Chanters and Pipes

What happens when a
violinist finally
thinks about breathing?

Music was a huge reason as to why I chose to study abroad at the University of Glasgow. Freshman year, I’d walked into the study abroad office at my college and asked my advisor about which study abroad programs would allow an international student visiting for one semester to play violin with an ensemble or take private lessons. U of G quickly looked like the best option for me — I could audition for the Kelvin Ensemble, as well as choose from an exciting music course catalogue that included, of all things, an academic course on film music.

Film music.

A dream that almost came true…

I feel like my love for film music is a staple as to who I am at my core. I love movies in general to begin with. I often joke that awards season is my favorite season of the year and that I watch the Oscars like a football fan would watch the Super Bowl. And when I watch a movie, I’m hyperaware of the film score; music in a film often makes or breaks a cinematic experience for me. Half my Spotify and Amazon Prime libraries consists of film scores — Harry Gregson-Williams’ work for the Walden Media Narnia films is at the top of my favorites list, with Hans Zimmer’s work on the third Pirates of the Caribbean film a close second. Among many others, the names Michael Giacchino, James Newton Howard, James Horner, and Dario Marianelli all hold special places in my heart. So when I saw that there was a course on film music available at U of G, my excitement to study abroad here escalated all the more. As someone who loves school and loves film music, what more could I possibly ask for? It sounded like a dream come true.

It was just a few days before classes started that I received the news that MUSIC4047, Film Music, was no longer running for this semester. I was completely thrown for a loop. Of the courses I was taking (which I promise I’ll talk about another time!), Film Music was what I was most looking forward to. Not only would it complete my music minor, it was film music. I just feel like those two words are self-explanatory. I feel like I’ve already repeated them to the point of redundancy in the first few paragraphs of this post alone.

So I had to look for a back-up plan. Every other music course I was pre-approved for back home had direct conflicts with my other courses, so I was beginning to get a little panicky. But my study abroad advisor here had the brilliant suggestion to see if the bagpiping course might work out with my schedule.

It did.

I looked at the plans for the course, and now it feels perfect to have this course supplement my music education and study abroad experience. I mean, I’m in Scotland, for crying out loud. For someone who adores learning about music and about cultural traditions, taking a course on bagpiping while living in Scotland really is a no-brainer.

A goodbye to one exciting thing only gave me room to say hello to another.

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My lectures and private lessons are at the National Piping Centre of Scotland. It’s right in the city centre district so it’s a little ways away from the University of Glasgow and my residence hall, but it’s so worth it. Plus, now I get to learn the ropes of Glaswegian public transit so I don’t always have to walk fifty minutes in one direction.

The semester’s still just starting out, so hopefully I’m not jumping the gun when I say this, but I’m already so excited. Since the course only meets once a week for two hours, we haven’t delved too deeply into course material just yet, but I can’t wait to start learning about the bagpipes and its history as an instrument and as a staple of Scottish culture.

(I’m also so grateful that I’m coming into this with some music knowledge, especially since during the first class, the lecturer threw around terms like pitch and half-step and mixolydian. I’m just so, so happy to be studying something new about something I love in a country I’ve quickly come to love.)

My first piping lesson!

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The beginner’s set: A book full of exercises, as well as a practice chanter. 

This morning was my first piping lesson of the semester! Instead of getting down to business right away, my teacher tried to get to know me a bit first, asking me how I’ve been liking Scotland since arriving, what it’s like in the States, and so on. He’s one of the friendliest people I’ve met since arriving here in Scotland, which is saying a lot considering folks here have been so, so kind as it is. I laughed a lot this morning with him, so I’m grateful for starting off this rainy Wednesday with smiles.

He seemed just as excited as I was that I have prior experience in reading music, but we quickly discovered what complications that prior experience posed. With violin and piano, I’m very used to curving my fingers, using only the tips of my fingers to press down on a string or a key. I’m used to having my fingers bent, whether over a keyboard, fingerboard, or bow.

Oh, yes. My bow hold. It’s going to be a problem.

Something new with my hands…

The fact that I’m double-jointed doesn’t help, either — not curled around a violin bow, my fingers kept collapsing in on themselves, bending the wrong way when I needed them to just lay flat. Keeping my fingers flat, especially my right pinky, was like nails on a chalkboard, a mortal sin, going entirely against the grain of what I’ve been so steeped in learning for years. Every fiber of my body was resisting it. My brain was begging me, No! Don’t do this! This isn’t right! It’s not natural! I’m going to have to learn how to put aside 11+ years of a carefully acquired bow hold for the next few months.

I hadn’t been expecting the complications with my hands. I thought it was going to be more similar to my fourth grade recorder lessons — after all, you curve your fingers and only use your fingertips to cover the holes with a recorder! No, with piping, you use the flat parts of your fingers to cover the holes, the skin right in the middle of your distal and middle phalanxes. (I’ll confess I had to Google ‘parts of the finger’ to make sure I knew what I was talking about there.)

…and something new with my mouth and lungs.

What I was prepared for was the completely different use of my lungs — or at least, I thought I was prepared, if not at least emotionally. Nope, not even that.

I’ve often teased my woodwind and brass-playing friends that I can eat two seconds before playing and not have to worry about half-chewed bits of potato chips coming out of my instrument.

My friends in the woodwind and brass sections, I will never tease you about anything again.

Though I know as well as anyone that any instrument is challenging with the skills each of them respectively require, I’ve truly gained a new level of respect for your practice.

How. Do. You. Do it?!

My mouth was in pain by the end of the hour. My stomach was even a little strained from pushing air out. I don’t know how different piping is from, say, flute or trumpet or trombone, but jeez. If I barely have the stamina for an hour on a little practice chanter, I really can’t imagine what y’all in the woodwind and brass sections have gone through for years and years.

Dang. I am just loving how study abroad is giving me new insights on everything, including music.

Nah, I really don’t think I’m jumping the gun.

Even though today was just day one of my piping lessons, even though it was a little challenging, I had so much fun. And tomorrow’s the second lecture of the semester. I get to stretch my legs on a long, scenic hike down to the Piping Centre and I get to learn new things about the culture of this country that’s new to me. How can I not be in love with how this semester is going so far?

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