Learning to play the pipes at any age is a challenge, and there is accepted wisdom that the older you start, the harder it becomes with fingers that are not as nimble and quick to move. But what if you lived in Leatherhead, Surrey, were retired, had lots of time to practice and were motivated by family members who played music to a high level?
That was the position John Swanson, now 58, found himself in almost three years ago when he took early retirement from his environmental position with the National Grid. John didn’t have any plans to become less active in life and set about looking for entirely different challenges to fill his time. One of the challenges was to become a funeral celebrant, and after some training he achieved that and now conducts funeral ceremonies – and the other was to take up the bagpipes. So after almost two years of online lessons with The National Piping Centre he came to Glasgow and stayed at The Pipers’ Tryst so he could have an intensive week of one-to-one tuition with Finlay MacDonald, John Mulhearn, Dan Nevins and Ailis Sutherland.
John explained his interest: “You can tell by my accent I’m English, but I’ve always liked the music and the sound of the bagpipes. It would be cultural arrogance of me to claim any strong Scottish roots, though Swanson is a Scottish name and the family comes from Thurso. My family would have left Scotland four or five generations ago.
“My wife is a viola player of a very high standard and my eldest daughter could have gone to the conservatoire to play the trombone, but she chose to go to university, so I’m surrounded by people who play classical music to a high level. I could have learned the violin, but I wanted something completely new, and completely different in an area where it would be a good challenge for me to start from scratch as a total beginner.
“I chose the pipes and then I discovered that I really loved playing the music, I really do! I don’t mind if it sounds naff, but I just love it. The realisation that I can play this sort of music has made me quite obsessed really.”
John got a practice chanter and tutor book as a Christmas present in 2019 and started learning on his own but admits that he knew he couldn’t take it too far without needing proper instruction. So, before COVID-19 changed all our lives and took most piping instruction online, John was already looking for an online tutor as he didn’t think there would be many options for in-person tutoring in the Surrey area.
John explained: “There was a tutor offering face-to face lessons but that would have meant travelling up to London. I then found The National Piping Centre, who obviously had an infrastructure in place for tutoring, and I sent away my application with some trepidation. I was allocated Dan Nevans as a tutor and started online Zoom lessons with him in March 2020.
“Dan duly pointed out that there were quite a few things I was doing wrong; crossing noises and a few other things, but we persevered. Two things I’d like to point out that have amazed me are; one, how much Dan can actually do over Zoom. He sometimes closes his eyes when I’m playing as he can tell what my fingers are doing better by listening, rather than watching over Zoom. The second point is what I’ve experienced this week with having my first ever in-person lesson on Monday morning with Finlay MacDonald. It was the first time I had ever played in front of another piper, and I’ve been amazed at how much more can be done with face-to-face tuition.
“One of the things I’ve learned this week, is that practicing sensibly is essential, and simply bashing away without thinking is not the best thing to do. I’m a self-driven person and I have the temptation to get tunes up to speed before I’m quite ready for it. Dan is always saying, ‘Well let’s just take it back a little bit, shall we’. And this week I’ve really appreciated the value of what slowing down allows you to do in terms of consistency of technique.”
Setting aside time to practice is important to make progress when learning, but a busy adult lifestyle isn’t always conducive for playing music. One would imagine that a retired person would have all the time they wished to pick up a chanter, but it seems that John uses his music time as a release from his busy retirement life.
John said: “I never planned on this, but I’ve ended up Church Warden of my parish church during a vacancy between rectors. This means I’m struggling with a 1001 things that running a church entails, and piping has been something of an escape from the property issues, or finance issues or people issues. I find that I can go downstairs, pick up the pipes, and practice for an hour and take my mind off the church business.
“I probably practice for an hour most days and an hour and a half to two hours on a good day. I got onto the pipes about October of 2020, and most of my practice time with Dan over Zoom is on the pipes, but one of the many things I’ve learned this week is the importance of doing work on the practice chanter.
“I’ve had a couple of lessons with John Mulhearn this week on the chanter, working on a tune, or rather the bits of technique that a tune exposes. This interactive method of teaching showed me the real value of face-to-face teaching where parts of tunes can be picked out and the technique worked on.”
In John’s working life he was an expert in his field and would be the person that others would come to learn from. This gives him a real appreciation of the tuition he has received at The National Piping Centre and was particularly impressed with the instruction given to him by the youngest tutor, Ailis Sutherland. John said: “Ailis is the same age is my daughter, yet she has so much skill, knowledge and understanding and can teach it to me. At one point she was looking at me and picking out which muscles I was using in my forearm and pointed out it should be my right hand that was doing all the work. I was awe struck by her ability to teach.”
Finlay MacDonald was the first tutor that John had on the Monday morning of his week at The National Piping Centre, and Finlay didn’t realise that he would be John’s first ever in-person tutor. Finlay said: “It is quite incredible the progress that John has made over two years of online tuition. It made me thankful when I realised that John’s level of playing was in part a product of The National Piping Centre’s online tuition. We have supported his hard work and the practice time he has given the instrument, and his playing is a justification of the decisions we made two years ago.
“When I first heard him play, I thought it was a great level to get to from looking at a computer screen for tuition. Traditionally, everyone believed that there always had to be an in-person tutor to progress a student.
“And John’s pipes were well set up, and in tune, and he had a steady blowing technique. He was working on two MSRs, a piobaireachd and a hornpipe, jig and some 6/8s. That is good going for only two years of practice from a total beginner.
“His attitude is so refreshing, as he is here for the music and the personal benefit and enrichment of life that music gives him. It has been great to be part of his journey so far.”