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A WEE HISTORY OF PIPING

EARLY HISTORY

The pipes have a long, long history extending into the distant past. There is evidence it all began in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Perhaps you may be able to still hear that nasal skirl of the snake charmer, calling over the centuries from a forgotten land. Certainly, the Romans picked them up, and they marched with their legions as they pushed their imperial frontiers into, not only the Middle East, but northern Europe and the wilds of the borders of Caledonia, ancient Scotland. There is a figure of a piper carved on Hadrian’s Wall. As the centuries past, the pipes became a folk instrument. You see them depicted in various forms in many of the paintings of the great Dutch masters, trying to preserve in their time, a disappearing past.

THE BRITISH MILITARY

The British, in turn, made pipes a vanguard instrument as their armies swept the world, advancing their security and trading interests and building a world-wide commercial empire. After the civil wars in Scotland were finally put down and the culture of the Scots, including the pipes, temporarily suppressed, the British military found a way of using these former warlike renegades. Piping battalions became part of every British regiment. It was largely here that the pipes’ association with the drums became a consistent feature of pipe bands. Pipe music became part of the shock and awe component of military campaigns, and indeed, much of what we see in traditional Highland regalia as well as band and soloist competition rules come directly from the centuries of tradition with the British military. You will see much of it as you watch the contestants or the passing pipe bands on the march. Many veterans and active police and fire fighters are attracted to the military traditions and culture of pipe bands. Some bands around the world are composed entirely of active duty officers.

WHERE DOES THE MUSIC COME FROM?

Many of the traditional tunes you hear played by soloists and bands were written by pipe majors in British military bands serving all over the world from the battle of Waterloo to the battle of the Somme, and many wars after. One of the most evocative forms is called piobaireachd (pronounced “P-broch”). It began centuries ago in Scotland, before any of the music was written down. It was taught by singing and memorizing patterns. Many were composed to commemorate great war leaders or the loss of companions fallen in battle. These are slow, sonorous compositions, that many feel, show off the qualities of the instrument best. You may hear parts of a few of these during the solo competition Saturday morning.

PIPING TODAY

Today piping is enjoying a kind of world-wide renaissance, as people of all ages flock to the instrument. Even though the art is centuries old, and at home in the hills and glens of rural villages and backwaters of the world, the very best players and bands have improved their craft and music to the point that they match that of any classical orchestra or jazz group around today. These few have found their way into the concert halls of Lincoln Center in New York City or the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

HOW DOES A BAGPIPE WORK?

BASIC STRUCTURE OF A BAGPIPE

The bagpipe is basically an air-tight, flexible bag, attached to a short reeded instrument with holes in it called a “chanter”. Using various fingerings, this is where the notes are played. The rods sticking up from the bag with the elaborate wood turnings and silver/nickel decorations are called the “drones.” These are what make the hum you hear before the chanter kicks in and during the tune. The chanter has a double reed, like a clarinet, that vibrates when air is forced through it from the bag. Likewise, each of the drones has a single reed that vibrates with the force of air.

HOW THE BAGPIPE IS PLAYED

The bagpipe is played by squeezing the bag. Because the whole thing is an open system, with air constantly escaping from the chanter and the drones, air must be replenished by consistent blowing into the bag. In addition to keeping all four reeds going, keeping consistent pressure in the bag is an art in itself and takes time and practice to learn. As this is a primitive instrument, there are no stops or other devices to help the player perform. Everything is manual and very subject to humidity, cold and warm temperatures, as well as other weather conditions. Maintaining and looking after a bagpipe is like having a good relationship with a partner: it takes a lot of patience, consistent attention, and can be just as lovely and at times contentious.

Interested in learning the bagpipes?

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