THERE was a time when I thought that one of the hardest things I’d ever done in my life was to play Peter MacLeod’s tune Donald MacLean, twice through in the jig final at the Northern Meeting.
John Burgess, ever the man, he middle of the bench at the Eden Court theatre (rightly so) and managing his cigarette like a fine theatrical prop: smoke rising, languid swirls clouding the bench in the coolest way; Burgess, wrist at just the right cant and fag angled in just the right way, well, JDB effectively imbued that bench of three with the gravitas I’d imagine was in line with any — Pearly Gates included. And me, sweating and E-striking away.
Thinking back now, I have to laugh. At the very least, smile. The piping world misses JDB and the coterie of many characters of his generation. And by the way, on this particular late Thursday afternoon in early September, I was to play, on the repeat, the third part of the tune, three times. I glanced to the bench, knowing I’d blown it — an amateur thing to do, to give yourself away in a glance — and there was JDB, smiling and shaking his head. I finished my nine unplanned parts — and exited stage right.
Of course, a jig is a jig. A dance tune passed our way courtesy of that seriously musical and enigmatic emerald green place southwest of the Hebrides. Four parts will give you 60 seconds of rhythmic and technical intensity. Highland pipers, by hook or by crook, have managed to squeeze out the fun factor by usually adding a “twice through” in its performance. And Highland dancers shake their fists.
Anyway, my Eden Court thwacking is, of course, far and away not the “hardest thing” I’ve ever done. I’m happy to say that there is nothing in piping that comes close.
I’ve lived long enough to have attended more funerals than I’d like (and undertakers aside, who likes funerals?) support acquaintances, friends and family move through tricky health or life challenges — pardon the, admittedly, politically correct vernacular — and, well, just lived a life, one where bagpipe stuff is never the “most challenging”.
My God, it surely can feel like that, challenging, from time to time — let’s keep it real — but, no, a life lived usually tempers all that. Bagpipe stuff, as I’ll call it, is just that: stuff —things that happen related to the instrument you happen to play and, sometimes, the band where you choose to make the whole thing happen. All this, I know, is no different from you. We’re all the same.
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