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Bagpipes

You get what you pay for ….

Tags: Bagpipes, Events, Funerals/Memorials, Weddings

 

We’ve all heard this old adage but is it true? I’ve been bagpiping for over 20 years and been doing professional gigs for a number of years as well and this adage was proved true for me in a resounding way just last week.

I was approached by a vendor to play in a popular parade here in So Cal. She requested two pipers to escort their float and I brought another bagpiper who I know is competent. He and I arrive, and we are tuned very closely, looking smart and ready to play. Suddenly another piper comes forward and indicates that he has been hired to play too.

Surprise, surprise!! This is not the first time this has happened to me. It presents some issues as you now have to tune two pipes together that may be significantly different but not impossible- that is until this parade.

The bagpiper in question is a low baller. He consistently bids at the bottom end of the spectrum and oftentimes undercuts other bagpipers to get gigs. His bagpipe sounded embarrassingly bad. I would never play such an instrument. He was out of shape and couldn’t maintain the bag pressure to give the bagpipe that nice hum you hear- instead the tone was up and down and the chanter screeched and chirped badly. To complete the parade, we shut off all his drones and put him between us other two so hopefully the audience could not hear his pipe.

To add insult to injury his appearance was farcical. He was a mish mash of different styles. A chain mail tie, homemade bag cover for pipes, pockets on his kilt, a white kilt with pockets and horizontal chains. I thought he looked like a buffoon. Embarrassing to say the least.

So after some reflection I came to a couple of conclusions:

  • Gig sites offering bagpipers and other performers do not verify any performers to be competent, it is completely buyer beware. So do your homework- check their video, music, and look at reviews and make sure reviews are current.
  • I always wondered how this piper could charge so little to perform- the answer is that he devotes zero time to his craft. He doesn’t maintain his pipe or himself and does the client a great disservice. In truth he should not be bagpiping for money.
  • Lastly this bagpiper destroys the marketplace. He perpetuates the stereotype of a screeching bagpipe played poorly and he erodes consumer confidence and is a poor representation of a bagpiper. Also in all honesty, he ticks me off because he does not honor the tradition of the bagpipe or value the great sound and he is a poor reflection of all of us that do.
  • So the old adage is true in the case, you do really do get what you pay for.

What’s Worn Under the Kilt?

Tags: Bagpipes, Bagpipes 101, Funerals/Memorials, History, Uncategorized, Weddings

Uh yes…. The eventual question. The question everyone wants to know the answer to but some are too shy to ask.

 

There are many different ways to answer this question. My step-father, who was a Highland from Dunoon, Scotland when asked “What’s worn under the kilt?” would respond “Nothing, it’s all in perfect working order”. That’s a pretty clever answer to a question that is quite delicate.

piper

 

 

For every bagpiper or Scotsman it really comes down to a preference. Some things entering the debate on whether to or not to are:

 

  • Am I a strict traditionalist? Should I go as the lads did in the movie Braveheart due to some allegiance to practices of a bygone era? This is probably more likely than most people think as we are playing tunes that were written centuries ago…
  • Weather. It is hot, humid or chilly out. You can figure out the implications of this debate.  Or is it windy? Wind can be very revealing. Haha.
  • Are there any ladders or stairs to be climbed during the outing? I know in one instance I had to climb up into the pilot’s area at the top of a boat and the ladder were pretty much vertical. Lucky I was prepared. 😉
  • Wool. Is it itchy? It can be. The comfort factor might weigh in on this one.
  • Health implications. Years ago I read somewhere that briefs were bad for men. So it might be for health that a man goes without.

 

I know I’ve faced this question many times. Most men are too embarrassed to ask so the majority of the time I am asked by women. And I’m more often asked on St. Patrick’s Day than at any other time of the year. I guess green beer emboldens even the most timid souls.  I usually refrain from answering or if I do I tell them you’re going to have to ask my wife…. 🙂

Three Ways to Tell the Value of a Bagpiper

Tags: Bagpipes, Events, Funerals/Memorials, Weddings

Bagpiping has allowed me to experience things I never would have and to meet a wide range of people in a lot of very different situations. I’ve seen and experienced the joy of a wedding ceremony and the grief of a funeral and all emotions in between.

Considerations

So what is the value of a bagpiper? What is he or she worth? There are three main considerations.

  1. First how far did the bagpiper travel and how long to dress, tune and perform? Like a lawyer a bagpiper can base their value on the time spent on completing the performance.
  2. One can also look at the value of equipment and maintenance. Bagpipes typically run $1200 and up. Uniform items probably $1500 and up. Some items run almost up to $10,000.
  3. Thirdly the value of something is what someone is willing to pay for it.  Are you a premier bagpiper with the experience to get the best out of the instrument? Can the bagpiper deliver when it really counts- like playing newlyweds out of the church? Or striking in the pipes in front of hundreds of mourners at a funeral without a squawk or bad note? Sometimes bagpiping is not for the faint of heart. I once had to play in front of 115,000 people. Talk about pressure! Great bagpipers deliver at the big moments. It’s one of the reasons they command a higher price. Bagpipers can also place value on the time they dedicate to their craft or how many years they have spent learning the instrument. I spend a minimum of one half hour pretty much everyday working on my craft and very often more time than that.

 

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My experience

I’ve had clients tell me I’m too expensive. They go out and find a kid or an amateur piper to do the job. My service was not worth it to the client; they didn’t really value my service enough. But when the big moment comes do you want a hack piper that can’t play the tunes, looks shabby or doesn’t know how to tune their instrument? For me that’s a very bad decision but I’m not the client. Often when it comes to bagpiping at gigs there is only one chance to get it right. Clients won’t remember how much they saved on a bad bagpiper but they’ll remember the disappointing performance they heard. On the other hand if the performance is great, the pipes are singing and you’ve got a pro playing you will never forget it. That’s real value- a treasured memory.

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The Benefits of Playing the Bagpipes

Tags: Bagpipes, Bagpipes 101, History, Uncategorized

I read somewhere that the bagpipes are a much more complex instrument than many non-players or listeners imagine or comprehend. I think that is a fair assessment. There are many challenges to playing but also many benefits.

 

The bagpipes have the reputation as being the hardest instrument in the world to play. They are challenging for sure, but the hardest? Who knows, but one thing is certain- the effort is worth it. Nothing sounds like a bagpipe and all that effort is worth it.

 

Physically the bagpipes are demanding. I am usually sweating after playing the pipes. It’s a workout. If you are marching up a hill in the summer in a parade you are sure working hard. I have heard from other musicians that playing the pipes is akin to playing the tuba- the demand for air is equivalent. However when you are playing the pipes you have four separate reeds to power and keep in tune simultaneously. (J).

 

Often non players think that a bagpiper has good lungs and that is the area of his/her body that requires the strength to play the pipes but it is a little more complex than that. Usually the part of the body that fatigues when playing the pipes for an extended period is the lips. If you play to exhaustion the lips give out first- I describe it as blowing on a pencil as you would a straw. You are trying to blow but the air just isn’t going into the bag. The other main thing that bagpipers strengthen is the diaphragm. Pipers have great diaphragms and perform very well on lung function tests even into old age. There is certainly some effort from the arm that has to squeeze the bag as well. Your fingers get a workout too. I know many guys, when they get older, they start to have finger pain but bagpiping keeps your hands limber and pain free. If you march you get a workout with your legs- so the pipes can sometimes be a full body workout.

 

The bagpipes themselves sound better and better the more you play them. You can’t sit the bagpipes in the corner and pull them out every now and then with any decent results, like you might do with a guitar. Firstly your conditioning falls off fast and when you can’t squeeze evenly, and with control, they do not sound good at all. Secondly the pipes are an organic instrument that is constantly changing in temperature and humidity. The more you play the less these variables affect the pitch and tone of the instrument. Some, if not all, of the reeds are cane- it’s a natural material that is affected by temperature and moisture. Some players use plastic reeds but the heart of the instrument is the chanter reed and this can only be cane, plastic has never equaled the tone of the natural fibers of cane. And with cane comes the sensitivity to temperature and humidity.

 

Many bagpipers also connect emotionally to playing the pipes. There are times when you can zone out and just get lost in the sound of the pipes. I’ve done it and it is almost an out of body experience. Bagpipers treasure those times and remember them well. It’s those very special times when everything is in sync and the pipes are singing. The sound has lovely harmonics and tone that transports you. I’ve even heard it described as an umbella of sound- it’s overhead and just humming. I experienced this in 2011 when I was part of the UCR Pipeband and we were getting ready to take first in the Pipeband competition and seal up the title for the Western Regional Champs for the third year in a row in our grade. Yeah bagpipes are very special..

 

Bagpipers also get to play piobaireachd. That’s pronounced PEE-BROCK. It’s a gaelic term that describes the ancient classical music written for the bagpipe. This music is for the true bagpipe music lover. Tunes written before the Scots had paper were handed down from generation to generation by singing an ancient language called Canntaireachd (CAN’T TER RACK). This music to the casual listener might sound boring as it is repetitive but to the bagpiper it’s the soul of the instrument. It’s when you can really soar with the music. If you have a bagpiper for an event ask him/her to play some piobaireachd for you. It is something unique and only played on the bagpipes.

 

There are many benefits to playing the Great Highland Bagpipes but for me it’s the sound and the music. Nothing I’ve ever played or experienced can equal the pull on our hearts and emotions as the bagpipe can. Till next time keep watching and listening. 🙂DSC_0053 (1)

Bagpipes are for Weddings !

Tags: , Bagpipes, Events, Weddings

Weddings are a grand time. The bride’s looking her absolutely best, the groom is looking spiffy and all the guests are there for a celebration. I am always happy to play for weddings. Bagpipes make a grand addition to a wedding. A wedding is about many things but it is also about emotion.

 

Strong emotion makes an event memorable. When the pipes strike in and everyone turns to see the bride and her father, that’s an emotional event. Real memories, real emotions. That’s what makes that moment and the bagpipe memorable. People connect to the sound and image with their insides. It’s a visceral experience. It gets to them and afterward that emotion makes that event stand out. It still gets to me and I’m the performer. J

 

Music moves us emotionally. Ever turn the sound off on a favorite movie? Without that soundtrack the visual experience and dialogue just don’t have the same effect. Sound moves us. That sweeping scene in The Titanic with Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet would never be the same without that dramatic tune playing in the background.

 

I’ve seen many people weep when I play the pipes as emotion just comes forth. At a wedding certainly tears of joy occur but also bittersweet tears as a young bride and groom leave their family to cleave to one another. It’s my honor to attend many of these ceremonies and bring that special element to a wedding that makes it all the more special and memorable.Fletcher wedding IV

St. Paddy’s Day and Bagpipers- Facts and Rants from a Piper

Tags: , Bagpipes, Bagpipes 101, Events, History, Uncategorized

St. Patrick’s or St. Paddy’s Day is named after the patron saint of Ireland who lived in the 5th century in Ireland. He died on March 17 and that is why every St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on that exact day.

 

St. Patrick’s is a day of celebrating all things Irish and bagpipes are one of those things. It seems everyone I meet that day on my travels is Irish or is an adopted son or daughter or Ireland. They’re all wearing green, dancing and generally having a great time.

 

This one day of the year is the busiest for almost all bagpipers I know. I usually start bagpiping at noon and some years I have been piping as late as 2am. It’s quite a workout but it’s worth it.

Irish Pub

Irish Pub

I play for the clients and their guests. I get paid well but what I really like is playing for the crowds. They are usually very appreciative. Some have never heard a bagpipe before. Most pubs I play at are the real deal. Many bars call themselves Irish but they are not interested in doing anything Irish other than selling green beer. Most of the pubs I play at do a great job keeping up with Irish traditions by serving Irish food, drinks and provide live entertainment. Contact me if you want to know where to go.

About tipping- some people want to tip me and I appreciate all that they give me. If you stop a piper and request a tune then you should tip him or her. Don’t tip your piper with a drink. Pay them. If they want a drink or something to eat they’ll buy their own with the cash. It’s really hard for me to collect tips in most cases. I’m kinda busy at the time and both hands are on the instrument. If you want to tip me please wait until I’m finished playing or give the tip to the lady that accompanies me- if she’s there. Please be courteous to her and me.

 

Speaking of courtesy:

  • Don’t ask the bagpiper what’s under the kilt. If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that…
  • When posing for photos please don’t disrespect the bagpiper or the instrument. Just smile. Isn’t that enough?
  • Never touch the pipes! Bagpipers have invested a lot of time and moeny in that instrument and don’t want it to be damaged. Never touch the pipes!

 

For the most part St. Patrick’s Day is a great time. I usually take about a day or two to recover. It’s quite an experience from this side of the pipes and every year it gets better and better.

 

Some photos of me playing for St. Patrick’s Day:

  • St. Patrick’s Day fun at Wild Goose with Bagpiper Stephen

  • Bagpiper Riverside St. Patty’s day

  • Bagpiper private party

  • Irish Bagpiper St. Paddy’s Day

How do you learn to play the Bagpipes?

Tags: Bagpipes, Bagpipes 101, History, Uncategorized

Requirements to Learn the Pipes

Almost anyone can learn to play the bagpipes.There are only a few basic requirements. You have to have some sense of rhythm–if you can dance then you are probably OK.  You must want it bad enough. The bagpipes are a demanding instrument but are very rewarding. Your motivation must be there. If you want to play pipes you have to have a very basic level of fitness.

All bagpipers start to learn on the practice chanter (PC). This is a small plastic reeded instrument similar to a recorder. It is very easy to blow and is tuned to the same scale as the bagpipe. You learn all tunes on the practice chanter first before taking them to the pipes. The PC will be your friend as long as you play the pipes. Over half and probably over 80% of your practice time will be spent on the PC. The practice chanter is relatively inexpensive too. A good plastic PC will cost around $50-$75. A wood PC will cost up to $200 or so. 

practice chanter

Notes & Scales

There are only 9 notes in the bagpipe scale. The common joke is “it’s only 9 notes- how hard can it be?”. It can be challenging for sure. It is very important that you start with a good instructor. Spending some time with an instructor will start you with the correct form and prevent a lot of bad habits from forming early on. I know quite a few guys interested in recruiting members for new bands to world class players who teach students in person or via Skype.

Initially you will learn the scale, and then you will move onto some of the common “movements” performed on the bagpipe. These are rhythmic combinations of notes played on the bagpipe to accentuate notes in a tune. Each has it’s own pattern and learning the bagpipe involves mastering these movements. They go by gaelic names: the Lemluath, Taorluath, Crunluath, Darado etc…. As you progress you will encounter these as well as other movements like throws, grips and doublings to name a few more.

bagpipe scale

Getting Started on the Pipes

Once you have demonstrated some proficiency on the practice chanter you should get started on pipes.Always seek the advice of a seasoned player before buying bagpipes. There are many bagpipes that are out there that are garbage. You won’t be able to tune or play them, the wood warps, cracks, etc. Many people have been taken. So buyer beware!!

So you order your pipes. They come nice and shiny in a box. You have to assemble them, hemp all the joints, tie on a bag, etc. A big part of bagpiping is pipe maintenance. As with all things there is a right way to do things that produces what you want- an airtight bagpipe that requires the minimum effort to play and sounds wonderful. Don’t do this step well and you will struggle with your pipes and they will sound like a cat with its tail caught in a grinder. 

The first time you try your pipes, two of the drones will be corked. You won’t have the air to keep three going at one time. Once you get used to the demand of one drone, then another gets uncorked, and finally a third and then the chanter as well. When you play the bagpipes you are actually playing four reeds at once- that’s what gives you this full sound with all the harmonics that we love. The time to get a full set of pipes going can take from 4-8 weeks or so depending on your fitness level. Don’t give up at this stage as you are so close!

How to play

After you’ve got all drones going then you learn to control your squeezing. A steady pressure is required to keep the drones sounding at one pitch- no ups and downs. Then you learn to march and do all those other things while maintaining your pressure and playing the correct notes with the correct embellishments and timing.

It sounds more difficult than it is. Learning the bagpipes is certainly challenging but it is a wonderful instrument and the learning always continues with it. I’ve been playing for over 16 years and almost everyday I learn something new or improve a little. It’s a game of inches, Sometimes progress is slow but every now and then you have a breakthrough and it is always rewarding. This race is a marathon – not a sprint.

The music of the bagpipe is like no other. The history is proud and glorious and the sound of the bagpipe grips your heart like nothing else. It’s my great pleasure and honor to play the bagpipes. It’s fun and it gives you a great excuse to wear a kilt too.

Here in Southern California you can even get world class instruction from some of the best pipers in the world. So if you are ready to get started on an adventure that will be very rewarding please drop me a line and I will connect you with a great instructor. Also I have no commercial interest in this at all- I only connect people so that the great art of bagpiping can continue to grow and flourish here in the USA.

Bagpipes 102- Myths, Fables and Tall Tales of the Bagpipe

Tags: Bagpipes, Bagpipes 101, Events, History, Uncategorized

First off let me say I’m hooked. The bagpipe has firmly gripped me. I love playing this instrument and love the sound of it. Almost every bagpiper I’ve ever met has the same affliction.  So let’s get on with some common questions and some hopefully insightful responses:

1. What is the instrument called? The instrument is a Bagpipe and I’m a Bagpiper. Not a Bagpipist, or Bag Piper, or even Bag Pipe player. It is proper to call me a Bagpiper or piper for short. Thanks.

Preview of new logo in the works!

Preview of new logo in the works!

2. Is it hard to learn? Most anyone with a good sense of rhythm and some musical ability can learn to play the bagpipe. A lot of bands will provide instruction for free. The absolute best time to start is young- the younger the better. One thing else you will need is a dogged determination to learn this instrument. You will start on the practice chanter first. This is very similar to a recorder that some public schools used to teach students on. You will learn basic fingering movements, the scale and some simple tunes. After 6-18 months you will be ready for the bagpipe depending on how quickly you progress. Once you are on the bagpipe it takes a while to learn how to breathe, squeeze and play notes on the chanter and coordinate it all. After a while it’s like riding a bike but it takes a while to get there. I will stress at this point it is vitally important that you get a good instructor if you want to learn. They can help you develop good habits and also eliminate a lot of frustration when you are learning. Contact me if you’d like to know more- I know some great instructors.

3. Is is it expensive? Yes it is. Both in the amount of time,travel and dollars you spend to learn the instrument. The time and miles you put on your car to go to practices and Highland Games all over the state.  The bagpipes themselves can range anywhere from $1500 and up. Reeded and fully set up more like $2000 and up. Uniform pieces are expensive too- a kilt ? $500-800; Sporran (that pouch in the front) $150-600, Shoes $125, jacket $250, Glengarry (hat) $100, etc…  If you’ve got multiple kilts you got a lot of dough tied up in your gear. I practice an average of 3+ hours a week- and that’s bare minimum. That’s every week for every year I’ve played.

4. Can you turn it down or play more softly? No. The bagpipe has one volume and its sound carries. I love the fact that it’s loud too. It’s supposed to grip you and stir you. This can’t be done at the level of a whisper. This fact is also why the bagpipes were popular in battle- the pipes could cut through the din of battle and rouse the fighting troops.

5. What are the patterns of kilt? What do they mean? Each Clan or family of Scotland has it’s own tartan or pattern. The colors and patterns are significant to that specific family. There are also national Tartans. One or those I wear is called the Pride of Scotland.

pride of scotland

The Pride of Scotland

Also each tartan has different levels of shade some are very bright- modern versions that use more colorful dyes than were available many years ago. The Hunting tartans are more subdued as well- almost the camouflage version of each tartan- muted colors to help blend into the forest. Also each tartan has a ancient style too which seeks to reproduce the original dyes and colors used by the clan. There is much more to this. If you want to know more go here:  http://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/.

That’s about all for this post. If you need any more information please contact me. Or if you need a bagpiper in Newport Beach, Los Angeles or anywhere in Southern California I’m available and if I’m not available for you,  I’ll find a competent bagpiper for you. Thanks for reading.

 

The Skirl of the Bagpipes- Why does it affect us so much?

Tags: Bagpipes, Bagpipes 101, Events, Funerals/Memorials, History, Uncategorized, Weddings

Since a young age I’ve been affected by the sound of the bagpipe. Like many people the sound of a well tuned bagpipe, rich with harmonics and well played has stirred my innermost being. I am sure many of you have had a similar experience but for some they remain completely unaffected- why?

Firstly, I want to mention that having that deep emotional experience is really a gift and some people who don’t experience it don’t get what the fuss is about.  It’s a shame that they cannot experience it. Sound and music can affect our mood. Movie soundtracks have a profound affect on how we appreciate a movie or film, try watching a favorite movie without sound and you’ll see what I mean. Favorite music takes us back to times in our past and can trigger memories. But the bagpipe is unique in the depth of emotion it can draw out of a person.

I’ve experienced that emotion myself and have seen its effect many times when performing. The most visceral reaction I have ever witnessed was the unrestrained moan of a 14 year old autistic boy at his father’s funeral. I played Amazing Grace and He had such an outpouring of emotion that he was louder than the pipes. I almost stopped playing for fear I was upsetting him too much.

The appreciation of the bagpipe is often linked to a person’s heritage. People whose lineage can be traced back to Scotland, Ireland, England or Wales have a deep connection to the bagpipes. This deep appreciation can also work in the hearts of other people but it is not the norm.

On the more positive side I’ve played the pipes and seen tears of joy in people’s faces. I once played for a bride who, when she heard me, started jumping up and down for joy. She started to tear up and I told her her to stop- she was going to ruin her makeup! I’ve played for seniors- again with tears of joy streaming down their faces as they recount days of old when I play favorites like Danny Boy, When Irish Eyes are Smiling and Amazing Grace.

I truly believe that the love of the bagpipes is a heart issue. You are either born with it or your not. It’s not something you grow into or out of. It comes from your ancestry and your bloodline. It’s a divisive instrument as well. There usually is not too much middle ground, you either love them or you do not. For those of us who do- we are very fortunate.

Personally the biggest reason I play the bagpipes and learned to play them well was the sound and how I loved it. My goal when starting was always to play a bagpipe with rich harmonics, a soaring lovely sound that carries and moves me and other people. I am very fortunate to play this instrument and I never tire of loving every minute of the performance and I am so thankful I am able to do so for so many other people.

DSC_0053 (1)

Bagpipes for Parties!

Tags: Bagpipes, Events, History, Uncategorized, Weddings

I often get called to play at parties. They are always a great time . Here are my ideas to make a birthday party with bagpipes a smash succcess:

Who wants birthday cake? Ralph Sr. on left was a big Notre Dame fan- I played the fight song for him and also piped in the cake to Happy Birthday

Who wants birthday cake? Ralph Sr. on left was a big Notre Dame fan- I played the fight song for him and also piped in the cake to Happy Birthday

  • For birthdays I am often called to add some pizzazz to the party. Surprise birthday parties are getting more and more popular and this can work very well. It usually requires a little extra planning. What I do is stop away from the birthday site and tune and warm up the pipes and get everything ready. When I arrive on site I call someone inside that is in the know. When they are ready I strike up the bagpipes and march right in playing as they hold the door open for me. It’s a big entrance to be sure.
  • Also Happy Birthday works perfectly on the bagpipes, so I sometimes lead the cake out from the kitchen or wherever it is. When I do a birthday gig it is always my objective to play for the guest of honor but I also intersperse playing with some history of the tunes I’m playing, bagpipe 101 and answer any questions. Usually these last about one hour and the time goes fast!
  • Christmas parties are usually a great time too. Many Christmas carols work well on bagpipes- usually the older ones like Come All Ye Faithful work very well. Unfortunately Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer doesn’t work very well.
  • I’ve also played a couple of retirement parties this year as well. On these it is very important to be flexible as many people want to wish the retiree the best and schedules can get pretty loose. One tune that I always bring into a retirement party is Auld Lang Syne. In both of these parties I was a surprise as well.
  • Bagpiper and Mom sm Read More