Category Archives: Bagpipes

Tying In a New Sheepskin Bagpipe Bag

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The stuff

My nearly two-years-old sheepskin bagpipe bag has begun to leak. I discovered leakage accidentally when I removed the bag cover for some reason. The horror! I got the bag, my first sheepskin, in Glasgow from James C. Begg himself, who transferred my 2007 Naill DN2 pipes from the Gannaway hide bag into the new bag at his basement shop in May 2012. Actually, his assistant did the work while Begg and I chatted over a pint at a nearby pub, tended – strangely enough – by a rather fetching Virginian lass in her 20s.

Where was I? Oh yeah – I’d heard a wide range of longevity predictions for my bag: from 6 months (from a member of the Scottish Power Pipe Band) to 5 years (from a Grade 2 piper working on the 5th year of his first sheepskin bag, which – when I asked to see it – looked like a leather-esque, old road-killed goose. So I had no idea what to expect or when I’d need to get a new one. And there would not be any other type of bag, since the sheepskin had eclipsed the sound and feel of the synthetic and Gannaway hide bags I’d used prior.

It’s a long story that shouldn’t be told here, but suffice it to say that I had a “spare” sheepskin bag sitting around like so much stiff white leathery cardboard. Its time, I knew, would come. But I kept putting it off, even though I had a new set of Naill stocks with engraved silver I wanted to put in it. I was going to do it last summer, but chickened out. Then I was hoping to do it this Spring Break, but this long weekend I found some spare time and thought, “Why not? What’s the worst thing that could happen? I’ll botch the job and inadvertently strangle myself with artificial sinew?”

I found some instructions on Keith Bowes’ website; Bowes is the “other” sheepskin bag maker in Scotland, next to Begg, but Begg’s new website did away with the instruction his old site had. You can download the PDF instructions from Bowes’ site, which were really helpful. I also used Andrew Lenz’s helpful instructions from his awesome website.

Still, the task was daunting. The first step is really the one that terrified me the most before I began, and which had for so long kept me from initiating the activity: cutting holes in the bag seemed like sacrilege, not to mention potentially catastrophic. Instructions were cryptic, but I took the plunge and made the first cut, thinking of “Doc Martin” and his hemophobia-induced surgical squeamishness. I used my fading bag as a model, and the holes Begg’s man had cut while we drank Smithwick’s nearby were little starry affairs, with residual blue ballpoint marks outlining the points.

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8-lines radiating from the center out one-half inch

After cutting all the stock holes with my super-sharp Exacto Knife, following Bowes’ measuring directions, which worked out perfectly in the end, the next step was to get the center tenor stock loaded. Bowes’ instructions tell you to use a hammer to slightly enlarge the bass stock hole and stick the tenor stock through it and into position, but I didn’t want to enlarge the bass hole for fear of ripping the bag. So I crammed the tenor stock through the chanter stock opening, and did not use any Vaseline or dish soap or any other lubricant. My hands still hurt from passing that stock.

Once inside the bag, it wasn’t too tough to get the ferrule into position to emerge through the starry hole. I positioned the bag on the table so the grooved end of the stock rested flat on the table and held the bag on either side of the stock and pushed it down until about midway down the stock. Then it became a matter of finessing the stock so the groove was – as Bowes’ site instructs – about 1/3″ below the cut. I took this to mean below the lowest part of the cut, and not the tip of the starry points (which were 1/2″ long).

Here’s where it got tough. Having wrapped about 30 feet of artificial sinew on the dowel I’d made, and putting it under my feet, I followed Bowes’ instructions carefully. But manipulating the bag so I could wrap the sinew around the groove and pull it tight enough proved tricky. The bag, for one, was stiff and I was afraid to be rough with it. Once I started working the bag, though, I figured out that I had to reform the bag so I could grab a hold of the stock in order to get the wraps of sinew around the groove. But I was still too easy with it: once I’d made one wrap in the groove and put the loop under the next wrap, I was afraid the sinew might cut the sheepskin so I didn’t pull it tightly enough. So I ended up with 8 wraps of sinew and a stock that easily twisted in the bag. Lenz’s instructions tell you that if this happens, you must redo it. Arg! As I was struggling to take the sinew off I thought, “Why don’t I just wrap over this since it’s already in the bag and I can tighten it up with new wraps?” That’s what I did. I hope it wasn’t a mistake. When I was finished, I had a stock that was tied into the correct spot in the bag, and it didn’t budge.

The next stocks (outside tenor, then, bass, then blowpipe) got a little easier, aside from the outside tenor’s hole ripping slightly, making it hard to keep the groove from coming clear through the starry hole. I struggled with this for a while before putting a screw clamp over the star points to hold the stock where it needed to be and then wrap it and tie it off.

I followed the chanter stock instructions as closely as I could from Bowes’ instructions and from looking at my existing bag. But it still didn’t end up looking quite the same as either. And, perhaps fatefully, I didn’t put any “foreign” substance in the seam groove. We’ll see if it works once I get the bag seasoned and airtight.

Below is a sequence of photos from my first attempt at tying in a new bag:

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Exacto Knife end pressing into the groove of the stock, 1/3″ inch below the hole edge

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Killiecrankie

John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, died here in July 1689

Claver’s Stone

Just got back from Scotland, and am working on several projects related to the trip. But I wanted to post this photo that Leslie took of me playing “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee” at the spot he died after leading the first successful Jacobite uprising against the British at the Battle of Killicrankie in July 1689.

Don’t let the blue sky fool you: this was one of three days in more than two weeks that we saw sun.


Skype Pipe

I’ve been wondering if Patrick Og is rolling in his grave…

MacCrimmon Cairn at Boreraig, Isle of Skye, Scotland

MacCrimmon Cairn at Boreraig, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Living in a relative bagpiping wasteland, and not having access to decent in-person instruction, online lessons using Skype have allowed me to get first-class tuition with a top teacher and player (Bruce Gandy). Many of the more computer-literate teachers now offer lessons over the Web, and from where I sit here in Boise, Idaho, it’s a great thing despite the wild departure from the MacCrimmon school of yore.

This virtual schooling has some obvious drawbacks, though: with student and instructor remote from one another, it is impossible to get tactile feedback on bagpipe setup. In my case, as a relatively new player, this is the biggest lack in the Skype format since Bruce can’t test my setup himself and see if the struggles I’m having are purely my own or if my equipment could be optimized to make it more of a musical instrument and less of a grueling workout.  Bandwidth is another potential issue: Skype requires high-speed Internet to pass the sound and images cleanly between teacher and student. Add to this the cost of a decent external microphone (see  below), and scheduling issues caused by radical time zone differences, and online lessons can be challenging.

But the rewards are clearly more than worth it, at least for this student. The New York Times recently did a story about online music lessons (in which they highlighted a doctor studying the GHB), the gist of which was that it has led to a sort of renaissance in people learning to play instruments. For me, and others I know who use this method, the greatest benefit is having a highly skilled instructor listen carefully to our performances and offer detailed constructive criticism. The other very helpful element in this virtual tuition environment is file transfer: if I’m trying to learn a new piobaireachd, Bruce can send me, during our Skype lesson, a variety of recordings and settings of the piece so that I have a helpful reference to refer to between lessons. Similarly, I can email him a recording of my progress on the tune, which we can listen to during the lesson, with Bruce providing feedback throughout.

Bruce Gandy offers Skype bagpipe instructionI’ve been a woodwind musician for over 40 years, with a fairly extensive classical and jazz education. Starting on the pipes about four years ago, my progress prior to Skypeing with Bruce Gandy had been sporadic and often frustrating. With my musical background I was able to advance quickly to a certain level, but the unique difficulties of GHB music – both ceol beag and ceol mor – pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I was treading water in a turbulent sea of taorluaths and regularly engaging in ritual sacrifices of unsuspecting Strathspeys. With Skype lessons, the waters have calmed a bit, and the wall preventing my progress has begun to crumble (although Bruce would be a better judge of this than I!). For those without access to in-person instruction Skype has been a godsend.

Technical recommendations:

  • High-speed Internet connection: I have used a 12Mbps DSL connection and a 50Mbps cable connection with excellent results.
  • Skype: there are other online video-conferencing applications (such as Facetime, which only works between Mac computers), but Skype is the clear leader and runs on both PCs and Macs. You can download it for free, and the connection is over the Internet so it is “free” as well (of course you have to pay for your Internet service; mine runs about $50 US per month).
  • Webcam: you will need a computer with a good webcam. Many now have them built into the computer, but you can get a decent USB webcam for under $30 US and clip it right onto your monitor or laptop screen.
  • Microphone: although most computers have internal microphones, adjusting the sound levels for the bagpipe can be very challenging. The instructor will want the best signal possible, so an external USB microphone is almost required. A popular choice among Skypeing bagpipe tech geek students is the Blue Yeti, at about $100 US.

What’s Going On

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so I thought I’d just jot down a bit of an update on what I’m doing with the old pipes.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Part of the reason I haven’t posted anything is that I’ve been practicing a lot. It all started when I went to bagpipe camp last summer. I’d wanted to go to the Coeur d’Alene Summer School of Piping and Drumming since I heard about it in the first month I started on the practice chanter, back in 2007. Things finally worked out to do it in 2011, and it was incredible. I think this school has been going on for over 40 years, and its location in Coeur d’Alene makes it a spectacular place to be. It was total immersion in piping for a week, culminating in competition at the Spokane Highland Games. In addition to the lengthy daily classes, most evenings feature recitals from the awesome instructors, lectures, and films on piping.

I like to be challenged, and somehow I got placed into the advanced class, taught by the impressive Ann Gray. She gave us a lot of music and pushed us hard, including a big MSR of Southall/Tulloch Castle/Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran. We also did lots of piobaireachd work, with instruction by the legendary Andrew Wright, on Gathering of the MacNabs, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, Sound of the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Proud to Play a Pipe (Dastirum gu seinnim piob). Click Andrew’s photo below to hear a  bit of his piobaireachd instruction in our class.

Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright

On the last day of the school, I performed a complete piobaireachd for the first time, as part of the Macrae Cup Amateur Piobaireachd Competition. I couldn’t have been more nervous, as the judge was Andrew Wright, and the room was filled with other instructors and excellent pipers, many equipped with the Kilberry or Piobaireachd Society collections of tunes so they could follow along (or notice errors!). We had to submit two tunes we knew, and we were told 15 minutes before which one we’d play. I submitted Lament for the Son of King Aro and Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarberts Fancy, and Andrew selected the first. Here’s that performance:

I played it too slowly and made lots of note errors, but got through it and placed third. It was a good experience, but one I’m glad is behind me!

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Later that evening, I really enjoyed the annual Hornpipe/Jig Competition at the local tavern, where the top players played some fantastic tunes for the ever busy Andrew Wright. It was great to relax with a pint and listen to some excellent performances.

The next day I drove to Spokane to compete in the Grade 4 piping events. I completely butchered “Mrs John MacColl” (2/4 march) in front of judge Ann Gray and got 5th; I played “The Highlander” (6/8 march) in front of judge Alan Walters and got first; I played Bruce Gandy’s “Mairi Matheson of Carloway” and “The Rejected Suitor” in the strathspey/reel for judge Andrew Wright and got first in that, which gave me enough points to win the aggregate. I was quite surprised because I felt I could have played better. It was a great way to end the week of intense bagpiping. I can’t wait for next year’s camp.

Lessons, finally!

Bruce Gandy

Bruce Gandy

The most exciting thing for me now is that I’ve finally begun taking lessons on the pipes. After years of working on stuff myself, and feeling like I’d reached a wall I couldn’t get over, I started taking lessons via Skype from Bruce Gandy (who lives in Nova Scotia). I’d been to a clinic he did in Portland a few years ago and really liked his teaching style, and have admired his piping since day one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the remote format and the first lesson were excellent and very motivating. I’ll post more about how the lessons are going after I’ve been doing them for a month, but if you’ve been considering Skype as an instructional medium, I found it much better than expected.


Beginnings, Endings, Good Things

Bob McMichael on the bagpipes at a Boise wedding

Piping in the bride

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some special moments of strangers. I played for a small wedding at a lovely home in the Boise foothills. Surrounded by a small group of family and friends, the young bride and groom held hands and never severed their beatific eye contact during the ceremony. Their love for each other was palpable and moving to witness. After returning from her honeymoon, the bride emailed me the photo to the left with the following note:

Bob,

Thank YOU more like!! It was just so memorable…It was everything I wanted it to be. It truly was the best day of my life and it would not have felt the same without your amazing talent. 🙂

Thank you a million times over…

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

On Friday I played for a military funeral at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Boise. The deceased was an 83-year-old woman, a veteran, probably of WWII. While I feel privileged to play a small part in ceremonies, rarely is my curiosity about those involved satisfied. And I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to inquire. Sometimes the funeral director will offer information about the departed or their family. In this case, the attendees numbered only 12, the smallest funeral I’ve played for or attended. But the visible grief I saw – especially from the woman who received the flag; perhaps the daughter? – moved me to tears as I played “Amazing Grace” while watching them dab at their eyes and cheeks with white handkerchiefs. I usually just play and leave, but after having listened to what might have been the brother deliver a short eulogy in fits and starts of sobbing, and watching the family attend to each other, I wanted to express my condolences. They thanked me profusely. I won’t forget this one.

Bagpiper Municipal Park Boise

Bagpiping in Municipal Park, Boise

The day after the funeral I was hired to play at a one-year-old’s birthday. I’ve played for other birthday parties, but never for someone this young, and didn’t know what to expect. On a gorgeous summer evening, at the Municipal Park in Boise, right along the river, under a canopy of massive silver maples, a group of over 100 people gathered for what turned out to be a rather elaborate luau in honor of this child. It was the most diverse group of people I’ve seen since moving to Boise 11 years ago. The host (grandfather) was Samoan, and was doing a sound check on his PA system with his koa guitar and ukelele as I arrived. I asked him why a bagpiper at a luau, and he explained that they wanted to celebrate all the backgrounds of his grandson: the Polynesian music (he lamented that his relatives in Salt Lake were unable to make it; they were planning to do a Samoan knife dance), some other European influences, and the Scottish side. I played for half an hour as people arrived and the food began appearing (a mouth-watering spread!), and then finished by leading the whole group in “Happy Birthday” while the birthday boy beamed in his beautiful mother’s arms.

Afterward, while walking back to my truck, hearing the Samoan grandfather singing (an excellent musician), someone behind me called out, “Hey piper!” It was one of the child’s grandfathers, the Scottish side. He asked what my tartan clan was (it’s Stewart of Appin), and we chatted a bit. He thanked me for playing. I felt, for the third time in the past couple weeks, while wearing my kilt, very fortunate to witness and contribute to such positive events. You might think that a funeral shouldn’t be included as a good thing, but it is. You can’t live forever. It is good people want to see you off. It’s not having a funeral that is a bad thing.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a better set of music for the boy’s second birthday. If his first was any measure, the second will be huge.


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