Opening the Doorway

by Ian Whitelaw

Years ago, I found myself on a platform waiting to play in an invitational piobaireachd event in Calgary, Alberta. I had done my homework and felt completely ready to play any of the six tunes that were required. I felt confident and sure. What I wasn't ready for however was that once I got the pipe in tune and began to play, I had the strangest sensation in my body and got completely "lost" inside the tune. It probably helped me tremendously that the tune I was asked to play was Patrick Mor's masterpiece "Lament for the Children". Athletes say that when they are "in the zone" (connected) they find that things slow down. The baseball becomes huge and easier to hit. This is but one example. Obviously, I was "in the zone" and had a personal, emotional and unforgettable moment in time – just writing these words opens the gates of my own personal experience. The sound and vibration of the pipe seemed to melt into the very essence of my being. It was almost "hypnotic" – I was on an invisible staircase "somewhere, out there". Each note represented yet another step down into the abyss of music, sound and the place where "pure truth" lives and breathes. I thought about the death of the "children". I thought about what this must have meant to them. I thought about what it would perhaps, mean to someone in the listening audience. I didn't think about what my fingers were doing – I was at that moment, simply a vessel for the channeling of music in its purest form on the bagpipe. Unfortunately the tune ended much too soon - I was playing the last line of the crunluath doubling and that meant the piece was virtually over and I would have to conclude my journey.

Coming out of that experience was amazing for me – I had connected to a power greater than myself and I had just been a vessel for creation and emotion – almost like being in church - where the masses go to find that universal power – the "all that is". I found mine on that platform. The prize was of little consequence because there is no prize in this world that would equal the emotion and level of connection that I experienced.

I shared this very personal and intimate moment now because I feel that the push to make the connection is being lost somewhere in the morass of competitions by the young pipers - both here in the United States and around the world. Pipers are judged and categorized by the number and value of the prizes they have won. Until recently, having a woman thought of as a potential candidate for "winning it all" was not possible. There is far too much stress and attention focused on winning rather than musicians being encouraged to simply "play their best" –being encouraged and even taught to think of how they can connect with the spirits of music rather than the technical gymnastics that seem to be rewarded in the competitive arenas. It is certain that at the end of the day, the audience remembers the musician that stirred them, allowed them to think, allowed them to connect in their own way – the prize has no meaning to them.

Everything that I do in music is all about having my spirit stirred and to stir those who hear me play. Some music makes us do. Some music makes us think. I have long been interested in bagpipe music, piobaireachd in particular because of the profound effect it has upon me. I believe it also affects the listener – it encourages thought. Often times, there seems to be no end to our level of thinking. Music, in all its glory helps us to bring life to our stories – sometimes it is the story of the tune itself in harmony with the notes that are played. The bagpipe by its very nature is just the instrument to bring forth our story. The drones (tenor and bass) serve as the male essence and the pipe chanter is the soprano - telling the story or more to the point – singing the story as the female essence. In days long ago, it was the role of the women in the collective to tell the stories and to sing the songs, as this was their gift.

Spirit touches me every time I play the bagpipes -whether I am playing the practice chanter or the great pipe. I am touched by the piece, the sound, the vibration of the drones and the sheer beauty of the sound of the notes. On a practical note, most pipers merely "tolerate" the practice chanter – giving no heed to the out of tune nature this instrument is, sadly – famous for. I have heard the expression – "it's only a practice chanter"... I counsel my students to "always be in a state of tuning" – what I mean by this is to actually "wind" the chanter – make sure it is in perfect tune and blow it accordingly to bring the majestic sound of "just a practice chanter" to their musical world to actually make the connection to spirit. The great singers achieve this with their beautiful voices – singing with passion, emotion, rhythm and grace. Even the simplest of melodies – even "Scots Wha Hae" can sound beautiful played on the chanter. The complexity of the great highland bagpipe (which includes bringing her into tune) makes things challenging for any piper.

One of the phrases I have heard the most in my years of piping is the one that says "he has a great ear" – or sometimes just the opposite. What then, is a "great ear"?

My answer to this would be simply that it is someone who asked the right questions, learned the art and craft of the instrument and how it works, got some direction from a "source" and took the time and care to "get inside the notes" – connect with the instrument to allow her to sing. When we are able to focus upon only the music – things always go best. Everything we do becomes "fun". This word is key to success. The number of students I have had the opportunity to teach, work with or just help tune up for an event – I have lost count. However what I have never lost track of is the big smile, the "wonderful performance" – that "Ah Ha" moment they

have when everything works as it should. The pipe must be easy. The reeds must be efficient. The bag (sheepskin of course) must be absolutely airtight and the instrument itself must be well maintained. Polished inner bores, tight joints – the gamut of things that all contribute to "buying a ticket to spirit". I maintain that once the pipe is right and the musician is "one" with the instrument, there is no limit to the level of connection that can be achieved – regardless of talent or ability. There is an old saying that goes like this: "The Universe knows no bad notes" – sometimes that is a stretch for all of us but we all have the ability to overlook a little "something" – if the connection to spirit is there.

The term "it's only grade 4" is an insult to all young pipers and should be erased from the glossary of terms. The young piper can make the connection and should be encouraged to do so by any means necessary. The "universe" doesn't make the distinction between the beginner piper and the master – it is simply mathematics and time – one is learning and the other has put in the work and the time. The connection – the nurturing of the "moment" is the same.

I have performed in weddings and funerals for many years and thoroughly enjoy both types of events. However, by far, my favorite is playing for memorial services – the bagpipe lends itself to pure emotion and provides the ability to grieve. I have experienced countless numbers of individuals – male and female alike – tears streaming down their faces – shaking my hand in gratitude for helping them truly grieve the loss of their loved one. I put as much attention to these events as I do competing on the world stages and my desire to connect as a musician and as someone who is looking for "something greater than myself" remains my top priority. I would encourage teachers and the young pipers to do the same.

Playing the bagpipe is a commitment. It is the king of the mountain of the woodwind family. It takes great dedication and many lonely hours of practice. What it also takes is the will, the intent and the willingness to go to every length to connect to that "source" (which is of course), is found in all things.

I have found it especially in the great highland bagpipe.