CLASP profile: James Carnegie


James Carnegie is the latest member of the Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers (CLASP) to be profiled:

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• Where are you from and how did you get into piping?
Edinburgh (although I now live in Cambridge). My uncle plays and from an early age I wanted to learn the pipes. It just seemed the most obvious thing in the world for a lad with a strong sense of Scottish identity. In my boyish mind, the pipes – along with Robert the Bruce and the Scottish rugby/football teams – seemed to be the epitome of Scotland. Of course, I had little understanding of true complexity of Scottish identity and only had a notional understanding of the original roots of the highland bagpipes. But it was my nascent search for my own identity that I projected in some part onto the pipes and that led me to learn them.

• How has the pandemic affected your piping personally?
As a solo piper, it has been of great benefit.  I know this has not been every piper’s experience by any means, but for me it has meant the opportunity to practice an awful lot, have regular lessons locally with Barnaby Brown (who lives just round the corner in Cambridge) and, most importantly, to compete online far more than I normally would in person due to the travel involved.  A massive ‘big up’ to Margaret [Dunn], Finlay [Johnston] and the judges for being so early to the table with an online competition. 

• Is there anything you can’t leave home without?
I really struggle to get out of the door with three things: my keys, my wallet and my phone. Usually, at least one of them is lost and I then spend vital minutes trying to locate it. It drives my wife and kids nuts!

James Carnegie having a tune outside his home in Cambridge, England.

What’s your favourite international food?
I am largely vegetarian as it’s a relatively simple way of reducing my carbon footprint.  At the moment I’m very partial to smoked tofu, which is made, according to the packaging, with soya beans from ‘Germany, Austria and France.’  The brand is Taifun if you feel moved …

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten
Cat food after a few too many at a teenage party. There’s much worse, but this is a family show.

When you travel is there something you particularly miss when away
My wife and kids.

Do you have a set practice routine you could share with readers?
Oh gosh!  Did you really want to ask that? Could be here for hours. I run everything off a spreadsheet … Behind that is a documented strategy for my piping. I aim to mix the following over the course of each week:

  • Technical work on my fingering on chanter and pipe (McGillivray is indispensable in this regard), which includes work on specific tunes – say 60% of my practice time;
  • Playing as if performing – around 10/15%: more near a performance;
  • Tuning/sound development (roughly 10% of time).
  • The rest of my time goes on a mix of the following:
  • Rhythm work (an area I want to improve – using Flip a Rhythm: a great book)
  • Steadiness of blowing (using a manometer)
  • Listening to other pipers
  • Listening back to my own recordings
  • Planning and thinking about how I can develop further
  • Lessons

I spent most of my working life in business and I try to bring the disciplines I learnt in that world to bear on my approach to piping. I also read on the mental approach to performance; as well as anything that seems of relevance: I’m delving into David Byrne’s How Music Works* – very stimulating.

What’s your most memorable performance you’ve taken part in, either band or solo?
Piping on the battlements of Stirling Castle for the guests at a friend’s wedding. 

What’s your most memorable performance you’ve heard – band or soloist?
I got very hooked on The Little Spree when I heard Robert Frater play it at the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society annual competition about seven or eight years ago when I was just getting back into piping.

Who has been the biggest influence on your piping?
Pipe Major Jimmy Pryde [of the Royal Scots Greys ] as a teenager. There are loads of influences and I am always looking for ideas and inspiration from different quarters, John Mulhearn’s album Pipe Factory being one recent example.

How do you relax and do you have other interests or hobbies? 
The great outdoors.

Have you taken part in any show, concerts or recitals this year?
Lots of impromptu gigs in our street for the Thursday night Clap for Carers. My sons and I were featured on our local television news programme last May (Jack on drums, Hamish on goose and me on pipes; filmed by my daughter Rosie). Here’s a video of one rather under-rehearsed set for the neighbours:

What’s your favourite destination, either for a holiday or on a piping trip?
Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland where we have a holiday home. I can get a lot of practice done there as the village hall is near our house and I’m lucky enough to be able to practice there.

Do you have a go at the local language when abroad?
Oui, si, po, jah, evet etc etc. As I understand it, there’s no word, as such, for yes in Gaelic. Happy to be corrected on that though.

Favourite piece of music – any music?
Outside of the pipes, A Man Is In Love by The Waterboys.

Was piping something you wanted to do from an early age?
Check out my answer to Number 1. But I didn’t compete for 27 years and played very little during that time.

Which pipers did you aspire to, if any?
I’m torn between wanting to play piobaireachd like Donald Macpherson, Murray Henderson or Roddy Macleod; rock out like Celtica say; or develop my piping along the lines of the Big Music Society’s approach. 

Do you recall the very first competition you competed in?
Yes, 1981: the school junior competition.

Favourite piobaireachd?
It varies quite a bit depending on what I’m playing and listening to. But one I particularly love is Murray Henderson’s 2015 performance of Lord Lovat’s Lament with the Big Music Society. It’s wonderful when the pipes are taken into a different musical paradigm and the work of the Big Music Society is critical in that regard.

And anything by Donald MacPherson on his Living Legend CD – what an incredible sound that man got from his pipe. Thanks to Barnaby Brown for getting him to make those recordings.

• Any humorous piping anecdote you can relate to the readers (keep it clean!)?
Not sure your readers could cope!

Thank you, James!

* Dunfermline, Scotland-born David Byrne is a musician, composer, and writer best known for his work with the group Talking Heads.