It may be a cliché to say this but lockdown has been hard for everyone. Our struggles and experiences will have differed greatly but for most people reading this, the common struggle has been the lack of social gatherings that revolve around our instrument.

The stoicism that the world has shown – and continues to show – is resounding. When the only certainty is uncertainty, local communities have managed to grow stronger. We have shown the utmost respect for our key workers and we have adapted to the online world with relative ease and admirable will.

However, despite humanity’s resilience and self-proclaimed greatness, lockdown has still left us trapped indoors and not being able to carry on with life as usual; not being able to go to events in the normal fashion. For those of us who often travel corner to coast every week playing, judging or spectating at highland games, pipe band contests or recitals, our world suddenly became centred around YouTube and Zoom.

For me, it felt like this pandemic could not have come at a worse time. I was in my final year of school when COVID-19 arrived and I’m now completing my first year of university. Piping was something I took up and subsequently fell in love with at school. I was fortunate enough to be part of a brilliant team of pipers, drummers and teaching staff right the way through my time at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, so to have the ending that I’d envisaged from a young age, not just for the band but for my final year of school, taken from me by the pandemic was perhaps the hardest part of the last 18 months.

However, the earth kept spinning, and once we were locked down, I was playing pipes every day, knowing I would start university in September. In the future, I doubt I’ll look back on these months with much fondness, but at the same time I can appreciate that I learnt so many valuable lessons which I now have for life; there is one thing I learnt which is especially relevant to piping: I mentioned that I was “playing pipes every day” and although this might sound like a good thing, it wasn’t.

I was in a vicious cycle of repetition where I would warm up the pipes, then play a hornpipe and jig, an MSR and a piobaireachd all typically from my competition repertoire. I suppose I was hoping that soon friends, judges and spectators would be hearing these same tunes, live in a room, and this hope kept my practice going. But it’s a good thing that no-one heard these tunes as all this style of practice meant was that my music, my instrument and my technique stagnated. This was not meaningful practice and I certainly wasn’t improving; I was just getting the pipes out for a tune.

The NYPBoS performing in 2019.

I’d say this went on for at least ten weeks last year but it was easy to get out of. Doing things like playing with shoes on, changing bag covers and playing in different rooms all helped me regain my focus – I recommend that if any piper feels their progress has halted as a result of lockdown to try some of these things where possible.

The other thing that helped me, and many others, get through this period while maintaining high standards, was the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland (NYPBoS). Each band in the NYPBoS usually gathers to practice four or five weekends a year at the National Piping Centre. These practices help us learn the music, play together as a unit and get comfortable playing with backing musicians. These weekends prepare us for our annual major concert – all usually taking place between October and February. Of course, we haven’t been able practice in the conventional way and haven’t been able to perform a traditional concert this year. However, what we have done is hold online practices over Zoom videoconference software. I was sceptical of this at first – for an instrument like the pipes? However, I was proved wrong.

We used Zoom to debrief in the morning, chatting and sharing musical concerns. All the music was posted online before the practices and we used breakout rooms to split into smaller groups, utilising band officers to target the finer details within the music which before may have gone amiss. In many ways, it was more productive than a normal practice.

There were, of course, setbacks caused by using this software. Everyone’s hardware, no matter how brilliant, struggles with the volume of the bagpipes – especially those of us who just use a standard computer with headphones. This made it difficult for us to hear instruments and make sure chanters were in tune and at pitch.

Nevertheless, we overcame these challenges by working together as a band, sending/using recordings and working slowly but surely. The end result is that members of the band have been submitting recordings of new music. This has meant that the band will be able to showcase this work in a short film presented by our director, Steven Blake, during next month’s Piping Live! festival.

What we’ve missed for the past two years.

I hope we, or any future generations, never have to live through a time like this again. The profound impacts on both the micro and macro levels have been devastating. On a macro level, many people will sadly spend the rest of their lives trying to rebuild what the pandemic has torn down. On a micro level, relationships and friendships have been affected – some of us have not seen each other for 18 months. This means we will have to make grand efforts to rebuild bridges and get back to a level of pre-pandemic normality just on a social level.

Nevertheless, those of us interested in piping and drumming are in many ways very fortunate. In the grand scheme of the world, we are part of a small community. Like the NYPBoS did, we must continue making efforts to come together when individuals need it most; we need to look out for each other, making our friends feel rightly part of a comfortable and cordial environment. Finally, we have to try and put the past behind us. The past will never change, but the future won’t stop coming.

  • Brodie Watson-Massey was born in Munich. In recent years he has built up a good track record in solo piping competitions. In 2019 he won the Pipe Idol competition at Piping Live! Currently, Brodie is studying in Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde.

* As ever, the views expressed in all blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.