I jump ahead forty years in order to share one of many piping stories accumulated over those years. Since the age of fourteen I have played bagpipes as accompaniment for highland dancing. Typically, a piper or pipers are hired to perform this task, doing so throughout the day trading off dances for breaks from the delightful tedium. Yesterday was one such day.
One walks onto a damp field, humming with the possibilities of the day, newly arrived but yet in infancy. The sun, undecided as to its welcome, insists on playing peek-a-boo through gently swaying trees overhead. The heady, morning air gradually yields to the all too familiar squawks of bagpipers keen to tame the beast before their competition debut two hours hence. Ahead of me is a small army of doting Moms preening little girls; perfecting hair, fluffing ruffles, smoothing wayward eyebrows, tightening dancing shoes, blowing young noses and assisting people like me with the whereabouts of the necessary coffee, fuel for a long, noisy day of piping for Highland Dancing – the reason for this morning scenario…
It’s almost imperceptible how one’s surroundings, interactions – experiences in general, help to build a reality around our lives that is immediately recognizable on reentry. Smell pot once and you’ve pretty much got it memorized. Conversely, smell, if only for a moment, the fragrance of a particular perfume, and one’s whole world of first love reopens complete with vivid pictures, achingly familiar emotions and the intoxicating remembrances of love won and lost.
For bagpipers this occurs whenever the tangled auditory mess that is a competition field of peacock pipers strutting their craft before one another, feigning non-chalance, makes itself known. And yet, there’s a certain calming effect the uproarious clitter clatter of competing non-harmonies has had upon me for more years than I can count. As a competitive piper for decades, to walk onto a fresh competition field ripe with the smell of dew mixed with wet leather shoes, cigarette smoke, and the smell of bad food was nothing short of transcendent. If I’d hit a winning streak, this strut was accompanied by a rush of a please-notice-my-statuesque-entrance-onto-the-battle-field-and-be-afraid posture. Ah yes, the overly confident swagger of youth.
Today is not a competition day however. This is a day devoted to the craft of Highland Dance accompaniment. To the uninitiated it is the realm of piping masters whose melodies, lilting one minute, scorching the next, endear themselves to those intent on seeing kilts bounce up and down for six to eight hours in 90 degree heat. To those of us in the biz it is the bottom of the bagpipe food chain so to speak. To stand in one spot under a lovely shaded canopy while waited on hand and foot with coffee, water and sandwiches is a far cry from the blistering heat on black tarmac upon which competing pipe bands fight to maintain a most unwieldy instrument against the ravages of the waterless landscape. While I play simple, crowd pleasing melodies over and over again to constantly appreciative audiences, each pipe band must battle under much more extreme conditions not just for the crowds but for the stoic and feared judges lurking just beyond the competition circle.
No, my job today is considerably simpler. And, I’m OK with that.
I’m now closer to 50 than 15 and the sheer number of times I’ve had this experience of Highland Games participation complete with youthful swagger and passively boastful demeanor have been replaced by the gently glowing embers of gratitude. It is thankfulness for having even been introduced to this oddly mystifying instrument and its associated sociological accoutrements. Now, I can’t help but think as I stroll past these young pipers intent upon nervous preparation for the perfect performance just how glad I am that they, now, have their chance and, second, that I no longer need it to enjoy all that it offers. I’m gonna watch them sweat for awhile.
Again, I’m OK with that.