrying it out will likely be difficult, because these things always are. I’m committing to it, and if you’re a piper I suggest you try it too.
I started tonight, just before dinner, and had a nice run through of one of my MSR sets, a 6/8 march, and the first half of a piobaireachd. Between work and finding a good practice location, I will have to scramble sometimes to get it in, but I’m going to give it a shot. Ideally I’d like to manage a good session on both pipes and practice chanter every day, but thinking realistically I’ll shoot for playing pipes each of the 30 days. This challenge could help me quite a bit, since my first competition of the 2010 season is just before the end of the month.
To help you keep track, Jori has posted a checklist on his blog, available for download and printing. It might be a good idea to use the list to sketch out a practice schedule, or some goals.
Speaking of goals, I’ll plan to post a few goals I have for this challenge in the next day or so. Feel free to comment with some of your goals as well. Happy piping, and practice hard.
I wrote a piper spotlight article a few months back about Glenn Brown, originally from Canada and now living in Glasgow, and I’m happy to report that Glenn won the gold medal at the Northern Meeting in Inverness today. I’ve commented about how much I enjoy listening to him play, especially because of the awesome sound of his pipes, and I figured it was only a matter of time before he won one of the gold medals. He placed second at the Argyllshire Gathering the previous week, so it’s pretty obvious that his piobaireachd is in top form right now.
On a related note, I had written yesterday about how Willie McCallum will be trying to win the Clasp, the only major prize he has never won. That competition will happen tomorrow, and I’ll keep an eye on the results.
Here’s another installment of Piper Spotlight, this time focusing on P/M Gavin Stoddart, MBE BEM. Gavin is an army piper, playing first with the Scots Guards and later with Royal Highland Fusiliers. He spent the last 16 years of his army career as director of the Army School of Bagpipe Music. His professional competition career lasted only ten years, but was certainly illustrious: he won the gold medal at Oban in 1981 and Inverness in 1983, and won the overall title at the Glenfiddich twice (1983 and 1988). In 1983 he was awarded the British Empire Medal, and in 1999 was honored as a Member of the British Empire for his services to army bagpiping and drumming.
My first encounter with Gavin was during my first trip to Scotland in 1999. He was in charge of the massed pipes and drums at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, in which I was supposed to participate. I hadn’t learned the music properly (or indeed at all, since I had only been playing for a year), and so got a thorough tongue-lashing from Pipe Major Stoddart. I was still able to participate in the Tattoo, but unfortunately not as a piper.
In June 2006 I actually met Gavin again when he was an instructor at the National Piping Centre’s summer school in Winchester, VA. I told him that the last time I saw him he had yelled at me, and he grinned and said, “Well I’m sure I didn’t mean anything by it.” Over the next few days, Gavin turned out to be a warm and easy-going fellow who told stories as well as he taught bagpipes. His stories often started with a phrase like “So I was judging the MSR at the Glendfiddich one year…” and continue with an account of how a wonderful performance was lost in the last two bars, or how a certain piper won first place in the MSR despite the minor technicality of playing the wrong strathspey.
After a few days of the class I was quite comfortable around Gavin, and was thus much less nervous when I learned he was to be my examiner for the piping proficiency test I was about to take. He was kind enough to cut me some slack when I didn’t know the name of all the piobaireachd movements (I knew how to play them, but wasn’t certain what they were called), and after I was done told me that he enjoyed listening to my piobaireachd. He was also kind enough to pose for a photo with me and my newly-earned intermediate piping certificate. I had a lot of fun during that week, and I’m happy that my only interaction with Gavin wasn’t that he yelled at me. Thanks Gavin, for being a great role model for aspiring pipers.
A few weeks ago I started a post about why I compete but never got around to finishing it. The gist is that I enjoy competing because it gives a specific event to prepare for (and thus a reason to practice), and I adopt the mindset that I’m competing against myself. If I can force down the nerves and play a good tune, I’m usually pleased with myself, and it usually happens that I come out somewhere in the prize list.
Yesterday, Jim McGillivray posted a note about competition on his Facebook profile*. A little background: Jim is a well-known piper, a judge in Ontario, and a winner of the gold medals at Oban (1991) and Inverness (1985), as well as the Clasp at Inverness (1987). Since then he’s started two piping-related businesses, McGillivray Piping and PipeTunes.ca, and made a couple of videos about bagpipe maintenance and tuning. In short, the guy knows what he’s talking about when it comes to pipes.
His Facebook note contained this quote:
I didn’t like competition. It made me nervous to my stomach, but it focused my practice, and winning prizes was good for my self-esteem. Competition was the catalyst for my development as a player. But I quit competing at age 36 – a relatively young age for pipers – because I disliked it.
It’s unusual to hear such a successful competition piper say he didn’t like the competition. He recognized it was good for his playing, but still didn’t enjoy it. Can’t blame a guy for leaving competition when he didn’t like it. Even though he doesn’t compete anymore, he says “deep down I accept competition as a traditional and crucial part of the art.”
He continued to say that “deep down I accept competition as a traditional and crucial part of the art.”
However, I think teachers, prominent pipers and piping writers should help younger pipers try not to make competition the ultimate goal of our music.
He has a point: there is more to piping than competition, though it’s easy to forget that. The true joy of piping is not about how many prizes you win, but just playing the music and meeting the people who play it too.
My teachers have always encouraged me to compete, and I will continue to do so because I enjoy it. I admire people who get out because they don’t like it. It’s easy to get swept along with the crowd, especially in a band full of solo competitors, but if you don’t like it you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it. I say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, which is why I will always encourage my students to compete at least once, but there should be no stigma around those who decide not to compete.
*Yes it’s true, Jim McGillivray is one of my Facebook friends. I’ve never actually met the guy; I watched a contest that he judged and have picked him out of a crowd, but I’ve never shaken his hand. And by the way I’m pretty sure I was the one who sent the friend request.
I’m starting a new series of posts about some people I’ve met in piping. The people in the spotlight aren’t selected for their piping ability alone, but for how they interact with the general public of the piping world.The piping world seems to be full of people with these traits, so there should be no shortage of people to be Spotlighted.
The first piper to be featured here in the spotlight is Glenn Brown, originally from Milton, Ontario. Glenn is a top-notch piper, often seen in the top competitions, and he has pipe band in his blood: his mother Gail was the first woman to play in a grade 1 band at the World Pipe Band Championships, and his brothers Graham and Blair are both world-class snare drummers and judges. For a while all three brothers were commuting from Canada to Scotland to play with the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band. Later Glenn spent a while as the pipe major of the grade 1 Peel Regional Police Pipe Band in Ontario, and now lives in Scotland where he teaches at the National Piping Centre and plays with Scottish Power Pipe Band.
I’ve had the privilege of hearing Glenn play a few times, and he’s one of those people who is always a joy to listen to. His pipes have a truly magnificent sound: rich and mellow, but at the same time bold and confident. The sound says “I know I’m a good player, and I’m going to play a good tune for you today.” He has the technique and training to back it up, and the result is a high quality piping tune.
At Maxville in 2008 K and I watched the competition for former winners of the Canadian Gold Medal. There was some great playing for sure, but when Glenn arrived on the stage it was clear that he was in a different class than most of the other competitors. His pipes were definitely the best sound of the day, and he played an awesome tune (I think it was The King’s Taxes). We had placed him first; as it turned out he didn’t win the competition, but we still thought he should have.
The reason I chose to highlight Glenn was what happened the day after that competition. We came across him at the games the next day and introduced ourselves. K and I both offered our sentiments that he should have won the piobaireachd, and his response was gracious humilty. He had every right to be upset about the results, but showed no signs of it. It was his unspoken reaction that was really classy though. He expressed genuine interest in what we had to say, and while we were talking to him we had his undivided attention. Even though he’s very well known to most everyone at the games and there were plenty of good pipers and drummers to talk to, he stayed and chatted with us, lowly and unknown pipers who hadn’t even properly introduced ourselves, for a few minutes without appearing at all distracted or uninterested.
A similar incident was repeated at Winter Storm this year. I saw Glenn play in the MSR competition, and he had the same awesome pipe sound we had heard at Maxville; in fact I also overheard a fellow competitor ask Glenn to listen to his pipes before he played, so good is Glenn’s ear for pitch and tone. Glenn was one of the six finalists in the MSR and placed second in the final round. Here’s the video I took of his MSR, with a link below it to the video from the final.
We caught up with him at the Winter Steam party the following night, and we again got the same warm and genuine response he had given us at Maxville. As I recall he actually approached us and started the conversation. He happily chatted for a few minutes and was kind enough to pose for a picture with the two of us.
So Glenn Brown is the first person to be featured in the Piper Spotlight. He’s a a great piper, but also a great person who doesn’t mind taking time to chat with the less than famous pipers. Thanks Glenn, for taking time for The Rest of Us.
I came across this video a while ago, and it’s just fantastic; there are a series of videos from this recital on YouTube. Gordon Duncan was a legendary piper, well ahead of his time. He was known for his lightning-fast fingers. He collected many prizes as a junior competitor but as he grew older he began to focus on expanding the roles of the bagpipes beyond their traditional boundaries. He played with many other instrumentalists on his recordings, and was also well known for his compositions.
His several studio albums are among my favorite piping CDs, with “The Circular Breath” as my favorite from him. The album features several tracks of Gordon playing his practice chanter. Even though it’s more of a tool than a serious instrument, Gordon makes it sound good.
It was a devastating loss to the piping world when he died in December 2005 at the age of 41.
There are of course literally thousands of piping videos on YouTube, featuring playing of all levels. This one came to my attention a while ago, and it features some great playing from a great piper.
Roddy MacLeod, MBE, is without question a legend among pipers. There isn’t a major prize he hasn’t won, and although most of his prizewinning took place in 1990s, he’s had a bit of a resurgence lately, winning the senior piobaireachd at Oban, the piobaireachd at the Glenfiddich, and the Silver Chanter in 2008, as well as being named Piper of the Year by the online magazine pipes|drums.
This video features Roddy playing the strathspey Arniston Castle and the reels The Sheepwife and The Brown-Haired Maid. The playing is spectacular, the pipe magnificent, which is to be expected from Roddy. For pipers who watch the video, pay attention because there are lessons to be learned from his playing. For the non-pipers, this is what bagpipes are supposed to sound like. There aren’t many people in the world who play at this level.
As well as he plays these big competition strathspey and reels, I think Roddy’s true passion is piobaireachd. He is one of the foremost authorities on the subject, and you can tell he lives and breathes the stuff. His website, Roddy MacLeod Piobaireachd, offers recordings and manuscript of individual tunes for sale, and is a great collection of piobaireachd recordings played by one of the best in the business.
In this video, Roddy plays the piobaireachd “A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick,” which is a fabulous tune. You can see that he’s really at the top of the line of piobaireachd players.