April 13, 2012


Basking.You may have heard that Vancouver recently banned Highland pipes as a busker’s instrument. Following a story in one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, there was enough hue-and-cry from pipers and drummers and enthusiasts around the world – not to mention the mayor of Vancouver – that the bylaw was rescinded.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. On one hand, Highland pipes should not be singled out for being too loud, since it’s no louder than many other instruments heard on the streets. On the other hand, what person who knows and appreciates good piping would want terrible “pipers” playing in public at all, let alone for hours on end?

The stated reason for the ban in Vancouver wasn’t about the poor quality of piping, it was about the volume of the pipes. But we all know what was going on: the Highland pipes once again were stereotyped and, as the latter Globe article leads with, “likened to the cries produced by a clowder of dying cats” (which begs the questions: Who knows what a bunch of dying cats really sounds like? and, Is “clowder” really a word?!).

Since moving to Canada 24 years ago, I can’t recall anyone here saying that they dislike the pipes. In fact, they tend to rave about it. Mention that you play the pipes and Canadians inevitably drift back to a ceremony like a wedding, funeral or graduation where the pipes transported them to an uplifting and poignant place.

That’s not to say that there aren’t Canadian bagpipe-haters out there. Obviously there are a few in Vancouver. But when I busked on Princes Street in Edinburgh for several years, every day every 15 minutes or so someone would walk by holding their ears or even stop to tell me how much they hate the pipes (Yes, okay, make your jokes now about my playing, but I was essentially practicing for the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting). Members of the Lothian & Borders Police even would move me along.

I’ve remarked before that busking is about the most honourable way to make money. People will pay you what they think your skill is worth. It’s a completely venerable profession. But I do understand that any music foisted on people who never requested it can be a nuisance. Inasmuch as I dislike Muzak or loudspeakers blaring from storefronts, I can see why some don’t want to be subjected to busking bagpipers, especially unskilled ones.

Maybe the solution is for accomplished pipers, when they hear a less-savvy piper playing in public, to kindly offer to tweak their reeds, or at least give their drones a few twists. The more people hear good-sounding pipes, the less inclined they’ll be to put us down.


  1. I admire you for being able to practice and busk. I know in theory it sounds simply, the more you play, the better you get, but there lies within, quantity over quality. I busked for many years and never could quite play on the street what I had to play in competition, felt I couldn’t expose it to untrained ears perhaps or didn’t want to get bored of playing it maybe..

    The other expression I would bring to mind is the quote “if you live in sh1t for a while, you forget what it smells like” I was a way better player than the player I was when I busked,call it laziness (because that is what it was) but I really couldn’t be bothered to have all the drones going, and yes I would tweak a chanter reed if it got too bad for my “couldn’t really care less what it sounded like” ear.

    As for building up repertoire, forget about it, I ended up mixing up parts of 6/8 marches and playing the easier of the parts of my favourite tunes. All in all, I couldn’t deny the money, but for my love of piping or playing pipes I would say overall, busking had a detrimental effect on me as a player.

    I say go for it, and enjoy the thrill and buzz you get from playing at will, and earning a bit of cash for yourself, but try not to do it for too long. Don’t become so used to it, that you are bored of listening to yourself play, its a sad sad day when that happens.

    On a final note, I was always amazed at how much easier the money would come in, when I didn’t need it. I used to just play and spend my earnings on food and drink, and could (and still can’t) save a penny for a rainy day, like say, rent day. No matter how much I tried to fake it, and pretend I was just enjoying playing like it was just another busk – we really are animals at the end of the day – people could always sense or feel my desperation. On days where I didn’t have any real need the money, money would fly in the box. Days where I really had to get the rent in, I knew I would have to be out playing for at least double, or even 3 or 4 times the amount of time it would normally take to earn the same amount.

  2. I’m a little mixed on it too. As with any other busker, we could easily become an annoyance. I’m intrigued by the whole concept. When it comes to the quality of the piper, I’m just not sure that matters much as evidenced by the 2007 experiment with world class violinist Joshua Bell in the Washington DC metro station. 43 minutes of a world class performer. 1000+ people passed by. Never drew a crowd. Recognized by one person. Made just north of $35 in 45 minutes. At that rate, it would take 75,000 more hours of it to pay for the $3.5 million violin he was playing.
    Story and video:
    For the record, I would have probably walked right by too. A comparable piper and I would have stopped and chatted with him, as the woman does at the end. “Dude, I totally saw you at Winter Storm. That was awesome.”

  3. I saw that clip of the violinist before and as much as he is a world class player,he seemed a pretty poor busker to me. He is quite clearly used to people paying to sit and listen to him, where as the nature of busking is to get the attention of a passing crowd. Even in the piping world, you just have to look at one or two “famous” bands that have pretty average pipers and yet can travel the world, they don’t have the skill or ability to play in top solo competitions and there are travelling the world, (and at the end of the day, pleasing people that go and watch and listen to them, so job done on that front). These people may not have the ability of more gifted players, but they have that little something called the X factor that money (nor Simon Cowel) can buy, you either have it or you don’t. Perhaps he has it on stage, but he didn’t show it there, in the short clip.

    I even see it with the top class soloists, of course it is personal opinion, but I do think, some of the top guys are more “judge friendly” than “audience friendly” I know I’d sooner listen to the player that brings out his/her personality and even a few mistakes/embellishments that listen to the more perfected/tedious performances.

    To be fair to the violinist and the people that passed him by, he looked like he wasn’t too keen on the experiment, and I’d say, give him a few weeks (even a couple more hours) when he wasn’t so interested in his own performance, and was more interested in getting his food or rent, you may have seen a different “performance”, one where he knew he had to change his tact to get people’s attention and hence money in the case. Even the woman that stopped, she stopped because she recognised the face first, and then was prepared to listen to what he had to play, doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have walked past a world class player she didn’t recognise.

  4. Re Donald MacPherson’s marvellous Pipe Sound: I was in the audience at an old Church (now long demolished) on Avenue Road near Dupont St at Donald’s only (as far as I am aware) solo Concert , probably in the late 70’s or early 80’s here in Toronto. his Pipe gave a sound that is really unforgettable and the thought that that wonderful instrument could be in the hands of a future performer capable of reproducing the great man’s brilliant playing is (in Shakespear’s words,) a Consummation devoubtedly to be wished. J.W.



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