Rick Wallis: A Bucket List Obsession

I can't cite a definitive moment that brought me to take up the pipes. It's been a long time, feeling that piping is something I should be part of.

While talking to a friend who was on his way to Scotland, I said I had always wanted to learn the bagpipes. He referred me to his friend who gave lessons and was the Pipe Major of our local band. I called, talked for a bit, ordered a practice chanter and set up a time to start my first lessons.

After meeting my new instructor at my first lesson, we talked about the pipe band he led. I had seen them many times at parades over the years, and being part of that seemed like a goal that would take time, but would be fun. The band was celebrating its 100th anniversary with a big dinner, which my wife and I attended. We met all the band members and thought, "This is for me". Playing for others at weddings or other occasions would also be something I might do. But what I really wanted was to be able to make music with this great sounding instrument.

It also brought me a feeling of being closer to my ancestors, who emigrated from Scotland to Canada 150 years ago.

At first, I seemed to be making pretty rapid progress. I knew how to read music, and according to my instructor, could sight read well. But as things went along, I always thought, yes, I am playing, and the tunes are recognizable, but rhythmically, things seem off. Embellishments were sort of a jumble of fingers, and I did not understand how they were supposed to sound, other than they had to fit ahead of the note. Tuning was something that someone else had to do for me. When I joined the band a year after my first lesson, things got even more hectic.

I started the pipes after an early retirement. Over my lifetime, I have tried many different things that I classify as hobbies or just as endeavors that give me great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Tennis, target shooting, fly fishing, hiking, wood and metal working, restoration of Victorian buildings and antique automobiles are all pretty varied things that I enjoy, and of which, I became pretty proficient. The pipes are part of that "Bucket List".

Once I start on a path to learn something new and enjoyable, there is no stopping me. My wife says I become obsessed.

Fast forward to spring of 2020. A band mate sent a link to a YouTube video about the Dojo. I looked further into the Dojo, and then jumped into the trial membership offer. Andrew and the other instructors provide a total learning environment that works extremely well over the internet. In short order, one almost forgets that we are not in the same room.

It has been the best thing I have done in my quest to become a competent practitioner of this ancient instrument.

It took me a couple weeks to finally commit to a membership, even though it was initially only a trial, because once I make a commitment, it's for the long term.

The Dojo has been fantastic. I wish I had started here at the same time as my first private lessons. The instructors are both great players and great teachers. They are patient with students at every level, and seem to understand what each is experiencing in their attempts to learn. The group lessons offer ample opportunity for everyone to join in playing along with the instructor as well as playing individually and getting very detailed help in understanding how to improve. Students become friends with each other and are very complimentary of others' success. We have fun every day.

I now understand how the pipes can to be played to produce that great sound, and I am willing to work to accomplish that.

While I have a ways to go, the pipes are not a mystery anymore. I am much closer to being able to analyze what changes occur on a daily basis with the pipes and take corrective action.

The Dojo method actually breaks down into easily understandable steps, the various components of the instrument and how making changes affects the playability and sound of the pipes. I am developing the ability make judgements about how to tune based on objective criteria, not just a trial and mostly error series of attempts at tuning.

The Dojo method teaches the structure of all the various idioms of pipe music. Once one understands those structures, the rhythms fall into place, and it is easier to predict what will happen in any given tune.

My finger technique really was a complete shambles. Embellishments played in the wrong order, crushed and with poor grace notes, etc. I could, but won't go on. The Dojo instructors put me on the proper path to what is known as Scale Navigation. It is still a work in progress, but progress none the less. It is a challenge, but satisfying to play something like a birl and make it sing.

There is no "good enough", the standard is "This is the way it should be done, here's how you too can do it, let's do it together".

And, it happens. More fun.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Dojo came into my life at about the same time. I have so far avoided one and embraced the other. With time available because other activities were curtailed, the Dojo has been a major focus of the last year. I feel I am doing something not just enjoyable, though difficult, for what is worthwhile that comes too easily, but the experience of learning and learning from some of the best, is what keeps life interesting.

Rick Wallis, Massachusetts, United States

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