Novelty Anyone?

by Ian Whitelaw

This instrument of ours, the great highland bagpipe is truly one of a kind. It probably has some connection to our personality - otherwise, we would all be guitar or piano players…Bagpipes possess a truly unique "character" which is somehow reflected through us in the actual playing. All the things about us are reflected - how we are feeling - whether we feel tired, lively, happy, sad, frustrated, lonely, in love, conflicted, passionate - the list is endless. Our music is reflected and influenced by all of these things through the pipe. The question is, how is it received by the "court of public opinion", the all-knowing, ever criticizing, ever judging politically correct arm of society? Whether we choose to admit it or not, this matters to us. The nature of my commentary is within the realm of this place.

Southern California is a great place to be and to live. The whole "Celtic" thing became very chic, especially after the blockbuster films - "Braveheart" and "Titanic". All those years spent trying to get noticed, heard and considered finally seemed worthwhile and the floodgates to endless gigs and opportunities opened. For all intents and purposes, this was good. Or, was it?

If someone asked for an opinion on the bagpipe, what kind of answer would be forthcoming? Going over the "same old same old" would not be appropriate at this writing - we have heard them all…There is a reason the answers come as they do - the opinions and perceptions are the direct result of their personal experience of hearing the sound and music of the bagpipe. This is true, even in the film industry. In fact, my own personal journey has brought forth some fairly unusual questions from the different musical directors and composers. One of the most famous and highly regarded composers in the industry who is an academy award winner does not like the bagpipe one bit - too loud, obnoxious and not "studio friendly" enough to use in his films. The result of this opinion? The Ulienn pipe was used and used rather extensively at that. His idea of the bagpipe, its nature, its characteristics, its vibe came from those who played for him previously. He has since had a chance, perhaps, to re-evaluate his opinion since listening to some new material. He is not alone in the industry. There are many out there who feel the same way. Sadly, the result of this opinion is that either the great highland bagpipe does not get used or the quality of the music is below acceptable standards - all because they just do not know better and think this is pretty much, the normal way of the pipe. Personally, I have been asked by several directors to play again - and asked the question-"What kind of bagpipe is that?" Most have never heard a bagpipe tuned properly or played as it ought to be and this creates a sense of confusion. Their opinions by themselves are not important than those of anyone else but the difference is that the music that gets played in the films eventually gets listened to by a large number of the population. We all have our own personal memories of films that we have experienced with bagpipes in them, literally cringing all the while. Has anyone noticed that we never cringe at the sound of a violin or a piano?

Think about it. How often have you heard "Moonlight Sonata", the most beautiful of pieces in a film, television show, whatever the source, and noticed that the piano was far out of tune, music out of time and that someone was "thumping" out the notes on the keyboard rather than utilizing the "touch and skill" to create the aura and texture of this incredible tune. Answer? Never. Not in a lifetime. There is a reason for this. The reason is that the "other" instruments have developed "standards". It is true that these instruments are generally perceived differently than the bagpipes, sometimes with a touch of "snobbery" or elitism mixed in. This is a bit unfortunate. Someone once made a comment that their school only teaches "symphonic" instruments after being asked if bagpipes were taught or considered. This response is more typical than we would like to believe and while this person needs a better education about the "real" bagpipes, it is important to recognize the reality of this perception.

The disciplines that exist within the fabric of the "other" instruments serve to keep the standards at the highest level. This means that there is very little room out there for the inexperienced player in the public forum. Of course, we will listen to "little Jimmy" or "little Jenny" at their school recital or Christmas show doing their very best at the piano, sawing away on the violin or noodling along on the trumpet. This is "as it should be". Playing in public for a fee at a wedding, funeral or special occasion, however, is quite another thing. It is true that because of the difficulty factor associated with the bagpipe, there is a certain sense of achievement and pride involved when the young player is able to play a tune in full without error or glitch. Just being able to hold the pipe on the shoulder and to play a couple of tunes is not enough to provide license to "go forth and play". Legend has it that it takes at least seven years to make a piper. This, in today's environment is laughable. It is more like 7 months. This does not help to change the opinion of the "court of public opinion" at all. It keeps the "novelty" nametag firmly attached to our instrument.

So, having said this, how then, do we alter this perception and not take the instrument away or the interest? There are many ways to achieve this:
1) Teachers of this instrument get a formal and recognized teaching credential from a music academy or association - such as the Ontario Pipers or the BC Pipers, just to name two. Teachers have always had incredible impact on the world and in ancient times, their positions were held in the highest regard in the "collective" and were paid well for their knowledge. This is true in music, academics, sports or whatever. Truthfully, they spend more time with our children than do we, as parents and their work is of great value. The teacher could have the greatest impact upon the player by giving his or her permission to "go forth and play".

2) Create apprenticeships in the study and craft of the bagpipe. This would create an atmosphere of learning and provide a sense of learning through progressive studies. In addition to learning the scales and the notes, there would be more attention directed toward learning about the musicians of old, of their lives, their loves, their influences and their effect upon the music world. Any music student who did not take the time to learn everything there was to learn of Mozart would not be doing justice to his own craft. Being able to have an understanding of how Mozart became "Mozart" is absolutely vital in order to "go where he went" with our own music. It is safe to say that most of us know that Beethoven seemed very miserable and anti-social (I suspect deafness would create a sense of irritability) but very few know whether he won any gold medals, clasps or competed in any way. In addition, we know that Mozart was a bit crazy, very eccentric and of course, simply brilliant (as were they all) and we know his music. Rock stars, without a doubt are some of the most highly trained and skilled musicians on the planet - Elton John (AKA Reginald Dwight) spent years at the Royal Academy of music in London. Freddie Mercury (of Queen) was a student of opera, Whitney Houston sang gospel music with her Mother and Sheryl Crow was a music teacher, of all things before she achieved her fame. Madonna spent several years studying dance in New York. The point is that these people spent years learning everything there was to learn about their craft in order to get "into" their art. It is safe to say that some fairly extensive teaching went into the "soup" and I am certain their teachers would be held in high regard for their patience and dedication to the pursuit of truth.

3) Create venues in which to play. In other words, the playing of the instrument certainly should be for each other but in a very controlled and private setting. Even the practice ought to be indoors and out of sight from the public. This would serve to protect the integrity of the bagpipe and create an atmosphere of entertaining for the student player and be of interest to the listeners, who could also be students and could benefit from the experience. Experience is a key word in this equation: being in the experience enough to be truly in it, intimate, sophisticated relationship does not occur until it is deeply ingrained within us. This does not happen after 6 months of playing. It takes years to develop this. Dancers cannot dance publicly without experience or until they have some background. Artists cannot "show" their work until they have a record of work. All of this takes time. Because of all of this, the artists are remembered for their music, their lives, and their passions - not their prizes. (If any). Other professions regulate themselves. We, in the piping fraternity simply do not. We regulate our competitive arenas but not the public ones. These are in desperate need of our attention.

4) Instill a sense of reverence, almost fear for the instrument and the music into the student thereby creating the need of excellence and its pursuit. Just imagine creating a bagpipe version of "The Red Violin" - this was an instrument that was held in such high regard it developed a virtual reality and personality of its own. To play this violin took great skill and honor. This "sense" does not have a place in our current world of bagpipes.

Having said all of the above, it seems reasonable that some conclusion should be drawn after some simple analysis of the truths that exist within our world of bagpipes. How many of you the reader or you the teacher know about Mozart, Beethoven or Picassos? How many know about the history of the MacCrimmon family? Perhaps, the history of the bagpipe itself? How about the history of Canntaireachd? Is any of this part of the "lesson" curriculum? If the answer is no, it needs to change. The musicians that are aspiring for greatness will reach their goals of excellence with a much different mindset armed with the knowledge "behind the curtain" instead of the scales and grace notes that seem to always get the most attention and play.

Perhaps a different perspective would be in order: Let's say two people have been asked to deliver a speech written by John F. Kennedy. Who would do a better job of this: the one who memorized the words perfectly and deliberately or the one who learned everything about John himself, about public speaking and everything about the passions that affect how the words are delivered and how they affect the listener? Any thoughts? The second speaker would get my interest.

Our students deserve to learn about the old pipers, the old musicians like Mozart, Beethoven and even the old artists like Picassos and Van Gogh - just to learn about their lives and to learn about "them" so that the path on which they traveled can be used to benefit the new path of music. Students of music are artisans in the purest form. Artisans serve an extremely important part in the culture of humankind - music is the language of the universe and is something we all understand. What we must understand is that our responsibility is to the instrument and to those who went before us. This means that the sound and the style of the music that is played out in public, at weddings, funerals and any other event be the absolute best it can be. Sound, technique, timing, the works. No more cringing, wincing or embarrassing moments. Encourage the student but keep the secret - until it is ready to tell its own story.