Category Archives: Music

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.

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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.


9-year Plan for Bagpiping Profit

After my last post, I began thinking about numbers. I’ve put a lot of energy lately into my bagpipe “business,” and figured I should do some basic calculations and see just exactly how successful – in a purely economic sense – I am. I also wondered if I am charging too much (I don’t think so), largely because I get a lot of inquiries from my website (mcmichaelpiping.com) which, after I quote a fee, vanish into the ether.

So here it is; as you can tell, if you have the patience to sort through this mess, I am no financial wizard. But the rough costs below and the conclusion I reached (that it will take nine years to begin making a profit) were kind of surprising. Therefore, being a professional bagpiper is truly a labor of love.

Bagpipe gig (average)

Fee: + $150
Fuel: – $12
Net: + $138

1. Dress: 15 minutes
2. Drive to gig: 30 minutes
3. Performance site: 1 hour
4. Drive home: 30 minutes
5. Undress: 15 minutes

Total time: 2.5 hours (@ $138 net for a gig, this works out to $55/hour)

Kilts
Kilts (skirts for men)
Horsehair sporrans
Sporrans
Balmoral
Balmoral bonnet

Required equipment:

Bagpipes $2,000
Kilt & flash $1,000 (two kilts required)
Ghillie Brogues (shoes) $ 150
Kilt hose (socks) $ 100 (minimum 3 pairs required)
Sgian dubh (knife in hose) $ 75
Kilt belt & buckle $ 150
Sporrans $ 450 (two required: dress and day)
Prince Charlie jacket & vest $ 300
Argyll jacket $ 300
Jacobite shirt $ 50
• Dress shirts & ties $ 300 (three each required)
Glengarry (military hat) $ 85
Balmoral (casual hat) $ 85
Clan crest badges (for hats) $ 50
Kilt crest pins $ 50
Music books $ 500 (bagpipe music books are very expensive)

Total: $5,645

David Naill DN5 Bagpipes
What I want for Christmas

At $138 net per gig, I would need 41 full-paying gigs to pay off the required equipment. In the first six months of 2011 I’ve had 8 paying gigs. Assuming I average 16 gigs per year, it would take over 2.5 years to pay off the required equipment. Factoring in interest rates and miscellaneous expenses let’s say a 3-year loss of $2000 per year should cover the “one-time” equipment costs. Other annual costs (below) add to the ramp-up schedule and time-to-profit.

Other annual costs ($1,500 per year):

The annual costs and equipment amortization for the first 3 years would result in accumulated debt of $3,876 assuming income remains the same. After equipment costs are paid, it would take about 5 more years to amortize the accumulated debt.

Summary:

Year 1: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Year 2: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Year 3: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Years 4-8: Income ($11,040) – Expenses ($7,500) – Y1-3 debt ($3,876) = -$336
Year 9: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($1500) – $336 from Y8 = $372

Conclusion:

Nine years ain’t bad. I won’t even be 60 yet, and might be able to blow another ten to fifteen years after that. With any luck, too, I might get more gigs and collect more income. But the equipment doesn’t last forever, either, and I’ll need another set of pipes soon, and probably another kilt. The bottom line, obviously, is that – even charging what some apparently consider exorbitant fees – I’m not in it for the money. Few, if any, pipers are.


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.


Amazing Grace

I played a funeral yesterday. I took Angus out to the small town where he was born, Emmett, Idaho, and played “Amazing Grace” after the Navy officers concluded the flag-folding ceremony. The departed lived a decently long life, “packed  a lot into it,” as his son told me.

Funerals are an otherwise unemployed bagpiper’s best friend. They pay well for the amount of effort, despite the dressing up and down and getting to and from, and plenty of standing around and waiting. Modern humans are used to that, but doing this in a cemetery puts a different taste on it. Even the least introverted among us will find themselves contemplating their demise and, perhaps, the stuff that came before it.

The day was nearly the nicest we’ve had all year, but peppered with thunderstorms and big wind gusts. This cemetery sits just outside of the small town, perched on a rise above the river, giving a clear view down the valley to the west, where the weather comes from, and a sharp perspective of the cherry orchards – all now abloom – skirting the bluffs to the south. Big cumulus clouds periodically cast shadows across the flat graveyard, and blasts of the cold storm-wind knifed eastward. But then there would be calm, and sun, and time to change thoughts.

Angus in the driver's seat

Angus in the driver's seat

I’ve played a number of funerals now, and might have become a little jaded on the existential thinking that comes from hanging out among the memorialized. Since I could see Angus sitting in the driver’s seat of my truck I wondered what he was making of all this. He lost his sister six months ago. Was his proximity to buried souls eliciting memories of Glenna? He was born almost four years ago about a mile from the cemetery, where his mother and father probably still live. Was he sensing anything like “home”?

When playing a funeral, you get there early and tune your pipes, which takes a good ten minutes. Then you put the pipes in your car and wait for the people to arrive, which is the cue to take position not too close but not too far from the casket – you want people to hear you without making their ears bleed. Then you stand at attention and solemnly wait for the time to play. It could be just a couple minutes, or it could be half an hour. Depending on the weather, your pipes will definitely be out of tune. It’s just a matter of how badly. I guessed how much sharper (higher pitched) my chanter reed (the one that makes the melody) would be, and adjusted my three drones accordingly while I waited. Then, when I fired up the drones to play “Amazing Grace,” I took two seconds to see how well I’d guessed on the tuning and made a very quick minor adjustment of my outside tenor drone, and started the melody.

Bob McMichael

Grave-side at my grandmother's funeral

When you play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes – it doesn’t really matter the occasion, but a funeral is ground zero for the effect – most people really listen. As a piper, you want to play it well, and that means, partly, playing in tune. This day, my tuning was as close as I’ve gotten it in a long time but while playing I could hear what sound scientists call “sympathetic vibrations” on certain notes. These register as physical and sonic vibrations which you can eliminate by adjusting the tuning of the drones. But you can’t do this while playing a tune, especially “Amazing Grace” at a funeral. It wasn’t bad, and I doubt anyone could tell. In fact as I played through both verses I began rather enjoying the slight whirring of those sympathetic vibrations on certain notes. It gave me something new to listen to in a song, perhaps my favorite song, that I’ve played thousands of times. And when I finished playing and stopped the sound, I saw several people, their eyeglasses in hand, wiping away tears.


Almost Heaven

“A Lewis person will be homesick in heaven.” From Around the Peat Fire.

On the stunningly bright, crisp morning of August 21, 2004 Leslie and I walked into a black house at the Na Garrannan village on the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides of Scotland. Competing with the enveloping smells of a smoldering peat fire, brewing tea, and hay from the byre next door, and the sights of a cramped but efficiently organized living space with a surprising amount of natural light was the sound of Gaelic psalms undulating out of the little CD player on a tiny table in the corner like the swells of sea water rushing unobstructed from the cold North Atlantic just meters away. This sound, a Presbyterian church full of Scots responding to the precentor’s lining out of Gaelic scripture praising the glory of God, enveloped me more profoundly than the peat smoke did.

It also sounded strangely familiar to a recording I’d gotten during grad school of a black congregation at Clear Creek, Mississippi, a recording made by an Irish ethnomusicologist named Therese Smith whom I studied with at Brown. The feeling I got hearing the Gaelic psalms in that black house transported me to the ecstatic moment I first heard the Clear Creek recording. If you’ve heard the Delta blues of Robert Johnson or Bukka White you’ve heard the sonic progeny of this sacred singing. “Free Heterophony” is what the musicologists would call it. And the irony of that description would not be lost on the Clear Creek folks or the Presbyterian Scots, many of whom fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances and ended up in the deep American South.

According to the notes on the Scottish recording, the primary musical influence for this singing style is piobaireachd. I have tended to come to many precious things backward. This is another example. I started my musical journey in life with the Beatles, a British group heavily influenced by the blues but intent on camouflaging and re-purposing that influence (unlike many of their subsequently famous countrymen like Clapton and Jagger). I heard Coltrane before Robert Johnson, and Jaco Pastorius before Jimi Hendrix. But I did hear Beethoven’s Opus 111 (his last piano sonata), which features a section that Scott Joplin absolutely must have known intimately, before ragtime, so that was maybe the chronological exception in my musical trajectory that proves the rule.

What I’m getting at is the joy of finding the precedent links between my sonic milestones. For reasons I still don’t understand and have learned not to care much about anymore, I became obsessed with African American music and its creators’ social, historical, and cultural “situations” when I was a teenager. I carried that interest through college and graduate school, wrote a book about white people who loved jazz and what black musicians thought of them, and then quit that business and moved to the very silly, right-wing state of Idaho (which I love despite its tragic flaws), and took up the bagpipes.

This was not a planned self-discovery mission, just chance with a little intention and a bushel of irony thrown in. But in learning the bagpipes, I have come to find I’m most interested in piobaireachd because – for me – its sound completely eliminates any sense of physical being, just as the psalms I heard on the recording in the black house and from the Clear Creek recording, and from Robert Johnson, Coltrane, Hendrix, and untold other existing and future sound artifacts to which I’m genetically (or not; who cares?) predisposed to respond with what Barthes refers to as “jouissance,” the blissful yet momentary destruction of self in response to sensual stimuli. Maybe this is a way to practice for a body-less afterlife… If that’s what heaven is then this stuff is heaven on earth.

I wonder if the Lewis people who are homesick in heaven ever heard those psalms, or piobaireachd, or Beethoven or Robert Johnson?

 


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