Heather McFarlane: Bagpipes Saved My Life

I started learning the bagpipes at the age of 9. I grew up in a very remote village and while I was studying piano simultaneously, my father was very certain that I wished to learn the bagpipes as well. I began learning from a student who was studying at the local marine biology station.

As a youth, I want to win the worlds - I wanted to play with SFU, who were local-ish to me, hometown heroes of a sort. At the time they were world champions.

I love music. I loved and still love composing and creating my own music - I've never been an ad-lib musician, so the regimented nature of competitive bagpipes suited me to a degree.

The bagpipes are an oddly unique instrument, and I've also always considered myself an oddly unique person. I was bullied a lot as a kid and my pipes were a positive way for me to stand out and stand up for myself.

My pipes were always too hard. Our relationship has been one of constant and endless struggle. It erodes one's confidence in their instrument, and after almost 30 years of playing it can feel terrible to have to ask for help with basics that you literally never learned. Ever. So many intuitive pieces are never passed on properly in the Piping world.

When I competed regularly, there were virtually no other girls or women competing and it was quite overwhelming at times to be the only girl on my field. We are always a minority in the Piping world. I have also believed at many times that I will never learn to play a specific tune or type of tune. I sometimes now feel I've gotten too old to get beyond grade 4, to get any kind of meaningful respect as a musician.

I have considered quitting bands but never giving them up entirely. They're such a deeply ingrained part of my identity now that I will literally be the 80 year old at band someday struggling to keep up but still playing.

I think I found the Dojo on Reddit. I thought I'd check it out and decide for myself. I was feeling pretty low about my Piping in general after joining a new band (after a longer hiatus), and once again falling into the "you've been playing forever so you must know all the tricks and just aren't applying yourself" category that honestly, every pipe band ever has.

I could see the Dojo was a vast resource supporting all kinds of focuses and I needed to be part of this, as well. Well organized, well constructed lessons, well considered subjects. I immediately found it helpful.

I have made some Dojo friends that I've carried onto social media from all over the world, and I love it. Knowing other people with the same struggles and overcoming them together is a truly great feeling. I feel much more capable of and interested in solving my own bagpipe problems. I feel more confident sharing bagpipe knowledge I've learned. And I feel more and more comfortable as a musician each day.

My bagpipes have always been "hard" to play and while I understand the basic principles of how they work, the Dojo has given me tools to troubleshoot and fix things on the fly, like how to know when my drones are taking too much air. How to counter for changes in humidity and elevation (shortly after joining the dojo, I travelled to rural Manitoba for a wedding and had to troubleshoot my pipes on the spot - I wouldn't have been successful I don't think, without the Dojo). It has backfilled all kinds of knowledge I didn't know that I didn't know. Now, I know what to do when they start to get hard to play and I simply follow my four steps, every single time.

Since joining Dojo, I feel far more confident in my music and I feel that I too now experience some of the joy that my music brings to people - I often felt kind of disconnected from my music, now I feel I am part of it and I'm a much more confident piper in my own life and my band because of it. And that makes me feel more fulfilled by my hobby, which makes my life feel more full.

Bagpipes saved my life last year. I suffered a concussion in a car accident and having this to continuously work and focus on, and the Dojo to help me even during the isolation of the pandemic was instrumental in my survival - literally.

I also played a wedding this summer for one of my long time physical therapists and friend. In less than two months, I learned several new tunes and played proudly and enthusiastically at the function, despite having to make last minute changes that week to my pipes (including a new chanter reed and blow stick), and instead of it just being a gig it was an experience and a beautiful memory. Without the confidence I've gained here in knowing I can fix my pipes, it might not have been such a positive experience.

Heather McFarlane, British Columbia, Canada

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