Chris Armstrong has played bagpipes for all but six years of his life. His piping was first nurtured in the Torphichen and Bathgate Novice Juvenile Pipe Band and from those early beginnings, his piping career has been one of sharp, upward trajectory. He’s a complete all-rounder in the piping world: composer, piper and pipe major. In addition to successful book publishing and recording projects, his trophy case is full of solo piping’s best prizes. He leads the exciting ScottishPower Pipe Band, one of the world’s very best combinations and in between it all he manages his Armstrong Bagpipes, X-TREME drone reeds and music publishing enterprises. Chris spoke to Piping Today magazine in 2014 while still working in a full-time position as part of The National Piping Centre’s teaching faculty…
PT: How would your friends describe you?
Generally, my friends would describe me a crabbit individual — the clean version — (laughs) who is very intolerant of stupidity. A real Oscar the Grouch type of guy, I suppose. Other than that I’d like to think that they find me loyal, focused and determined.
PT: Describe your perfect day.
My perfect day used to be teaching some good lessons then either having a good tune myself with the pipes singing or a right good band practice. Now though, I’d have to say getting home on the weekend after a long week to chill out with the family and spend some time making reeds, especially now that the season is over with and the pressure is off. I’ve had a good few perfect days recently while on holiday in the 30ºC heat, doing the bare minimum.
PT: Do you believe in extraterrestrials — life beyond the planet Earth?
I’m not going to come right out and give a definite yes here, but what I will say is that I don’t believe that out of all the billions of galaxies and stars, and planets orbiting those stars, and moons or satellites orbiting those planets, that we are the only intelligent life in the universe. Not a chance. The odds of that are so huge that I personally think that it’s an impossibility.
PT: The greatest man-made invention ever?
The greatest man-made invention ever is the smartphone.
Limitless connectivity to everyone and everything, everywhere. While sometimes it might be a nuisance, it is without doubt the best invention in my book. I like to know what’s happening, when it’s happening, as it’s happening and before it’s happened and that’s exactly what the smartphone allows me to do, all from a device that fits in my pocket.
PT: Text or talk?
Depends on the urgency of the message. Normal conversation, craic, I’d say text is fine because I’m not looking for information (laughs). If I need info and need it quick then I’d always go for a phone call. The mood and tone of a text can also be grossly misinterpreted so in cases of complicated communications I’ll opt for a call, too.
PT: The greatest Scot ever?
Any Scot who has achieved what they’ve set out to do really and that isn’t just applicable to Scottish people.
I have great respect for anyone who puts in the work to achieve their goals.
PT: And on that: Do you have a hero?
Batman (laughs). Seriously, though, not really.
PT: What’s the oldest thing you own?
I went through a phase a few years back of collecting old coins and glass bottles. I used to have a look for what was lying around when I went out walks. It’s amazing what you find in old middens and the like.
I once found a coin just lying in the surface on the soil in my Nanna’s front garden, bigger than an old one penny coin and twice as thick. Still no idea what it is but that’s what kicked the whole thing off. So I reckon the oldest thing I have is an old coin or glass bottle that I collected from someone’s old
rubbish dump in their front garden.
PT: What would be your last supper?
Definitely a good sirloin steak with all the trimmings and I’d have it in a big hall with all my close friends and family, maybe a few beers after and a couple of tunes to finish the night.
PT: What matters most to you?
It’s difficult to give an absolute answer to this one because I place equal importance on so many things. I guess at this moment in time what matters most is trying to make a success of the new business. This has taken up a huge amount of time of late — all very enjoyable — and I’d like to see it succeed.
PT: Your favourite book or movie?
My favourite book is The Hobbit [J.R.R. Tolkien], I guess I’ve read it some 20 times over the last 22 years since first hearing it read out to my class in Primary 7. It captured my imagination at an early age and the story never gets old.
I think each time I read it the depth of the imagery gets more detailed and this is why it’s such a good book. The movie has done it justice, I think, and I can’t wait for the final instalment.
My favourite movies, however, are the Alien movies and Prometheus which kind of links back to the question about extraterrestrials. I’m a sci-fi geek at heart, I suppose.
PT: What quality in people do you find yourself admiring most?
I think the thing I find most admirable about people is drive and determination. I have a lot of respect for people who work hard to achieve, endure and the will to keep working at something to see it through to conclusion — all are very important qualities and have led to some of the greatest things, smartphones being an excellent example (laughs).
PT: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
The best advice I can ever remember getting was from my mum. I went through a short spell as a teenager where I couldn’t be bothered with practice and I remember her telling me that half an hour’s good practice was better than an hour and a half of bad.
PT: Did you follow it?
It’s something that always stuck with me so whenever I — or the band — am having a bad practice, I more often than not will call a halt to it because I feel that it does nothing to inspire or promote confidence when you’re having a bad day at the office.
This could perhaps be perceived as giving up, which contradicts my answer to one of the other questions but in my book it’s not. Practising for the sake of it never achieves anything other than reinforcing that you can’t be bothered or that it wasn’t a good experience. Practice should always be positive in some respect.
PT: What’s the biggest personal change you’ve ever made?
I’ve tried quitting smoking a good few times over the past four or five years with no success but in December last year I decided enough was enough. I’d actually come to a strong dislike for it but was obviously addicted so I decided to stop it. I felt terrible because of it, I looked terrible because of it, my fitness levels were shocking and I’d get out of breath just walking up a flight of stairs. Net result is I feel better; I don’t waste as much money, and a whole host of other positives. I started smoking at an early age — before it was legal — so it was a challenge to stop and I’d say the biggest personal change I’ve met to date.
PT: What’s something you wish everyone knew about you?
The only thing I can really think to say here is that I wish people knew I’m really quite an approachable person. I may come across as crabbit but if someone is looking to pick my brain or speak to me about something then I’m really quite approachable, unless it’s 6.30 in the morning and I haven’t had my five cups of tea (laughs).
PT: Does music matter?
This is an issue which used to bother me quite a bit because I’ve always been very technically minded in my approach to my playing. Music is so subjective, and by music I mean things like interpretation and expression, that for music to matter more than good technique and a great sounding instrument in my book is a bit of an imbalance. That’s like saying, ‘Well, you don’t need to worry so much about making crossing noises because the way you played the scale was really musical.’ Maybe an overly simplistic view but nonetheless relevant.
Music is what we play, to have good music you must have good technique because it is the rhythm behind what we play. Whether you look at a birl as a birl or rhythmical triplet made from two strikes on low A, it’s still rhythm. This rhythm has to be correct in order for the tune to flow properly. Each movement in a tune takes up a value relative to the tempo it’s played at and that value and the movement’s rhythm affect the musical interpretation or expression, however you wish to describe it.
To bring this all together you must have a great sounding instrument, which again is a subjective element. So music is important but just as equally as all the other components which go into producing a good performance. It’s not all about the one thing and certainly not using one to mask a shortfall in the others.
PT: If a bagpipe had human qualities what five words would you use to describe him or her?
Twisted, awkward, frustrating, exhilarating and rewarding; the first three being our experiences of the times when they don’t cooperate and the last two being the combination of the elements of the last question.
PT: Thanks for your time, Chris. It has certainly been rewarding. •
• First published in Piping Today #73, 2014.