The passing of the great player and gentleman Donald MacPherson in the Spring made for much conversation on the quality of this piper’s near miraculous instrument. I might guess that in no other musical discipline did the quality of one man’s sound so far exceed all others so consistently for so long, particularly in the days of cane and sheepskin. Very few players made performing look so effortless. No one else equalled his record for winning the premier prizes at the major gatherings over such a long time.
Donald MacPherson recorded a superb CD of piobaireachd some years ago, when he was in his 80s. Barnaby Brown, who produced the recording at his studio in Sardinia, recounts that Donald spent more time that week getting his pipes going than actually recording the tracks. Barnaby says that once the pipes were ready, the recording process went smoothly and efficiently.
There is a big lesson here. It is one that the top players in piping already know, though maybe none as well as Donald MacPherson did. That lesson is: the better the bagpipe, the better the playing. If your bagpipe is brilliant, your playing level soars by at least 25% over your playing on a mediocre instrument. Maybe more.
Too many pipers practice hard and intelligently and then give 25% of it away by playing on a substandard instrument that is too hard to blow, may be unsteady, isn’t in tune or isn’t comfortable. This is a terrible use of practice time. Worse yet, it makes unpleasant noises. There are few redeeming features to an unpleasant bagpipe. Yet too many pipers accept it as the normal life of a piper. It affects our reputation as musicians.
This lesson can be applied even to the higher levels of piping, to bagpipes most people would say are superb. All of the top pipers I know would agree that all it takes is one substandard element — a tenor drone reed that takes a bit too much air, a chanter reed that is a wee bit unstable on one or two notes, a bass drone that doesn’t quite lock in, or a set of drones that may be steady but lacks magic — and these players don’t play as well as they are capable. So, rather than practice harder to make up that 25%, the good players stop practicing and work on their pipes, relentlessly and without mercy, just like Donald MacPherson did in Sardinia and probably all of his life.
Trust me: it can be maddening. I can’t tell you how many times in 45 years I’ve thought, “This is damn crazy what I’m doing. Why can’t I get this right? I’m quitting this ridiculous beast. That’s it! I’m done!!!”
When I was competing, I might have trouble sleeping at night at the height of the season because I couldn’t get my pipes right and because I knew how absolutely crucial the best bagpipe was to the music I wanted to play and to competition success.
It’s a great era in which to play pipes. The products are superb. New pipes are well made, and there are lots of great old pipes to play. Chanters are the best ever. There is a huge variety of excellent synthetic drone reeds. The cane used in chanter reeds is better than I can remember, and I can’t recall a time when it was easier (or should I say less difficult) to get a good reed going.
There is very little reason to be satisfied with mediocre sound — unless you really don’t care.
Bagpipe tone can be hobby in itself and you need to treat it as such. It is well worth the time and effort, because nothing makes you play better or enjoy playing more than a great bagpipe.
It’s your most important practice tool.