Pipe Band Annoyances

While at band practice a few weeks ago I was inspired to write about the things that ‘can’ annoy me  playing in a pipe band. By ‘annoy’ I also mean if I had a weapon in my hand at the time, I’d use it on myself – to make the pain go away. Those things are :


1. The Brute Force Drone Block

So your piping away and maybe have been for a good hour. Your drones are tuned, and you are mildly in some discomfort with your sweat glands working harder than a swimming pool pump and it’s decided to check chanters with another player. Before you know it, you have what feels like a falling anvil on each drone top. Not only that, you turn around and find a large, ‘pleased with itself’ face waiting for thanks. Yes, thank you for your strongman-hammer impression on my tuned drones Mr Helpy Helper.


Here, let me get that base drone for you.


It’s not the fact that they will even move but it’s more that all you need is just a light touch to stop them. There’s no prizes for the hardest drone block you know. Drones need to be loved and cared for once tuned.


2. The First Phrase Choir

Occasionally everyone is humbled by forgetting how a tune you’ve played like, a billion times starts.


It could even be a BILLION, BILLION times. Yes Brian, you could be right.


You usually turn to someone close by in the circle and politely ask how the tune starts. Now, everyone likes a good sounding choir, especially that one who Sister Mary Clarence led in the film Sister Act (They were really good!), however before you know it there are 20 people humming, singing, tapping out the beginning of the tune and each fighting their ungodly voices to the highest volume possible as if it’s a race with a prize at the end. Brilliant. By the end of the 10 second performance, you’ve managed to just about remember the tune on your own but that’s more of a bodily defense mechanism saving you from scratching your own eyes out. It’s like you’ve fired a gun in a verbal race to see who can sing the entire tune first, and everyone is going flat out to reach the end.


3. Unavoidable Flatulence

Some people find letting a bit of internal steam off out in wide open spaces, far, far away from other people just fine. So do I. Others however wait until you are half way through a medley to release those hot, gaseous bowel contents. One of these groups of people will get christmas cards from me. The others will not. There is nothing worse than taking what should be a breath of fresh air and realizing that you’ve just inhaled hell.  Invest in a gas mask to avoid or find out what everyone’s had for dinner before taking to the circle. Picking a good spot in the practice or parade could save you a world of nauseating pain.


It can't look worse than a feather bonnet right ?


4. The Foot Tappers

For those who have had to keep time in a band, you’ll know what a struggle it can be keeping it all together – and that’s when things are generally going right. When things are not going right, it’s literally a train smash with you strapped right at the damn front of it. What’s worse is that when you are trying to concentrate, mainly from using one of your drones as a weapon against your peers, you can see five or six different tempos being beaten by lots of happy feet. You feel your face strain, your foot tapping hard to try and catch peoples attention to the fact that it’s all going to pot, but there’s just an ocean of happy and content faces. Where’s Kathy Bates when you need her?


Take out those feet Kathy. Every damn one of them.


I find it hard sometimes keeping a melody in my head, on my own, when I’m silent. Now, add 20 pipers, throw in some drummers, strike up a tune and see what happens when no-one is concentrating and the foot tappers start. It’s a mental quartering.  For those of us who don’t know, it’s like having your brain split four ways – by horses.  Before you can yell like a mad man there are seven different beats going on and there’s a foot high disco happening down there. Closing your eyes doesn’t help as the virus is already out and spreading. The best thing to do is call Kathy.


5. The Unmovable Drone


You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to hemp a drone. You don’t need to be The Incredible Hulk to hemp either. You don’t have to be Chris Armstrong (although that would be useful). All you need are fingers and hemp. With this said, you can almost predict each practice there will be a drone that seems has been violently rammed on, so much so that the worlds strongest man would quit trying to budge it. This doesn’t bode well for little old drone tuners around the world that have to not only try, but do it one-handed while holding a tuner. We are handicapped as it is holding something. Trying to move a drone like that with spider like fingers just isn’t even a challenge – it’s useless. As boring as pipe maintenance can be, without it we may need to look like this guy…


Just five more weeks and I'll be able to tune that outside tenor.


6. Reed Fungus and other such growths


For those who have to place your mouths over other peoples chanters and reeds, bless you. Bless you all. I used to consider base jumping and cave diving as dangerous but when I considered just how many tiny, really really ugly creatures living inside of our pipes, I became quite humbled about the whole thing. Remembering that scientists keep giving us these stats about the fact that there are zillions of viruses and bacteria on an inch of our skin just imagine what horrors live on a chanter stock and reed. Then, there is another level down from all this because what I’ve just mentioned would be the clean ones. The reeds that grow fungus and enough fur to make a keen hairdresser excitable form a new kind of world for me. Under a microscope the surface of such reeds look like a cenobyte world.


Try cleaning up that mess without any pain.


We have to put these things inside of our mouths people! If that doesn’t frighten you, nothing will. Reeds need to be kept in a protector. It’s not hard. Just one minute of work and some care and attention could save you from having to put hellraisers in your mouth, and trust me, they bring pain.



And that ends my worst annoyances. Of course they don’t reeeee-allllyy annoy me that much – we just get on with it, but in a world where it’s free to moan and write I thought I’d take full advantage. Happy piping.


Experiences Competing ‘Online’

Just a short post for now. In my never ending pursuit to improve my piping I decided to take part in the Bagpipelessons.com Online Piping Competition. Having seen some of the entries over the past events and been impressed I thought I’d give it a try and plus, you don’t have to travel anywhere. I could pipe in my normal spot, normal times yet enter a competition.  Great opportunity. All I needed was my video camera, some tune polishing and some time to do the filming. One thing I found a bit tricky at the beginning of the entry process, although it was really easy to enter once sorted, was the fact that I’m graded by the CLASP in the UK, and the US grades are numbered differently. Not a massive issue but when you’re not sure and you’re living in the UK, the Piping Center in Glasgow were a great help to work out where I fitted in. Grade 2 it was! Always best to check with the correct authority to ensure you’re competing at the right level.


Otherwise you could find yourself up against the big boys.


One of the things I was excited about, being it an online competition was the fact that I didn’t have just one chance to play and that was that. I had the chance to record different attempts at the tune. At first I thought this was an advantage. As I learned later on, it wasn’t really that at all. Having the ability to re-record yourself can be a bad thing and really frustrating. It was harder than I first imagined – but all good for the piping. Over the next few weeks (I think it was weeks) – I spent as much time as I could re-learning some competition tunes and running over my Piobaireachd. It was during a work day when I finally decided to take my camera up to a room where I practice during my lunch break. An hour later I had recorded nothing. Well, that’s not true really. I had recorded, and re-recorded and just kept repeating the process over and over until I almost went nuts. And then some.

In all seriousness I soon found out that having the ability to record myself for a competition was pretty hard work and not the advantage I thought it was. I mean, yep it’s great to be able to play a set through to the end, until you are happy that there are no mistakes but it was really hard work having to keep recording, rewinding and starting over.


My Piobaireachd was the first set I got done and the other sets soon came in after that. Probably as I was running out of time towards the end. It took a fair chunk of an evening to get the sets off the tape and everything downloaded to my PC and then uploaded to YouTube, but as the sets were done it felt completely painless. The process of submitting the videos via the bagpipelessons website was really easy and simple to use. You had to enter some details about that specific event, along with the video link etc, and bam – it was entered. There was nothing complex at all about the process all the way through booking it , playing and submitting. Hats off to the organizers and people involved in making it all happen. I’d recommend taking part for pipers around the globe who want to try their hand at competing and who might not be in immediate reach of competitions they can actually get to.


As it turned out I got a few placings, be them 5th and 6th placings, but still I was happy with that. Overall it was a great way to start getting on top of some competition tunes and pick up some momentum to keep practicing! Thanks to everyone involved and I look forward to seeing the next videos for the next competition!



Glenn Brown Recital

Last weekend, Glenn Brown came down to Portsmouth for a band workshop and a recital. I had organized this with Glenn about five months back and was the second recital put together in a year after we had Chris Armstrong down last year who put on a fantastic evenings entertainment. Excited as always the band were looking forward to the workshop which was due to start at 11:30am. In order to get as much out of the workshop as possible I had pieced together a rough agenda which I was hoping to follow. I had also printed off some exercises for the band to begin on. It must be hard from the teachers point of view coming down to a band you’ve never heard before and then being expected to magically change things on the spot so we were planning to start the day with some exercises so that Glenn could get a feel for who was playing what. Luckily we were a mid sized group and kept the tables in a square so that people were close by. We began pretty much bang on time which was great.


The first hour was spent on chanters doing exercises. The second hour we did some tunes that the band had started to learn (Battle of Waterloo being one) and also went over some parade sets. As I knew we couldn’t fix things in four hours, I thought it best for Glenn to give us some pointers on how we can work better as a band by listening together and getting into some more advantageous routines to better our sound. We managed to get on the pipes for the last 45 minutes luckily, which certainly wasn’t enough but we also managed to get some great pointers there. The time we had was very worth it in the end and we’d do it again….. maybe next time for slightly longer if possible. I wish we had the likes of Glenn closer by generally so that we could keep working on bettering ourselves all the time.


The evening do was due to start at 19:30, with doors opening at 19:00. I arrived with Glenn and a friend Roger who had offered to drive us to the venue which saved a taxi ride and meant we could time the journey better. People had started to arrive already and I had met with some friends in the car part from up north, one of whom is known on YouTube as Piperbob. Bob had offered to record the event and thanks to him, all the videos can now be found on YouTube under his account. The evening started with our band putting on a quartet just as a space filler with some more piping. We played a nice 3/4 set, followed by our medley and then our fun jigs that we sometimes play. We sounded good and hopefully everyone thought the same and enjoyed it. After us, we had a real treat from Tom Curd, a local piper on the coast who has performed with the Inverery and District Junior band in Scotland. Tom treated us to some great tunes including the Little Cascade! Once Tom was done, the main event came out. Glenn treated everyone to two halves of some great tunes. We had a Piobaireachd in each half and I must admit, I loved the first tune he played as it sounded very much like a slow air, rather than a traditional patterned Piobaireach. Again, the videos are on YouTube.


I won’t go on too much about the night, but I want to add that we all had a fantastic weekend. We also had two fantastic prizes donated by the National Piping Centre which were two places for one of their seasonal schools this year. Glenn is a true gent and such a good ambassador for piping. Glenn teaches up at the National Piping Centre and I’ve had lessons with him before over Skype and in person. He is a fantastic player and very personable and easy to approach. He took the time at the end to speak to pretty much everyone who came and even headed out partying with us afterwards. A lady who came to the recital go to even try a wee tune on his pipes which he didn’t have to do, but that kind of touch really affects people positively and I hope he spread some piping mojo around!

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!