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John Roy has been playing the pipes for only eight months. Enthusiasm and application have brought him up a steep learning curve, so that he now has over fifty tunes in his repertoire. His strong views on teaching techniques, together with his own experiences might give encouragement to others who are struggling or at a similar stage in their piping endeavours.

Like a lot of ex-Patriot Scots living abroad (England) I decided to learn to play the bagpipes. So I duly trotted along to the local pipe band and asked them to take me in. Then for five weeks I went to the local boys school where they practised, and each week I was more stirred by the sounds around me; but each week I had a new ex-Army expert to tell me what I wasn’t doing, and each week I was sent to a classroom on my own to practice.

After the fifth week I asked if there was anybody who would give me private lessons, but for some reason I could not find anyone who’s hand wanted to be crossed by silver - I even thought of changing my deodorant or my socks! I eventually found out that most of the people I had asked already had young proteges in tow, and it may have been an embarrassment to have taught an older and obviously slower person - I don’t know.

On the sixth week I was confronted by another expert who commented that he would never know why I wanted to learn the bagpipes as I was too old anyway! At that I was down tools (chanter) and off - and the chanter went into the cupboard.

Up until this point in my life I always believed “it’s never too late to learn”. I am only 50 years old and I feel 25. So after a bit of soul-searching I decided that my objectives had not changed. I still wanted desperately to learn to play the bagpipes.

My father had given me a set of Grainger and Campbell Highland pipes. Twenty years ago I put them into a cupboard, and there they had stayed. I also had a set of pipes bought in a car boot sale which looked and sounded like an old cat. I decided to sell this set by advertising them as an ornament which was really all they were good for.

The first person to who enquired explained that he was learning and he had been treated the same way as myself by the same band. We arranged to get together every Monday night. He was a bit more advanced but I found we were both encouraging each other to better piping. After about a month of this his wife rang up to tell me he wouldn’t be meeting any more as he had run away with an ex Scots Guards accordion player!

I then booked myself into a week’s course of piping lessons at the Glasgow School of Piping where I met Angus MacDonald OBE (ex Scots Guards). In my first lesson he asked me to play the scale on my practice chanter; I did, and he listened. He then asked me to play the scale with G grace notes; I did, and he listened. He then asked for the scale with a D doubling, but before I could get the third doubling blown Angus bellowed at me “That’s Crap” at which I jumped out of my seat! I thought for a minute that I had just joined the Army! Back to Basics, he said. I spent the rest of the week on a very intense structured training course which left me with no illusions as to the struggle I had chosen. One of the main lessons I was taught was not to move on until you had mastered the notes or the exercise you were on, and if you made a mistake you went back to the beginning and started again. That week I got to like and respect Angus MacDonald.

I went home from Glasgow with sore fingers, a feeling of achievement and an attitude, too, of wanting to go on but thinking there must be easier ways to satisfy my passion for pipe music. Coming up to Christmas I sent away for some piping CDs to Shepherds of Fife. They were extremely helpful in recommending even though some of the items they sent were quite advanced - what I would call Pipers’ piping. One of the CDs they sent was Gordon Mooney’s “O’er The Border”. I put it to one side to send back thinking they had made a mistake, as this wasn’t Highland pipe music. But after playing it to the end I became fascinated with the sound and decided to look into what it was all about.

Shortly after I answered an advert for a set of Scottish smallpipes, but received back a set of pipes not very well made with no reeds and “Made in Pakistan” stamped on the bag. I eventually got a smallpipe Maker to look at them and get them going - after I had placed an order with him for a set of smallpipes.

I joined the LBPS and went to the 1996 Easter competition in Edinburgh, and was totally amazed at the difference in attitude between the LBPS people and the people involved in Highland piping. I found it quite refreshing. Apart from the main difference of the Highland pipes coming from a regimented history, and their evolvement having gone as far as it can without a Highland pipers revolution, the smallpipes - or Lowland pipes, as some people call them - are still evolving, and getting more and more popular. A very fundamental               indoctrination of small-pipers seems to be when you have learnt a piece of music you then   change it to bring out the best in your instrument and, more importantly, what sounds nice and pleases yourself and others.

I booked the June weekend in Melrose and decided that I must do a bit of learning and playing before I went. I practised a few tunes nearly every day for about half an hour. I was pretty glad I did, as I don’t think a complete beginner would have enjoyed it [the weekend]. Two of the teachers were John Saunders and Gary West. They were very patient, very understanding, and very good. The Friday evening everyone was in the bar playing and listening and boozing. The Saturday evening dinner at the Hotel was not up to much, but the music played afterwards was fantastic. Again Gary West and John Saunders demonstrated their skills on the smallpipes. All in all it was a worthwhile event - when’s the next one!

I also booked the 5-day Isle of Skye Teach in August 96, with David Taylor at the College ...... I thought that the 5 days were a bit too long. A break on the Wednesday would have been a good idea. David’s teaching was very good and thorough. I learnt a lot about reeds, maintenance. and related topics. I also picked up a few tunes.

Having been on 3 bagpipe courses I think they are good for learning about the instruments and maintenance, and it’s very interesting to hear the different way people play tunes, but speaking purely for myself I find that to pack too much in did not have the desired effect of learning quicker. I find the present way I am learning not only very fast but extremely musically rewarding. I just wished that all these people who produce pipe music books would also produce a tape (not a CD) of the tunes in that book so that us beginners can hear how the author or arranger would like it. That would certainly allow more people to enjoy     PIPING and the LEARNING TO PIPE.