By the left ...
November 30, 2006

Piping: the disease

As a typically paranoid and neurotic piping competitor I want everything in my performance to go perfectly. It’s why I practice and why I have nightmares if, as a contest approaches, I know subconsciously that I’m ill prepared. It’s why I spend endless hours and a small fortune messing around with reeds, knives, sandpaper, hemp, mandrels, pliers, brushes, electrician’s tape, plumber’s tape, drills, bags, various types of seasoning, drying systems, jackets, bag covers, grips . . . the list goes on. If you opened a bagpipe supply shop on my street you’d be made.

I have 10 pipe bags of every description in my cupboard upstairs which either make the pipes too wet, keep them too dry, or by the end of every performance the bag fits snugly between my wrist and my left knee. Having so many smelly, unhygienic dead animal skins in the house drives my wife crazy but it’s (almost) worth all the grief to get somewhere close towards a bag that’s unlikely to let me down during a performance. Now, if only I could find one.

In preparation for a recent major competition I changed pipe bags three times in the space of a week. Things always seem to be going great until the week before, when a rogue drone starts wandering out of tune, or the bag starts slipping when I play with my jacket on. I have yo-yoed between sheepskin and synthetic bags, back again, and then back again.

As the world’s wettest blower, finding the right skin with the right tanning, or the right synthetic bag with the right amount of crystals, to cope with the right amount of tuning time for the right amount of playing time in varying climatic conditions to make the pipe stay in tune . . . it’s a full time job. I’ve had so much stuff crammed inside a synthetic bag to keep it dry that you need to work out just to pick it up out the box. I have also changed drones three times in the last five years.

I am acutely aware of being in a very fortunate position to be able to get through this trauma. I come from a family that is heavily involved in piping and I have access to a number of sets of pipes. I also have my Dad on hand to give me pelters when it’s not going well, although mostly it’s pelters for messing around so much with all the assorted paraphernalia I mentioned earlier. Perhaps this has driven my whims and that whenever I feel that things aren’t going to my liking I have too much choice.

When I was younger and learning to play, my grandfather was making chanter and drone reeds. This gave me a terrific grounding in shaving, and ultimately wrecking reeds. And when (not if) I went too far, I could go to the garage, grab another handful and start again. (I hope my Dad isn’t reading this.)

I recognise that by writing all this nonsense I run the risk of appearing unstable, but this is my point. By continuing to play the pipes for anything other than our own enjoyment, and by striving for what is ultimately unachievable with the bagpipes, i.e., perfection, it is my considered opinion that most competitive pipers must have a screw loose. Then again, it could be that my judgment has been swayed by having met most of them and knowing this to be true.

I love the thought of competing, but must admit that during the days running up to a major contest, the morning of the event, the period just before I play, the time when I am warming up and the time when I am on the stage, I am generally not enjoying myself. Yet there is something that compels me to compete.

If you’re not in the right frame of mind, the slightest distraction can result in disaster. There are a number of judges who, when writing sheets during a performance, will wait until the competitor has turned to face away before lifting the pen. Others don’t, and it shouldn’t matter, but the normal reaction of the competitor, including my own, is to sense that a judge is writing about the negatives. A missed gracenote, a note error, a drone going out of tune, a break taken too quickly, erratic tempos, a squeal from the chanter, the blow-stick flying out your mouth and the chanter falling out the stock with the reed breaking both corners when it hits the floor. Basically all my worst nightmares come true in one performance. Are they wishing I would stop, set fire to my pipes and move to Siberia? Or, worse still, take up the drum?

Competing requires a mental toughness, not only to keep your breakfast down but to get up there and to relax enough to play your best. As I have gained more experience on the boards I have come to realise that the most effective way to enjoy a performance and to combat nerves (apart from bananas or a little liquid coping mechanism) is to be mentally prepared. This could be by either recalling and thriving on past successes or by tricking yourself into believing that it is all going great. I discovered the hard way that, just before you go on, it’s best not to wonder whether you normally play with your left hand pinkie up or down. Once I’d worked that out it was great fun mentioning it to other guys in the band as we marched up to the line.

So, my advice? If your knees are knocking together, the chanter feels like you’re gripping a ghillie brogue, the drones are like a war going on on your shoulder, get yourself some ear plugs and pretend to yourself that you sound like Willie McCallum.


Iain is a third-generation Speirs afflicted with the piping disease, and is already busy trying to pass it along to his kids. Too long in this condition, he’s caught many big prizes, including the Gold Medal at Oban and the Silver Chanter.




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