January 15, 2012

Pass the pipe

Breeding ground.There was a time when passing around a bagpipe to let anyone who could play and who wanted to “have a tune” was commonplace. It seemed like at any informal gathering of pipers there would be a bagpipe that was going well, and no one had any reservations about having a go.

It seems like that tradition has all but died away in this era of germaphobia. Passing the pipe has fallen victim to marketing’s discovery that creating a fear of unknown and unseen bacteria, and subsequently selling all manner of “germ-killing” products from hand sanitizer to dish soap to toothpaste, has worked to kill off our willingness to share a germ-infested blowpipe and pipe bag.

I’m not sure if passing around a single instrument at a party of harmonica players or clarinetists or Jew’s harpers has ever been a thing, but I do know that it was because of the pass-the-pipe tradition that I first had the opportunity to play a really good instrument. It was probably about 1978, and the bagpipe was Gordon Speirs’ MacDougall drones and Sinclair chanter. I had been used to playing a basic set of Hardies and some sort of newfangled plastic band chanter. To be sure, the tenors were tuning about a quarter-inch from the projecting mounts, if they were tuned at all.

Suddenly, when Gordon’s MacDougalls were passed to me I had under my arm a wondrous sound alive with resonance. Relative to my hurricane-like instrument, his pipe took almost no effort to blow. It stayed in tune. I could feel each note of the chanter on my fingers. I could have played all day on that instrument, and wanted it back as soon as I passed it to the next person. I had experienced a sound that I knew I wanted to achieve.

And, as far as I can remember, I didn’t get sick from any saliva-borne disease. Because of society’s fear of germs, I wonder how many kids today miss opportunities to play great instruments.

I was recently at a party where a good-going pipe was passed around. There were several excellent players there, but there were also a few lower-grade amateurs, and I noticed one kid in particular whose eyes seemed to light up, not with fear of catching a horrible canker sore, but with the feel and sound of a well set-up bagpipe.

I’d think that in this age when synthetic bags and reeds are more common than the virtual Petri dish that is sheepskin and cane, passing the pipe would be safer than ever. I do know that, back in 1978, the only thing I caught was a lifelong addiction to achieving good sound.


  1. At a holiday gathering for our band, this past December, we had a good sounding, easy playing set going and played a bit of pass around, to the great joy of all. Only fear was if the next guy had one pint too many.

  2. Although I did have a bad experience with a PM who licked everyone’s reeds (5 of us ended up with Norwalk virus the next day, with my bout being the worst by far), I still wouldn’t hesitate to play someone else’s bagpipe. I had a similar experience when I was young. My pipes were perpetually difficult to blow and gave me no small amount of frustration as I was learning. It was only when I got the chance to play someone else’s well set up pipe that I realized the problem wasn’t all me and my horrible stamina.

  3. No way I’d have caught anything from my auld PM’s pipes…. the alcohol fumes would have killed off anything that dared to make an attempt at living inside the bag. 😀

  4. As a teacher of pipes, it is absolutely essential for me on almost a daily basis to take one of my kids’ pipes and give them a blow to see why he or she is having problems with them. Are they really that hard? Is he overblowing them because they are too easy? Is his striking-in problem a drone reed problem? I always wipe the mouthpiece with a paper towel, but aside from that, no worries. Sometimes I let them blow my pipes. Playing John MacFadyen’s pipes at summer schools in the early 1970s was crucial to my development as a player.

  5. Oh yes , I too use to play a lousy set of hardies ,my first experiance was with a well set up set of Sinclairs , it was so memorable, besides a wee dram of good single malt would suffice to kill off any ligering “Cooties”

  6. Great commentary Andrew! I recall two specific similar incidents: playing Bill Livingstones’ pipes in ’83 after 3rd place in the worlds, and then Jake Watsons “giant” bagpipe at some pub or another. Both served to illustrate that when my bagpipe felt “hard” to blow, something was dead wrong with bag/reeds/joints etc! As for germophobia, break out the Abreva and play every pipe you get a chance to!

  7. I, too, had the joy of playing Gordon’s MacDoughall pipes back in the ’80s…an incredible experience, especially for a young piper. Gordon was an exemplary pipe major. Not only did he take each individual’s pipes home for the weekend (once or twice each year) to tweak them, but, he was willing to teach his “secrets” to any keen piper with a will to learn. Today, I have the priviledge of being a pipe major. I will gladly take anyone’s pipes home for the weekend to tweak them. Oh, and one last thing, my pipes, like Gordon’s, are REALLY easy to blow!

  8. You said it Andrew. It was the same for me…Then my teacher James Troy senior got a hold of my Macpherson’s. I try to set up my second pipe McCallums to match, but my Macphersons fit like a glove and sound Fantastic when settled in.

  9. I have played students pipes in the past to check for “issues” (as Jim McG alluded to). However, NO ONE plays my bagpipes. I have offended band mates who have asked to play them. I politely decline the first time and then just say NO if they persist. My MacDougalls are all for me. I do admit to be a bit of a germaphobe but not psychotic about it.

  10. I used to play a very hard set of pipes. I then played my old PM’s pipes on the bus at Maxville when nobody was looking. I’m pretty sure they were easier than my practice chanter. Never again will I set up my pipes like I used to. That alone was a great learning experience.

  11. I , along with Reay Mackay & Bill Gilmour were in John Wilson’s (probaly) first classes when he arrived here ( circa 1949) John often gave us his MacDoughall drones &(I think) Robertson chanter to show how well we had advanced on the latest Piob. It was amazing how easy- going they were . We often said that you could :blow them with your nose.: yet, what a powerful sound and a true delight to play.



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