by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #74, 2015.

My Dad always said that life moves forward at a pace in tandem with a person’s age. 

So when you’re 10, life seems to move along at a grindingly slow 10mph. At 10 a kid feels like it’ll take forever for summer holidays to come and even longer for the next happy birthday.  By age 20, a healthy savings account is a nice idea for dull, boring people; but for most there’s nothing but countless, unplanned days of never-ending fun. Your forties come along and it’s all, “whoa, something’s happening here”: life is moving way past school zone speed. Bill made it to an Autobahn-friendly 86mph before he pulled over and stopped in the parking lot of the inevitable. And this is all to say, the obvious — you’ll know that’s my specialty — and that is, a person’s age goes a long way to inform how life is lived and, in turn, how life is understood.

It was in issue 73 of Piping Today that found me reading words that stuck in my craw, the very pit of a piper’s gut: “piping is a young person’s game”. Is it really? 

First, sadly, these words offer no fresh insight — and, really, how many of any of our words do? Yet, they stand as a way of thinking that, strangely, is commonly held by many in the piping game. And to add to my carnaptious state, the comment was unattributed — well, it was — but assigned to a pseudonym. I hate that [“Here lies Johnny Piper, who always said what he meant and stood up for what he believed as long as he was anonymous”].

It’s seems to me, generally speaking, that newly-minted birl-makers, those who have yet to gain much context and understanding of who’s who and how things go, it’s they who see our world this way. And to be up front, this is the natural human condition for young people. Think of that famous 1960s hippie quote, attributed to a lot of people including Bob Dylan, “never trust anyone over 30”. Young people know it all. And if that’s not you today it was you once upon a time. “Step aside Gramps, I gots jigs and reels to play.”

To be fair, longer-toothed pipers, further along a musical life, can be drawn to this way of thinking. There are those who have found mid-life distractions and waning self-discipline the path of least resistance. It’s certainly easier not to play the bagpipes. Not to play means to set aside practice and avoid performing at some of the best places where good piping happens:  say band contests, solo piping events and any number of other places we play in public. Not to play means more time.

Maybe, there’s a chance, too, that an older, seasoned piper easily gives in to the idea of piping as  “young person’s game” when reflecting on their own long run at kicking the can and the continued investment in energy needed to make good pipe music. Making good tunes happen isn’t easy — no matter what a person’s age. So with a sigh and through a breath of resignation we might hear: “Been there, done that, I’ve had enough; this game’s for the young.”  

In piping, as in society, youth is prized. Since before Borerraig there’s been a crystal-clear understanding in that for the music to survive, young people need to be engaged — and need to be taught. The continuation of the art depends on it. And so, Boys’ Brigade and juvenile bands were developed and pipers mostly taught their children. And, among it all, competent pipers everywhere stepped up to teach kids. All these things are among the many that help to underscore piping’s commitment to youth. 

We know the world of piping nurtures the young striplings, the youthful up-and-comers. And for the tradition bearers, those pipers armour-plated with experience? Well, not so much. 

The piping world is full of places that present “best young piper” trophies, or variations on that theme. Aside from rare examples of lifetime recognition, and the odd, one-off “veterans” or “over-45” events, we don’t seem to make it awfully easy for pipers to perform throughout a full and complete piping life. Today we see a piper’s career as variants of: chanter, amateur piper, junior band, solo piper, senior band, judge and/or retirement through to clogs-popping and — if a piper’s really lucky — a hint of trailing drones.  

So, on the one hand, we aren’t all that nurturing of the long-playing piper; resources, for all the good reasons we know, are mostly directed at bringing along new, young talent. And on the other hand, maybe more importantly, it’s our own attitudes and biases that do the most damage and, when it comes to piping, are the most career-limiting. 

The physical and technical demands of the instrument are often cited as a reason — an excuse — to zip up the bag for the last time.  Fair enough, I guess, but unless you have a serious health condition, modern bagpipe technology allows a piper the means to create a tuneful, harmonic and highly efficient bagpipe set-up. And to the question of technical challenges? I’ve always believed that it’s a myth that pipers “lose their hands” as they age. They may lose their hands, their “chops”, but it isn’t due to aging. Pipers tend to practise far less as they, em, gain experience. Less practice means a decrease in technical mastery. Less practice means you start to suck.

But, I hear you say, pipers are different, the pipes are all huff and puff cardio and crazy rapid-fire anti-arthritic technique. So let’s talk piping terms. We only have to look to pipers around us for inspiration. You’ll know a notable swathe of our current top-line competitive pipers are (successfully and easily) rowing downstream of their sixth decade. And look a few years back. In 1982 Pipe Major Evan MacRae won his Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting when he was aged 60. Donald Ross McLennan won both Oban and Inverness medals in 1956 when he was aged 55. At the age of 69, John MacDonald (Inverness) won his seventh Clasp at 1934’s Northern Meeting. 

We have exhibits of exceptional pipers achieving much as older people. But they were, and are, as far as I know, exceptionally human. And piping examples aside, I still say, when it comes to career longevity, pipers are no different from those in other fields of endeavour, especially the many in the music world. 

Concert pianists are all about technique. Physical agility and an equally nimble mind are prerequisites for meaningful performance.  Arthur Rubenstein would play the world’s greatest concert halls into his 80s; at the age of 84, Vladimir Horowitz toured Europe, performed to great reviews, made records and filled all the great concert venues. 

Have a look around the solo circuit of today’s classical musical world: Cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, 60 years old, he has 12 concerts over four weeks scheduled between February and March of 2015 — including a stop at New York City’s famed Lincoln Centre. And finally, the maestro violinist, Itzhak Perlman. At 69, he has 11 shows on a tour that spans concert halls across two continents. These musicians have found a way to wiggle their fingers the right way, keep sharp and make music. Pipers can, too, regardless of age.

And before it’s all said and done, I hope I’m gifted the chance to know what it’s like to play pipes at 80mph — or faster. And when it comes to your piping, I hope you feel the same. Just buckle up.