by Rod McDonald
The Globe and Mail
It’s an old joke:
Alas, the feverish dog days of summer are here, with their requisite cookouts, frosty glasses of suds, crackling bottles of rosé, and the boisterous skirl of the highland bagpipes.
These might be heard on the neighbour’s back lawn in harmony with the howling and mewling of every mutt on the block, pompously leading in the bridal party at a country wedding, in a tartanned band strutting their bon-bons regimentally in the annual Gay Pride Parade or swaying on to the pitch with swank and swagger at the perennial spate of tribal highland gatherings we have come to know and love as the highland games.
What most people don’t realize, however, is the amount of sweat, allegiance and downright intransigence that go into the formation of a passable bagpiper, even if, after hours of deafening practice, some players still end up producing something akin to the sound of a bag full of screaming cats.
Add to that the perils of wearing a kilt regimental-style and one may be asking for unheralded moons in the middle of a bright July afternoon when the gusty west wind whips the kilt up over the player’s head, much to the chagrin of the local Ladies’ Association. Other fears include the dreaded kilt-tan which looks absolutely gauche in beach wear, or the much feared kilt-itch, which has driven more than one highlander behind a tree on a steamy summer's afternoon. With all these perils combined, you have the makings of veritable agony-bag angst.
A piper’s day can start off with a distiller’s breakfast, which guarantees the failure of anyone who partakes of the wee drams of single malt that are set on the tables (beside the sausages swimming in grease), to be able to tune anything more complicated than a ukulele.
Some bands play for fun, and sound more or less the same as a professional band to the uneducated ear, as long as they keep to the old faithfuls: Bonnie Dundee, Road to the Isles and Mary’s Wedding. Big bands regard their music more soberly and have to suffer the evil eye of one of those persnickety judges. These are the kind who sit at card tables and tap the tabletop with their practice chanter to make certain the beat is perfect as the bands pass by, eyeballing the pipers’ fingers barking out the low notes with mathematical precision, and chirping out the grace notes with crackling efficiency.
Judges’ notes offer aspiring writers efficient examples of the use of laconic wit and sarcasm, with a dash of downright beastliness, as these taken from sample notes in the piper’s bible, Piper and Drummer, demonstrate:
“Piper 2 down from PM looks hungover.”
“I’ve seen my mother-in-law attack her dinner better than this.” (A bad attack.)
“Try to move around less in the jig, you're making me seasick.”
“Who set the chanters? Edward Scissorhands?”
“Put more meat in your rolls.”
Twelve years ago, when I turned 40, I broke the news to my wife that I was about to embark on an eventful journey: I wanted to learn how to play the highland bagpipe. She looked at me as if she had just seen Iron Mike Tyson in a kilt, and asked, simply, “Why?” It is a question I have yet to answer.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the pipes are really two instruments in one: the squawky, feeble practice chanter, and the set of African blackwood pipes along with the bag, the awkward drones, and the much larger and more demanding pipe chanter.
Blowing up a set of highland bagpipes for the first time is like blowing into a leaky, large balloon through a pea-shooter, while trying to keep the deflating balloon between your arm and your ribs as you blow as hard as you’ve ever blown before, except that the air leaks from your mouth as from a loose-fitting vacuum hose. As you start to see white spots before your eyes from lack of oxygen, you realize that you still haven’t blown with enough force to make the drones hum instead of moo like cows. Add to that the fact that you still haven’t gotten the chanter to even squeal, let alone produce any notes, and you have an inkling of the difficulty of this unsightly, cantankerous instrument.
Nevertheless, after months of punishing practice and marriage-shattering strain on the nerves of the household, playing my set of pipes for days on end in a clothes closet, I managed to squeak out an anemic Amazing Grace, which brought tears of joy to my grandson’s eyes and tears of pain to everyone else.
It was at this point that I decided to leave the bagpipes to the professionals and other masochists, and revert to my childhood pastime of approximating the sound of the pipes with a nasal twang, produced by pinching off my nose with my left hand and judo-chopping my Adam’s apple with my right, making a sound akin to bees making music in a bottle.
We called it throat music, or throat pipes, and it served our purposes quite well on Remembrance Day when we would march alongside the veterans on their way to the cenotaph. It also helped us form what may well have
been the first throat pipe band in history, and was tons more fun than learning the real thing.
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