The world piping championships at the weekend were literally awesome for me. It was both inspiring and humbling to hear playing of such quality. You see, I'm one of them now... a piper!
In my late fifties, I decided to learn to play the bagpipes. That's probably about four or five decades too late but what the hell? I never did have any interest in golf or bridge. I wonder if any readers have similarly taken up something a bit late in life?
I had a chance to learn the pipes when I was a lad in the Boys' Brigade. But I was too faint-hearted. I didn't ignore the guffawers who said, "Ye canny play the bagpipes in a cooncil flat. Don't be daft!" Right enough, in all my years of wandering the streets of Possilpark and Springburn, I never did hear the sound of the pipes wafting from somebody's window. But thousands of tenement dwellers must have learned to play the pipes. How did they manage without being murdered by a neighbour?
Anyway, it was actually a holiday in Galicia in the north-west of Spain that inspired me to have a go. They have all sorts of bagpipes there. I even saw a band playing small versions of the instrument, accompanying castanet-clacking dancers. But it was the sight of 10-year-olds tuning up before the start of a parade that inspired me. If Galician kiddies can do it, I thought, so can I!
I'm told some bands won't accept adult learners, especially older ones. I suppose that makes sense for elite competition bands aiming for the big prizes but I hope it's not widespread. Certainly, I've had nothing but a warm welcome and patient support from the pipers I've been involved with. However, it does seem standard that the tuition is accompanied by huge dollops of piss-taking. It's there right from the beginning when you start on the practice chanter. "C'mon, Jock, it's only a wee bit of wood with eight holes in it. It can't be that hard to play!"
When you've mastered the more basic notes, the jokers introduce you to tachums and taorluaths. Play them? I can hardly say them! And if you ever want to dislocate your pinkie, you get to learn the perfect technique - it's called a birl.
Then when you've attained a degree of competence on the practice chanter, hell, you've got to start all over again on the actual pipes. This time though you've got to build up the puff to keep the bag full of air. It's all technique of course - coordinating your blowing and your pressure on the bag. But for a long time, I always seemed to be playing "I'm forever blowing bubbles" though that's definitely not part of the bagpipe repertoire.
You've also got to play everything from memory. You don't have the music on a wee card stuck on your instrument like you do in other kinds of - softy - marching bands. And you must of course keep in step. I'm afraid trying to do all this conjures up in my mind what used to be said of President Bush - "he couldn't fart and chew gum at the same time".
The feedback my playing gets is generally of the Morecambe and Wise variety. You know, "some of the notes are there, Jock, but not necessarily in the right order". I often hear that, "it would be helpful, Jock, if you played the same tune as everyone else." Only once did I make the fatal mistake of protesting that I was indeed playing the tune in question.
After almost five years, I've progressed from the absolutely atrocious to the utterly dreadful. It's said that it takes at least a seven-year apprenticeship to see what kind of piper you are likely to turn out to be. I know I'm going to fall far short of 'adequate.' But at least now I can fully appreciate piping of the sort on show at the weekend. And I know too now that piping is much, much more than just a hobby. I'd recommend it to anyone. The only requirement is a sense of humour!
Well, time for a bit of practice on the old pinkie dislocating and those darned ta…, tao… , taorluaths.
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