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Australian singer/musician/composer, Tony King answers the following question...

Tony King

December 2011

The Question:
Is the bagpipe a musical instrument?

by Tony King share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Billy Wallace was distantly related to Sir William Braveheart Wallace and was a professional Scotsman. He was also a pathological Bagpipe player from Glasgow.
He had a necklace that German backpackers often mistook for sharks teeth.
It was in fact made from the teeth of people who over the years had asked him if the Bagpipe was a musical instrument.
He was what you'd call "a bit sensitive" about this.
The Oxford history professor who had contributed the most number of teeth to the necklace, had suggested that the Bagpipe was not actually a musical instrument but was designed to scare the Sassenachs back over Hadrian's wall and away from Scotland for good. He had punctuated his point by poking his unlit pipe in Billy's direction through a smug smirk. Confusing Billy's catatonic rage for a rapt audience, the Oxford Don had just commenced the second part of his history lesson when he was punched so hard he somehow flew out of his tweed jacket leaving it momentarily hanging in mid air. The professor had co-incidentally made a noise disarmingly similar to a bagpipe as he landed in the fountain. He was fished out by a Salvation Army timbrel player who harbored her own doubts about the timbrel being a musical instrument.
Billy had fallen for the Bagpipe at an early age and in fact his first word was "Pipe". Billy's father had banned him from eating in the house for 2 days because he thought he had said "Pope".
Billy joined a pipe band but was released from duties after they discovered he suffered from a rare condition improvaesthesia, where he imagined and played musical score that wasn't in the score. He added the imagined bits and fitted them in whist trying to catch up to where the rest of the band was, in Amazing Grace for example, often at a funeral.
The bits he added in between sounded a little like a Goose trying to mate with another species much less interested in the deal…….a sort of musical Tourette syndrome.
He had gone it alone from then on and busked his away around Ireland where his first necklace was quickly finished.
Irishmen, before being restricted to months of soft food by Billy, would often say something along these lines.
"Now da ting is…The Uillean pipe is as close a ting as you can get to the sound of a weeping woman and easily da most expressive musical instrument ever created, whereas the Bagpipe……"
Billy found the pipes broke down all language barriers and were quite the conversation starter around Europe, especially with managers of Hostels at 3am, which he insisted was the most inspirational time of day to practice.
Billy was frustrated by the Macedonian's insistence that their pipe was older and better. When I say frustrated……by this I mean apoplectic with white hot rage. His anger went straight from asleep…happy….to volcanic spewing of Glaswegian expletives. Nothing in between…not a few seconds…even he had no warning…. Like a tartan Champagne cork exploding.
But what made him angry, as opposed to frustrated, was the inability of his foreign audience to fully appreciate the inspired gift of Glaswegian swearing.
The lager fuelled legacy of the pavement poet…The lilt from the kilt….how bloody clever it was!!!
He learned to say in 20 languages, "Pick a window Jimmy you're leavin!!!!!" and "Are you talkin' ta me or chewin' a brick? Either way yer losin' ya teeth"
Ironically, Glaswegian cussing was much more musical than the actual pipes the cussing was defending.
The sheer invective generated by Glaswegian fury, if you could harness it, was a no brainer to power some kind of steam driven pipe organ or the Clyde ship yards.
The other thing that nagged at Billy increasingly was that due to the limitations of the pipes you simply couldn't play lots of notes that were on the score of his improvaesthesia.
He had taken to grimacing in the direction of the missing notes with his eyebrows….accompanied by a slightly apologetic rolling of the eyes…..
Then something miraculous happened in Indonesia. A mud wasp built a series of nests in the chanter of his bagpipes while he was laid up in hospital recovering from being attacked by a village following a successful translation of some of his favourite expressions.
When he unpacked the pipes in New Orleans he discovered, as a result of the mud wasp nests, he could now play sharps and flats. He could play ALL the notes of his improvaesthesia!!!!
Billy stumbled upon a traditional New Orleans funeral and falling in to the second line of mourners, he pulled out his pipes and starting playing.
The mourners slowed to a stop, staring at him and he braced himself for the familiar scuffle, gun shots or bows and arrows. To his shock they started slow clapping and at first he thought they were taking the piss. Realizing they were the first humans to like his playing, his improvaesthesia rose to a new level. He belted out his ambitious composition entitled Dizzy Haggis which, thanks to the mud wasps he was now able to perform in the original imagined key of F#. Previously he had made do in the key of C with a hell of a lot of eye brow grimacing.
But not now…. The audience went nuts!
He felt like he'd come home and was finally among his own people.
Finally the crowd calmed down and the older of the black cats took his dented Selmer out of his old cracked lips and said slowly "Man…..now I finally know what the B in B Bop stand for!
It stand for Bagpipe!"
MAN, it stand for BAGPIPE!!

© 2011 Tony King

Have Your Say
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The Bagpipes is one of the most beautiful instruments ever designed. I recall vividly from my childhood the so-called 'Scotties' in marching bands playing the most thrilling music; visceral, stirring and heart-wrenching. I have always loved the bagpipes - love the drones and remember how vital the concept drones and ostinati are to music. The special scales and the ornaments are hugely inventive. In short, bagpipes are great musical instruments.

Posted by Richard Gill on 29 December 2011

I have recorded bagpipes a few times over the years including the NSW Bagpipe Assc. Band consisting of some 100 pipers. Run for the hills! It is the most percusive tone I have ever heard from an acoustic instrument, not saying it is, but it is from my personal experience. I have felt my scull vibrate in resonant sympathy with the sound at under 1m!

Posted by Steve Newton on 29 December 2011

but did ye know that the Highland Pipes are considered to an instrument (as in weapon) of war and therefore the local ordinances pertaining to practicing a musical instrument at any hour of the day or night do not apply to these as they are considered to be  part of army training in Glasgow as least! I am a closet Pipes fan despite anything inferred in my story :-) I was obsessed by them as a kid and my parents were petrified I would take them up and practice in our little London Flat.

Posted by Tony King on 28 December 2011

It's a great article. I think its good to play any instrument (musical or otherwise). As long as I don't have to listen to it.

Posted by Ray Forster on 26 December 2011

I think that today being Christmas we should spare a thought for all banjo and bagpipe players around the world. Lets just hope that they find some peace in their lives and then decide to share it with us all by not playing today. Its just not right to have to shoot someone on Christmas day....

Posted by John Morrison on 25 December 2011

I have always acknowledged that the bagpipes is indeed an instrument...a "musical" one is the part I struggle with though. I've always believed that the definition of a true friend is one that can play the bagpipes but chooses not to. oh, just for the record-I love the banjo! Check out Buddy Wachter and Aussie Peter Hooper for some great banjo playing! Have a great 2012! Andy

Posted by Andy Firth on 24 December 2011
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