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Bagpipers use more than their lungs — they play with their hearts

Published: Tuesday, June 10 2008 12:07 a.m. MDT

Andrew Morrill skillfully plays the bagpipes.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Watch any bagpiper play, and you will see an amazingly intricate process taking place. He or she must blow air into the bag through a windpipe and then force the air out through the three drones with pressure applied by the arm the bag is tucked under. Intake and outtake must remain steady and constant, because if it is not, the pitch of the pipes will change and will sound out of tune.

All the while the air pressure thing is going on, the piper is fingering the tune on the chanter. Because there are relatively few holes, some notes may require awkward finger positions or half-covered holes and such. Plus, the chanter is always producing sound, so there is no rest between notes, and to play the same note twice in a row, a short note, called a grace note, must be played in between.

Add the fact that each set of pipes has four separate, very finicky reeds, which are subject to changes in temperature, altitude, humidity and other things, and you'll see why bagpipes are hardly the easiest instrument to play, let alone master. They require the coordinated effort of lungs, diaphragm, fingers, arms, brain — and as they are often played on the move, legs.

Listen to any bagpiper play, however, and you will soon discover that another body part is involved. Bagpipers also play with their hearts.

More than many other instruments, bagpipes seem to pull out additional layers of emotion. For most players, there are elements of heritage and tradition and passion that run deep into the soul.

"Hereditary insanity is not necessary," jokes Jack Marinello, drum major for the Salt Lake Scots. But it's usually there, he says. Despite his Italian last name, "my mother was Scots-Irish, so it's in me, too."

To be a Scot, the Utah Scottish Association notes, "is to be fiercely proud, patriotic and competitive." Nothing illustrates that any more than the bagpipes, which have become a quintessential symbol of Scotland and all things Scottish.

The thing about bagpipes, says Andrew Morrill, pipe master for the Wasatch & District Pipe Band and president of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, "is that when they are played well — there's nothing like it in the world." On the other hand, when they are played badly, "well, there's nothing like it in the world."

Fortunately, he says, "We've learned so much about playing bagpipes. It's gotten so much better." If you went back and listened to how pipe bands were in the early days in this state, "they'd sound pretty hideous. It's amazing what we put up with. But it's gotten so much better. All the companies sound really nice."

Utah has its fair share — perhaps more than it share for a state its size — of pipers, Morrill says. "We even have two high school pipe bands, at Ben Lomond and Payson. That's very unusual."

In all there are about 10 pipe bands in the state. You can see them marching in parades, playing at weddings and funerals, performing in memorials and other events. They also participate in competitions all over the country.

Many of them will be out in full force, with other pipe bands from around the region, to play and compete at the annual Scottish Festival & Highland Games, which will be held at Thanksgiving Point this weekend.

The festival will include athletic competitions, such as the caber toss and the hammer throw, dance competitions, concerts, food, vendors and more, including pipe and drum competitions and mass performances.

The bagpipe tradition in Utah has a rich heritage. The Utah Pipe Band was formed in 1937 by Robert S. Barclay and is still under the direction of the Barclay family today.

"We are the oldest continuously organized pipe band in the Western United States," says Shelly Barclay, whose husband, John, now directs the band and whose four sons — three pipers and one drummer — play with the band.

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