By Nathan Crandell
I’ve always been moved, or maybe the better word is “stirred”, by the distinct sound of the Great Highland Bagpipes. I wish that my first time hearing the pipes somehow appropriately matched their large iconic sound, but that wasn’t my story. The perfect place, I could imagine, would have possibly been atop a remote mountain at sunset after a long hike, or perhaps from the far shore of a misty lake in the early morning. But for me, my first memory of hearing the pipes was while watching the beloved 1995 cult classic comedy, “Tommy Boy”.
Like I said, not the most notable of first experiences in hindsight, but you’ll have to excuse me. I was eleven years old at the time, and I loved that movie. As you may recall, the tune they play as Tommy mournfully reflects over the casket of Big Tom Callahan is none other than “Amazing Grace”, which though objectively is a great composition, also happens to be the most commonly requested tune of any piper anywhere since it was first arranged for the instrument in 1972. That means we hear it in our waking minds and we hear it in our sleep. But I’m not going to lie – I just watched that very scene on YouTube while writing this article and, as many times as I’ve played it, my hair follicles still tingled the moment the full band strikes in to play. It’s a powerful tune played on a powerful instrument.
Fast-forward to 2004 when, as a sophomore at Belmont University, I attended a convocation in the campus music hall by invitation of a friend who thought I might like to hear a full pipe and drum corps concert. I didn’t like it… I loved it! It was the first time I had been in an enclosed space with pipes and drums all playing together live. It was loud and commanding! They played “Amazing Grace!” But to me, as enjoyable as the concert was, it somehow didn’t feel attainable. It seemed like a lot of time and money to invest in a niche hobby. I had been in music my whole life, my parents having started me on formal lessons when I was three. I was obviously in Nashville to be a rock star. No time for pipes.
I think anyone who has spent any amount of time and money in Nashville trying to “make it” in some capacity in the music industry can relate to the moment in the pursuit when they first encounter the dark side – the churning guts of the machine of music business. This encounter for me ultimately led to the death of my aspirations. For some, the prize of succeeding, of being recognizable on the street or maybe even just making ends meet musically, is enough to keep pushing through the no-man’s land of playing, not for the joy, but for the business model of what it means to be an entertainer. Several years in, I made the realization that this environment had killed in me a lifelong love of the essence of music. I couldn’t feel it anymore. I didn’t get joy out of playing or going to concerts. I could only listen critically. The mystery and the magic was gone and the process of creation became a calculated motion of quota. So, like so many others before me, I scraped bottom and was forced to reflect inward. I came to see that there was nothing else in it for me. I put my guitar down, I observed a period of mourning at the loss of my great passion, and I moved on to focus on a career in an industry that I didn’t hate, but also didn’t care enough about that I could be let down that way again.
…Then returned the notion of bagpipes.
My fiancé and I were driving up to Wisconsin to visit her family for Christmas back in 2013, and on a drive that long you find yourself listening to all sorts of music, thinking all sorts of different thoughts. I put on some bagpipe music just to get a sense of how they made her feel, to see if she got a subtle buzz the way I did. Though she did enjoy the sound, it was not, perhaps, in the same primordial way that I do. I’m a descendant of Scottish ancestry, an identity my family is very proud of, but a point of pride we never felt the need to strongly advertise. Perhaps the love of the sound is just in my blood, but the point of it being, it was then that I started playing around with the idea of learning bagpipes… as a gag. I thought it would be funny to wake up her family one morning with bagpipes that I had learned in secret, as a sort of long-con joke. That’s how it began. I wish I were kidding.
I Google searched “bagpipes for sale” on my phone. $1,200 to $2,500 was a bit daunting. We were planning on getting married that year and for those in the know, weddings are expensive. I didn’t think there was any likelihood of talking her into my starting up another hobby right as we were about to get married. I kept Googling. Lessons seemed hard to come by, the instrument was notoriously difficult to play, let alone to maintain.
Oh! But then I found it: The amazing, cost-friendly, and (most importantly) low-volume practice chanter! No full set of pipes needed. I read that you could learn form and tunes on the chanter first and decide later-on whether it was the instrument for you. Given that I was then only looking at around a $60 front-end investment, it no longer felt like I had to move heaven and earth to explore the possibility of learning. Lessons seemed essential to the process, though. There are countless ways to play the pipes wrong, and in their lack of modesty, their potential wrongness can be broadcast quite far. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, but budget was still a consideration. Guitar lessons used to cost $65 per class. I didn’t have a spare $260 a month sitting around.
I’m not sure what my search criteria was, but I didn’t find Nashville Pipes and Drums first. I did, however, initially find a number of teachers giving private lessons remotely. One piper did Skype lessons from Scotland. Another piper in Chattanooga would teach face-to-face if I made the four-hour round trip every week. I started to lose optimism that I could find instruction that would work for my schedule and budget, but eventually I happened upon the Nashville Pipes and Drums website advertising free lessons. Free!? Free. I signed up and bought a chanter.
Learning a new instrument in my thirties, in front of my step-kids and wife, was probably the hardest mountain to climb on the road to decency. I sounded terrible for a long time, and had to practice within earshot of my family who were all very patient. It was a hard position to be put in as a formerly semi-professional musician, but the band teachers were so helpful and encouraging of my progress. As it was a group class, I was encouraged by not being the only one in the class who couldn’t play a clean doubling, let alone a tachum. We sucked together at first, but then we learned together and shared in those milestones of success.
Three years later, I’m still learning. The pipe major is still learning, for that matter. The whole group, regardless of experience, works hard almost every day at reaching for the next height. I finally learned how sight read music, a subject I had successfully evaded my entire musical life prior. With the band, I’ve played on the stage of the Grand Ol Opry. I’ve marched in parades across town. I’ve had my picture in magazines. People have been brought to tears by our music. Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a regional solo competition and took home first place in my division. On top of all of that, on top of all of those moments I had originally hoped to experience, but never did, on my quest to become a rock star, I’m now a part of a great and diverse musical community. My step son is learning to play the Scottish snare through the band and just this year was issued his kilt and marched with me in the Dragon Park parade. I’m passionate about that next height and the process involved in getting there because, probably more importantly than any other payout of all of that hard work, my love of music – for the joy of music – has been restored. I’ve even been known to strum on my guitar again from time to time.