We revisit our By The Left . . . article from May 2001.
By Neil Dickie
When I practice I follow a long-standing routine. It goes like this: drone warm-up, chanter into stock, a wee tune-up then some 9/8s. Next I play three or four 2/4 marches and tune up again. After that, some strathspeys and reels, a slow air or two, a re-tune of the drones, then a piobaireachd. Finally a re-tune, some new music then a well deserved beer. It has always lasted 30 to 40 minutes. I’ve done it this way for over 25 years. But a couple of months ago I experienced a most unusual and disturbing change.
Just as I approached the piobaireachd a sudden lethargy overcame me and I didn’t want to play a piobaireachd at all. Let’s be clear here. It’s not that I couldn’t, it’s just that I suddenly didn’t feel like it at all. I simply stood there in my living room embracing my pipes, wishing for all the world that my pipes would hug me back. It was a very emotional moment.
Since that time I think I have only done three or four piobaireachds – less than one per week (if one was counting, which I am not!). It makes a piper begin to feel quite inadequate, you know. And absolutely no one understands how I feel. Sometimes I even find myself browsing through Piobaireachd Society books, but the desire to get started just isn’t there.
I talked to my wife about it and she was rather cavalier about the whole issue. “It’s just a phase,” she said. “It’ll pass so don’t worry about it.” Well, that’s like saying, “Don’t think about a blue elephant.” Once you vocalize the issue then that is precisely all you can think about!
I’m 45. More than half my life is over. What’s depressing is that I can’t begin to count the piobaireachds I’ve played in the past. And now I realize that the number of piobaireachds I’ll play in the future is not infinite any more. How many more will I play, I wonder, until the day comes when I can’t get my pipes up at all?
For a while I did what every guy does in these critical situations. I kept it all inside and became increasingly grumpy with everyone. Finally, I asked my friend Alex, “When was the last time you played a whole piobaireachd?” Alex is just a few months older than I am, but I could tell by the look of horror on his face that he knew exactly what I was talking about.
“What do you mean?” he asked with indignation. “I can play a piobaireachd any time I want!” “Yeah right.” I snorted and we settled into a melancholy silence, broken only when we each began humming the ground to “Lament for the Old Sword.” It was a moment that touched both of us. We have never talked about it since.
I thought of talking to Dr. Angus MacDonald (a piper and a doctor), but I didn’t have the guts to confess my piobaireachdian ineptitude to anyone at all. So I started some research and I have discovered the most remarkable thing – I am not alone! The numbers of pipers who lose some of the fire for piobaireachd are legion. This article, then, is for all of us. We all know who we are.
Some things I discovered . . .
Many famous pipers have had this change occur in their piping lives. Donald MacLeod was reported to have stated that piobaireachd in later life is often more enjoyable than in one’s youth. I agree. As you get older you begin to appreciate the nuances of the form, whereas in your youth you would just hammer on through. Even though he may play less frequently, the mature piper tends to play with much more gentleness and understanding.
Research has shown that male pipers reach a piobaireachd peak at around 18 years of age and it’s downhill from there. What a waste! At 18 one has the physical ability to play four, five or even more piobaireachds in a row and yet not possess one ounce of the mental or emotional wherewithal to appreciate the experience. Female pipers, on the other hand, reach their big music zenith between 28 and 36. Eight years! How lucky they are to experience the best ceol mor has to offer during a period when they are at the pinnacle of their physical, emotional and mental maturation.
I have discovered that therapists will refer to this male piping experience as the Andropausal Piper Syndrome (APS). They know of no cure, but do recommend a good diet, exposure to other genres of music and above all, urge sufferers to take it “one piobaireachd at a time.”
They talk of everything about piping from drone sound to judging controversies. But, sadly, they never broach the topic of how many piobaireachds they can handle.
As I look around my piping brethren I see a vast amount of my own peers who are blindly floundering their way through this terrible time of change. Are you one? Is there one in your family? Here are some symptoms to look out for:
The Andropausal Piper (AP) will exhibit an unusually strong desire to bond with other pipers. This is most evident in beer tents at Highland games where myriad huddles of the bald and the grey babble and bluster away with lager pints in hand. They talk of everything about piping from drone sound to judging controversies. But, sadly, they never broach the topic of how many piobaireachds they can handle.
Some APs look for new pipes, believing that it cannot be themselves to blame for this new inadequacy; that somehow the pipe has changed, not the piper. Other APs spend countless hours tinkering with their instruments in abject solitude. They re-hemp everything in sight; they will polish ferrules with feverish zeal, and some even try out the Ross tube and canister system. Anything to avoid confronting the real issue itself.
There is a lot of transference and critical avoidance in the AP’s behaviour. Because APs are generally in their mid-40s, they tend to belong to the more affluent sector of the piping community. Consequently it is quite common to see the AP displace his anxiety by accumulating the material trappings of bagpiping. It is as if he is saying to the world, “Look, I must be still considered worthy. I have everything a piper should have.”
The AP is easy to spot. He has the new soft-sided pipe case and two or even three sets of the most expensive synthetic drone reeds. He travels incessantly, without worrying about cost, to every games he can find and joins congregations of those like him; all of the APs gather this way in a sorry attempt to find sanctity and comfort in the company of others like themselves.
They wear really clean kilt socks and tie their ghillie laces way high up the calf. They have all quit smoking and many sport RSPBA lapel pins.
They wear really clean kilt socks and tie their ghillie laces way high up the calf. They have all quit smoking and many sport RSPBA lapel pins. The icon of the AP that gives him away immediately is, of course, the silver flask containing only the oldest and finest malt whisky.
Piping is really a young person’s game, but we AP’s try to hang in as long as we can. Eventually we are shuffled off like so many bull elephants well past their trumpeting prime. Denied access to the herd proper we cluster together when we can, knowing that, inevitably, others are waiting to shepherd us off to a piping netherworld of shooting sticks, tweed ties and really heavy wool rain-capes.
Please have some pity on us, for your day will come too. If anyone is interested I will be running an AP retreat in the Rockies this summer. For a full week APs can share and bond. There will be encounter groups, counseling and campfire bodhran sessions. Participants are invited to play piobaireachd. But if you don’t feel up to it that’s okay. We are there for you and you are still valuable to us. Registration forms can be downloaded at www.Ain’tDoneYet.com.
And finally an inspirational quote from the great Yogi Berra MacCrimmon: “90% of all piobaireachd is half mental.”
A composer of several of the most popular light music pieces (“The Clumsy Lover,” “The Kitchenpiper,” “Doug Boyd’s Favourite,” among many others) in the Highland piping repertoire, Neil Dickie competed at the highest solo and band levels. Originally from Glasgow, he has lived in Canada for the last 40 years and now resides in Edmonton, Alberta. In between MCing SFU concerts, he is a professional soccer coach . . . or something.