Why would anyone take up the bagpipes? Could it be a strange fetish for tartan? A disturbing obsession with guttural accents? A rebellious tween’s protest against classical music? For me, it was an eclectic mix of all three.
My six year venture into the world of piping was a tumultuous one but one abound with new friendships, unusual discoveries and tartan-wearing. Just as I now begin university as a fresh-faced and somewhat innocent first year, discovering a new world of strange delights and people, my much more gangly 13-year-old self similarly stumbled down the school corridors for the first time.
Having been traumatised by repeat viewings of ‘Mean Girls’, I was utterly terrified about high school. Will I be ostracised for not wearing pink on Wednesdays? Is ‘fetch’ even a thing that people say? Will anyone understand my ‘Mean Girls’ references?
Luckily, I didn’t come close to meeting anyone who was the reincarnation of Regina George. What did unnerve me was the overwhelming diversity of opportunities at high school where every club and sport seemed to be beckon me to join. I could be a hockey player; join the Environment Group; even take up cross-country (that was a mistake)!
But I was adamant that I wouldn’t do one thing: music. A series of disastrous recorder classes in grade four had been seared indelibly into my childhood memory: I was left with a puerile stubbornness that spurned anything that was associated with crotchets, semibreves, beats and finger-flexing.
So how did I come to take up the most notorious of instruments? I wish I could say that I saw the error of my ways, came to realise the absurdity of my prejudice, spurred by an admirable desire to seek out the new and acquire the title of that fashionable adjective, ‘interesting’. Alas, my motivations were not so noble. In truth, it was a tatty flyer picked up near the toilets boasting ‘FREE PIPE LESSONS’ that changed it all. My inner scrooge was aroused: my time had come.
Let it be known – the pipes are a formidable instrument. One must demonstrate mastery of one’s physical and mental self. For an individual with the attention span of a squirrel, it was a laborious task to learn to practice consistently. Not only that, it was a herculean effort to wield an instrument that was almost bigger than my five foot, two inches self.
Missing even a few days of practice was disastrous. l, like Sisyphus, would find myself at the bottom of the hill having to push that boulder all the way back up. Arguably, Sisyphus had it easier has he wasn’t the one trying to blow a bagpipe for half an hour straight, all with the lung capacity of a small lunchbox.
All pipers begin on a ‘chanter’ which is similar to a recorder but with a distinctly kazoo-like sound. *toot* *toot* I’d go. *toot* *toot*. Upon mastery of making baby elephant sounds, you graduated to the ‘goose’. I wish I were kidding. It was like a bagpipe but smaller. Consisting of a large fabric bag attached to a chanter, you squeezed the bag and it made honking sounds. Hence the name.
Then, at last, the bagpipe. Dad was thrilled and I don’t say that ironically. He cried the first time I played with the band: I hope it was because of pride rather than the realisation that a quiet house would be a thing of the past.
Music began to grow on me, and as an individual, I grew myself. Prejudice is born of ignorance and I had looked on in disbelief at all the students who were so passionate about music as to spend hours everyday after school in bands, and concertos or just jamming in the music school. Surely they could be doing something more useful? Then again, I had spent my afternoons watching videos of dogs singing karaoke on YouTube in those days. Bad times.
While the pipes are not regarded as a particularly lyrical instrument, I came to see beauty and wonder of music through those hours spent playing Scotland the Brave and marching around. Music came to be a reprieve from the stress of high school and it is somewhat ironic that I often felt more calm blasting 100 decibel music than I might in the library.
I was enveloped in a close-knit group of fellow tartan lovers where every Tuesday and Friday we, as a band, would religiously convene to practise. It was a beautiful community of people brought together by their ardent passion for music. The pipes, when played well, are a deeply moving instrument. While you may scoff at that (and I would have done so myself if I didn’t know better), the emotive power of the bagpipes comes from when there are many. Picture hundreds upon hundreds of pipers assembled on the steps of the Shrine playing ‘Amazing Grace’ en masse and my tiny 15-year-old self a mere speck in the throng. My spine always shivered when the drummers did their rolls, the enormous bass drums booming like thunder and the snare drums rattling like rain on a tin roof.
As the years have gone by, I have found that I have changed: although I am now somewhat deaf, I’d say that my senses have been enriched. Music introduced me to a world of pleasant reveries, of connection and unspoken understanding. To plunge oneself into a whole new world and community is a terrifying prospect but rarely without its rewards. The thrill of Highland gatherings with its vibrant mix of pipers, drummers, terrier-owners, true Scotsmen and tartan-wearers was a welcome distraction from the drudgery of school life. While I might humbly confess that I look amazing in tartan, it is with no reticence that I proudly call myself a piper.
We can only do ourselves good by going out there into the world and trying something new. With this said, the only question I now ask myself is this: why would anyone not take up the bagpipes?