Over many years of teaching summer schools and workshops, I’ve come across some sad things in piping. The saddest is women who can’t blow their pipes. What’s sadder is that often it’s not their fault.
I see this pattern play out again and again: we go around the table at a summer school to see what the students would like to work on. A 45-year-old woman who took up the pipes three years ago just wants to be able to get all the way through a set of three 4/4 marches without, as she says, “puffing out.” She’s explored every possibility: maybe her bag is too big, her blowstick is too long, she doesn’t practice enough, she holds her pipes wrong. Maybe, she thinks, she’s just not suited to be a piper because she’s too weak or frail, or just doesn’t “have it.”
Pretty soon we get the pipes out. When it’s her turn, she fills the bag, then stands there with a look on her face like she’s about to bungee jump against her will. There is a momentary pause while she takes one more deep breath. Then she strikes in, hitches the bag up, puts her bottom hand on the chanter, gives a mighty heave, and out comes an E.
She begins to play. Sounds of struggle fill the room: there are chokes, slurs, sputters, memory lapses and lip noises. She finally gets to the final bars of the tune, but while the fingers wiggle there are no chanter sounds, only drones.
She stops and gives me a welcome-to-my-life look, waiting for the oft-heard judgement that she just has to “keep practicing hard and be patient!”
I walk over, remove the pipe chanter from its stock and blow it in my mouth. The reed is harder than mine. It’s harder than anything I would give my strapping teenage boy students. “This reed,” I say, “is way, way, way too hard for you.”
One of two things now happens. Some of these ladies will immediately beam and say, “Thank God, that’s what I’ve been saying for months!” I like these ladies because they have been thinking for themselves. We are immediate allies.
However, some disagree with me. “Well, I don’t know,” they say. “Sometimes I’m okay. My pipe major says it should be okay for me. I think I just need to persevere.” These ladies will need a bit more convincing. They trust their pipe major — which can be a good thing — but this pipe major is unwittingly misleading them and they are following not-so-merrily along. He may not realize it, but he’s driving these eager players away, slowly but surely.
Whatever the player believes, I’m going to try to make this person’s life more pleasant, if she will let me.
When I grab my utility knife to begin surgery on their gut-buster chanter reed, they gasp. I tell them I’m going to make this reed much easier. The pipe major’s disciple is terrified. I barge forward. I assure her that she can tell her P/M that the piping school instructor said this was the right thing to do, and that the P/M can email me for more information if they want. I’m not going to give in. I need to do this. I begin to shave cane.
The more progressive lady reacts differently though. She watches me with glee as I have at her reed. I ask: what will your pipe major think? “I don’t care,” she says. Good. Now we’re more than allies. We’re rebel insurgents.
One of the ironic twists in this process is that usually when I’m finished with their current reed, or have given them a new one at the proper strength, they blow the snot out of it so it squeaks, squawks and growls on low G. The enlightened ladies say, “That’s much better. I know I’m blowing too hard now, but I’ll get used to it.”
The pipe major’s disciples say, “No way, that’s way too easy. I can’t blow that. It needs to be harder.” It will take more time, but they’ll come around. I tell them I’m not changing anything. I want them to play that reed just like that for three days and then we’ll talk again later in the week.
Almost invariably, by the end of the week, these ladies are in love with me because I’ve changed their piping lives. (Or so I like to think.)
Unfortunately, I still often go away discouraged, because I know these women will have a fight on their hands with a pipe major who thinks everyone in his band needs to blow like a man. If this is his way of driving women away from pipe bands and piping, I can assure him he’s doing a great job.
Come on, guys. Let’s smarten up.