Not Just a Party Piper Please

As I’m sat here tonight practicing I thought I’d scribble a few blog notes firstly to take a break from that damn strathspey, but also to try and establish in my mind exactly what I want to get from my piping. It’s a question I’ve often wondered mainly during piping hardships. When I’m stood alone, late at night going over and over tunes slowly and with maximum effort (and frustration) and things appear to just sound worse I find myself wondering why I’m doing it and will it improve my overall playing, because ultimately I want to be a good player and not just a shortbread biscuit tin man.

 

The biscuit tin piper dude!

 

I’ve always dreamed of competing seriously, in the CLASP piping run events in the UK. I’ve been meaning to do it for a few years now but with the arrival of children comes the fall in free time. Now that they are getting bigger and easier I am finding myself wanting to pick up the competition type tunes again and start taking my piping away from the ‘party pieces’ and more towards getting a good and thorough understanding of the more serious side to it.

 

I do enjoy where my piping is nowadays. I play in a band that I get to help out with and take occasionally and met some great people. I get to play at some awesome parades and charity events and I do the odd wedding or funeral service when they are required. I’ve piped at MMA events through to park openings, concerts with some quite famous singers and I’ve piped for an old age home too. I keep an actively open network of pipers on Facebook and Twitter and try to visit other bands when I am travelling about as much as possible. It’s all good. But I get the feeling as I get older that I’m missing a trick with the piping and that I need to compete to become a well rounded player. Ok, that doesn’t automatically make me more well rounded but with the work and effort, it can only help towards that surely.

Another thing I am keen to try is to get certified. As I try and improve my playing, I’d like to progress on paper at try and get as high a level from the PDQB. I’d probably start on a level 3 or 4 exam as per recommendation and I want to try and get up to Glasgow at some stage over the coming couple of months to start. Lots to do and learn!

 

 

 

Piping Recitals

If you’ve ever considered organizing a recital night, have a read of some thoughts I’d jotted down on the subject. I have put together my second one for March this year and am hoping it is as great as last years one.
A few years back, our band sponsored me to go to the National Piping Centre in Glasgow for a weeks worth of tuition. It was a week of unbelievable, eye-opening stuff regarding piping and I was extremely lucky to have got the chance to do that. One of my plans was to milk the week for whatever I could. I really wanted to make the most of it and managed to get to a few band practices, including Field Marshall Montgomery! When I left that week, during the 8 hour bus journey back home spent mostly in a giant strangers armpit, I was so excited to use my newly made contacts to try and raise the level of piping mojo down here in the south. We are extremely lucky in the piping world to have such an openly communicated system. Whether it’s the top level of pipers out there, or your average street piper, most of the players out there are openly in touch with everyone else. With the likes of social networking, it’s made so easy now to open channels to people all over the world…. and bla bla bla …. without going on too much.
So last year, after having kept in touch vaguely with some of the people at the piping centre, and with the help of the band here, we brought Chris Armstrong down and he put on an amazing performance for everyone who came. This year, now trying to keep up with this new tradition we are hosting an evening with Glenn Brown from the piping centre too. We usually put together a flyer and just go for it. I thought it would be great to try and share how simple it is to host a recital night and bring pipers from around the world to play in your area. Here is the way I’ve done it –

Our latest recital flyer

 

1. Preparation Stuff

a) Find a venue willing to host a piping recital and visit them. Always bare in mind things like:

– where people will sit and see (Shape of the room etc)
– sound
– price (Some venues do free evenings with x number of guests!)
– travel (Is it near a station or easy to get to for travelling people?)
– food (I tend not to do the food thing, but some venues will do food)
– any other common sense stuff really!
– Do you want any other entertainment – pre band, pre solo performers? A raffle maybe?
– Build an evening plan with times and what you want happening when. Really important to stick to this for time management as people may have travel plans home.
b) Budget :

– Price up the flights, hotel, food, taxi/buses, piper cost, raffles etc (and any unforeseen costs like extra baggage on flights!)
– Price your tickets so that you would need X amount of people in the audience.
– Make sure whoever is funding it (if it’s a band for example) know that if not all the expense is made, the cost will not entirely be recovered. We have found that things ended up costing us very little for the recital (less than twenty pounds) so still extremely worth it.

2. Booking it all 

a) Get an idea of who you want to bring to play. Most of the top pipers have hectic schedules. Email them with your idea, and include maybe three tentative dates as a start and just see how it goes with the reply. This is the waiting bit and the hard bit. Finding dates in common that don’t clash with band, solo or other type of event can be painful but there will always be a date in the end.
b) Once all agreed, book the venue first. I find this best as venues are more lenient if it ever came to suddenly making a quick change early on. Flight booking can incur charges so I play it safe. Once the venue is secured, I usually phone the player and just make sure it’s still ok to book the flights etc (point of no return really!). Hotels and flights are then booked! Just make sure dates and times are correct. The last thing you’d want is to get that wrong and suffer the wrath of angry people on the day. Angry people are scary 🙂

There's no denying it. They really are.

3. Advertising 

My own reason for doing this is for all people interesting in piping to attend, so I advertise it around Facebook, Twitter, band website (and other websites!) and all the local bands I can.  I do find that politics sometimes plays a really annoying part in attendance with bands sometimes not wanting to attend because they think we capture people and brain wash them into playing with us. Completely not the case. We don’t capture people and eat them either – it’s just an innocent, fun filled night of socializing with like minded musicians (and drummers sometimes!). It’s all about the music and piping enthusiasm!

PS – Only kidding drummers! 😉

Keep a spreadsheet of guests paid so far. If you are doing tickets before hand (always a good idea!) then remember who has paid. You need to be really strict with this as handling other peoples money needs to be done well. You don’t want arguments flaring when someone who has paid isn’t marked as paid. I always keep peoples names, numbers, email addresses, whether paid, whether a receipt has been sent and whatever else is useful. Up to you really. Back this file up too. Keep it somewhere safe each time it is updated, but also be careful with data privacy (obvious). Delete it once the recital is over and don’t put it in a public place.

4. The logistics

There’s plenty of small details involved. You need to work from the top. Someone out there will be arriving at an airport. You need to ensure that person is picked up, and/or knows where they are going to be met. What I do, is host whoever is coming down myself and pick them up, look after their stuff and I’ll do the food runs and driving around kind of things. Other items to remember for the actual night : start times, whether or not you have float for change (tickets at the door), whether you’ll play music while people are coming in …. all those types of things. It’s quite a lot, but the way to work through it is to imagine you are a paying guest and just run through in your mind how they will enter the building and what you’d expect as a guest – always works a treat that way!
Lastly, always keep a journal of what you have done so far. Date it, and add notes. You’ll need this if things become hectic. I find that having kids throws my mind all over the damn place at the best of times so to keep organised, this is a must have. Try and enjoy the night as well. Get people involved to help out !

**Will update with any other thoughts!

A Winter Wedding Warmer

This weekend I was lucky enough to get to play at a wedding and as much fun and awesome as that is, it was absolutely freezing on the day. As a piper there is nothing worse for me than playing in the freezing cold (ok, maybe dressing in number 1’s equals in hatred points). The wedding was split into two parts – the service at a church in one area and then a short motorway drive to the reception area. I had been asked to pipe the guests out of the church once the service was over and then quick as I could head over to the reception location to pipe the guests in. All relaxed and nice and easy.

It was a military type wedding as there were a lot of people in uniform carrying swords. While waiting outside the church to play, they all came outside while the couple signed the register to prepare for a grand exit – looking really smart and attracting a rather large crowd outside on the pavement. I managed a quick shot of them preparing to hold swords high and welcome the newly wed couple out.

I know every piper out there has their own way of keeping comfortable while playing outside in the cold. I’ve seen people using gloves with fingers cut off, heat packs, scarfs, surgical gloves….even their own butt cheeks under the kilt….. you name it. My own secret to keeping the hands warms is the simple : Hot Water Bottle! So far I’ve found nothing as hot and able to permanently eject heat as much as these bad boys do. My method is to fill the bottle as much as I can with boiling hot water (not always recommended by the health and safety helmets) and then close it up wit no air. I find that gives me maximum heat for about two hours. I’ve been using hot water bottles to heat my hands up for a good few years now since I started piping in the band where in the winter, we practice inside a drill shed that is probably colder inside than out. It’s seriously freezing cold when we’re in there. The other pipers reckon I’m not hard enough, but will gladly request a good hand warming when noone else is looking 🙂

I’ve used hot water bottles while parading too, even on the march. You can come up with all sorts of genius methods of attaching a hot water bottle to your uniform. Normally wearing a kilt and a tunic and sporran can hide the likes of it well. Also worth noting is that I use a bottle that has a thick cover on it. This all helps to keep as much of the warmth inside, especially if you are going to be putting it down and picking it up all the time.

You could get one that looks like this….. but yeah…. I wouldn’t.

 

The easy thing about the hot water bottle too is that you can keep your hands inside it, right up against the rubber inbetween sets where it seriously warms the hands up with some super heat. I find with heat packs and fuel heat packs, that as soon as you clasp them, their heat is gone and they need to be left a while to reheat. The bottle just keeps the heat pouring out constantly. You then play a set, pick up the bottle and recharge – it’s great! Mine usually goes down against a tree, or on my pipe box or just on the grass. I’ve been known to keep it inbetween my knees but we won’t go there.

Anyhow, try it if you haven’t already – especially if you do a lot of outdoor playing in the cold. Remember, it all ‘boils’ down to keeping those fingers warm and supple to play well! Happy piping!

 

 

The Best on the World Wide Web

With the continued growth and use of the internet, we are seeing more and more piping related websites and resources appearing each month and so I thought it would be a great chance to try and pick out five of my favourites that I use on a regular basis. If you are reading this, then it is assumed you have a computer or smartphone. Er, or iPad …or any tablet come to think of it. You could also be at an internet cafe…… arghhh – the point is, the internet is freely available in a lot of ways.

“I need to see if anyone has replied to my reed question on Bob Dunsire” 


And with that, here are my own top five piping sites (and a bit more):

 

#1.1 – Bob Dunsire Forums

I originally landed at Bob Dunsire quite a few years back when googling various piping related questions. The site has more than just forums but the forums are where I find I’m drawn to the most and where I get the most use out of. They are broken into various categories relating to piping and drumming but have such a wide community that it’s a great place to share your experiences and post those questions we all have during our piping life. It’s easy to register and one of the things I like about it is that it is managed very strictly to keep topics on track and in the right place. Definitely worth visiting and registering.

#1.2 – Pipe Hacker  *Joint first choice for me 🙂

For those on Twitter who follow fellow pipers, it’s likely you may have heard of this website if you haven’t already visitied it. Pipe Hacker for me is a very unique piping resource on the web in the way that it claims ‘better living through piping’ which is so true! It’s hard to explain exactly what the site is about in short but basically, it’s got a vast resource of articles related to ‘pipe hacking’ which I can only describe as making the most out of your piping using various DIY methods. There are some fantastic articles and instructions like more recently, building a pressure reader to measure how steady your blowing is (which I am now making for out band to use!) and another that sticks out a while back was related to reeds and the science of shaving etc. Additional to that, there are Podcasts, cartoons, links to tools and all sorts. This site is a MUST for all pipers.

#2 – Bagpipe Journey

This site is absolutely incredible as a resource for any piping ‘How to’. If you’ve ever wondered how to position your fingers correctly, how to pipe in the rain or how to travel with your bagpipes on a plane, then this is the site you go to. The site is well maintained and easy to browse. It’s a pretty straight forward to use site. One of my favourite articles written is the ‘How to become a rotten piper’ – obviously trying to point what not to do by writing it as if it’s something you’d want to do. Excellent.

#3 – Pipes|Drums

This is a great site I regularly tend to hear about a lot of piper/piping related news stories, whether it be pipe band related competition news or stories about pipers achievements. It’s a great site to get a wide variety of piping news, sometimes not necessarily things you’ll find elsewhere. The one gripe I have is that some of the articles and other features on the site are protected behind a subscription you need to buy, but this should put people off visiting it (and subscribing if you like!). A very professional looking site and very well maintained. There are all sorts of things like interviews and polls to take part in too.

#4 – The Pipers Persuasion

A uniquely brilliant site in that it has interviews with some of the worlds most influential pipers out there. I am guilty of not spending enough time on this site but I have set aside some time to catch up with the very well put together videos. Some you’ll find on there : Bob Worrall, Roddy MacLeod, Richard Parkes and John Wilson amongst many others. The site is extremely easy to navigate and has kept pretty much to the point of the interviews. I’d recommend visiting this site to hear from the experiences of the piping greats and listen to their stories – something you could easily do if you have a job at a computer during the day. Highly recommended!

#5 – YouTube

A more obvious choice, but one that many pipers I know still don’t use the time to visit. With the growing number of people owning recording equipment and the recording equipment becomming easier to afford there is more than a life time of listening available on YouTube. You’ll find anything from the World Championships, to the beginner piper dropping his pipes all over the place during a wedding (one of my favourites!). Within YouTube, people have their own ‘channels’ where they can upload tunes to. Some of the significant ones I’d like to mention are : piperbob and svenskpiper. They have some pretty awesome collections of videos. It’s also a great resource to learn from. Many times I enjoy listening to the different variations and methods of playing a tune I am learning. YouTube allows me explore new ideas. Get listening!

There are so many tools out there too, so I’m going to quickly name a few I use to help improve my piping day to day :

#Skype – fantastic tool for getting lessons. Trust me, it works. Obviously the best results are on chanter but it’s amazing what tutors can pick up. If you have a computer and you want to improve your technique, get a cheap webcam and get an instructor.

#The National Piping Center– a great site for promoting better piping. A lot of the teachers at the piping center offer Skype lessons and so following on from my previous section you can get in touch and book a few hours with them. On this site you can access their online shop to purchase anything from bagpipes to CD’s to books. They also have a lot of information about piping qualifications. For me, the NPC is the heart of the piping world up north.

#Bagpipe Lessons – This is a truly great resource for piping music and tuition, especially if you want to work at your own pace and in your own time. There are packaged up bundles you can purchase which include a recorded audio lesson plus a recording of the tune on the pipes and all the music obviously. I included this as I actually managed to learn my first ever Piobaireachd using the site. The lesson was perfectly intuitive enough to understand (even for me). Browse the library of music too as there are some fantastic tunes that are not often elsewhere to find.

#FMMPB – I wanted to mention their website because it’s a fine example of a well made pipe band website where it’s easy on the eyes and easy to navigate. A lot of pipe band sites out there are designed by people within the band and although that works for the right skilled people, it doesn’t always work. Far gone are the days of using Front Page and other WYSIWYG type front ends to sites. With the new content management systems and cheap site building companies online, it’s a great time to spruce up your sites.

“No you can’t browse just one last Pipe Hacker article, you need to go to band practice!”


To finish up with, I think along with all these fantastic resources that are out there, it would be awesome to see more people blogging about their piping life. There are already some great blogs out there if you use google but I’d certainly like to see more general pipers out there using the internet to share experiences. Setting up a blog is really easy these days with the content management applications that exist (WordPress, Joomla etc). If any of the readers want any help, I’d be glad to assist in any way possible, so do get in touch via my ‘About Me’ page.