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Do Hills Get Steeper as One Gets Older?

(or Age and the Learning Curve!)

Reflections on a beginner’s disastrous entry into the world of bagpiping.

My first thought is that approaching 70 is not a good age to start learning a new instrument — in fact it is not a good time to start anything new. It is a time to sit by the fireside with a cup of cocoa and reflect on better times. To be fair, however, I don’t much like cocoa and times are pretty good despite the aches. There is also a lot of evidence that learning a new skill (such as a language or an instrument) helps protect against the various mental deteriorations which can afflict us later in life.

I have been trying to remember why I decided on the bagpipes, but am not sure I know why I did. Certainly I have always liked doing things different from the run-of-the-mill (not a good reason in itself). I like folk music of all sorts and have enjoyed listening to reels and jigs (although usually played on the fiddle). I also have a vague memory of hearing pipes (probably Northumbrian) in a folk club in Leicester in the early 60s. I had the vague idea of singing and accompanying myself on the pipes. All in all not very inspiring reasons to take up what is an extremely difficult instrument.

Having made the decision to pipe, what to get? I knew that I didn’t particularly want to go down the GHB route and fancied something bellows blown, to allow the singing! To be fair, listening to the various audio clips of instruments, available on the internet, I was a bit overwhelmed by the choice. I didn’t want to invest a significant amount of money in an instrument which could just be a passing fancy and so some three years ago I bought a set of polypenco smallpipes an instruction book and a book of tunes. I also invested in a couple of CDs. Well, to be honest, I struggled. I struggled to get the drones in tune (I ended up cutting about a centimetre off one of the drones so I could get it to tune to A). I struggled to understand why what I played from the tune books didn’t sound anything like what I heard on the CD (either in quality or quantity!), and I struggled to find a repertoire that I liked.

Back to the internet to look for a teacher. Naively, I assumed that all bagpipe teachers are created equal. My lessons, for I did persevere, usually started with a quarter of an hour of “Why don’t you get some proper pipes?” i.e. the GHB, and all I ever got in the way of instruction were sheets and sheets of exercises in gracing. Now, while I accept that gracing is important, for me the pipes are about the music rather than a technical exercise in gracing which was implied by that teacher. Very discouraged, my practicing became more erratic and eventually the pipes lay unused in a cupboard.

My next venture (least said soonest mended) was a second hand set of “Mediaeval” pipes from a French maker obtained via e-bay. These were beautifully made but so loud that “she who must be…” wouldn’t let me play them in the house!

I almost gave up at this stage but decided to join the Bagpipe Society. This was the first really positive thing that had happened in my bagpipe journey. Lots of information, too much at times, and people willing to help.

At about this time I was given, as a birthday present, tickets to the Blowout and there I met Sean Jones. He lives in the same part of the country as me and so I was able to go to see him to discuss pipes. Fortunately he had, second hand, a set of Dudy bagpipes (I guess a sort of mediaeval smallpipe), which I was able to buy. This was the second positive bagpipe thing which had happened to me. The third good thing was the purchase of Bernard Boulager’s method. The exercises in this book contain some really pretty tunes and so seem less like hard work but unfortunately, they are written for instruments in A and my Dudy is in D. Luckily I have a free music typesetting programme “MuseScore” so I can type in the exercises and transpose them. Finally (I hope not finally!), I was lucky enough to discover “Jack Campin’s Nine Note Tunebook” in ABC format on the internet. This is a huge collection of tunes from all over the world with a range of an octave plus one note. Not all are playable on my pipes but many are. The advantage of ABC format is that it takes little space on the computer and my MuseScore programme easily converts it to “tadpoles on telegraph wires”.

Things are definitely on the up for me at the moment. I manage to practice every day (I even take my pipes on holiday and they often generate huge interest). I have played in public several times (in addition to the inevitable Scotland the Brave at Burns Night!!) and the response has been very encouraging. I suppose the questions I need to ask myself now are:

What would I have done differently?

The answer to that is “almost everything”. I should have started much, much younger when my brain could learn things more easily. I should have listened much more to pipers and decided what music I wanted to play and what was appropriate to play on the pipes. I should have joined the Society and met with makers and players before buying my pipes.

Where now? What do I need next?

My biggest difficulty now is with gracings, not so much playing them, although I profess no great facility and I confine myself to simpler forms and in places where they seem more natural, but more deciding where are they musically appropriate. It would help me greatly if we could have a series (in The Chanter for example) where a tune is introduced and then over a period of time both gracings and variations are brought in to develop it, rather like Boulanger does for some tunes in his book. I have the Bagpipe Society Book of Irish Music and to have some more of these tunes developed in this way would benefit me greatly. I have been told listening to music being played is the best way to learn this but to my untutored ear everything seems so fast and often I am unable to decide just what gracing is being used.

So my journey with my pipes started on a very steep uphill slope. I am not sure that it is any less steep now but perhaps I am just a little bit fitter. To adopt some directional advice given to a motorist in the Emerald Isle, my best advice to myself is:

“If I were you Sir, I wouldn’t start from here!”