Numbered among my numerous shortcomings is this: I play the bagpipes. I did mention this about a year ago so those of you who have been paying attention may already be aware of this. What I did not stress enough in my previous mention, however, is that I am not very good.
I am not ashamed of this (though I’m not particularly proud of it, either) because, as my erstwhile bagpipe teacher once told me, “bagpipes are an instrument that too many people are happy to play badly.” And I freely admit to being one of those people.
The reason is, despite the apparent simplicity of the bagpipes (it’s basically a flute with only nine notes) the reality is alarmingly more complex. For starters, you are doing several unrelated things at once—blowing frantically into a pipe to keep the bag inflated, squeezing said bag with your left arm and trying to keep it from falling to the floor as you simultaneously balance several large and unwieldy sticks on your shoulder—and none of them in time to the music. The bagpipes are not, to put it mildly, an instrument for people who are poor at multi-tasking. Then, assuming you have enough brain reserves left to even realize you are clutching a flute in your hands (we pipers call that a chanter) you have to play a tune. And unlike a normal flute, you are not actually blowing into it, which gives you a measure of control, but are trying to tame a continually flowing torrent of air and wrestle it into a tune.
This is why anyone who can get any sound out of it more melodious than the shriek of a startled cat is doing better than average. So, for someone of my meager talents, playing the bagpipes is akin to watching dogs dance: it’s not that they do it well, but that they can do it at all.
To be fair, I used to be pretty good. I took lessons for years in the US and when I moved to the UK I joined a pipe band. I didn’t stick out as a really crap played but I struggled to keep up and—knowing I was the weak link—I voluntarily quit to avoid putting them in the awkward position of having to drum me out. After that, I packed the pipes away because, face it, if you are not actually in a band then there is no reason to annoy your neighbors by playing the pipes all afternoon.
No one has ever said to me, “You play the pipes? Get them and do a few tunes for us.” Nor are they ever likely to. In fact, threatening to play the pipes is an outstanding way of encouraging unwanted guests to become suddenly cognizant of the hour: “Is that the time? Holy smokes, we need to go home. Now!”
But two things happened recently that enticed me to pull the pipes out of metaphorical mothballs: our long over-due double-glazed windows were finally put in and, in a moment of drunken optimism, I volunteered to play for a Scottish-themed day at one of the centers my wife manages. (It is worth noting that my wife is not the one who asked me to volunteer; we were at her team Christmas party and one of her colleagues happened to mention that she wished she knew someone who played the pipes so they could talk them into playing for their Scottish Day and—this would be just after I finished my rum-infused Christmas pudding—I gleefully allowed myself to be conscripted.)
And so, every day since I have been tuning up the pipes, flexing my arm muscles, exercising my lung capacity and testing the resilience of the double-glazed windows. (Incidentally, the new windows work a treat; no one I have seen walking outside during my practice sessions has yet looked around with that “What? Is someone strangling a pig?” look on their face. Previously, you could hear the din all the way out in the car park.)
It has not been an easy month. There were many steep challenges to overcome—both physical and mental—before getting to the point where I can now squeeze out Amazing Grace in a more-or-less tuneful fashion. (We’re talking bagpipes here; ‘tune’ is a relatively abstract concept.) And, having climbed to even this low rung of the ladder, I think it would be a shame to slide back down, which I surely would if I packed the pipes away and forgot about them. So perhaps I will keep them out, where I can pick them up periodically and play a tune for my own amusement (assuming the double-glazing holds up).
First, however, I need to get through Scottish-Day. I just hope they appreciate dancing dogs.
Now here's a REAL piper!