Playing the pipes helps my mental health – Alastair Campbell

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Alastair Campbell, who was former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press spokesman until 2000, has spoken of how playing the pipes helps his mental health.

The former controversial campaign strategist spoke to a British newspaper yesterday of his love affair with the pipes and how music has a profound effect on his mood.

Campbell (64) is a long-term recovering alcoholic and suffers from clinical depression. Donald, his younger brother was a piper, too, but also suffered from mental illness, in his case schizophrenia. Donald died in 2016. The two had planned to make a film together about living with schizophrenia. Donald and Alastair were born in Yorkshire, England but were brought up with a strong focus on their Scottish roots.

In his interview with UK based inews, Campbell said that during last year’s Clap for Carers movement, he participated by playing on the doorstep of his north London home. However, because he’s not too proficient at tuning he asked National Piping Centre’s Director of Piping, Finlay MacDonald to help him do it over videoconference software.

Alastair’s brother, Donald, pictured in 2007 at the SPA’s Amateur competition.

Campbell says that playing the pipes helps him feel connected to his late father, who taught him to play the instrument, and also allows him to feel emotion deeply. “I feel completely at one with the music,” he says. “It is a very soulful thing. They make me feel very happy and also sometimes very mournful.

“I know that whenever I’ve felt really bad, one of the things that’s helped me to look after my mental health is music.”

Campbell played at the funeral of close friend and former colleague, Tessa Jowell in 2018. He played her favourite tune, The Skye Boat Song. “I played and led the coffin out of the church,” he says. “The pipes were just singing in tune, and honestly, the number of people who emailed me afterwards and said they’d never felt quite so emotional at the end of the funeral.”

He says that he played Ode to Joy on the pipes on the fifth anniversary of Brexit, a historical and political event that, he says, “is definitely not good for my mental health.”

“I’ve had a good run in COVID. I’ve had a couple of bad spells but nothing really, really bad. I had one a few months ago, though, and I went upstairs to my office at the top of the house, lay down on the sofa, and I put my headphones in. I knew the music was making me feel worse, but I was fine with that as I was embracing the depression in a way, deliberately listening to really sad, mournful stuff that I knew would make me feel sad.

“And sometimes I listen to music to cry, because I feel I’m probably going to feel a bit better after though. And I think a lot of people who have depression find crying can be an expression of real pain, but at the same time, it can be the beginning of a bit of relief.”