Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Where Tuners Work Best

To facilitate the 1.25 hours of tuning per piper per set, Some Kind Soul invented a bagpipe tuner.  Several souls have invented them, actually.  There are many different kinds.

The process is to hold the tuner near the end of the drone/chanter while you are playing (it takes two hands to play; already this is difficult) and determine if the drone/chanter needs to be adjusted longer or shorter (that is to say, flatter or sharper).  The tuner "hears" the sound coming out and tells you how much it is out of tune, and which way (sharp or flat).

I had not been able to find my tuner since Festival of the Trees in December, so I had been using Small Son's tuner instead. 

No biggie. His tuner is nicer, anyway, and he's not using it.  He's serving a church mission in Montreal, Canada, and speaking Mandarin.

Last week at practice, my pipes just were not playing and/or tuning well.  The reed was replaced (with an easier reed, something I for which I have been begging for months), drones were re-hemped, and still the sound was not at all lovely--even for bagpipes.  So finally the pipe major opened up the bag (the bag has a zipper on the side; handy, huh?) and reached in.  He pulled out . . . a tuner.

It was not even moist.

Then I remembered that after Festival of Trees, I needed to put my tuner somewhere in order to take it with me. 

       The pockets of my vest are too small.
       My sporran was full of iPhone.
       If I put it in the bag cover, it would fall out and be lost or trodden underfoot.

So I opened up my bag (it has a zipper on the side; handy, huh?) and put my tuner inside.  And promptly forgot about it.

Once all that had been corrected, my pipes sounded lovely, and were so much easier to play.

Tuners work better on the outside of the pipes. 

Just sayin'.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


When I was a child, I was a member of that large group of people who were not popular, not good at sports or theatre, and were basically shy.  I could not imagine what it would be like to walk down the halls of school and have everyone know my name, have people greet me on every hand.  In fact, if it had happened, I wouldn't have known how to react.  Maybe I would have run away screaming.

It's hard to remain shy when you play the pipes.  Practicing at 110 decibels does not allow one to remain anonymous.  You are forced to learn how to accept praise and congratulations and/or criticizm and complaints.  In fact, I would hazard a guess that the fastest way out of anonymity is taking up the pipes.  If only somebody had told me this in high school.

I made sure my Small Son knew.  He's very popular.

Only today, I had to take my turn at standing and introducing myself to a room full of people at work, which is about as far away from piping as you can get.  After I sat down, the moderator said, "Oh yeah, and Rose plays the bagpipes, too!"

They always find out.

Pipe bands compete at events called highland games.  There are band competitions, piping competitions, drumming competitions, athletic events such as caber toss or throw the bale of hay over the wire, and Celtic dancing competitions, all in one event  The first time I attended as a competitor, I was allowed to butt to the front of any line because "I have to compete in a few minutes. . ." This came in most handy at the restroom, and was a big surprise to me, but because of the extensive amount of tuning pipers have to do (1.25 hours per set, so about 5 hours per weekend), we have very little time for things like eating and drinking and going to the restroom, or checking out the jewelry or swords from the vendors.  People want to hear us play, so they let us butt in.

I also noticed that little kids would run up and ask for our autographs, adults would stop us to ask questions, and all ages would pose for a photograph with me and their family member in it.  People that I recognized from church, school, or work waved and smiled, instead of pretending not to hear or see me.  Never mind that I couldn't play as well as most of the other pipers for a long time; if I wore the costume, I must be good.

I had become a jock.

Over the years, I developed a better-than-thou attitude towards everybody else at the games, because they obviously had not put in the time and effort (and money) to become a piper, so they were not as amazing. as I was.  ha HA!

Then I started paying attention to the body language of the drummers, dancers and athletes, and I noticed that they were all acting like they were awesome, too.

It's not that I'm a jock among plebes; it's a whole festival of jocks.

Dinner tonight:  humble pie.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Reeds, Reels, and Leaks

Our Pipey is a fickle reed guy.  He likes a new brand of reed every time.   I'm never sure why he likes any certain brand, but the last brand was dismissed because they blew out--that is to say, the reed material wore out so that you lost that beautiful tone--too soon.

This time, he likes Shepherd Reeds.

Last practice 'most everybody got a new Shepherd reed.  They sounded beautiful, weren't too hard to play right out of the box, and didn't require much tweaking to sound beautiful at our high and dry altitude.  But I was given a hard reed.

"But I'm an old lady," I whined.  "I can't play hard reeds any more."

"You don't blow like an old lady," Pipey said.

I guess that was a compliment.

The reed really isn't too hard to play, but it is harder than my previous reed.  So to make sure the deck was stacked in my favor, I checked my bag for leaks when I got home.

Wah!   All along the tape at the bottom of the bag, tiny bubbles were popping out, and where the chanter joins to the bag, it was something out of Yellowstone Park!  You might think, as I did, that those tiny bubbles wouldn't make piping much more difficult than it normally is, but we would both be wrong.

I spent the week searching for a tube of Aqua Seal, and ended up with its equivalent: Amazing Goop (according to Dive Utah, who uses it on scuba wetsuits). (Hey!  I don't name these things,  I just report on 'em.) A line of rubber cement-like stuff along both sides of the tape, and a glop on the hole at the top of the chanter, and . . .  I left my bag blown up on the kitchen table, because you are supposed to let the glue cure for 24 hours, and I thought the rubber cement smell would make breakfast taste that much better.  When I got up in the morning, it still had a goodly quantity of air in it.  Good sign.  The glue was still flexible, but I haven't tried playing them yet.  Pipey told me to be careful the first time I played 'em after sealing the holes, because they will be a lot easier.  It will be a shock. 

I hope so.

The other thing that happened was that Not-So-Small Son didn't go to his lesson on Tuesday.  This isn't anything unusual.  He has as busy a schedule as any 17-year-old. Tuesday he had a staff meeting for his summer job, so I decided to take his lesson slot for him.  I needed help on the reel. One of the reels. 

I haven't had a piping lesson in about 5 years, so it felt kinda awkward being in that 'piping student' situation again, especially since I'm a long-standing band member and am supposed to know how to play by now.  But last practice Pipey said to let him know if any of us needed help with the new-ish tunes. 

I showed up. 

We chatted, warmed up on practice chanters a bit, then started on the reel from our timed medley, which is . . . I can't remember what it's called.  Anyhow, as I played the tune perfectly, I realized it was the OTHER reel--the one from our MSR--which reel is called The Ale is Dear.  Oh, yeah.   Dear Ale.  Embarrassing!  So we worked on the second part of that reel on practice chanters, and found some places where I was playing things wrong due to mis-fingering (is that a word?) and insecurity (I'm still 16 years old in my head. . . no self-confidence). Then we got out the pipes and worked on the same things. . .

I know you are falling asleep right now, so I'll get to the point. 

Pipey said I played much better than the last time I was his student, and much better than he expected me to play.



I guess that was a compliment.  Anyway, I took it as one, and felt much better about myself as a piper than the minute before.  I was sure I had been flat-lining for the past 5 years.  Evidently, happily, I was not.

Hopefully I can remember the parts we worked on for tonight's practice, because I haven't had a chance to work on them at home at all.

I'll let you know.

The next reeds will be the ones with the blue hemp. I wonder if the hemp color makes a difference in the tone.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Miracle Cure!

I play a hard reed in my pipe chanter.  I mean REALLY hard.

I've always played a hard reed, mainly because I over-blow easier reeds.  I've been given easier reeds, but they've been taken away again almost immediately--because my over-blowing makes the chanter squeak or come in early on strike-ins.  For these things, I get The Look, and the reed is retracted.

Lately, however, about 90 minutes into band practice (with the first 30 minutes being tuning and other general catching up with people), I'm beat. I can't focus. My hands shake. I don't care what we play, I just want to be done.  This doesn't speak well to the quality of my playing.

Competitions are even worse, because tuning lasts for hours. In addition, there are massed bands and opening and closing ceremonies, and sometimes solo competition, if you've signed up for those.

Important, days-long gigs like the Sheep Dog Trials or Memorial Day Solo Piping at cemeteries require daily ice on the lip and then lots of rest.

You might say this doesn't make piping seem like a lot of fun, and you would be correct.

But last week at band practice, my lovely, clear-sounding (hard) reed from March 2015 was declared to be trash. (?!)  We are moving from Warnock to Apps reeds, and there just wasn't a nice-sounding (hard) Apps reed in the collection, so Pipey gave me a medium reed.

I worked very hard to under-blow (is that a word?) during practice. I was especially careful on strike-ins, making sure my chanter didn't come in early.  One time when I was gabbing with another band member, I missed the call to strike in, so I hurried and struck a half-filled bag . . . . and I got no early chanter!  I had NO idea!  I thought you were supposed to always fill your bag up completely (like an NFL in-play football) and then strike in.  But with an easier reed, apparently the full bag is not necessary!  So I made it through practice with the medium reed, and I sneaked out quickly so Pipey wouldn't think about it and take away my reed.

Two days later, our Labor Day gig at the Sheep Dog Trials began.  We take turns playing in small groups.

Triona McMaster, Jason Allred, Chris Johnson
(Photo courtesy of another band member, I'm not sure whom.)
We cover all four days of the holiday, from 11:00 to 15:00, plus we play for the closing ceremony.  I played three hours on Friday, three hours on Saturday, and two hours in small groups on Monday, plus tuning and warm-up for the closing, and then the closing. I'd say four hours on Monday.  In past years, after only Friday, I would have a swollen lip and be exhausted.  This year, however . . . .

No after-effects.  None.      Nilch.      Nada.       Zipp.

At least it smells better than the enclosed cattle truck
from last year!
Crated up and ready to be hauled to the top of the mountain for the march down.
Photo courtesy of Jason Killpack (left front)

I was fine.  I could have played another two hours!  Seriously!  I had been cured of the piping "lung cancer" from which I had suffered for 10 years, all in a minute.  It was a miracle!

After Saturday, it was the same.  This reed is so easy, and . . . dare I say? . . . comfortable, that piping was actually FUN!  And I made very few errors, even on the most complicated pieces.

Apparently, this type of thing happens quite often in piping.  If your bag is leaking air from a tiny hole in the bag, or there is a tiny gap in the stock closures, or you have one strand of hemp too few on a drone reed, you will feel like you're at death's door.  A new bag, a little Rescue Tape under the circle clamps on the stocks, a few rounds of hemp on the reeds, and you will feel reborn.  I just never thought I would ever learn to play an easier reed.

I feel so great about this reed, that I am going to dig out my 2/4 march (I can't even remember what it's called, it's been so long!) and get it ready for Moab games in November.

Cedar Springs burning
I live!

Oh yeah:   the mountain caught fire while we were waiting to do the closing ceremony


Friday, June 12, 2015

How Long to Make a Drummer?

And now, the promised Drummer entry.

Between the first Friday in December (Festival of Trees) and the first Wednesday after New Year's Day, the band has its Winter Break.

After January 7's practice session, Pipey dropped a bombshell.  Our Lead Tap (that's 'Chief Drummer Dude' to you non-piping-or-drumming people) had decided he had enough writing and re-writing all our music, dealing with delinquent or AWOL drummers, and teaching.  He decided he would go to a band where he could just be a drummer, and bring down his blood pressure.  So he left the band.  Many of the drummers left with him. And our Treasurer, Pete, retired from piping.

The thing about pipe band competition is that you have to have a minimum of 6 pipers, 1 bass drummer, 2 tenors and 2 snares (I'm guessing on the snare and tenor numbers, but it's 1 or 2 each) to compete.  I'm sure about the bass number, because one year I played bass drum all summer because we lost our bass drummer and needed one to compete.  I played bass drum in college marching band, so I knew the basics.

For our 2015 New Year's Band Resolution, we had 1 bass-in-training, 1 tenor, and no snares.

And 18 pipers.

In fact, we had one new piper: Chris, from another band.  I don't remember exactly why he came over to the Salt Lake Scots, but he volunteered to help tune right away, so we accepted him immediately.

But what to do about drummers. . . or lack thereof?  If it takes seven years to make a piper, how many years does it take to make a drummer?

We decided to call 2015 Rebuild Year, and find out.

We dropped back to Grade IV. We cancelled all competitions and parades. We cancelled our St. Paddy's Day concert.  We stayed with our Memorial Day commitment--solo piping at two different cemeteries--because it doesn't require a lot of drummers.  And we decided to see how the year went before we made a decision about the Sheep Dog Trials over Labor Day weekend, and Moab Games in November.

Over the next few weeks, Band Manager Ian got his wife to learn tenor drumming. Somebody else contacted Jessie and told her she could be Lead Tap (Chief Drummer Dudette?) if she would come back to practices, etc.  Chris J from the other band got HIS wife, CarrieAnn, to learn tenor.  And Jessie convinced her snare drumming friend, Chris H, to come back, as well.

By March, our in-training drummers were making good progress.  We played slow for them, so they would get the feel of playing with the rest of the band, and we showed them LOTS of appreciation!  None of this "us/them" stuff.  We treated everybody--piper or drummer--as a band member of equal importance to any other band member.  We needed them all!

We voted Chris J into the band as a piper, as well as Small Son Teancum, now 16.  We also welcomed Tom K, piper and Drum Major (that's the guy with the big stick who walks out in front of the band when it is marching someplace) into our ranks.  And Nick returned from his mission, rarin' to get back to piping.

And we worked on our competition sets.

In May, we took inventory.  How did the drummers feel with the competition sets?  How was the piping on those sets?  Should we try to compete in the Salt Lake Highland Games?  We let the in-training drummers make the decision, with no pressure or consequences.  They decided to give it a try.

So we did.

With only three weeks left before the Games, we really practiced!  We practiced piping and drumming and ensemble.  We practiced strike-ins and cut-offs. We practiced marching in and marching out and counter-marching.  We practiced wheels and stops and marching in place.  We practiced playing while nervous.

On the Day, there was a lot of scrambling for bits of uniform. Nerves were high. We warmed up some, but not too much, and hit the field.

We took 3rd  on the March Medley (At Long Last, Dawning of the Day, J. K. Cairns) after Wasatch & District and Utah Pipe Band Gr. IV.  We took 3rd also on the Timed Medley, after Utah Pipe Band Gr. IV and Wasatch & District Gr IV.  Our timed medley included Chatill Macruimmien, Braes of Mar, Tail Toddle, The Water is Wide, and Minnie Hynd.

Not too bad for a rebuild year.

To answer the question:  how long does it take to make a drummer?  Our answer:  6 months.

And our old Lead Tap?  He still has high blood pressure.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Scots on the Rocks: Moab 2014

I discovered recently that this blog has a second reader!  Welcome, Bruce!

For this 100% increase in readership, I have taken again to the keyboard to let you know about the Moab Highland Games, which happened in . . . you guessed it!  Moab, UT . . . last November.

If you have never been to Moab, you should remedy that immediately, as fall, winter, and spring are the best seasons to experience these most beautiful and fanciful of landscapes (the temps are moderate instead of hot, and there are no crowds).  I would also highly recommend dawn and dusk, because the contrasts of light and dark throughout the park are incredible!  Sunny days are awesome, too, because the red-orange rocks contrast so strongly against the deep blue sky (I'm all about contrasts!).

My husband and I had a nice drive down to Moab on Friday afternoon, mostly because he did all the driving, and I did all the sleeping.  The roads were good, as we are having THAT kind of winter this year. The band had booked us in a room together, which was nice for us, but awkward for Sande, who is my long-time hotel roommate on band trips.  However, she suffered with a room to herself and nobody snoring in the next bed, and we went to dinner with her and Rob a couple of times.

It's been three months, so I can no longer remember the hotel where we stayed, nor the location of the games.  I just know they were outside town about a mile or so, and there was lots of red rock, dotted with sage green vegetation here and there.  Which describes most of the state of Utah, so you'll never find it.  My anonymity is secure!

Four or five bands participated, including one from Denver whose oldest piper is approaching 70 (Keep On Pipin'!).  The days were topped with sun and blue skies over a floor of red rock. This was a two-day competition, so we had plenty of time to look around.  We are still struggling with some of our Grade III tunes, so we did OK, but not blazingly well. At the end of Saturday's competition, the band drove up into the park,  hiked up to an arch and goofed off.  We got some pics taken.  Here's one:

There were stunning landscapes everywhere! Take special note of the molten gold rocks, the red rocks, the blue, blue sky, and the band that is more a family than a musical group. (Photo by Ott)

Some more adventurous band members (whose names will not be mentioned) climbed up into the farther archer, faced down a several-hundred-foot drop, and gave us a tune.  Other band members stayed back and took pictures and were very afraid, not so much for the drop as for how many people would be able to hear the horrible piping from that precarious location.

We did take first place in one of the events, probably the timed medley, as the MSR (March-Strathspey-Reel) was the piece with which we were having the most trouble.  But I don't remember for sure.  It was three months ago.

Here's the trophy:

Pretty cool, huh?  Not your usual gold plastic goblet.

I have a T-shirt with this logo on it, too, but it got pushed to the back of my drawer and fell down underneath, so I won't be able to wear it again until I move the furniture. I have to do that.  The Games workers had kokopelli-themed shirts, as well, and I wish I had taken a pic of them, especially the peace-keeping force, and the first aid squad.  I will try to get pics and add them later.

Then, we got our picture taken as a winning band, and somebody played with the focus:
Very much red rock, blue sky, and sage green vegetation.

Take a good look at those drummers, for you won't see them again in this blog.  More on that in a later post.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Piping Circle

My favorite part of piping is the piping circle.

When we play, the pipers form a big circle, so that we can all hear each other's playing.  The more pipers, the bigger the circle. You can also see what everybody else is playing by watching their fingers, and see the tempo the Pipe Major is setting (with his foot).

Those are advantages of the piping circle, of course, but my favorite part is the camaraderie   The banter and teasing and joking that go on in the circle is more fun than a circle of monkeys! Nothing is sacred; everybody gets into the act.

Your place in the circle--varying from day to day--changes based on any number of decisions you or anybody else in the circle make. You might stand by your Circle Buddy. Maybe you got to the circle late, and the only place left is facing the flood lights, or next to the Pipe Major.

Evil Look
Next to the Pipe Major is not a favored position. When you are next to the Pipe Major, he (or she) will pick at every note you play.  You will be tuned more than anybody else in the circle, and you will get more evil looks than anyone else.

Here, Lee has the unhappy luck to stand next to the Pipe Major, and is getting tuned for the ump-teenth time.

If you are playing harmonies, you will not be allowed to stand next to the drum corps. Harmonies throw them off.

You might end up standing across the circle from your Circle Buddy, in which case you can communicate with facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language. This is also visible to the rest of the circle, of course, to interpret as they will.

Your Circle Buddy is your BFF (Bagpiping Friend Forever). This person can also change from day to day, depending on who shows up for practice that day. I will usually try to stand near or next to one of the few other women in the band.  Mostly, however, they are newbies, and play a lot of wrong notes, which is distracting and can put me off my tune. Or, heaven forbid, I am off my tune to begin with, and play a lot of wrong notes, which is embarrassing.  But if you are standing next to a newbie, you can always blame it on them.

When you are preparing for competition, you will be assigned a place in the block when marching in, so that when you form the circle in the arena, you will be in anoptimal place:  all the newbies won't be together, the PM will be visible to the Drum Sargent, all the pipers playing harmony won't be together, but will be spread evenly around the circle, etc. It's all strategic to get an optimal sound.