May 01, 2009


Redbird Express

Is there a more physical musical instrument than the Highland bagpipe? The “fit” of the pipe is so important to the player’s ability to perform well, and I can’t think of an instrument that conforms to the body as closely as the pipes.

When the instrument is going well, with a bag that’s perfectly sized, stocks positioned the way you want them, blowpipe just right, reed-strength and vibrancy adjusted exactly, the pipes can feel like they’re part of the player’s body. I’d think that most experienced pipers have enjoyed times – rare for most – when the pipes feel like they’re not even there. And, considering how relatively heavy the instrument is, that’s remarkable.

Such a feeling I had playing in the Medley event with Spirit of Scotland at the World’s last year. It was one of those transcending, out-of-body experiences when the pipes and music seemed just right – no nerves that I can remember, just enjoying the ephemeral moment that is music’s great allure.

In a band it can actually be a dangerous thing, enjoying one’s self so much while competing. Hopefully going on autopilot (or shifting to glide as the song with one of the worst lyrics ever says: “Hey little Donna, still wanna; You said to ring you up if I was in Toranna”) doesn’t cause such daydreaming as to forget tone, but I’d think that a sudden tonal lapse would snap you out of the trance.

I wrote before about riding a fixed-gear bike, which is what I’ve done almost daily for more than three years. I really enjoy the connection with the rig, since you have to keep peddling and use resistance on the pedals to help stop. Like a good-going well-set-up pipe, a fixed gear bike almost becomes part of your body, and when the there’s a tail-wind on a warm spring day with a glittering Great Lake on one side and a shiny set of skyscrapers on the other, the effect is, like a good-going World’s medley, transcendental.


  1. And fit is something that a lot of less than qualified instructors haven’t a clue about. When it’s good, it’s great. But when it’s bad it is so detrimental that most newbies get discouraged and quit.

  2. It is after all a ‘relationship’. Any player is ‘relating’ more, or, less to their instrument. We’ve all seen performances, where perhaps both the instrument AND the person disappeared, leaving only the music for us to get lost in. Where the person and/or the instrument attracts our attention ‘away’ from the music, is I think when there is a ‘flaw’ or ‘unresolved’ issue with the relationship between the instrument and the person. Sometimes the problem might be more with the player – just bad technique, or attitude – or the problem might be with the instrument – crap quality, badly maintained. Or the player who has a hard time in relationships generally, might bring that same problem to relating to ‘his’ bagpipe. Getting to know the instrument, isn’t imho dealt with sufficiently at the outset for beginners. The bagpipe is a big, heavy, odd kind of thing, with a lot of bits to it. Surely you can’t just pick one up and lay it somewhere in relation to your body and be at one with it. No more than you could do it with any other instrument.

    I’ve experienced those ‘out of body’ moments with the violin and singing – but they took years to come, and they were of course, based on the journey it took to get to them. With bagpipes, its the connection with the body aspect that is not right yet for me, and that’s why I’m on a mission to sort it. One set is far too heavy so all my thoughts and energies are to do with just holding on to the pipes. Hopeless.

    You see players sometimes, who use the instrument as an alternative to a human relationship – I mean, they are bodily and emotionally closer to their pipes than their wife, say, or partner. Others because of enjoying satisfactory relationships with ‘people’, are also able to be close to their pipes. You see others who are afraid of their pipes, or angry with their pipes, or carry a sadness about them. Perhaps the way people hold their pipes, relate to their pipes, and the way the body and the pipes interact, say a great deal more about the player and the music than at first meets the eye.

  3. Well … a wee bit of an epic there Janette, I’m with you all the way though.
    It’s not the proximity of the pipes to the body, their weight or their mystical qualities it’s the variables … I’m sure the Scotsman who invented Golf had a hand in the bagpipe …Variables
    Bagpiping like Golf has benefited from the advances in technology …breathable somethings and composite thingy’s … why is it then that we’re tuning our drones on slides riding on whippings of waxed hemp … hasn’t someone invented a screw system yet!!!
    the important thing about bagpipe set-up … is the player … Those one-ness moments come from the player being right … that is of course after the basic, simple mechanics of confortable playing has been dealt with.
    Regardless of ability “one-ness” moments happen frequently throughout the piping year … they happen to six month learners and forty year veterens alike.
    I know that “Fit” works both ways … it’s not all about the mechanics, I suspect that Andrews pipe is well set everyday and yet some days it fits better than others … so either Andrew’s torso is in a constant state of flux or fit is an emotional issue.
    As soon as I figure out what on earth it is I’ll bottle it and sell it, I’ll call it
    “Bag-Fit Emotional Syrup” or “Glenmorangie” for short.




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