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Jamie Cuthill

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Was it Worth It?

I frequently hear from serious pipers that they won’t spend money on “gadgets” for their pipes.

Now, I understand that people get really into their opinion when it comes to art (yes, piping is an art), it’s important to remember that they are simply opinions. Certain things will result in different sounds. Louder, quieter, buzzier, mellower… The list goes on. These are facts. “It dampens the sound” is an example of a fact. I like facts. “It makes the sound better” is an example of an opinion I would be quite quick to ignore. “It dampens the sound, and I like the mellowness it creates in my pipes” is an example of a well thought opinion.

Though I feel there are many useless, or dated products we can throw our money away on, I don’t feel like a penny spent on searching for your sound is a penny wasted.

When I hear of a new gadget that’s hit the market I get very excited. I want to try it. I want to hear the effect it has on my overall sound. I want to feel the effect it has on my playing. I want to see if it helps my goal of being a better musician.

Often, of course, it does nothing. Every now and then, though, it makes a difference. Those hard earned, easily spent, dollars have resulted in the sound I produce today, and I can give an honest opinion on what I like or dislike about a lot of tools on the market.

Top “gadgets” I consider money well spent for my solo sound:

Modern Solo Pipe Chanters. I have spent enough on pipe chanters over the years to fund a new set of bagpipes. I have found one that works awesome for me , and my bagpipe (RJM Solo Chanter, and I like it for it’s rich, sweet sound, with a hint of a buzz).

Synthetic Drone Reeds. Every bagpipe, and every bagpiper will likely need to spend and spend until they find the right combo to achieve their sound (Canning Tenors, and Kinnaird Evolution Bass, and I like this combination as I find the tenors produce quite a rich sound in my Naill drones, while the bass reed provides a bit of presence that my bass drones seems to normally lack).

Drone Moisture Control. Lots of options, I’ve spent lots. I’ve found one that works for my sound (Drone Dry Stocks, which I like as they do not dampen the sound, and hinder the hard work, and money I spent searching for the right drone reed combination)

Zippers on Pipe Bags. My favorite bag maker may not have done this yet, but I’ve got options from other bag makers until they do (Currently using Gannaway Sheepskin with the zipper, which I feel comfortable enough with the shape. I like the zipper for too many reasons to list inside a parenthesis).

Chanter Tuners. Again, I have spent a bit on these awesome little gadgets. I found one I like (Blair iPhone/iPad tuner app, which I like for the inexpensive price tag, the convenience of having it on a device I’m likely to always have with me, but mostly for the ease of use, and tremendously high quality).

Tablet. I’ve got all my sheet music in one place, self organized, and it’s easy to transport (iPad, which I purchased as I am most comfortable using Apple products).

So, there you have it. And if you have it, don’t be scared to spend it if it means you will eventually find your sound.



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Home Associations

In recent weeks, we’ve seen some tremendous uproars in the global piping community.

Namely, the leading drummer of potentially the best drum corps in history, and his suspension from competition by the RSPBA (Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association).

Now, though I don’t agree with his suspension, I don’t think it is appropriate for non RSPBA members to tell the RSPBA they are wrong.

Looking back, the RSPBA had tried to make changes in North American associations. The response was that the RSPBA has no place commenting on associations outside of their own.

Why do pipers on this side of the pond find it unacceptable for RSPBA to comment on non RSPBA associations, but feel it is perfectly acceptable to tell them how to run theirs?

Support the drummer in question, but be mindful of your double standards. Let RSPBA members sort out their home association, and you just take care of yours.


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I have played at many funerals. Mostly for strangers, though some for people close to me.

The first funeral I played at was also the first funeral I attended. It was for a friend of mine, a young piper, who was killed in a car accident.

The night before I remember fumbling with my pipes, thinking this whole mind boggling topic over, when my dad came down into the basement (where he and I were relegated to practice, so as never to disturb the neighbors… a bit of baggage I still carry today). He wanted to have a chat. Nobody likes “chats” with their parents in their early teen years, especially over topics as heavy as death. He said “We’re not playing our pipes tomorrow to make a sad thing more sad, and we’re not playing to make a sad thing happy. We’re playing to make a sad thing beautiful”.

Pipers often forget that playing one little tune is so much more than a little tune for a grieving family and friends. For a brief moment the pipe floods the room with sound, and that sound touches everybody, like the presence of the person who these people will so desperately miss. It really is quite beautiful.

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Why do you play the bagpipes?

Have you ever asked or been asked “why do you play the bagpipes”?

The number one answer is “I like the sound”. Why is it, then, that so many pipers don’t put effort into perfecting their sound?

I remember, vividly, the first time I witnessed a live pro contest. I was so amazed at the sound being produced by these players that I literally got tunnel vision. Nothing else existed to me at that time, outside of the piper I was listening to. The tempos were steady, and the musicality was impressive. The execution was flawless, but the sound was sucking me in to hear all of these details. I had to make my bagpipe sound like this. In lessons, I learned that it had to do with the hands on set up of the instrument, and the time and practice of tuning them to perfection.

I have chased that sound for the last 18 years. Achieving the perfect sound has always (and will always) be a goal for me. Each and every time I take my pipes out to play I’m trying to get the best possible sound from my pipes. I do this for me, but I’d also hope that somebody might hear it and have to explain to somebody why they decided to play the bagpipes.


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How many people listen to bagpipes for the pleasure of it on a regular basis?

Probably not many. I’m sure that most people turn down the very thought of it based on the hacks that insist their ill tuned pipes, and/or poor musicianship on the general public.

When I was younger I never dreamed of listening to pipes for pleasure, even when I was starting to learn the pipes. Then, my dad brought home a cassette tape of a prominent Scottish pipe major (Robert Matheson’s Ebb Tide). Totally cheese ball now, but I’d heard nothing like this before. I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was full of catchy tunes, played in a manner I’d never heard before.

Then, Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band released “Debut”. I know now that bands were recording music like this before, but I’d never heard before. I ruined that cassette from overuse.

I had to have more and more piping recordings, and I started listening to top pipers and bands playing on perfectly tuned instruments. I’d bought Gordon Walker’s “Pipers of Distinction” three times due to the cassette breaking, then the C.D. scratching beyond playability (I actually need to get this one again, as I ruined my last copy before I bought an iPod).

I don’t think I would have liked any of these recordings any less if I weren’t a piper. I actually think this stuff inspired me to pay more attention to all music. I wanted to play music.

I have to wonder if people probably don’t dislike the bagpipes. They may just dislike bad piping. I’m sure I would dislike the piano if my only exposure to it was some oblivious schmuck, banging loudly on ill tuned keys, with no musicality.

F.Y.I. my must have piping albums are (in no particular order):

Gordon Walker “Pipers of Distinction”

Angus McColl “Live”

Roddy MacLeod “Pipers of Distinction”

Willie McCallum “Hailey’s Song”

And, Gordon Duncan “The Circular Breath”.

Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band “Live in Motherwell”

Simon Fraser University Pipe Band “Alive in America”

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Getting Sorted

The night before a contest, I like to devote to taking care of my instrument, and my kit. I don’t think it’s really necessary, as I take care of my bagpipe regularly, but it puts me into the right frame of mind. Last minute tweaks of the drone reed bridals, seeing that the bag is as airtight as it can be, ensuring that the stocks and slides are nice and snug, and putting fresh tape on the chanter. Making sure I have all my maintenance supplies and spare reeds in my pipe case.¬†Making sure my glengarry is in my pipe case. Getting any wrinkles out of my shirt, jacket, and kilt. Polishing my shoes, and ensuring my hose are clean. Flashes are in my sporran. Everything is ready to go for the next day, and the next day all I have to do is play what I have practiced.

I see so many “scramblers” on contest days. Frantic competitors that don’t know where to start. Their bagpipe is in disarray, and they have a disheveled look about them. I know, just by looking at them, that it will take a miracle for these folks to do well. They did not take care of everything that they could take care of, and they have nobody to blame but themselves for this.

When I see somebody walk in, looking smart, relaxed, and pulling an immaculate bagpipe out of their case (not from underneath a pile of unorganized music and unraveled roles of hemp), I know straight away that this person is ready. They are going about this in a professional manner. They have prepared  themselves, and it will probably take a significant amount of bad luck to prevent this person from playing well.

Take care!


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The Solo Band Piper

The branch of my local pipe band organization is hosting a solo bagpipe competition in two weeks, and I’m working hard to get a decent turnout.

It seems to be a widespread problem. Solo bagpipe competitions do not have as big of a competitor pool as they once did.

When I was younger, I know the solo grades were filled with 15-20 solo pipers in each grade. That was at the little local contests. What happened? Every piper in every band used to sign up for the solos.

My theory is that lower grade pipe bands are putting too much pressure on their players to focus exclusively on band material. Players don’t feel they have the time to work on both band and solo material, and I don’t think the leadership is stressing the importance of solo competition enough.

Don’t get me wrong. I find lots of pleasure playing in a pipe band. I certainly put a lot of pressure on my bands pipers to work hard on the band tunes. But, through experience, I know that a competent solo competitor is more likely to practice regularly, get regular private lessons, and constantly attempt to improve their musicality, execution, bagpipe set up, and blowing. This is going to come back to the band, and the ranks will be filled with well rehearsed pipers.

Simply put, good solo pipers make good band pipers.

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