The skirl of the Scottish pipes - one either loves the sound or hates it, and few there be who're between.
In fact, along the Wasatch Front and across the nation the music and the instrument of the Gael have reached an all-time high popularity: The bagpipe is now second only to the guitar in being taken up by Americans eager to learn to play a new instrument.Oddly enough, the guitar's popularity is one reason Hillcrest High School senior Matthew Walker chose the bagpipe.
"Guitar players seem to be everywhere at school," he explains. "I like to be different. The pipes are the most amazing sounding thing I've heard in my life."
Walker hopes to incorporate the bagpipes into a band that'll play modern music with a cultural twist to it.
This summer Utahns can hear and see one or more of Utah's bagpipe bands, either through the three Highland Games held in Salt Lake City, Payson and Cedar City or through performances in the many parades along the Wasatch Front, the highest exposure probably coming during the Days of '47 Parade. Understanding the training and sacrifice involved in learning how to play the venerable instrument will perhaps heighten their appreciation.
The sound of the pipes - the skirl - motivates many beginners. It's almost as if the skirl activates some genetic program within the listener, stirring a deep, loving awe for that haunting sound.
Every piper fell in love with the skirl long before the inclination to play took hold. For Alpine resident Mark Grant, it happened when he was but a boy.
"There were movies I saw as a kid that had pipes in them, and they were always in a glorious scene, and I got into those," he said. However, it wasn't until two years ago, after seeing the Salt Lake Scots perform in a Springville parade, that Grant decided to try to learn to play the bagpipes.
Seeing pipers in parades does indeed seem to have a big effect on people. Pipers Dave Taggart, Mark Grant, Michael Gibbs and Ken Baker, to name a few, say they were inspired by seeing the bands in parades or competitions.
Sure, brass bands are nice and showy . . . but a parade of pipers accompanied by a drum corps is pure pageantry.
"The pageantry of the pipes is what grabs most people," agrees Pipe Major Bruce Hansen of the Salt Lake Scots beginning Band B. But it's the skirl that pierces their hearts.
"It is a very emotional instrument," Hansen says. "In Scotland, back in the days of the MacCrimmons, they referred to the playing of the pipes and chanters as `the voice of the fingers.' You can move people to tears, to dancing, to marching, or get them up for a battle, which they were designed to do, and they do it very well."
Listen to a piper play "Amazing Grace" and you'll see - not an eye will be dry. Or watch the effect of the triumphal national anthem, "Scotland the Brave" - the surge of patriotism puffs out the chest of anyone with even a drop of Scottish blood in his veins . . . and of those who don't.
Still, for those really hooked, trying to find a teacher or even pipes is often difficult. Both Grant and Walker searched through music stores until they found one that knew of a piper to call. Robert Sant, a piper now for six years, spent years trying to find someone to learn from.
"Anybody who had a chance to teach me died before I could learn," he says. "My dad heard the Scots practicing at Fort Douglas and checked it out and gave me the information."
Are the bagpipes difficult to learn to play? The general consensus among pipers is: yes.And some will the pipes are the most difficult instrument of all.
Eight-year piping veteran Lee Ann Fairchild, currently the only local woman piper, relates an event from a Provo Fourth of July parade a few years ago. A Brigham Young University music major approached her and said he had played every wind instrument except the bagpipes. With confidence he asked if he could try Fairchild's.
"He blew and blew until his face was red and he was swaying back and forth. He got the drones to moan but no sound from the chanter. He was surprised that he couldn't do it."
So what makes the bagpipe such a challenge?
For one thing, it's an archaic instrument. Most cultures in history have had some variation of the bagpipe for thousands of years. It is far older than any modern orchestra instrument, says Hansen.
For another, the bagpipes are a high-maintenance instrument, cantankerous and sensitive to atmospheric conditions like moisture, dryness, heat and cold. Which makes playing them in Utah a challenge.
"When you tell people from Scotland that you play bagpipes at 5,000 feet, in 100-degree temperatures with zero moisture in the air, they think you're crazy," Hansen says. "But it can be done."
Maybe it helps that perfect pitch and precision aren't quite as vital with the bagpipes. . . .
"The music is played by feel rather than exact note value," explains Capt. Ken Baker of Hill Air Force Base. "The gracing is different for notes, the fingering is much different than piano."
"I thought this would be easy and was surprised to find it rather difficult," Grant admits.
Learning the bagpipe is really like mastering two instruments, says Pipe Major Dennis McMaster of the Salt Lake Scots advanced Band A, who instructs would-be pipers.
Students begin on a practice chanter - the chanter being the pipe with the finger holes on which a melody is played. They first learn fingering and ornamental "gracing" movements, which takes anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the ability of the student. The practice chanter is also used by all pipers for the learning of new songs. Once they're proficient on the chanter, students move on to the bagpipe itself to learn the blowing techniques. This takes another six months to a year.
McMaster's fee for students isn't cheap or easy, but it is free. "All I ask is a lot of practice and energy," he says.
Some tackle the pipes when their own pipes, so to speak, are no longer young, say, after age 50. And it can be difficult. "But I've done it," Grant says. "It has something to do with the motor coordination and dexterity of the fingers. To redevelop the motor pathway between the brain and the fingers becomes more difficult with age. That is why a young piper, starting at age 8 or 10, it flows easy for him."
No matter what their age, the beginning piper must have a good set of bagpipes. And like any quality instrument, they are expensive, ranging from $600 to $1,100.
OK. Say you have the enthusiasm and you have the pipes. Where do you go to find a good teacher?
Doug Hansen, Salt Lake Scots drum sergeant and instructor, says a prospective student should find a band and give it a listen. If the band sounds good, "go to the head man and ask him to teach you lessons. If you learn from a poor piper, it takes a long time to undo."
However, many pipe bands do not take beginners, Hansen says. "We do. We've never turned away a student who wants to learn (pipes or drums). There's a place for everyone; if all they want to do is be a parade piper, or if they want to advance to competition level, there's a place for them."
The ranks of the close-knit Salt Lake Scots have grown by almost 50 percent in the past year, making the corps the largest of Utah's five pipe and drum bands. Other bands include the Layton Caledonians, the Utah Pipe Band in Bountiful and two school bands, at Payson High School and Southern Utah State College.
There is even a therapeutic side to playing, some pipers say. Both Bruce Hansen and Michael Gibbs have overcome lung ailments due to piping. Hansen had chronic bronchitis and, tired of boring breathing exercises, he approached the first pipe major of the Scots, Dale Bain, who taught him. The bronchitis has never returned. Gibbs had asthma and, after three years of playing, no longer needs the puffer used in his treatment.
And, no, one doesn't have to be Scottish to play the bagpipes . . . although one never knows what one will find on the family tree.
Piper Larry Munger says he didn't really care about his ancestry. "But every time I got out the pipes somebody'd ask if I was Scottish. I felt funny saying no, because I didn't think I was.
"Come to find out, I've traced Munger to the 1500s on the Scottish border, and on another line I'm a direct descendant of the royal Stewart line of Scotland."
Obviously, those who take up the pipes love the music and the hobby - but what about the piper's family?
"When I first took it up I let my wife know how much time it involved," said Sant. "There's a lesson once a week, band practice once a week, individual practice of at least an hour every day. Plus parades, funerals, weddings, schools, churches, trips to Highland Game competitions all over the western U.S. and Canada."
The commitment shocked Sant's wife; she opposed his idea of taking up the bagpipes. She said, ` "If you do I'm going to leave you.' I said, `Well, there's the door. Do you want me to buy you a bus ticket?'
"And now she says if I quit she'll leave me. So I guess I'm stuck with her, because I'll never quit piping."