My Piping Background
I started the pipes as a college student at The University of Arizona more than 20 years ago. I couldn't resist. I had joined the Tucson Scottish Country Dance Society to country dance, which was a blast. In the Seven Pipers Band, I found people who could teach me the basics of piping. Since 2005 I have been the Pipe Major of the Seven Pipers Band. I enjoy teaching the pipes and being a living part of this great music tradition by passing on my enjoyment of it to future generations. We only get to borrow the music and the dance in our own time allotted and it is a great joy to just simply be a small link in a living chain.
Above: Pipes & Drums of the Seven Pipers Band in concert 2008
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Below: Here we are in the first Tucson Highland Games, 1987. Pictured left to right: me, Toppy, Stuart, Bob. At right, The Seven Pipers Band--the days before matching tartans and band uniforms!
In 1990-1991, I lived in Glasgow, Scotland, where I studied at the College of Piping under Pipe Major Angus McClellan and P/M Angus MacDonald (who sadly passed away in the summer of 1999).DUNCAN JOHNSTONE
I was extremely fortunate to get to study with Duncan Johnstone, who was a giant among pipers, teachers, and composers of pipe music. It was a great loss to the piping world when he passed away suddenly on Saturday, November 13, 1999.
In the picture above, Duncan is standing in his studio in 1991--he called it his "torture chamber," next to a painting inspired by the piobaireachd "Lasan Phadruig Chaogaich" or, A Flame of Wrath for Patrick Caogach, a.k.a. "Squinting Patrick," by Donald Mor Mac Crimmon.
He taught me a great deal about basic technique. From Duncan I continued studies in piobaireachd, or pibroch, the solo, classical music of the bagpipe. He was as great a teacher as he was a composer and performer. Very few can ever claim that.
It is significant that he not only wrote some terrific "light" music: marches, strathespeys, reels, jigs, hornpipes; he also composed in the classical piobaireachd style. These included "My Tribute to Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, M.B.E." and a lament for his son, Alan, who was taken in six short weeks by leukemia as a young man.
His family came from Barra. The Protestant reformations sweeping south through the Hebrides in ages past never made it to Barra. While fiddles were burned along with bagpipes (the black sticks of the devil) in places like Skye, the traditions of piping and clarsach (harp),dance, and other aspects of Gaelic culture lived on a little longer on tiny Barra. They certainly endure in the music written and performed by Duncan Johnstone even though Duncan was not himself a Gaelic speaker.
He told me a story about his uncle, Father John MacMillan of Barra. Duncan wrote a wonderful 2/4 march in his honor. Father John was big, "20 stone," serving as a parish priest. Duncan used to like to go "home" and visit him. At the age of 14 or 15 he was in Barra at his uncle's home and there played a tune for him on the bagpipes.
When finished, Father John only said, "Duncan, are you able to speak Gaelic yet?"
Duncan said "No, Father, but I can understand it."
Father John looked down at his own collie lying by the fire and said:
"My dog can understand Gaelic."
Duncan roared with laughter when he told that story.
To him, the point of bagpiping was not to be a great piper or some kind of authority on the pipes, but instead to play great music on the pipes. That is why he quit competing in 1957, going on to become no longer a reigning champion, but rather a living legend in the piping world.
He was also a good friend to me when I lived in Glasgow. It can be said of few people that they attain to a measure of personhood, humanity that is commensurate to the skills they develop in a vocation. Duncan was not just a master of the great highland bagpipe, he was a great HUMAN BEING with a great, generous heart for people.
When I remember him, I remember his kindness and his laughter. His laughter was contagious, welling up from deep within a great reservoir of life. In the piping world he was styled as the "King of Jigs." How appropriate, because jigs are full of laughing sounds. Did you ever try to laugh in reel time? The greatest accolade I can think to lay at his feet is that he was really truly a musical piper. He said: "You can teach anybody technique and nobody the music of a tune." Technically proficient pipers abound, but true musicians who can express the music? Crowds will gather when even a really crummy piper causes his instrument to skirl; I just keep on walking. It is when I hear really musical piping that I pause and listen because it is a magical moment. If it happens to be a jig then I'll really have to lean back and smile... because I know it isn't just great music, it's the echo of Duncan's laughter.
Copyright © 1999, 2000
William Don Carlos. All rights reserved