February 21, 2015

Fond farewell

Two years ago, after about eight years away from it, I was looking for a piping change, so had another go at solo competition. I’d stopped shortly after my mother died suddenly in 2003, having lost the desire to keep at it, and, then, too, needing a change.

Going back to solo piping at age 48 was a combination of desires. I wanted to see if I could still play to the standard and I thought it would be more interesting to be among solo pipers, who share a unique bond of understanding, empathy and respect.

That first season back was okay, but re-understanding the solo competition instrument and the set-up, the myriad choices of bags and reeds and moisture gubbins and gizmos was in itself a new art to master. It was particularly humid summer around these parts in 2013, and wrestling with a natural bag and wetness made things interesting. But some decent prizes came around – enough to keep me at it.

The 2014 competition season was fun. I made some changes to the instrument, figured out the right moisture controlling combination, and got up and submitted tunes I particularly enjoyed playing. Even though I was practicing less, I was playing as well as ever I could remember, though the memory can play tricks on you, as we all know.

People say that they “don’t have time” to do things. That’s never true. There is always time to do whatever you wish in life. Saying you don’t have time for something is really saying you don’t make that something a priority over other things. There is time; you just have to decide how to prioritize it with the other stuff. People might be amazed at those who seem to “have the time” to get things done. I tend to believe they’re more often envious of another’s better ability to prioritize.

Competitive solo piping is a mainly selfish conceit. No one but you particularly cares about your prizes. If you’re lucky and good enough, you might occasionally compete before an appreciative audience, but far more often there’s no one listening but the judge, or a few fellow competitors half-paying attention. That’s just the way it is.

I thought that after the 2014 season I’d simply keep it going. But a few weeks away from practicing turned into a few months, and, after several months of not practicing, getting game-ready is hard. The Highland pipe is maybe the most physically demanding of musical instruments. In some way, you’re as much an athlete as you are a musician.

My priorities changed again. I had and have the time to practice, but I have chosen not to. What am I trying to prove that I haven’t proven already to myself and to anyone who might care? At 51, did I want to risk being that guy: the competitor whose skills have eluded him but doesn’t realize what’s happened and gamefully presses on, fingers flailing and failing, pipers mumbling about the bumbling, wondering, Why’s he still at it?

I’ve written before about stopping while the goin’s are still good. The last time I competed was in the Professional Piobaireachd on Saturday, August 2, 2014, at Maxville, Ontario. I was last to play, before a judge, a steward, one or two passers-by, and a lot of bugs. The tune was “The Old Men of the Shells” – one that I have always enjoyed playing. The instrument held. The mind stayed focused. The hands didn’t fail. The smell of fresh-cut grass filled the early afternoon air in the bright Glengarry County sunshine. The thump of bass drums was in the distance, but all felt quiet, the music taking me at least to another place in space and time. And later I was uplifted again by the result.

I can’t think of a better way to end a solo competition career. It’s all I could ever ask of the instrument, or of the music, or of myself. It’s a high that only the brethren of pipers can understand, and the right note, I think, on which to say farewell to the boards. If I haven’t always been good to them, they have certainly been good to me.

So, thank you to anyone who might have listened to me compete since 1976. Thank you for your comments. Thank you to all teachers. Thanks to my long-gone-now parents for the support and spurring me on. Thanks to every fellow competitor and the unique camaraderie of solo pipers. Thank you to the stewards. Thank you to the organizers of the contests. Thanks to the reedmakers, bag-makers and whoever it was in 1936 why made those drones in the old R.G. Lawrie shop. Thanks to the people who created the music. Thank you to the judges who lent their ear and their knowledge. Thanks to the family who put up with the practice.

I’ll remember the thrill and joy of competing well. Thanks.



  1. Andrew, I always admired your passion for the pipes even in the old Meeting of the Waters days. I followed you from a far and you did your parents proud.

    Aye, Bob

  2. What a wonderful piece. I completely empathize. I went back to piping when I was 60 and have now, at 67, just decided to stop competing in solos. I’m still playing, but now I’m enjoying it more. All the best to you.

  3. Andrew, we first met at the Gaelic College. I believe you were 16 at the time. I still have that 6/8 that you wrote.
    We won a quartet competition with Andrew Pezzant and William Henry. Still have that wee trophy.
    I understand where you are. After a number of years having to play with earplugs in because of some hearing loss,
    I decided to give up playing. I still have my chanter on my coffe table and pipe music still makes me smile, but if
    I could not play the way I wanted to and after many summers of not having a summer, I let it go.
    It was a hard decision but I am ok with it now.
    I’m glad you did that come back. Had you not, it would haved weighed on you. Now you can close that chapter.
    Kind Regards,

    1. Anne/Andrew – I too have the “wee trophy” – one of my favorite moments from the Gaelic College. So glad to read this blog post. Best regards to you both (and Bill Henry, wherever he might be).

      Andrew Payzant

  4. Wow! Here I am at 53, my husband 67 and we are piping students having taken up the pipes 5 years ago. Pipers such as yourself are an inspiration to us. I envy you! Bravo Sir!

  5. I have a slightly different approach. For me it is not about maintaining a competitive career but maintaining a piping career. I use the few games in Scandinavia as an excuse to get my finger out and get some playing done. The actual game isn’t that important more even though the occasoinal prize still goes in my direction.
    The important part is the joy of build up, Fiddling with seasoning, hemp, reeds, picking up tunes and eventually make it all work again. This I enjoy most here in my mid-fifties.

  6. A thoughtful, well-written and moving column. It speaks to many things in the piping world that a number of us struggle against and deal with. Thank YOU.

  7. Andrew, well said. You and I had some great times together in the St. Louis piping scene. Many Alma memories, good and some ” different”!! Enjoy your non competing days and play for fun when you feel like it.. All the best to the family

  8. Dear Andrew, I recall when you came as a Teenager to get lessons with me down in N Carolina,one lesson I particulary recall is you playing McDougalls Gathering and me telling you that you played very well but not to do Finger Gymnastics when tuning up,the wrong thing to tell teenagers.
    We all make our own choices in our life and to me the important thing is to make meaningful choices especially to benefit and improve our Pipng,you have done that in a way that you have been good at. Three weeks ago I gave a short recital of Piob., with 90 year old Geriatric hands to try and inspire other younger players,different ways of serving the music we love. I hope Andrew that there will always be people like us who give time and effort for our music. Happy retirement. Jimmy McIntosh.

  9. Many thanks, everyone, for your kind thoughts. The post seems to have resonated with some people, which is nice to see. “Retiring” from anything is always a personal thing, and mine is no more or less important than anyone else’s. I am very fortunate, too, that I am still closely involved with all things piping and drumming, whether through publishing and reporting, judging, or teaching. There is a strange affinity with competing that maybe only solo Highland pipers understand. Hard to let it go, but ending with a home run on your last at-bat makes it more satisfying.



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