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Few sounds are as distinctive as the trill of a bagpipe. Bagpipe music, which conjures up images of Scotland and proud marching bands, is one of the most recognizable and beloved forms of music in the world.

Pipe sergeant Dorothy Wilson loves the sound of a well-played pipe. "It'll bring up the hairs on the back of your neck," she says.

Bagpipe music dates back centuries to the Celtic countries of Scotland and Ireland. Armies marching into battle played it to celebrate victory and to mourn defeat. It was also used to herd sheep, to call clans together and to celebrate marriage or birth.

Today, thousands of people of all ages enjoy playing and listening to the sound made from forcing air through a series of pipes.

For Danny Hoplock, travel and performance manager for the Lord Selkirk Boy Scout Pipe Band, the sound is like taking a trip through ancient history.

"It pulls me back into time, as far back as man can remember....When I hear piping, I think of the life that came from it," he says.

There are several types of bagpipes. The most common is the great Highland bagpipe, which is played while standing up and includes an air bag that rests under the arm of the player.

The Uilleann pipe, also called the union pipe, is native to Ireland and is played while seated. It is more complex to play -- it has two full octaves of sound range compared to nine notes for the Highland pipes.

Bagpipes are a reed instrument. But they are slightly more complex in design than similar instruments such as the clarinet because they have a series of drone pipes, which have one reed and a chanter -- a double-reed pipe. The chanter alone is what most beginning bagpipers play.

Regardless of the type of bagpipe you choose, you better be prepared to practice if you're going to learn to play it well.

More advanced players must practice longer to develop the lip strength and stamina of breath they need to perform while marching -- or to play longer tunes.

"When you play pipes, it is a continual learning process. It's not something that you learn just once and just play," says Haplock.

How much time will it take for you to sound like a pro? "It takes about seven years to learn to play the pipes well," says Haplock.

Playing traditional Highland pipes can be a physical challenge. The bags weigh less than 20 pounds, but can become heavy after long periods of marching. As well, the constant blowing means pipers must have strong lungs.

"We've had some people in wheelchairs start, [but] you do need to be able to stand up," says Wilson. "If you sit down, because of the pressure from blowing, it could cause some damage."

She adds that older people have a hard time playing "because they just don't have the mobility in their fingers."

Part of being a traditional piper means wearing traditional Highland dress: a knee-length kilt, a matching vest, hose (knee socks), a jersey, sporrans and a buckled belt. To top it all off, you'll want to wear a hat called a glengarry or, perhaps, a balmoral. As well, kiltpins and cufflinks are a classic addition.

According to Wilson, most modern pipe bands have toned down the dress code. Now, people typically wear a dressy jacket, a kilt, hose and a tie. "It's gotten so it's more comfortable for the people, but it's still a uniform," she says.

Once they've mastered the instrument, bagpipers perform at Scottish festivals and similar events, such as parades or memorials. Some Celtic weddings feature bagpipe music as well, and some performers earn a small income from playing at them.

Each year, bands from around the globe travel to Glasgow for the World Bagpipe Championships.

While there are a handful of full-time professional bagpipers in the world, most performers play for the love of the music and the enjoyment they get from sharing it with others.

Pipe bands are often paid for their services, but the pipers themselves rarely see the money.

"Any money that the band earns just goes right back into the band funds," says Wilson. "That's for instruments, uniforms, reeds [and] all kinds of supplies."

Many players do earn money as professional teachers and band leaders. And some bagpipers say they find it relatively easy to learn other instruments after mastering the complex pipes.

According to Wilson, instructors typically charge around $25 a lesson.

Getting Started

Getting started as a bagpipe player will mean something of an investment. Highland bagpipes can cost anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars for custom-made pipes. Experienced players say quality instruments built to high standards cost about $1,000 -- they're worth the initial investment.

If new pipes are out of your budget, check out thrift shops and classified ads for second-hand gear. Wilson found a used set of pipes for $150.

Find someone to give you private lessons at first. "There's a lot of scales you have to learn," says Wilson.

Bagpipers are scattered around the globe and have quickly found that the Internet can be a fast and efficient way to communicate among places as far-flung as Canada, England, the United States, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand.

Internet resources include bagpipe players, bands, regional Scottish games that attract bagpipe enthusiasts, bagpiping competitions and companies that make and sell bagpipes.


Scottish-American Cultural Society of Ohio
6050 Wilson Mills Rd.
Mayfield Village , OH   44143-2103


by  Anthony Baines

Info on bagpipe schools and upcoming Celtic cultural events

Bagpipes of the World
This site includes audio samples of bagpipe music

Bagpipes Go to the Movies
An alphabetical listing of films and TV shows featuring the music of bagpipes

Bagpipe Web Directory
A page with more than 650 links to bagpipe sites around the world

List of Bagpipe Teachers
Gives lots of contact info

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