Peter and the Piper

Last night my family and I went to give some support to our local democratic senatorial candidate, Pete Ashdown. This week he is organizing a series of “honk and waves” at busy intersections in Salt Lake.

At last night’s honk and wave, it being Halloween, he suggested people come in costume. I figured if I was going to dress up, I could put on my kilt and bring my pipes to entertain the wavers and the honkers. In this Drive-by piping I would let others do the driving.

It was cold.

Actually, it was quite interesting. I figure if I’m going to make a go of piping for money, I need to be able to play outside and in all weather. The pipes stayed pretty much in tune, as long as I kept playing. I noticed the pitch sagged if I took a break between tunes of more than a couple of minutes. I also discovered that my birl finger went completely numb, as did my left thumb. Still, I was able to hit the main melody notes, and doublings, throws and grips seemed mostly unaffected.

Finally, I dicovered that playing the pipes blocks out the sound of car horns. Although Pete Ashdown and the wavers kept waving, I could no longer hear the honks they were responding to. That piece of information is probably not a big concern at funerals, but you never know.

Out in the woods

I played for private woodland ceremony over the weekend. It was not a paid gig – I was invited to go and delighted to do it.

Piping is generally an outdoor activity, but usually it takes place in highly controlled environments – highland games, weddings, funerals, parades. Twice now in the past few months I have played out in the woods and it was completely different experience. Back in the summer I played in the woods next to a hotel where I was staying. No audience (at first) except for trees and crickets. It was peaceful and beautiful. I could just feel my playing, knowing no-one else could (at first). The trees seemed to wrap around me. I stared at them in detail while I played and just lost myself.

This past weekend, I was out in the woods again, in a heavily wooded valley near Salt Lake City. Rich fall colors, crisp air, mountains rising around me. Once again, peaceful and beautiful, but this time with an audience. For that reason it was a little less reflective than the previous experience, but still a wonderful time.

I have a recording of Barnaby Brown playing piobaireachd in a cave above the ocean on the Isle of Skye. He climbed in on his own with his pipes and recording equipment. You can hear the waves crashing throughout the recording.

Playing in nature is a totally different feeling. Audience or not, it’s worth experiencing if you’re a piper.

Senior Moment Upgrade and Junior Moment

Playing for the seniors went really well. I played three sets, took a break to take questions and then played a couple more sets – one on the smallpipes. I saw one guy step out of the room crying, which is normal for that kind of crowd. Older men particularly seem to get emotional at the sound of the pipes.

Later that evening, I was at a local park with the kids. I was still bekilt and my pipes were in the trunk. I figured I may as well take advantage of the situation, so I played the sun down for half an hour or so. A family stopped to listen. When I was done a small girl came up to me, pressed 20 cents into my hand and ran off.

Maybe I should check into busking licences.

Senior Moment

Tomorrow I am scheduled for a senior moment.

Back in July I was a prize in a drawing at a family reunion. Actually, my piping was the prize, but you get the idea.

So, the family member who won me (my piping) is redeeming her prize tomorrow. She coordinates a monthly activity for a group of seniors in her town and tomorrow they get to experience a Drive-by Piping. This will be a senior-speed Drive-by, so it will last a little longer than usual. I am to play, talk a little and then play again. It’s all part of a hectic day for me (four activities back to back).

I’ll let you know how it goes…

I am a Macfie

When I play solo I wear the Macfie tartan. I am a Macfie.

Although I inherited my Finnish surname from my father’s family, my mother’s family is all scottish and the Macfies of Colonsay were her father’s ancestors.

The Macfies (or MacPhies and other variant spellings) lived on the Island of Colonsay until the early 17th century. After they were ejected from the island (following dark deeds and collusion with the pro-English King of Scotland by a so-called friend of the clan) the clan dispersed all over Scotland and many emigrated. There are now Macfies all over the World.

So now I am on a mission to find Macfie tunes and connections in piping. There is a piobaireachd called The Rout of the Macphees. I have a recording of Donald MacLeod playing it on the practice chanter. There is a 6/8 march called Donald Macphee’s March. Donald Macphee himself (prominent piper – mid 19th century) compiled a collection of tunes. Not sure if any are actually written by him.

So, the search goes on. If any Macfies out there read this and can help – Hello, and let me know!

Happy New Year

My pipe band year is just ending.

My band, the Wasatch and District Pipe Band has wrapped up its season with very creditable placings in Grade 4 at the BIG games in Pleasanton, California. My old band, The Celtic Spirit Pipe Band of Western New York is finishing off a very successful summer at the Celtic Festival in Olcott, New York. My son brought in four red fall leaves from the garden yesterday morning.

This is the time of year when bands choose new tunes for next year, to work on all winter. I will soon be starting a regular lesson again, I’m playing two personal gigs in the next two weeks, and there is fledgling Piobaireachd Society starting here in Utah.

It’s an exciting time. Happy New Year.

OK, It’s later – more about the english

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I am, in fact, English.

OK, I’m actually a strange mixture of English, Scottish and Finnish, but if you were to hear me talk there would be no hiding my Englishness.

As an Englishman playing the quintessentially Scottish instrument, here is what I have observed about the English.

They mostly do not like the pipes.

When I go home to visit, and I play the pipes, the response seems to vary from cool to rude. It’s true, there are a few who like it and even ask me to play more, but these are in the minority. (I’ll tell the story of my exploits in a little English pub soon.) By contrast, I have never received anything less than a totally enthusiastic response from audiences in the U.S. I have a theory about the reason for this.
A large number of the British immigrants to the U.S. were actually Scottish or Irish. They left, in part, because of the horrible treatment they recieved from their English overlords. (The English that emigrated may not have been that fond of their authority figures either.) So, those who left and crossed the Atlantic may well have held dear the very things that their former masters despised. It was part of defining their new identity.

OK, I’m done playing the armchair cultural historian. Anyone care to help me prove or disprove my theory?

Pirates and Punk

OK, so I’ve been thinking of cool tunes to add to my Drive-by piping repertoire. Seems like people always smile when you play a tune they don’t expect to hear on the pipes.

The Pirate of Sainte Mary’s is a piper who busks, and he plays a version of the Star Wars theme. Sounds like it’s a hit with his audience.

I’d like to work up some punk standards on the pipes.

My tiny list so far:

I Fought the Law – The Clash

Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones (honestly, with three notes you can probably make anything by The Ramones work on pipes)

It’s early days yet – any suggestions? I’ll update the list soon….

The maintenance guys will kick their butts

I’m out of town this week with my family, so my kids can go to camp. We’re staying at a hotel that claims to be a resort. Glacial service and flies on the dining tables say otherwise, but that’s a whole different story.

I decided to practice a respectful distance away from the hotel buildings. This isn’t too hard as the hotel is way out in the country, on the side of one of the mountain ranges of northern Utah. I drove up to the water tank that supplies the hotel. It’s about a half mile away from the hotel and probably several hundred feet above it. I was confident I would not be heard from there. Yesterday I played for about an hour with only trees and crickets for company.

Today I took up my position as yesterday, but after a few minutes two of the maintenance guys showed up in a truck. Apparently they had to add some chemicals to the water. They were very happy that I was playing and told me to carry on. They left a few minutes later with big thumbs-up and waves. I carried on playing, but after a short while I heard the truck coming back. This time the front seat was stuffed with extra hotel staff – more waving and thumbs. It was a Drive-by listening.

I bumped into the maintenance guys again later. They asked why I had gone so far from the hotel to practice. I explained to them that I always try to be careful when piping in public – not everyone likes the pipes for some reason. They said to move closer and that if any of the guests complained they would “kick their butts”. Sadly we leave tomorrow, so I will never get the chance to see the promised butt-kicking. Shame – that would have added to the resort experience.