Published: July 31, 2000

Pipe Fitter

Editor’s note: At 58, Bill Livingstone is perhaps the oldest professional class piper still actively competing. By our calculation, he has probably competed in over 3,000 separate solo piping and band competition events — surely a record. Even as he approaches 60, he is one of the fittest competing pipers anywhere, of any age. Today, he shows no signs of slowing down. While he’s going strong physically at 4:00 p.m. at a major competition in searing heat, many pipers around him wilt. We asked him to let us in on his thoughts on the role of physical fitness in competitive piping. Although Bill Livingstone provides sound insights, the Piper & Drummer advises readers that they consult their doctor before embarking on a physical fitness regimen.

Picture this: you slap the alarm into silence somewhere around 6:00 a.m. of a July morning. Hurrying through your daily ablutions, you gulp some coffee, and then wrap yourself in several layers of pure wool. You hit the road, and the mercury is just topping 25° C. as you pull into the games park, it’s apparent that the Jig event, in which you are scheduled to play third, has already begun, frighteningly close to its preposterous startup time of 8:30. Following a totally hysterical three-minute tune-up, completed while executing a Chaplin-esque version of the Olympic walk, you perform . . . a humiliating display of amusical rubbish.

And the day has just started.

With luck, your three other solo events will have you placed in the order of play such that it may not be necessary to play your bagpipe for nearly four straight hours. But don’t count on it.

Noon by the clock. The park now resembles an Easy-Bake Oven, but it’s hi-ho and away we go to the massed bands, where, if you’re like nine out of ten solo pipers in my part of the world, you must perform with your beloved pipe band. Sensitively led by the Marquis de Drum Major, you slug up and down the hard park surface, your kilt weighed down with sweat, and smelling vaguely like a sheep.

It’s over. Released from your bondage. Not so fast, bub. We’ve got a band to get going here. After a brief sampling of the simple but nourishing fare sold by assorted comedians (“Hey, Marge, look! They’re eatin’ it!”), you arrive back at the band’s tuning area.

Now the hard part starts: two hours of nonstop blowing, tuning, fretting, refining, ever mounting pressure culminates in six and a half minutes of absurd effort, concentration, escalating heart rate and blood pressure, all now under a summer sun that would make Lawrence of Arabia cry out for a gin and tonic.

You would expect a mercifully quick end to your misery now—a brief presentation of prizes and home to catch the Blue Jays on television.

Hah! Another hour in or two in the wilting heat, so the organizers can milk the beer tent shenanigans for every dime.

What’s a body to do? You’re dehydrated, blistered, headachy, and smell horrid, but, what the hell, maybe just one or two. Then back out to repeat the massed bands hour. About 14 hours, start to finish.

Boy, you’d sure want to be fit to try that kind of day. Which is the point of this little essay.

Our game is a very hard business. In order to do it well, you had better have a whole lot of youth, or some physical strength and fitness. You can acquire the latter, although the former, once gone stays gone.

The fitness needed involves both muscular strength and endurance and cardio-vascular / pulmonary fitness. Before I tell you what little I know, read the following disclaimer: I ain’t no doctor, no physical therapist, no personal trainer—no expert nohow. What follows is what I’ve learned from years of exercising in various gyms with help from assorted instructors, and from mountain biking with guys too much better and/or younger than me.

This is a personal view, not a prescription. If you’re going to start a fitness program, do what you’re told after consulting a doctor, and get professional instruction.

Here are my personal preferences:

1. Exercise vigorously five to six days a week.

2. Combine weight training and cardio in every session. The cardio stuff can be done on Stairmaster climbing machines, various tricycle types of equipment, cross trainers (they mimic the cross-country skiing motion), treadmills, or just plain jogging.

3. Cardio sessions should be a minimum of 30 minutes at your training or target heart rate, and the weights go up to an hour, time permitting. (If time is short I never sacrifice my cardio, except on “leg days.”)

4. The upper body can be worked in rotating muscle groups, to provide rest days for each group between workouts. For example, work back and chest on Monday, arms on Tuesday, shoulders Wednesday, etc. The rest days seem as important as the actual work.

5. Work your legs every four to five days. These large muscles improve very quickly on a regimen that has you work them hard enough to keep them stiff for two to three days afterwards. If you’re doing leg squats, they’re great, but learn how to do them safely, and with a spotter.

The physical demands of piping are quite unlike those of most others. We need good general upper body strength, chest and back muscles, which can stand the repeated exertion of blowing a typically hard band chanter reed. You need arms (triceps especially) that won’t quiver with the unwelcome and unfamiliar stress of squeezing, and belly muscles that will contract on demand when blowing forcefully. It is not wise, however, for a piper to exercise forearms within a few days of a performance.

All of this stuff leads to some temporary stiffness, and the forearms, which control the fingers, should be left alone for awhile before the competition.

Why work legs? Recall our typical “day in the life” at the start of this piece. We stood on the suckers for untold hours; they must be strong. So too with the back—especially the lower back. Keep that area strong and stretched, and you’re less likely to have the screaming lower back pain at day’s end.

If your band does concerts you will know that in some ways these are even worse than games day. The same 12 to 14 hour day, with a performance that can include, oh, say, Tom McAllister, Iain MacLellan, Alasdair Gillies, Iain McLeod, Jack Lee and God knows how many other superstars all in the first rows within earshot of a muffed birl. It’s physical exertion coupled with fear. The result: increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension and compromised performance.

Can exercise help this? Damned right. If you’ve trained your cardio fitness well, you’ve put your heart rate to its “training level” regularly.

A rough guide to your training heart rate is 60% to 80% of the number reached by deducting your age from 220. So, for a 40-year-old, the training heart rate would be 108 to 144 beats per minute. Doing this routinely will ultimately reduce your resting heart rate and blood pressure, and will help reduce the effects of anxiety by keeping the numbers down.

That’s a great benefit of vigorous exercise—it also prepares you for physical and emotional stress, and there’s a lot of that in our game.

An experiment was once performed on a top piper by hooking him to a heart rate monitor at a major competition. As his tune approached, his pulse rose slightly, and lifted again when he started playing, only to level off as he started to deliver a fine performance. Then he made a finger fumble, and the heart rate monitor’s needle jumped off the scale. The stress we face can be damaging and counter-productive.

The fit piper has a better chance of overcoming it. Studies show that vigorous weight training and exercise have remarkable benefits for people even in their 70s and 80s. Muscle strength, grip, balance and walking are all improved for these advanced ages. Nolan Ryan threw fastballs over 90mph well into his 40s. He was one of the first baseball players to embrace a vigorous training program. Was his speed at that age an accident? I for one don’t think so.

Will any of this stave off repetitive use syndrome? I don’t know. Ask a specialist. Will it fend off arthritis? Don’t know. My mother had severe arthritis in her back and hands. So far, I don’t, although my feet are a mess from all the pounding over the years. Will you avoid the terrible hand problems that afflicted Bob Hardie and Archie Cairns? Don’t know. I do know, however, that you will feel better, stronger and more energetic about your playing if you do something to help your body.

Here’s a bonus: striding on the Stairmaster for 40 minutes at your target heart rate is a perfect opportunity to learn the set tunes, or that new medley either with the music on the book stand provided, or with a portable cassette player. And, it’s different training for the rigours of competition, as your forehead spurts fountains of sweat, and your breath is coming in gulps and gasps, test your concentration. Can you still think through the music when all you want to do is give up and get off the thing that’s causing you so much discomfort? Do that several times a week and see how much easier it is to perform in a competition when the stress is not that much different.

Unfortunately, your five times a week trips to the gym are unlikely to make you a better piper intrinsically. But you almost certainly will deliver more performances closer to your best possible as a result.

You will still have to do the hard graft in the practice room, which, added to your new regimen of hiking to the gym, may make you less than popular. But, what the hell, it’s the music that will sustain you into your dotage.

Serious pipers know their careers generate the daily bread, while the real warp and woof in their lives, the stuff that hums at their centre, and will as long as they live, is the music of the Highland bagpipe.

Do something to play it well for much longer. It’s worth it.

Bill Livingstone is one of the greatest competitive pipers of all time. He is the only person ever to have taken a band to a World Pipe Band Championship and to win a Clasp at The Northern Meeting. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Whitby, Ontario. His next collection of music is due out in the spring.

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