Sounding the Part of the Piper

Folks love the pomp of the decked out piper in full regalia, don’t they. Sometimes the image of the performing piper looking the part in a well pressed kilt and flags on the drone cords is enough for an appreciative audience—even if it sounds like he/she is slaughtering goats on the bagpipe. The visuals seem to influence what is heard. If you scrape it down to the audience of knowledgeable bagpipers, what kind of visuals start making you think a performance is pretty darn good? Are there visuals that influence the way you hear the sound?

My recent video post of Evelyn Glennie’s TED talk got me thinking about perceptions and how what we see changes what we hear. We all know it’s important to “look professional” particularly when a pipe band marches to the competition line. A smartly dressed and deported band “means business” and is sure to deliver. Right? At least that’s the way it’s supposed to go.

I’ve wanted to play a smart set of gleaming silver mounted drones since I was a wee tadger. I grew up seeing the best pipers playing those “premium” sets and they delivered for sure. I wanted to be just like them. A top soloist looked the part with glistening silver and ivory. I have to admit, I used to be a little swayed by the solo piper who walked up with prime set of shiny pipes. I fully expected to be blown away or at least impressed by what I heard. A beautiful pipe means a beautiful sound, right? I know that logically, it is about the actual performance, but still. Maybe that’s because once upon a time, those sets were reserved as “prize pipes” for those who earned them. Today, anyone can acquire a pimped-out set of drones with the finest engraving if they’re willing to write the check.

But, as Glennie says, listening is a full experience and all your perceptions must come into play before you can judge a musical performance. I recently acquired a set of coveted David Atherton bagpipes from their original owner. They are as plain as plain can be—artificial ivory mounts and ferules that are not even antiqued! But boy, do they deliver. An immediate quality is that they make you listen. Whatever jewelry is on your shoulder is suddenly unimportant. My American consumerist avarice notwithstanding, I think I am being forced to see all that bling for what it is and focus on what really matters—making good music and “sounding the part.”

  • There’s something about the mystique of a really old set, and even though I play a set from the late 1940’s, a WWI vintage set with half silver ivory would make me drool. It’s easy to forget the most important part of the pipes is the sound, and in that department my pipes are more than adequate. I’d also like to get a really nice BMW convertible, but my Honda does a more than acceptable job of getting me where I need to go.

  • Jim

    I do like old pipes. Where have they been in the world and who has played them? Does the old aged wood make a difference in the sound? I have a few sets and own three that were made by Dave Atherton. Although many pipers online say it is all about the sound, the number of different options available from all makers tell me that how the pipes look are also very important.

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