End Drone: How I got hooked on pipesBy:
Well, John asked me if I would like to write a piece for End Drone, and it seems that a little tradition has been established to write about how you got hooked on pipes, or some tangent of piping that you’re particularly connected with. So I considered this and realised that the way I first met the instrument has shaped what I do with my pipes now.
My first contact with bagpipes was just over a
decade ago when visiting Shibden Hall near Halifax during
a Tudor themed weekend. There, in the dimly lit great
hall, was a friendly chap telling the stories of the myriad of
unfamiliar instruments behind him and keeping an
audience of all ages fascinated. Then he began to play the
pipes, and soon enough had that very audience abandoning
inhibitions and dancing. Great stuff, I thought, and
decided I would look out for similar in the future. I
suppose it would be proper to write here in Chanter that it
was the sound of the bagpipes that had got me interested, but I don’t really think that was the case. It was the tales and the history connected with the instrument that I’d liked the most. Over the next year or so, I sought out early music events, preferring the ones where the performers told anecdotes between tunes to more formal concerts. I came across the musician I’d seen at Shibden a few more times too, it turned out to be Richard York, who is now a very good friend of mine and the person my wife can blame
for getting me hooked on bagpipes.
It was about five years from my initial experience of the pipes before I actually acquired my first set, but in the meantime had already begun to note anecdotes about the instruments and look out for bagpiper carvings in churches. So when I actually got my hands on a set I was fairly well equipped to tell people all about them, I just needed to learn to play them.
Though I’m not a professional musician, I am in the fortunate position of being able to play my bagpipes at work perhaps even more than I do at home. I work in museum education, mainly doing living history with me in role as various people from the past. Wherever possible I try to work in an opportunity to play bagpipes, so that can be with 12-year-olds exploring medieval religion with a pilgrim and his pipes, or throwing some bransle dancing into the Tudor workshops.
One of our most popular school sessions at the museum explores the Great Fire
of London, with me donning a periwig to become Samuel Pepys. My version of the diarist is still a music lover, but rather than playing a flageolet he plays a set of smallpipes. Pepys was at least familiar with the pipes and wrote in the Diary on May 17th 1661 “to our dinner we had a fellow play well upon the bagpipes and whistle like a bird exceeding well, and I had a fancy to learn to whistle as he did”. I once had a try at this piping and whistling at the same time with cacophonous consequences.
Maybe I’m being a bit self-indulgent in fitting bagpiping into my job, but then it does get people intrigued and presents new ways to explore tales from history. Many people can feel turned off by the complex politics, technology or just the dates of history, but music is something to which everyone can relate. Unfamiliar, (and loud), sounds capture attention, and visitors to events tell me that the sound of bagpipes playing as they enter can really evoke the past for them. It’s at this point that I can start telling the stories, everything from folk tales connected to pipers or the tunes, or exploring music in religion, or social gatherings, or whatever.
So my bagpipes really have become an important tool in my storytelling and teaching too. I love the sound of the bagpipes, I really do, but perhaps if I had just come to bagpiping from the music then maybe I could be missing all those stories that I enjoy which relate to the lore of our instrument.