Douglas McKenzie: Getting Tunefulness Out of the Pipe Beast
Grandpa came from Dingwall, Scotland, and I thought it would be fun to add the bagpipe to my repertoire. He died when I was young and I had no encouragement from family (Dad thought it was just "noise"...he liked classical music). I really had no goals except self gratification. But in a small community, opportunities to play soon present themselves...
On a whim I attended the MacAlister College games in St. Paul and bought a practice chanter and tutor (I'd played piano in childhood, trombone in high school, and guitar, banjo and penny whistle as a young adult). A few years later a patient informed me informal lessons were being offered in Houghton Michigan. With scales and a few tunes under my belt I bought my first pipes (Drumrans) from a dealer in Minneapolis in 1990, had tutelage from Caven Clark, and 4 of us formed the "Keweenaw Pipers" playing local parades. I think I wanted to learn to play because of pride in my Scottish heritage. I never listened to pipes, never knew a piper, Mom and I attended the McAlister games on a whim, and I really had no drive to master the chanter I bought...guitar and banjo seemed much better ways for a young single male to court and I had friends in the folk music scene in the Twin Cities.
The "dabbling" stopped and serious learning started in 1990 when Professor Reynolds introduced me to lessons with Caven Clark and 3 of us started chanter, then bagpipe lessons, then local parades. Caven left a year later, leaving us to our own devices but I really enjoyed the attention of the crowds. Of course funerals and weddings followed. I piped my wife down the aisle, in my kilt, in an unheated, unlit church near Lake Superior on July 4, 1992. It snowed, then poured, then reached 50 degrees, yet we did a parade in Eagle River on the big lake immediately after the morning wedding, in driving snow.
I was self taught on chanter. My first lesson taught me I was playing about quarter speed. 6 months later my new pipes seemed impossibly hard (it's still fun to hand the pipes to an audience member to see if they can get a squeak!). Of course at first all tuning was by my instructor, then for years was by my electronic tuner. For awhile the 3 of us doing parades were enchanted with plastic chanter reeds because they were so easy. For years our focus was on getting notes in the right places and "twiddling our fingers" at the right places... without an instructor we were pretty sloppy but crowds still cheered for our novelty. My first taste of striving to improve came when I attended a couple of "Spring Tuneup" weekends in Traverse City in the late 1990s, hosted by Henderson's. I sat in group classes with Jack Lee, Bob Worrall, Ed Nigh, and others. Of course there was the classic insult "boy thats fast" when I'd demonstrate my "nimble" fingers. Made me want to improve and I bought MacGillivray's book which improved my technique. I had some lessons in a summer school at the Gaelic College in Nova Scotia in 2000 and 2001, but otherwise no formal lessons until introduced to Dojo last year. Its been a struggle to unlearn leading beats with embellishments, closing all my Cs, and expunging crossing noises I didn't even know existed!
I've been blessed to live at the end of the earth (the top of Michigan's Upper Peninsula) where there are no pipe instructors, our ragtag crew is the only pipe band for hundreds of miles, people enjoy us despite our sloppiness...we've for years got away with many piping "sins." My wife took highland dance lessons at Gaelic College with Kelly MacArthur and since then I've piped innumerable dances for her and my daughters (one of whom reached premier). I've competed twice at Alma with Grand Traverse Pipes and Drums.
At each step I knew I lacked precision, tuning ability, and stamina, and at games would see and hear incredible pipers, but always felt that with more devotion and time I could improve to a higher standard.
I still hope, with retirement approaching as I turn 67, that I can make significant improvements.
The first couple of years struggling to get tunefulness out of the pipe beast, I certainly considered giving up. But since then there have been so many reinforcers, I've never really considered quitting. The funerals, weddings, piping for dancing daughters and wife, leading parades (by default I'm the major for Superior Pipes and Drums) after which observers say they go to the parades just to see the pipe band. I've loved hearing applause across a lake when I've thought I was far enough away that I wouldn't irritate anybody. Floridians travelling through our area said they bought the property next to mine on the lake when they heard Amazing Grace coming from my house at sunset.
I used to periodically get unsolicited emails about Dojo and ignored them until another band member recommended we all join, since we have no local instructors. We voted to have our band pay 2/3 of the cost as long as we keep submitting weekly.
After he recommended it, I thought there was no way I'd have time to devote to the Dojo (and its still a struggle) but we discussed it at a band meeting and a couple of months later took the plunge. Our corps of 5 pipers and a newbie have stuck it out for over a year now.
With no local instructors we have a lot of bad habits to improve. We all are learning piping humility and a clear path forward, we really appreciate the Dojo's "gentle" criticism and encouragement! There are lots of things I didn't know I was doing wrong that are now glaringly obvious...early and false embellishments, crossing noises, open Cs. I may not have them all fixed, but I know what I need to do to improve.
The Dojo has absolutely helped me improve. Bagpipe maintenance and drone reed adjustments have helped a lot. I've never been critiqued on posture and blowing cadence...shortening my blowpipe and drone cords has helped. Probably the biggest gain has been the desire to "pass" courses and submissions...no longer are the pipes sitting idle for 2 months and I'm getting regular time on them. Before Dojo I was totally dependent on my electronic tuner. I've become free of it at last! I actually find using the tuner results in out of tune pipes (because of pressure changes as I add additional drones and as I play tunes).
In the past, I've actually been pretty good at sight reading and adding many tunes to my repertoire, albeit imprecisely. But the Dojo method of subtracting embellishments and playing half speed to get precision has helped a lot. I wasn't aware of crossing noises, now they're often glaring. I wasn't aware I was playing many Cs open (my first instructor in 1990 actually said that was a perfectly acceptable option). I can now hear when my embellishments are false or uneven.
Dojo has given me a path forward to improve my technique, to struggle less with the pipe beast, to feel confident tuning, to sight read better. Of course theres the "burst my bubble," I thought I was pretty good before, now I know theres lots of room for improvement! Coincident is my pending retirement in January and I look forward to finding time to give more attention to Dojo and piping. Dojo has improved camaraderie of our band members and I thank you for that! Our relationship may go on for a long time!
Douglas McKenzie, Hancock, USA