When I was in college, I was forced to take several courses that I REALLY didn’t want to take. One of those courses were to fill a fine arts elective. I was in band in high school, but didn’t want to join a concert band because I frankly didn’t have time to attend rehearsals, so I figured I would take a cake course. “World Music Appreciation” was the title of the course.
For the next semester, I spent most of the lectures with my head bobbing up and down like I had a fish on the line in an effort to stay awake for the duration. The class was nothing like I thought it would be. The professor was a white haired bearded gentlemen with a soft spoken monotonic speech. I felt like I was listening to a DJ on the smooth jazz radio station at 3 in the morning. He droned on about the subtle variances in gong music from the Philippines or how the percussive nature of Indian belly dancing told a story with each dance since each step, slap, or hit had a different meaning.
My performance in the class was mediocre at best. My test scores were a solid B- to C+ and my once thought cake class was turning into a potential GPA buster. Towards the end of the semester, I was able to bring my overall grade up to a more respectable range, knowing that my final grade would rely on the final exam.
Approximately 3 weeks before Finals week, the TA’s passed out the parameters for the final.
“The Final Exam for this class will not be in the traditional paper test format. You will have one of three options. You could attend an ethnic music concert and write a paper. You may research an ethnic music style, and write a paper, or you may learn to play, and perform before the class, a song on an ethnic music instrument.”
Hmmmmm……I really don’t want to try and find a local concert and then write a paper. BORING!!! Research? No thanks. But the learning to play a song on an instrument intrigued me. I already played the saxophone, tuba, and guitar. How hard could it be to learn one song? But who do I know who has a unique ethnic instrument?
My wife and I were dating at the time. Her family has a very rich Scottish/Irish heritage. So much so that her mother, my now mother in law, had a set of family heirloom bagpipes in her possession. I wasn’t planning on touching those since if someone happened to them I would be a dead man. But she did have a learner’s set that she had gotten in the hopes that one of her children would learn how to play. I asked if I could borrow them for a couple of weeks and she agreed. This would be great. I would learn the fingerings, squeak out Amazing Grace and collect my A. Not so much.
Holy crap this thing is complicated to play! Everything I read stated that it was very difficult to learn how to play without the assistance of an instructor, which in that short period of time I was interested in obtaining for this one class. The instrument itself comprises of 3 drones, each of which have their own individual reed in them that must be sounded. Then there’s the chanter, which is the part that has the holes for making the notes, also with it’s own reed, plus the blowpipe to inflate the bag.
In my short experience with it, I was never able to get all 4 reeds playing at the same time. I did however manage to learn the basic fingerings and squeak out Amazing Grace on a practice chanter for the class. Beginning students of the bagpipes start out on the practice chanter for approximately the first 6 months to a year of instruction before making the transition to the full set of bagpipes. The explanation I found was that the instrument itself takes so much concentration and focus to operate in producing and steady and good quality tone that the fingerings and notes have to be engrained into muscle memory. When the day of the final arrived, I got my A and gave the bagpipes back to their rightful owner.
Fast forward to a few months ago…..
I work on a long term memory care unit. The residents we have become a second family. When one of them passes away, it’s hard on everyone. We had been trying to develop a plan to put in place to help honor the passing of our residents, kind of like a mini-funeral if you will. We would conduct a short service on the unit and have a gathering of everyone to pay final respects as the body is escorted to the morgue. The families of the deceased really appreciated the effort and respect that we showed for the guys, so we thought, “Is there anything more we can do?”
So then one afternoon, several of us were sitting in the nurse’s station talking about it, when someone “piped up” (pardon the pun) and said, “Hey! Wouldn’t it be cool if someone learned how to play the bagpipes and played Amazing Grace or something as we are escorting off the unit to the morgue?”
That’s when I opened my big mouth…. (shocking right?)
“Ya know, that’s a really good idea, but the bagpipes are a REALLY hard instrument to learn how to play, not to mention there is only one volume that they can be played at, and they’re really loud!” I said.
They all turned and looked at me….. “How do you know?”
I then told them the story about the college course and my brief experimentation with them. The response I got was a half cocked smile and a facial expression that appeared to say ‘What are you waiting for?’ I quickly dismissed the idea and the conversation moved on. The original staff member then began pricing bagpipes online and we were back to the topic. That afternoon, I thought nothing of it.
Or so I thought……
A few weeks had passed and I had forgotten completely about the conversation about the bagpipes. My oldest daughter had recently celebrated her 4th birthday and she not so subtly began reminding me that we had told her that we would put her in dance classes when she was 4 years old. Since she was about 2, she fell in love with the Nutcracker ballet. So much to the point that she would try to imitate the dancers in our living room, wearing a tulle tutu, jumping around on a yoga mat. My mother in law always wanted to see the girls do either Irish or Highland Dancing. I was unsure about doing Irish dancing simply because the mounting popularity and the whole concept seemed very overwhelming. I didn’t know much about Highland Dancing, but I was drawn by the seemingly niche nature of it. A quick Google search later, and I found a Pipe and Drum band in the nearby major metropolitan area that offered lessons for it at a reasonable price. I further explored the Lessons tab of the groups website and came to the bagpipe section.
“Want to learn the bagpipes or drums? Lessons are free for band members.”
Free you say? You have my attention.
I approached the subject of Highland Dancing vs. Ballet to my daughter. She was confused and concerned. A quick YouTube search pulled up hundreds of videos to show her what it was all about. Her eyes got wide and her mouth agape.
“Daddy…..do you see those dresses those girls are wearing????? I want to do that dancing!!!!”
“Yes dear, it’s called a kilt.”
“I want a kilt!!!!!”
Never mind about the technical aspects of the dance itself, this kid is only concerned about the outfit. Whatever floats her boat I guess. After several email exchanges, we were enrolled. Her in dance, and I in bagpipe. The next week we all loaded up into the family car and made the trip up to the big city for our first lessons. I was hooked, and so was she.
Now here we are two months later from our first visit. My daughter has learned the basic steps of Highland Dance and is starting to learn her first performance set. I have been doing work on the practice chanter mainly. I found a good deal on a set of used bagpipes online that I picked up. I’m hoping to be able to make the transition to them soon. I also have begun learning my first performance set.
Thus far it has been an exciting and fun filled journey that we have been embarking on. In the evenings I will pull out my practice chanter and run through my exercises while darling daughter will grab a kitchen chair for balance and practice her high kicks and pas de basques. The toddler, who is just starting to walk, will hold onto the coffee table and attempt to follow along. My wife watches with a beaming smile on her face to see her whole family taking part in their heritage. It will be interesting to see where this new venture takes us.