Posted on | April 12, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | 2 Comments
You show up at band rehearsal and the Pipe Major is doling out new chanter reeds. Oh boy! You get yours and pop it in but then the practice session continues for a while and it is finally, mercifully over and you’re drenched in sweat, your sides hurt, and your abdominal muscles feel like they’re ready to snap. Did you actually eek out any music during this time? Is this normal? Maybe. Many factors play into this scenario. We make excuses like “the reed is new, it’ll lighten up,” or “I need to check my bag for leaks,” or something to that effect. But a major factor that contributes to this experience is summed up in two words: Physical fitness.
Is there an instrument that is more physically taxing than Highland bagpipes? It’s part of the charm, for sure. Good tonal production on the bagpipe requires no small amount of physical stamina and exertion. Being a stronger bagpiper is not just about stronger fingers and better quality playing, it is about being a stronger bagpiper, literally.
Solutions to the scenario described above can only take one of two paths, all other things being equal: 1. You can get an easier reed and thus make the experience of playing less of a chore; or 2. You can be physically stronger and thus make the experience of playing less of a chore. There are many projects here at Pipehacker that get you hacking the mechanics of your instrument, but now it’s time to hack the mechanics of your body.
Yes, yes, I know, no one wants to talk about exercise and working out. You’re thinking, “What’s that got to do with piping? I want to hear how to play better D throws and how to express my strathspeys!” Physical exercise is not something that is often talked about (at all) when learning the bagpipes. We talk a lot about practice routines and finger workouts, quality of tone and music, but what about physical conditioning? How many pipers are barely able to get through an MSR or long piobaireachd—musically—because physically playing the instrument is a struggle? It’s distracting to work like that and we have a lot to think about when we’re trying to produce good music. Sure, the physical part of playing is going to have a lot to do with the air efficiency of your instrument, the relative strength of your reeds, and the quality of your bagpipe set up. But physical strength and conditioning play as big a part.
You’ll notice that many of the best bagpipers on the planet are fairly big guys. That’s no accident. The bigger you are the more weight you have to throw behind your movement, and the greater strength you are likely to have over someone of smaller stature. That additional strength plays a big part in your ability to produce a quality sound on the instrument with ease and thus, make it super easy to focus more on the music.
Those of us not blessed with that kind of natural power can certainly build it. That’s what exercise is all about. That’s why P90X and Insanity and all those other high-intensity interval training programs (HIIT) are so popular. We all realize that physical fitness is important to our overall well being.
I have always struggled with consistent strong blowing on the bagpipe. (Seriously, who hasn’t?) But through all the workouts and practice regimens I’ve used to make that better, there was still a missing element to keep things improving at a satisfactory pace. So I enrolled in a local cross-fit, HIIT class in January and I now realize what element was missing. I was in piss-poor shape. I am in general good health but, man o man. I can now say, however, almost four months later, that I feel fantastic and have noticed an order of magnitude difference when I play bagpipes. What’s changed? I would say that the most important change has been in the way I breathe. Those intense workouts forced me to breathe deeper and with more rhythm and urgency than any amount of piping will do. Besides just feeling good and having better core strength, it is the single thing I think that is behind an enhanced ability to produce consistent quality tone on the bagpipe. This workout class has been the best money spent on piping in a while. A worthy investment, I say.
Like building the quality of your crunluaths, physical fitness is about starting simply and slowly and then increasing intensity as you go, not expecting large transformations in the beginning, and having the confidence that the work is going to pay off.
Here is a 30 minute workout anyone can do in their living room at zero cost. It is similar to many of the longer cross-fit type workouts you see and is designed to work the core. I’ll rename it the “Piper’s Power Workout.” Start here and have faith!
Piper’s Power Workout
1. Warm up for five to eight minutes. Do whatever you like to get your heart rate up. Jumping jacks, jog in place, or a combination of different things. Then do each of the following, one right after the other.
2. Jungle squats (1 minute)
3. Push ups (1 minute)
4. Reverse V lunges (1 minute)
5. Chair dips (1 minute)
6. Cardio (2 minutes; see no. 1 above)
7. Abdominal crunches, sit-ups, or leg lifts (1 minute)
8. Take a 30 second break.
Repeat steps 2 through 8. Repeat again. Done.
You can google these exercises for full descriptions on how to do them properly. This link will take you through each exercise step-by-step.
Is it hard to motivate yourself for formal exercise? You bet. But would you be more motivated if you knew that exercise would improve your playing and make you a better bagpiper? It is without a doubt that better physical fitness and conditioning will contribute to your ability to produce better tone on your instrument and allow you to hold fatigue at bay and play better music.
Oh, and being a stronger bagpiper also means good nutrition. So, as a bonus, here is a vitamin- and protein-packed, all-natural smoothie that is sure to keep your energy up. Everything you need is in it. Drink this every day and, along with the workout above, that new gut-buster chanter reed will beg for mercy. You’re welcome.
PIPER’S POWER SMOOTHIE
Makes enough for your favorite Imperial pint glass.
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup buckwheat groats
1/2-3/4 cup 2% Fage greek yogurt (or any low-fat Greek yogurt, make sure it’s Greek and not Greek-style)
1/2-whole banana (depending on how thick you want it)
2 tbsp molasses
2-3 cups baby spinach leaves
1/2 cups frozen blueberries or a few frozen blackberries (I like the blackberries better.)
3 ice cubes or 1 cup crushed ice
Soak a bunch of the buckwheat in orange juice or water in the fridge overnight to soften. Put all ingredients in a blender and blend well for about 2 minutes. Drink immediately.
Posted on | March 7, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | 4 Comments
The first round of the Bagadou championships was held in Brest, Brittany a couple of weeks ago. An amazing event. The contest features the top level bagad ensembles performing for about ten minutes to a relatively large audience by the sound of it. Viewers of the online live stream numbered near 2,000 at one point. I quipped on Facebook during the event: “two words for organizers of premier pipe band competitions, ‘indoors’ and ‘stage.’”
Pipers and drummers talk a lot about making pipe band competitions more appealing to an audience and so we also talk about things like musical content and “concert formations.” Some competitions like to think they’re being innovative with those things and also change it up with format tweaks and think that is all so great. But while it is important to think differently, those things are not germane to the main issue: making the experience of a pipe band competition/performance something relevant and meaningful to both performer and audience. Once you create something that achieves that, all the rest (format, rules, structure, etc.) takes care of itself. Sometimes it is as simple as those two things—a stage indoors—at the ground level of creating a meaningful experience that folks want to perform in and watch. The rest just takes care of itself. Read more
Posted on | March 6, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | 1 Comment
Wednesday at Noon (EST) is the time to tune in to the Dojo Universe show! Click the image to watch Wednesday’s live show or click here to listen to past webcasts. This week: The “bag” in bagpipes. The seasons are changing and it is a good time to start fresh with a new pipe bag. But where do you start? Here’s the line up:
Pros and cons
There are plenty of pipe bag choices out there. What are the pros and cons of each? We’ll take a look at all the features of the different types of bags available to pipers.
Choosing a pipe bag
Do you stick with what you have? Hide or synthetic? How do you know it’s time to change bags? What kind of sound will you get with different choices. We’ll talk about what you need to consider when making your choice.
Seasoning or kitty litter? Each type of moisture control has its advantages and drawbacks. What kind of work are going to have to do? What are the different systems out there?
Dojo U Updates
How is Dojo U going so far? What have some of the highlights been? Tune in to hear about it!
Posted on | March 1, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | 2 Comments
Wherein Pipehacker purchases and test drives assorted bagpipe junk from ebay—so you don’t have to.
If you spend any time sorting through the bagpipe offerings on Ebay you’ve seen them. The strange and wonderful variety of “off-brand” drone reeds from just about every continent on Earth. Serious pipers will simply give these goofy entries a passing glance without ever, in a gazillion years, putting them in their drones. But if you were to really outfit yourself from things on Ebay, where would you begin? Well, for a first go let’s take Synthetic Drone Reeds for Great Sound.
The Ebay entry for these drone reeds make a bold claim, right there in their name. Like an offer from the devil himself. Where do I sign Mr. Lucifer? Firstly, let me say that the Ebay entry claimed the reeds were coming from Canada. As you can see from the label though, these reeds have been through the Arabian peninsula on their way to the USA. Here, in all its glory, is the package as it arrived.
Wow, it even came with a chanter reed to get me up and running! The chips were free I think. These drone reeds are not unlike Achiltibuie Highland Reed’s Balance Tone Drone Reeds, those yellow contraptions that have a lot of unique design elements. Not unique enough apparently, because some enterprising Pakistani manufacturer thought the ideas were good too. Here is Highland Reed’s Balance Tone:
And here are the Great Sound reeds.
Sweet mercy. It’s almost like I’m looking at “good” and “evil” versions. Like these red ones were shat from the bowels of Beelzebub himself. These “de’il red” reeds have the same back tuning slide mechanism and white plug “on/off” switch features as the Balance Tone. They even have the moisture grooves, which are designed to move condensing moisture away from the tongue. All clever concepts. Let’s see if the reds make use of them and live up to their promise.
Yes, I am going to put these demonspawn reeds into my Atherton MacDougals and, though uneager, into my mouth. Isn’t this fun? These reeds are made of a plastic that almost seems like modeling wax. Let’s hope they don’t melt when I play them and ruin my stocks.
The first step is to take off the mummy wrappings on the tenons of these things and replace it with actual hemp.
Getting the reeds going was a challenge as I expected. They took air, so I adjusted the bridle slightly, then they shut off. The white nose plug was no help on these. Turning the plug was either an “on” or “off” affair. They either played or they didn’t. There was no sweet spot. They take so much air to play it’s like someone poked a hole in my lung. They are so hard to keep steady and my arm was moving so much that I might as well be playing an accordion. It was a true effort and I was spent after a little while of trying to make them work. Thus, they are the drone reeds you will be condemned to play at Satan’s unholy ceilidh for all eternity should you not live well and do right by your fellow man. Fair warning, pipers.
Once I was able to get the reeds going, I attempted to “tune” them. Here is where they ended up tuning.
What you don’t see is that the top joint of my bass is so far up it’s about to fall off. I would fit right in with the Hades & District Pipe Band.
I suppose this is where I comment on the “sound.” There are some sounds that should never exist in the world. The strange bleats of a deformed two-headed calf before it is put down is one that comes to mind. These reeds are another. They have a deep mellow sound akin to the wailing of damned spirits being punished in horrible ways by three-eyed, scaly demons. Listen to the drones alone.
I have goosebumps. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the “Sword Dance of the Damned.”
By all that is holy, I think the reeds were draining my soul. I now have to disassemble my drones and take them to a priest for exorcism. There is only one possible path for these reeds and that is to send them back into the hellfire pit from whence they came. Synthetic Drone Reeds for Great Sound…in Hell!
Posted on | February 25, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | No Comments
I don’t know why, but the demise of the City of Chicago Pipe Band leaves me feeling extra sad for American bagpiping. Sure, I’ve seen good bands come and go in my time, but this hits at a particular time when US piping and drumming seemed to be on a general upswing in quality and activity. Chicago area piping and drumming has been in a constant state of flux as anyone who has been in this game a while knows. It’s a state of flux that we here in the eastern seaboard have also experienced over the years for sure. As a result, there’s a bunch of folks here in the east that are just nodding their heads in quiet dismay over COC’s fate. Many of us have “been there” and if you’ve been piping and drumming on the east coast for any length of time, witnessing this circumstance is nothing new. What is most depressing, however, is the complete scuttling of the “a rising tide lifts all boats” aphorism. I happen to believe that if enough good piping collects it can spark a chain reaction that will sustain itself and spark others. It certainly looked like that was starting to happen starting in 2010 when the United States saw it’s fourth Grade 1 band emerge with COC. Then it was three. Now it is two. In the whole USA. And it’s only the start of 2013, a mere three years later.
I’ve written about the challenges of keeping a band going before. But the fact that the sort of thing that happened with City of Chicago keeps happening at all just mystifies and saddens me. Before COC arrived, we had Oran Mor in 2009, and City of Washington in 1999, and LA Scots in 1997. Must a another decade pass before the next quality band makes the scene in a consistent way? In the last few years, we’ve seen eastern US bands take the Grade 3 and the Novice Juvenile prize at the Worlds. We’ve seen US bands score well in all other grades against Scottish and Irish competition. The quality is there but the “critical mass” that builds never feeds a stable reaction but instead melts down before it starts. That’s a problem, and it is a bigger problem than placing blame on “leadership,” communication, and all the other excuses that seem to destroy pipe bands. For any of us who care about the art of bagpipes and drums, petty issues have to take a back seat to the larger ones of growing the music, the community, and the creative enterprise of quality musical output. It’s something we can all agree on, yes? Then why must it be so hard to stay together and make it happen?
Posted on | February 22, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | No Comments
May the blessings of G.S. McLennan be upon YouTube user ffmpad for he/she has uploaded video from this past Saturday’s Metro Cup. Alas, I missed it this year but the internet provides…
Here are the medley performances of Chris Armstrong and Angus MacColl who were third and first respectively. There could not be two more distinct presentations.
Posted on | February 14, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | 1 Comment
Is it just me or is there an unusual bounty of cool (recent) solo piping to be had over the internet these days? I’m not talking about past things on YouTube and whatnot (though that is good… sometimes).
It used to be (way back in the old days, oh, like a year or two ago) that one had to wait until well after the event was over for someone to upload their surreptitious video to YouTube. You could get somewhat of a sense of the event by the random assortment of competitors. Casual video is a poor way to record bagpiping though and the sound is often terrible. You had to be satisfied with whatever appeared. Slowly, the time between the finish of the event and the first video began to shrink until we are where we are now—seeing footage of events as they happen in real time, or as close as you can get.
Starting with the World Pipe Band Championships, August saw the Grade 1 streamed live by the BBC. October saw the first live stream of the Glenfiddich championships from Blair Castle, what is considered the “worlds” of solo piping. January saw Dojo University live stream the solo competitions from Winter Storm in Kansas City, MO. Just this past weekend, the BC Piper’s Society live-streamed their indoor knockout. And now, intrepid spectator Andy Graham has posted the audio of the contestants from this past weekend’s City of Edinburgh Pipe Band’s Wheel of Fortune solo indoor.
Aside from all of these events featuring great piping from a variety of performers, the formats on display for the world to experience are just as varied. The Glenfiddich was hardcore traditional competitive solo bagpiping featuring the best the world has to offer. The US Gold Medal light music was a mix of idioms in a medley format featuring a well blended list of North Americans. The BC knockout also had a medley format that featured a mix of tunes on display played by pipers most of us have never met (unless that is your home region). The Wheel of Fortune contest, held just this past Saturday, seemed a relaxed, free form atmosphere with the performances to match. The sets are chosen in part by a spin of the “wheel” which selects things such as tune size, composer, idiom, etc. Competitors then have to pull out what they know and serve it up. The result is a fun listen to some of the best players in the world playing sets of classic two-parted 6/8s, a bunch of little jigs, hot tunes by the likes of Gordon Duncan, or big tunes by historic composers. A far cry from the overdone MSR format.
Once upon a time, we only heard about these varied events and formats and read their results from various sources. They were distant things of interest to us pipers. Then we saw and heard footage. Now we’re experiencing them first hand. Distance be damned.
This varied mix of formats bodes well. Not just for the events themselves, who dare to innovate solo piping and push things in new directions, but also for interested listeners who may take those ideas further. I think one of the side benefits to this kind of internet exposure is that your event doesn’t have to be the Glenfiddich to justify bringing it to the bagpiping masses. Events big and small are able to put enjoyable piping on display and give performers a chance to, well, perform to a wider audience.
No longer locked into hearing only the players in their local regions, pipers all over the globe can listen to what piping is like out in the wild, in action, as it’s happening. And solo piping is best experienced live, isn’t it? Recordings and videos just don’t offer the same experience. There’s something about not being able to hit “pause” to get a drink during a live event that forces your senses to take note of what’s going on. The interaction between perceiver and the perceived has a different dynamic.
The wider exposure offered by “webcasting” for events big and small can have a tremendous viral effect as we know. But far from folks becoming inspired to make a new silly cat video, my hope would be that inspiration would generate interest in new piping events. New ideas and formats for competitions, as well as high-quality traditional formats, exposed to a wider audience, create positive ripples in the quality and content of what we see in other, lesser known venues. It’s this activity that supports a healthy, living tradition. Let’s hope it continues.
Posted on | February 8, 2013 | by Vince Janoski | No Comments
Home Rule was a powerful political idea that stood at the heart of much of the social turmoil in Ireland from about the 1860s to 1921, fueling passions that led to things such as the Easter uprising and the partition of Northern Ireland from the whole of Ireland itself. A fiddle setting of the tune appears in the hand of the great J. Scott Skinner, the strathspey king himself, in his 1904 collection of music “The Harp and Claymore.” The bottom of the handwritten score of the ms. page bears his note: “These Irish Reels are full of character but unless played with peculiar bowing they lose their vim and national character.”
I certainly hope I’ve retained some of the original vim in the arrangement here. Download the score and listen to the podcast for more background and a rendition on the bagpipe.