You’re never too old ... (part 2)


As a Franciscan Friar I am often seen in Canterbury in my habit, but as yet not playing my pipes, people would think ‘what on earth is that tune he is murdering’ or ‘another busker trying the medieval costume approach’.

Ray Brown’s article in the last ‘Chanter’ forced me to get typing. A lot of his story I could identify with but above all, he is enjoying the challenge and so am I. He may have thought that his start in the piping world left a lot to be desired and that approaching 70 years old might be ‘not a good age to start’ but I am looking at 70 from the other side and I am so glad to have started now.

It’s never too late! Retiring from the Mastership of an Almshouse in Canterbury at 70 and being asked what I would like as a retirement gift I said (in hope) ‘a set of Smallpipes please’.

While I was based at our friary in Northumberland I had heard the Northumbrian pipes a number of times – our village postman played them several times at friary functions. I didn’t think I could master them, and I had looked online and really liked the sound of a set of Alto Bavarian pipes. As I never thought I would play with others, the pipes being in F didn’t worry me. In fact, I was so lacking in knowledge I didn’t know there would be a problem until I met my tutor! As he put it ‘in this country pipes in F are not companionable’.

The Bagpipe Society was a great help and put me in contact with Gerry and Mary O’Brien in Ashford, Kent only a few miles away. After my first efforts on my own this was the best step I could have made. I am slow in learning, which I put down to being a ‘mature learner!’ they, (mainly Gerry) are immensely patient.

The pipes by Toru Sonoda are a lovely sound (listen on the internet - The two drones are tuneable to bring them up from F&C to G&D and Gerry is slowly giving me more tunes than just happen to be in G. But not having played any instrument for the last 60 years I am having to learn almost everything from scratch. One good thing is that, having sung with other brothers in friaries mostly unaccompanied for years, I sing the tunes to myself to get a feeling what they might sound like before my first faltering steps with them on the pipes. Bernard Boulanger’s book has been a help, but for me the one to one tuition has been the way forward. Gerry is gradually educating my ears to hear when I have the pressure wrong, my fingers for consistent positioning (such tiny holes) and my brain to get me to relax into the music. We have even played duets – something I never even dreamed about.

Listening to Gerry & Mary playing I know I have a long way to go, they have decades start on me, but getting me into a few tunes has given me great encouragement, the ornamentations and gracings that Ray seemed concerned with can, for me, come later.

My wish is that I had started years ago, but I didn’t, but I haven’t had so much enjoyment and challenge for years. Where these first steps will lead I really don’t know. I’ve looked at ‘Blowout’ but it coincides with our Annual Brothers Chapter. The ABC is where I gave my first performance at the evening social, a few glasses of wine and two beers relaxed me enough to get through three tunes without disaster.

So I join with Ray and would encourage anyone at whatever age to take up the pipes for your own enjoyment and to give pleasure to others.

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