May 09, 2012

Please please me

Show me your mother's Freudian slip.It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that solo pipers are an odd lot. A more solipsistic pastime I can’t imagine: playing for prizes that almost no one on earth – except the piper him/herself – gives a damn about. I’m not condemning it; it is what it is, as they say, and there’s nothing wrong with pushing one’s self to be the best he/she can be, whether it’s solo piping, golf or basket-weaving. It’s what we humans do, and who is anyone to get in the way of someone’s good time?

I’ve heard many very good, even great, solo competition pipers say that he or she doesn’t or didn’t actually enjoy competing. It’s a lonely and self-absorbed hobby, fraught with tension and anxiety and pressure. Even for the greatest pipers, the times that you’re first are far, far less frequent than when you’re second, third, fourth or not in the list at all.

I don’t think I ever really enjoyed competing, either. It was more like I became an adrenaline junkie, perhaps tricking myself into looking forward to each event being done, rather than enjoying the performance itself. (Yes, I know what a few of you nice people are thinking: You weren’t the only one looking forward to the end.) The blessed end would justify the means.

My daughter has been playing the piano now for five or six years. She’s getting pretty good but, like almost all kids and their instruments, she despises practicing. With luck, the correlation between playing the piano and the pure magic of making music will sink in. If not, I hope she’ll stop, but I think she’s pressing on for fear of disappointing her parents whose hearts leap up when they hear her play.

Looking back, I wonder if my raison-d’pipe was to please my dad, who absolutely cherished my piping. Again, like many children, I cruelly tried to keep him from it, and I’ll regret that forever. But I will always remember his thrill at various contests he attended when that illusive prize came my way. As a parent, I understand that feeling.

He died in 2001 (congestive heart failure), and my mother in 2003 (car crash). It was a year or so after that when my obsession with solo competition piping died, too. I’m pretty sure now that I must have in my subconscious felt like there was no one except myself left to play for, so I stopped. What was the point? I could still play with a band (in a band, your band-mates appreciate what you do), and continue to learn new tunes, play for my personal enjoyment, and do some teaching. But I think the treadmill that the boards had become got unplugged because there was no one left to please.

We pipers and drummers are psychological case studies, every one of us. The desire to please parents can make presidents, start wars and even win Clasps.


  1. Very interesting Andrew. Believe it or not, my “childhood” story is very close to yours. The few times I practiced, I actually stopped playing when my father (who passed away 2 years ago) would walk into the room. I too regret that sort of behavior.
    I had no Scottish “roots” so to speak and have often wondered why I stuck with piping and its various aspects for such a long time (50 years this September).
    As a piping judge I continue to have difficulty with the concept of adjudicating music. Lower grade amateur players are expecting a lesson from the score sheet (that’s NOT what the sheet is designed to be in my opinion). Upper grade amateurs and professionals seem to care less about anything other than what is in the placing box.
    Looking back, I cannot honestly say all or even most of my piping experiences have been “enjoyable.” This has nothing at all to do with losing a contest. The piping scene is pretty much a reflection of life in general in that respect. On the other hand, this music is deeply personal to most of us regardless of whether or not we have reached a certain level of achievement.
    I just don’t understand why some individuals have taken “winning” a bit too far or too seriously. Damned…you are making me go off the track so I’ll stop and make an appointment to see a shrink. :>)

  2. Great to see Freud on a piping website. The leading piping establishments could be making a fortune out of this area. Fostered and adopted/looked after children would find strong family associations in the pipe band world. A sense of belonging, a great sense of things staying the same and never changing (!), consistency, stablitity-all the things these children desperately need and seek. Piping organisations could be marketing the ‘find your own voice’ aspect of piping. What better thing than a bagpipe to get yourself heard? Then there’s the whole relationship value in a bagpipe–the way it wraps round your body. Many people feel closer to their bagpipe than their wife, I’m told. It’s a big instrument. It allows the small a chance to be tall. The Clasps, the Medals, the Quaichs and all their trippings, keep egos topped up and defenses strengthened . They allow the laid back and the shy to glitter and glow. They allow the insecure and shaky to blow out and hold steady. Most people I guess, play bagpipes in pursuit of some personal resolution of internal struggles. Fighting an internal war, trying to resolve a conflict, trying to say something that people will listen to. This will be true of course of most things we do, but bagpipes, being so particular and so loud maybe stand out. I think I gave my analyst something to chew on when at the age of fifty, and nearing the end of a long intensive (mainly Freudian) analysis, I took on ‘five penises and a uterus’ as a kind of obsession, when I hadn’t been prone to this kind of weird behaviour all through my previous time with him. I’m just glad he wasn’t Kleinian or I’d have had to grapple with ‘rotting babies’ inside the pipe bag. Having said all that, it’s nice to think that out there among the queue waiting to go on at Oban or Inverness, there’s the godd person who simply likes the sound of a bigpipe, and wants to play beautiful music on it. Not trying to please parents, not trying to resolve personal conflict, not trying to get someone somewhere to listen to them, not trying to ‘belong’, not trying to be bigger than they are. Simply crying to play a musical instrument as well as they ban.

    1. Wow! Janette, I was all set to make an appointment with you instead of a shrink. You had me nodding my head in agreement. that is until you started that penis and uterus stuff…;>)



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