Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Christmas Bagpipe tale...

On Christmas day, 2006, I had a real Christmas moment, the kind that they usually make after-school specials about. It's all about Piping, so I'll share it with you.

For the last 20 years or so, my family has gathered at my oldest sister's house, who goes through great trouble to make a well-organized, Martha Stewart-esque dinner party where everything is intricately prepared and the food is painstakingly displayed on cute little arrangements. Ever the Emily Post afficionado, she sends out Christmas cards, inviting everyone to attend, but I always found this
unnecesary, since we always went there every year without failure.

Now I've been playing bagpipes for the last few years, and as a special treat (mostly for me), I'd show up at family gatherings with my pipes and play them as guests arrived, or intermittantly during the gathering, for fun. Every year I know more and more songs, and this year I practiced a whole bunch of Christmas tunes. So I was all set to have a lot of fun, and I went to my sister's house early in the afternoon at the time I thought we were supposed to show up.

Now my sister, because she was such a Martha Stewart clone, had to have everything perfect. She was always the anal-retentive one, expecting everyone to follow all the proper etiquette, and expecting everything to follow the set plan. I apparently arrived too early, and she gave me this look, as though I just ran over her dog or something. I asked "What? Am I too early?" Instead of being polite and saying "well, yeah, you're early, but make yourself at home, and everyone will get here at
their own time," she got all upset and started yelling at me "Don't you know what RSVP means? I asked that everyone RSVP in my Christmas card, so I'd knw how many people to make food for. You didn't RSVP, so how was I supposed to know you would show up?!" Now it's true that I blew off the RSVP, and it could have been perceived by the Emily Post crowd as disrespect to her, but her reaction was totally mean and rude. For about 5 full minutes, she scolded me, as though I were a child who got
caught with his hands in the cookie jar or something. I was shocked at her over-the-top reaction to what I consider to be a minor misunderstanding.

As she rattled off one put down after another, I simply got angry, but maintained my composure. I waited for a pause in her berating, and finally got one. Not wanting to make an already bad situation worse, I simply took all the presents I had, put them on the counter in front of her, and left, saying "Here's your stuff, Bye!". I
got into my car and drove off.

My sister had always been sort of a bitch, ever since I was a kid. I guess she was always disappointed that the rest of us -- my other sister, two brothers, and myself -- ended up being less Ozzie-and-Harriet types of families than her "perfect little family". She was the conservative one, listening to Rush Limbaugh, going to church, and beign exactly what June and Ward Cleaver dictated. I never had a good time at her house when we went there for holidays -- so stuffy and proper, it was too much work to be there, because nobody could really relax. That she would treat her own relatives like that was unusual, but expected. She was always the kind of person who would complain about other people's imperfections, and I often got mouthfuls of her disapproving rants from time to time. But we're adults now, and this kind of scolding was for kids. I drove off my anger an headed to the beach, hoping to get some take out chinese food and just enjoy myself in spite of her. I convinced myself that I should show up later when everyone else had arrived, and just ignore her. So I parked my car at the beach, and figured I'd warm up my bagpipes before showing up again.

So there I am, playing on a deserted beach to a flock of seagulls, playing the Christmas songs I knew, and other tunes, until my pipes got in tune and stayed stable. It was an unusually warm day for a new England Winter, and my fingers weren't really getting too cold. Then a few people -- a man, his wife, and 2 children, showed up on the beach and watched me while I played. A few more people showed up, two couples, one old, one young. Soon I had about 8 people swaying and listening to my music. I changed from Christmas music and just started playing my usual renaissance faire songs. An older man and his daughter drove up, parked their car, and got out and walked up to stand with the rest of the crowd. I broke into
the Feuertanz (Fire Dance) Totentanz, and a few other dance tunes, and the couples all started to dance in circles. They really were enjoying this, and I was, too. The old man just stared with a delighted expression on his face, and his daughter stood attentively by his side.

Eventually, the wind picked up a bit, and my fingers got cold, and I had to stop playing. I put my pipes back into their case, while people applauded, and went on their way, saying thanks, and expressing appreciation. The old man walked up to me, and said "Oh, I love bagpipes! I listen to CDs of them all the time! This is the first time I got to hear them live and up close! They're wonderful!"

I was very flattered by all of this, he looked longingly at me, and asked if I could play a few more tunes for him. I thought for a moment, and decided "Why not?" So I pulled the pipes back out of my case, and blew into the bag, and started playing again. Another couple showed up with a camcorder, and tehre was more dancing, including the old man, who took his daughter by the arm, and danced in a circle with her. After a few tunes, the old man had tears in his eyes, and just had the look on his face of a man who was very emotionally moved. I stopped playing, and he applauded, tears streaming down his cheeks, and his daughter holding him by the arm. The other people left, and I started to put the pipes back into their case. The old man's daughter helped him into her car, and she closed the door. She walked up to me, as I zipped up my case, and said "Thank you so much! You made a very sad old
man really happy just now, and I can't thank you enough. His wife died a couple of months ago, and this really made his day!"

I was stunned, flattered, and generally feeling all Roland Dahl-ly or Gene Shepherd-like. Something weird happened. I had a Christmas moment, the type of which fills movie scripts and television melodramas. I had had one of those "I learned the true meaning of Christmas" experiences! I thought to myself, Hmmm. I just had more fun with a bunch of strangers than I ever did at my sister's house. I thought, "Screw my
stuck-up sister! I'm going to go hang out with my friends now!" So I got back into my car, and called my pals up on my cell-phone, and went over their house, and we made our own holiday. We ate KFC, watched Movies, made music, and later on, my girlfriend joined us and we had Egg Nog and Vodka, while watching action/adventure movie DVDs. This was simply the best Christmas I had in ages.

Monday, January 14, 2008

From Practice Chanter to Ffirst Set of Pipes

If you're aware of medieval bagpipes, then I probably don't have to tell you that there's dozens of other types of bagpipes available in the world. unfortunately, in the USA, our piping heritage comes primarily from England, and Highland pipes are so ubiquitous here, because we have lots of English, Irish, and Scottish people here, who like to keep their heritage alive, and a lot of that involves kilts, Great Highland pipes, dance and ancient British languages like Gaelic.

If you want to have any bagpipe other than Great Highland, in the USA, you will hit a lot of dead ends, and feel as though you're left in the cold. Don't worry. I'm writing this to let you jump over that part, and just go right for what you're looking for.

Big Pipes or Smallpipes?

You have many options for your first set of pipes. What you want to do is decide if you want smallpipes or big pipes. The difference is that big pipes, like Highland pipes, are more difficult to play than small pipes, and some people just don't have the lung capacity or coordination to keep it up. Don't be intimidated by the big pipes, as you may find that you do have a knack for them -- I only found out after sheer determination and about a year of trying. Hopefully I can help you avoid waiting that long.

The evil key of B-flat

Among smallpipes, there are many types -- Border pipes, Uileann pipes, musettes, and others. Most of these pipes familar to dealers of Highland pipes come in the key of B-flat. All practice chanters come in B-flat. Don't bother looking for a practice chanter in a different key -- They don't make them in other keys, unless you have a custom-made one. B-flat is a terrible key. Most medieval music in in the key of C, D, F, G, and A-minor. B-flat will be an obstacle to you when you start playing medieval music, because you will have to adjust your fingering to play in other keys, and thus, have one less note on your scale.

The Solution? Buy a recorder!

The practice chanter is set up with Highland Fingering, which is different from the baroque fingering that a set of medieval pipes will use. Baroque fingering is typically what you use when playing recorders, crummharns, and other medieval and baroque period wind instruments. You really do need a practice chanter to learn the pipes, as far as dealing with blowing continuously, and dealing with gracenotes. What you should do is buy a cheap plastic recorder, in addition to your practice chanter. Yamaha, Gill, Angel, and other manufacturers make excellent recorders for less than $10. Here is why you need the recorder: You will practice your breathing and playing on the practice chanter, then you will use the recorder to learn the fingering that you will need on your non-b-flat set of pipes.

I'm Cheap!

Pipes are expensive. Medieval pipes can be more expensive, since they're less common these days. Don't think of your first set of pipes as the only set you'll buy. There's no need to commit to a good, expensive set of pipes until you are absolutely sure what you want to end up playing. When you got your driver's license, you didn't go out and buy a $40,000 lurury car, did you? No, your first car was a beater -- a second-hand car with dents, dings, and well, cheap enough so that you weren't going to pay for it for the rest of your youth. Do the same thing with your first set of pipes. Look on craig's list or Ebay for used pipes, if you can. Remember -- these are pipes you will learn on, and that includes learning how to properly care for them (which some people call "learning how NOT to take care for them", if you get my drift...).

It's doubtful that you'll find a good set of used "medieval" pipes for sale, for reasons I've already mentioned. Don't worry. What you need is playing experience, experience using and setting up pipes. If you can find pipes in a key other than B-flat, especially in the keys I mention above, those are good possible choices. Do research on the features and sounds of the pipes you see online. Make sure that they're not proprietary -- make sure you can get the reeds for them without knowing how to make or modify your own reeds.

Beware of Crappy Pipes

I mentioned in my first article that Mid-east has a good set of medieval smallpies. They are good, and if you have $130 - $160 (The average retail price range for that model), get them. But watch out for their large "Medieval Bagpipes". They are junk, although they look nice. First of all, the large Medieval pipes they offer are less expensive than the smallpipes. Go figure. The problem with the big pipes is that they are in the key of F, but you only get a B-flat reed meant for Highland pipes. This combination does not work. Secondly, the holes are rough and full of splinters. Holes on the wood of a music instrument should be all smooth, otherwise they don't play the right tones. The joints are all leaky -- bagpipes need to be ait-tight. With a lot of work -- and I mean re-tooling, re-boring some holes, sanding, and re-hemping all the joints, and having a reedmaker custome make a reed for you, you can get them to work, but that will be a descision you'll have to make for yourself. Avoid those pipes if you don't want to spend weeks working on them.

My first set of pipes were in B-flat, unfortunately, but they helped me figure out how to play large pipes. Sure, I had to be a solo musician for a while, but these pipes -- which cost me about $300, were ultra-cheap, looked medieval, and were a good cheap way to pick up the skills needed to play most large pipes. Since I couldn't play along with other musicians, I tended to play mostly with drummers and other percussionists. Mostly, I played alone, as you will likely do, because you don't want people to hear you playing until you actually get reasonably good at it... Or maybe you do? Heck, even I know some people I'd like to play pipes badly around, just to drive them crazy!

Until you're confident that you can buy a good professional set of pipes, you may want to stick to local vendors -- find the nearest babpipe suppliers in your area, and see if they actually have models to demonstrate. The more local, the easier it will be to get support and information for when things go wrong.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


You're here because you either heard about my band, Diabolis In Musica, or you were inspired by a European Medieval band, and want to learn more about Medieval Bagpipes. No matter how you ended up reading this, this blog will attempt to chronicle what I have learned about Medieval Bagpiping, and bagpiping in general.

I was first inspired by a German band called In Extremo. A pen-pal of mine sent me some of their music, and I was hooked. When I found out that the cool sound I was hearing were these giant-ass medieval bagpipes, I thought "I have to get me one of those!" So I searched for my local cranky Scotch Bagpipe supplier, and bought a good practice chanter. I found that playing bagpipes was a lot easier than I thought. The chanter is not too different from playing a recorder, but obviously you need a lot more wind to keep it going. Within a year, I have learned about 20 or so odd songs, and figured it was time to buy my first set of pipes.

My first set of pipes were the cheap ones that you get online from Mid East Ethnic Instruments, and everyone I talked to advised against anything so cheap from that kind of company. Of course, they were all Highland Pipers, and didn't understand that these pipes were jsut what I was looking for.

My knowledge of how to set them up was not there, and it took me about a year to figure out how to properly set them up and use them. Eventually, I got them working completely, and even found good plastic reeds for them. Soon I was thinking about some big pipes.

Inside the USA, there are very few options for pipers who seek non-highland pipes. There are only a couple of makers of them in the USA, and well, what they make is limited. None of the people I met in the USA makes the giant-ass German pipes I was looking for, so I eventually had to get them from Germany. Before I got enough money for my German pipes, though, I played around with Pakistani bagpipes, and got a nice set of Highland pipes that were designed to look like medieval pipes. I struggled with those for about a year before I got enough wind to play them, and only when I could play them with Both Drone going for an hour without stopping did I know I was ready for the Big German pipes.

In the process, I became a music instrument seller and importer, joined the SCA, met the girl of my dreams, started a music trend, became a musical entertainer at renaissance festivals, did a ton of traveling, and formed a band of strange musicians in the Boston area who all had the same ideas I had for medieval music done differently... HOLY CRAP! Now that I think about all of this, I really did quite a lot of stuff in the last 3 or 4 years! There I was thinking my life was stagnant!

My future bloggings will try to give instruction and advice to the aspiring medieval pipers out there who share my dream. Playing bagpipes can be easy if you work hard at it, it will surely be a challenge on many levels, no matter how talented you are already. You will make enemies out of neighbors when you practice, cause dogs run away in terror, make some people cry, make others smile, and whinos in public parks will want to be your friends -- but more on that later.

Welcome to my world. Medieval bagpipes... Oh, shit... Just what the hell have you gotten yourself into...??