March 08, 2021

Piping during a pandemic – an open letter to women ‘of a certain age’

By Laura Mullin

In June of 2018, I marched into the competition circle with a pipe band once again. I had done it many times before. No big deal.

But it was. My last competition before that was at Bellahouston Park in August of 1989. Twenty-nine years between competitions.

As many young pipers do, I left high school, left home, and left playing – completely. Focus on education, career, relationships, children (in many cases all of the above) mean that personal hobbies take a back seat – way, way back ‐ for many women. (“Hobby” . . . lol. I know, I just called it a “hobby”?)

In 2017, however, there was a tiny break in the demands on my time. I was almost as busy as ever, with one change – my kids were now teenagers. Then, the eldest got his drivers’ license. Suddenly, I wasn’t their favourite hangout buddy anymore (hmm . . . odd).

There was, then, a sliver of the “Free Time!” that had eluded me for so many years. And still in my basement were my 1979 Kintails. They were practically new when I last played them but now are considered charmingly vintage. I hadn’t played in over 25 years.

That’s a loooong time. But I decided to start again.

I discovered that technology advancements made things easier (moisture control, synthetic reeds, easier reeds . . . wow!). I also discovered that advancements in my age made everything harder (lung control, finger control, bladder control . . . thank goodness for those easier reeds).

After a year of hard work, I was ready to venture forth publicly and was lucky enough to find a welcoming band and some incredibly patient and talented instruction.

Alas, before the 2020 season could even begin, COVID‐19 put a stop to pipe bands around the world. For me, it was a very short‐lived return to piping – what a let‐down. Time to give up? I mean, what’s the point? But I decided to persevere and signed up for my first solo competition in over 30 years – on video.

Now, I get to learn about “USB mics” and “interfaces” and “sound distortion” on top of uncrushing my doublings and tuning and tweaking and fixing my own problems with the most fickle instrument on earth. There is no Pipe Major or in‐person teacher with the miracle ear to move my tape to just the right spot and fix my problems for me. I must fend for myself. And I miss my bandmates.

But in trying to make lemonade out of COVID‐19 lemons, I’ve discovered that committing to keep piping during a pandemic has been the best learning experience of my life.

To all “women of a certain age,” I’m here to tell you that now is the time to go back to piping. If you’ve never done it but always wanted to, now is the time to start. Instructors are available and accessible via Zoom in every time zone. As hard as it will be, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. With the right mindset, the rewards are many:

— With lockdown, you’re home more. So practice more. Sometimes, you can’t wait to practice to get away from those you are in lockdown with (of course, you love them, but no one expected you to spend this much time with them).

— It burns a lot of calories.

— It’s good for our aging brains – let’s keep dementia at bay.

— Whether it’s 10 am or 2 pm, your throat gets dry, so pour a pint or crack open a bottle of wine.

— It teaches patience. You cannot rush a bagpipe into tune.

— It teaches your loved ones patience. They have to wait until you’ve finished a tune to ask ridiculous questions like “What’s for dinner?” or “Can I borrow the car?” (To drive . . . where?).

— If you have children/spouse/roommates, you cannot hear the yelling/screaming/punching going on upstairs or sometimes, right beside you.

— It is, above all, a form of meditation. You must slow down, clear your mind, and think only about essential functions. Breathing is key to a lot of your success.

— When lockdown is over, you can reunite with your bandmates or join a band for the first time and discover an interesting and diverse group of eccentric friends who will “have your back” forever.

For these reasons and more, I’m so glad I found my way back to piping. You should, too.

Yes, it was easier when we were 17. It is much, much tougher now. But so are you. Think of what you’ve lived through so far. Childbirth? Loss of loved ones? Heartbreak? Homeschooling!!? All of the above?

The most challenging day piping is a piece of cake compared to that. It will make you a better person. I think it made me a better person.

Originally from Inglewood, Ontario, Laura Mullin now lives in Everton, Ontario. She was taught piping originally by Wilbert McCormick and then got instruction from John Walsh, and has played with Sandhill Pipes & Drums, the Georgetown Girls, the Grade 1 Toronto & District Caledonia and, currently, with the Grade 3 8 Wing Pipes & Drums.





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