July 14, 2008

The world seems old and new

Look at me!The new system we’re using for the pipes|drums Poll allows for much more accurate results, since it’s a one-address, one-vote mechanism, meaning that folks can’t – for whatever pathetic reason – stuff the ballot box.

Over the hundreds of previous polls, I’d never thought to try to find out what age people were when they took up the pipes or drum. Two things surprised me about the results: 1) that more than a third of learners started when they were younger than 10, and 2) that a full 12 per cent started when they were older than 21. I didn’t think either response would be so large. 

I started when I was 11, and so am with the 31 per cent who began when they were 10, 11 or 12 years old. But 12 out of every 100 pipers and drummers taking up the instrument as adult learners? That’s amazing.

But, then again, if you take a look at the North American lower-grade solo competitions you will see that kind of a ratio, with people in their 40 and 50s and even 60s competing against very young kids. At first it looks kind of wrong, but perhaps that diversity also makes things interesting. I doubt that there are many arts that pit senior citizens against grade-schoolers.

I noticed at a piping and drumming school recently that most students were either kids or retired. There weren’t many in between. It perhaps further supports the notion that the demography of taking up the pipes or drum is very much for the very young or the very old. I wonder why.


  1. I took up the pipes at the age of 48, never having played a musical instrument before. I am currently competing in Grade IV band competitions in WUSPBA, and am preparing some marchs/slow airs for solo competition soon, and I am starting to take some tentative explorations of piobaireachd.

    For my part, I never had the opportunity to take up piping as a youngster, although I wish that I had. I spend twenty years in the U.S. Air Force flying jets all over the world, so I never had time in any one place then. But I’ve always loved the sound of the pipes, so once I left the service, I decided that I wasn’t getting any younger, so if was ever going to take it up, I’d better not wait any longer.

    So, I am one of those grey beards in their 50’s, but I’m not really competing against the kids. I’m competing with myself, and having fun while I’m at it. I’ll probably never be a grade 1 piper, but as long as I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I’ll keep it up. I’d rather be in the circle than in the stands, anyway.

  2. I’ll postulate on a couple of reasons – time and motivation.

    When we’re young, we have tons of time. Our parents enroll us in sports, music, and extracurricular activities to keep us busy and occupied, and to teach us the value of working towards a goal. We’re motivated by our parents (and sometimes ourselves), and we have the time to devote to the process of learning a new skill.

    As we progress into adulthood, our time is consumed by other things – jobs, school and family – and sometimes we lose the motivation to take up a new skill (saying things like, “oh, I can’t be taking the time to learn that”, or “oh, that’s for kids to learn”). We become more self-conscious about our shortcomings, more embarrassed to be sharing the competition platform with a flock of 10-year-olds, more frustrated at our slower pace of learning (mainly due to our lack of time).

    Finally, as we begin to reach retirement age, our children leave home, our jobs fade away and we’re left going, “man, I always wish I’d learned to play the bagpipes”. Now, with time and the sense of “well, I’m not getting any younger”, we take on new challenges and say “to heck with the world, I’m going to do it for fun”.

    Hence, the polarity in the age groups of beginner bagpipers.. I, for one, fit into the 10-12 year old group, but found that through my 20’s the time I had for piping was drastically decreased by work and school committments.. I’m trying to change that..

  3. My reaction is surprise that the percentage of people learning after 21 isn’t higher. I’m wondering if there aren’t regional or national tendencies. The New York City area seems filled with pipers and pipe bands who learned as adults. My experience of learning (started when I was 23) and teaching beginner pipers is that, although often of limited ability and potential, the adults have the commitment and patience to practice and show up to lessons every week no matter how long it takes. The under-18s often seem to have unlimited potential, but have multiple commitments. Piping loses out to studies, football (either kind), other instruments, or any of the other myriad of activities students can participate in these days.

  4. I think its totally appropriate for adults to play against kids provided they play at the same level. My grade 4 band is made up of a range of ages – we have a drummer who is 8, and our bass drummer is…well, actually, I don’t know how old he is (he’s retired and has multiple grandchildren though). The rest of the band falls all in between. I think of our band as a great big family.

    In regards to your observation at summer piping/drumming school, I don’t think summer programs are truly representative of the pipe band community. As MacKenzie stated above, children and retirees are the only ones who really have the time to go to these programs. The rest of us have jobs and other commitments. If we want to take time off to go to competitions, travel to the worlds, etc, we can’t go to these summer programs.



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