Thursday, September 4, 2008

Inverness gold for a well deserving competitor


Today was the first day of the annual northern meeting and, for the first time in a few years, it was held once again in its traditional location of Inverness.

The gold medal was captured by Alan Bevan of British Columbia. Over the past decade Alan has come close to the big prize on many occasions, but today fate was on his side and he played a brilliant tune on a flawless pipe to bring home the prize.

Congratulations also to Colin Lee, son of Jack Lee for his win in the Silver Medal and Angus MacColl for winning the Silver Star former winners MSR.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Utah pipers representing on a world stage


Congratulations to Ross Morrill and Justin Howland who have had a successful season competing in BC with the grade one Triumph Street Pipe Band.

This past weekend they also competed as quartets and took home first prize against quartets from SFU! An amazing feat!

This weekend they will be playing for the title of North American Champions in Maxville, Ontario. Best of luck boys!

Congrats again to Ross and Justin, now bring some of that sizzling BC piping home so it can rub off on the rest of us!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tip of the Day


<--- The great John Wilson's MacDougalls

There is nothing more discouraging than a bagpipe that is hard to play. Here is the great secret... your pipe can be easy to blow and still produce a wonderful sound! The first place to start is the bag. Make sure you have a set of stock corks and check the bag for air-tightness regularly. Next, make sure that your stocks are properly hemped. If the entire drone is turning when you are tuning, your stocks are not properly hemped and you may be losing a significant amount of air!

Next, make sure you have a good air valve and a blowpipe that is not to restrictive. I recommend an Airstream for the maximum air flow. Many pipes come standard with a blowpipe that is not suitable, I learned this the hard way.

Next, make sure that your drone reeds are not too open. You should be able to shut off the reeds simply by increasing the pressure on the bag. If you cannot, your reeds may be taking too much air, making your pipes very difficult to blow steadily.

Lastly, there is no reason to play a chanter reed that is too hard. Purchase your reeds through a reputable dealer and pay the extra price to ensure that you are purchasing a reed that will play and not expensive firewood.

Don't be afraid to have an experienced player look your pipes over and help you get them set up properly, most players are very willing to help. Good luck and happy piping!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fun, Friends, Adventure...

Without a doubt, one of the greatest dividends that piping has paid in my life is an abundance of friends, a whole lot of fun, and more than a few adventures.
The piping community is very close knit and I have had the pleasure of traveling abroad many times with bands and groups of solo pipers to various games and competitions.
Each trip comes with its own tale to tale, but perhaps one of the craziest for me came in September of 1999 when me and my good friend and fellow competitor Ian Crane visited the Estes Park highland games in Colorado.
The trip started out great. We were two young, poor kids so I begged my parents to let us take the family minivan. After some convincing my mom agreed. The trip continued without any problems until we started ascending the mountains going towards Estes Park. We noticed that the gears were slipping and as we continued up the mountain we realized that the transmission was going. There was not a lot that we could do at that point but coast down into the town.
We made it into our parking space at the highland games and had to spend the night in the cold van. In the morning we tried to back up only to realize that reverse was gone... Well, at this point, we weren't really smart enough to panic, so we just had a good day at the games and we both took 2nd place in our respective grades that day. As I recall Ian wasn't happy at all... "2nd place is the 1st place loser" is what he used to say. Maybe that's where I got some of my perfectionism... For me, 2nd place was good considering my hands were so cold I could hardly feel the chanter!
Anyway... after the games were over we were back to facing reality... we had no way to get home and very little money. Somehow we managed to flirt with the hotel receptionist so she gave us a huge discount a room. Now that we had a place to stay all we needed was food. As all recall all we ate for about 3 days was 7-layer burritos from Taco Bell.
A while later we get the news that my mom is coming to rescue us driving our old family motor home and pulling a tow trailer. When she finally arrives that is when the fun really begins. The motor home kept stalling as we drove over the peak (refer to the above photo). To make matters worse, construction had the road closed down to one lane, so we were blocking the traffic and making a lot of people very angry.
When we finally got started down the mountain the brakes started over heating and the petal was all the way to the floor and we weren't stopping! I thought that was going to be the end right there, but we somehow managed to survive to pipe another day. I just feel bad for my mom because as we very slowly drove home pulling her crippled van me and Ian played "guess that bagpipe tune" for about 10 hours! Its a wonder my mom didn't throw us both out of the motor home. That's true love right there...
Fortunately I did live to pipe another day!
If you have a crazy piping story please tell me about it in the comments section.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Cooling off on a HOT 4th of July!


The Mount Timpanogos Pipe Band enjoys a round of ice cold limeades courtesy of Guru's in Provo after our performance at colonial days as part of the Freedom Festival.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Musician first... competitor second


Why is it that highland bagpipers are so competitive? Does it have something to do with our heritage? We have some inherent need to prove we are the best. I can't think of any other type of music where competition is so important that it literally is the driving force for musical innovation. Irish pipers have, to a great extent, avoided this path and often speak of highland piping as "the darkside", snickering at the regiment that we put ourselves through to become slaves to the "unmusical" gracenotes and such.

I tend to laugh at these type of comments... but at the same time I see their point. As highland pipers we must always remember that we are musicians first, competitors second. The problem today is that so many pipers are taught to compete before they even come close to understanding the music. The strictness of competitive style piping can result in some of the most amazing music. (example)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErtFfLCNtz8

If we lose sight of the music we become fodder for bagpipe jokes and perpetuate the myth that bagpipes have to sound like this.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJm_bSTJI4U&feature=related

Take the time to learn about the music you are playing. Learn the history and evolution of the different styles of our music. Learn about the great players of the past and how they contributed to the music we have today. Learn about music theory. Learn how to get the best sound out of your instrument. When you play in public be polished and professional and you will be regarded as a musician and not a novelty.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

There is one pipe band classic that really deserves another listen...



I must say that for a piper who was taught so far away from a piping "hotbed" I was really lucky to be to be exposed to some of the best piping in the world very early on in my study of the pipes. This exposure included two visits from the SFU pipe band in my home town in my first two years of playing. Why did SFU come to Utah you ask?... I don't know, but they did, and it really opened my eyes!

This type of exposure is important in the musical development of pipers, but it can be as simple becoming very familiar with the best pipers in the world and studying their recordings. Listening to the best bagpipe albums was always a major part of my study from the beginning.

For me, the first such recording was the 78th Fraser Highlanders "Live in Ireland" recording. As a brand new piper, listening to this album was eye-opening. It was like candy for my ears, a drug that I instantly became addicted to. For lack of better words, it was magical. To create this type of music is why I became a piper.

Lets take another look at the recording itself...
The album gets started with Bill Livingstone playing a slow version of Lord Lovat's Lament. The sound of his rich drones and sweet chanter combined with controlled expression evoke emotion. Moments later Reid Maxwell's drums corps and the entire pipe corps strike up to a brisk, march rendition of the same tune. A lovely opener, and to this day I cannot hear this tune without making the 78th Frasers association.

Today, there are better ways of capturing the sound of the pipes and drums in recordings, but there is something about this album that makes you feel like you there. The sound of the pipes are quite nice and pitched significantly lower than today's top bands. The debate over pitch is another topic for another day, but nevertheless, the lower pitch creates a harmonically richer, more full sound that is displayed nicely here.

The next track features an example of a competitive medley. In the early 80's the 78th Frasers pushed the existing boundaries and basically set the tone for what is still being done today in the medley format. Some of the highlights of this particular medley include "Inspector Donald Campbell of Ness", the highly musical and highly technical jig was always a wonder for me as a young player. Donald MacLoed's Craig-a-Bodich and John Walsh's clever, round style reel also add to this set.

The next set features 3 outstanding 6/8 Marches. Young players take note of the expression, particularly the 8th note accentuation. This is what gives the 6/8 march its "swing" and is so often overlooked with new players. The distinctive "up" swing is actually given more than it's written value when played at these fast tempos, but when practicing slowly, set the metronome to triple time and make sure that the 8th note gets it's full value.

Track 4 is the first solo set... what else can I say, when I was young I wanted to be Bruce Gandy. I thought his solo was the most amazing thing ever at the time. The highlight must be the "Galtee Ranger". The bend on C and D was so cool at the time, but hearing so many bad players try to play tunes like Terry Tully's "Pumpkin's Fancy" has lessened my liking of this. Nevertheless, Bruce Gandy was and is today one the world's premier players and the musicality of his light music playing is evident here.

Track 5 features the popular slow air "The Cliffs of Doneen" and two hornpipes in the traditional dot-and-cut style that is not heard as often today, being replaced with the round, more modern style reel/hornpipe hybrid. Not much to say here, just good piping.

Track 6 was a preview to the world of the first band in history from outside of Scotland to win the world championships. This amazing feat happened only three days after the recording was made. As for the winning set itself, classic MSR all the way. This is about as difficult as music gets in piping. Charlie's Welcome has always been one of my favorite reels to listen to (not to play).

Track 7 is a solo by Michael Grey. My particular favorite is Colin MacLellan's not often heard jig arrangement of the classic strathspey "The Piper's Bonnet". Again, here is a display of amazing dexterity and musical control.

Track 8 begins with a lovely arrangement of the Irish love song "My Laggan Love". The harmonies are very nice and the low g to low a slide at the end is tastefully done. This leads into a nice hornpipe and jig set.

Bill Livingstone may very well be the best living piobaireachd player in the world today. Although he didn't get his official start in Ceol Mor until the age of 27, he was lucky enough to be taught by some of the best players of the 20th century. Donald MacLeod and John Wilson just to name a couple. Here Bill plays the ground of "Lament for the Children". Although not technically difficult, this piece is a prime example of why piobaireachd is so difficult to master. With this piece there is little separating between the player and the instrument. The classic melody is played in a way that is extremely beautiful and heart felt. Absolutely masterful, but not very much appreciated at the time I first listened as it would take years to learn to appreciate the subtitles of the "big music". Nevertheless, this small glimps into piobaireachd prompted me to further study which has since evolved into a passion.

Track 10 features the Frasers championship winning medley selection. There is not much I can say here, just sit back, close your eyes, and imagine the band on Glasgow Green making a huge splash in the pond of competitive piping. Perhaps that day should have happened years earlier, (possibly with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band). But in 1987, the Scottish judges could no longer postpone the inevitable reality... that they weren't the only ones that could play the pipes, and play them well.

Track 11 is more 6/8 marches. Highlighted for me by Willie Ross' great tune "Leaving Port Askaig".

In track 12 Reid Maxwell is featured, but as a young piper I was too busy listening to great unison playing of the piping duet accompaniment.

"Journey to Skye" is a suite of sorts; a very memorable listening experience. Another prime example of how the Frasers not only pushed to competitive boundaries, but also the musical limitations of ensemble pipe band performance. One funny note, if you listen carefully, you can hear an early chanter towards the end of the performance when the pipes strike back in after the drums were featured. An old acquaintance once passed on what is probably a non-credible bagpipe folklore that the errant piper was Bruce Gandy taking his eyes off the pipe major for a second. Is it true?... I have no idea, but pipers LOVE to speculate! ;) Journey to Skye is a great musical accomplishment and a very pleasurable listen.

As a young player, track 14 was probably the one that I hit the repeat button the most on. More than any other, this set defined what the Frasers were all about. Great music... classical and modern, played in a way that is musical, exciting, and pleasing... doing what has never been done, but at the same time, honoring tradition. "The Mist Covered Mountains" breaking into G.S. MacLellans's greatest masterpiece "The Little Cascade" to this day is one of the most memorable moments in all of my bagpipe listening.

Track 15 is the encore... so enjoy! Other pipe bands take note, this is what Clumsy Lover is supposed to sound like! A great tune by Neil Dickie, but probably the most butchered tune of all time.

Well, I know I was a bit long winded, but I'm allowed to do that, it's my blog! So, if it's been a while since you've had a listen or if you have never listened, don't be deceived by the tacky yellow cover. "Live in Ireland" is the best selling pipe band recording of all time for a reason... It's really good! It opened up my eyes to a whole new world of listening, and more importantly, it showed a young piper who didn't know any better what our music is supposed to sound like.

John


Monday, February 25, 2008

Welcome to my piping page!

For the last decade or so I have been lucky enough to call myself a piper. For me, piping is more than just a hobby, its a passion and a way of life... Piping is a big part of who I am.

This page is dedicated to all pipers; those who love the pipes; those who want to play the pipes; those who want bagpipes at their funeral; and even for those who hate the pipes (there is hope for you yet!).

Through this page I hope to share experiences, knowledge, insights, humor, trivia, fun stories, or anything else that has to do with piping. I hope that you will share as well!