It feels like Spring is making its flirtatious move on Chicago. The only evidence that we were buried in snow a few weeks ago are the dying mounds of grey slush in parking lot corners. The robins have returned and prevent any idea of sleeping in on a Saturday morning. The days are not necessarily warm enough for outdoor activities but it doesn’t stop the Midwest from driving with windows or tops down. On an unseasonably warm day I took my chanter outside to let the world know I was learning a new tune. Taking a break from butchering said tune I contemplated how pale the winter had made my neighbors. I also entertained the idea of putting my snowblower away for the season. The last time I put my snowblower away I single handedly sparked a snow storm that caused even teenagers to don coats. That was also the week that I started my official bagpipe journey with the Chicago Highlanders. I looked down at my innocent looking practice chanter and said, “You’ve been kicking my ass for almost a full year.”
So what have I learned in a year? Well, a lot of things.
I want to be in a band.
I’ve been fascinated with the bagpipes since I was a kid. When I imagined learning to play the pipes it was never with the intention of playing in a band. Truth be told, I didn’t even know that was an option. I always thought pipe bands were secret societies made up of cops, firefighters and Scottish warriors. I approached playing bagpipes with the idea that it would be a parlor trick that I’d pull out every once in a while to impress or disperse house guests. That all changed the first night I met the Highlanders.
There’s something about tradition -especially good tradition- that sparks the impulse to participate. There’s more to a pipe band than just playing a musical instrument. There’s a culture and an attitude of stewardship or responsibility to care for something that’s been 100 years in the making. I realized that I wanted to be part of that. Overnight my goals changed. There was a list of tunes and a standard that I would have to overcome. I’m a work in progress. (Slow progress is still progress)
Getting involved takes no skill.
“When on a boat; if you can’t tie the knots, fetch the beers.” One of my mentors told me that years ago. His point was that there are rarely situations -even when learning a new skill or being introduced to a new environment- where you are completely helpless. There’s always things that need to be done or ways to help that require no bagpiping skills. Really the only requirement in helping a pipe band is presence and a willingness to get involved. The first time I was invited into the “circle” it wasn’t as a piper… it was as a music stand. (I was told that I make a great music stand. I happen to agree.)
There are no atheists in fox holes or at chanter tables.
If you’re going to learn something new, there almost certainly will be discomfort. Each week I meet my poor instructor for a lesson an hour before the band rehearsal starts. I’m not the only student so the space is filled with sounds of mistakes and repetition. It’s a welcoming place where mulligans and grace are handed out with encouragement. There comes a point in the lesson where that atmosphere changes, it evaporates. My career has put me in a few scary situations, but none is so scary as the last 15 minutes of my lesson. It’s around that time that the band begins to file in. At the same long table where I punish my instructor the pipers and drummers of the Chicago Highlanders find seats and unpack sheet music. In my head they are listening to every one of my mistakes and taking notes. Out of the corner of my eye I sense the Pipe Major’s shaking head. A drummer is starting a trash can fire to put my chanter out of its misery. Eye balls burn holes in my head as I’m stared down from across the room. By now, my fingers have instinctively chosen flight over fight and disconnect from my brain. Inevitably my reed will fire off an inappropriate squeal that turns me into a puddle on a folding chair. Of course this all in my head. It used to really bother me until someone in the band told me, “There isn’t a mistake that you can make that we haven’t already made.” Make the mistake, let everyone see you make the mistake, then stop making the mistake.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be present when the Chicago Highlanders ceremoniously transition a person from “student” to band member. The further I go down the path the more I realize the significance and gravity of the accomplishment. I know how much time, effort and frustration it took to get across the finish line.
I hope that in the coming months or years that I too will earn my kilt. I hope to one day call myself a Highlander and have my name added to a list 100 years long. But I know that no matter how many parades or weddings I play in as a band member, I will never cease being a student. More importantly, I will never cease to be “teachable.” With any luck, perhaps one day I can do my part to pass this tradition on to some other struggling student.
In the meantime, I decided to have mercy on Chicago and left my snowblower at the ready. There’s a tune to be learned and this chanter isn’t going to play itself.
It’s been quite a year…