Back in July of 2011, I got a call from the orchestra director of the San Francisco Opera. A good friend of mine, a piper was seriously ill and not able to perform the bagpipe part in the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier at the War Memorial Opera House in September. The director said my friend had referred him to me and asked if I could play a bagpipe part with the orchestra. I could hardly believe what I was hearing! I was hired without an audition to play 4 rehearsals and 7 performances in September. What an amazing honor. In a few days I had signed the contract and was reviewing the music, written specifically for the bagpipe. No adaptation or fancy fingering needed.
I did not have to dress in uniform, just dark clothing, the semi-official “uniform” of the opera’s orchestra. I was introduced around, welcomed in by the other orchestra members as if I were family, given the run of the place, an official ID card, and given the Cook’s tour. I swear to you I was pinching myself continually for a month.
Going to work twice a week was a proverbial piece of cake. Dress in black shirt, pants, and shoes, take the BART train to within three blocks of the opera house, and walk in the back stage entrance. I explored every inch of the place, feeling like the phantom of the opera. I fantasized about hiding until closing time and spending the night inside.
I played my part from the organ bay, directed by a young assistant director who raced into the room about a minute in advance, set the tempo and off we went. I did a fade-out by striding quickly down a corridor behind the organ bay as the poor director ran backwards in front of me. He never tripped. Good thing too. It would have been a trick not to walk on him.
Heart of a Soldier is the story of Rick Rescorla, who saw D-day troops embark in Cornwall as a child, fought in Rhodesia and Vietnam, then became the head of security for Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center. He warned of the danger of terrorist attack but was ignored. He died in the building collapse doing one last check after seeing all of about 3,000 Morgan Stanley employees to safety. The bagpipe part was at the very end of the story after his death. My notes were just about the last sounds heard before the curtain dropped.
The day I walked out of there for the last time was bittersweet. I still feel a deep sense of privilege for that experience. Thank you, Tracy Davis, orchestra director for hiring and supporting such an inexperienced opera musician. Thank you Wendy Young, for referring me. It was one of the great joys of my life.
You may think pipers are scarce, hard to find. You may be tempted to hire the first one you call. Truth is, you can secure a piper in a few minutes online or with a phone. The trick, the really scary part is hiring one who won’t embarrass the heck out of you, and the risk is high, very high if you don’t ask the right questions…and here they are!
How to get the truth:
1. Ask: “Have you competed?” “At what grade?” Hired ONLY pipers who competed in grades 2, 1, or professional. Grades 3, 4 mean the piper needs more experience.
2. “Have you won?” A good piper wins and can prove it. Ask for the years and contests then look them up here: https://wuspba.org/results-2/ These are searchable online records and they’re official. Use Ctrl-F to search for the piper’s name.
3. “What bands have you played in?” Every good piper has extensive pipe band experience, usually with a contest-winning marching pipe band.
4. “Do you teach?” This is less important, but a “yes” answer conveys dedication to the tradition and a giving spirit. However, many good performers do not teach. It’s a different, added skill.
This is all you will need. It takes about 5 minutes to ask the questions and check the records. Remember, a poor piper has never won, probably never even dared to compete, not played in a band, not taught, and is not a member of the piping community. Watch out for those lone desperados. They will almost always disappoint you badly.
Tomorrow, Veteran’s Day 2014, I will perform for the ceremony at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. This will be my third year. Thank you to Carolyn Livingood and the committee for granting me the honor.
A well-played pipe sings it’s message. It is evocative – romantic, sad, joyful. Whatever emotion you wish to draw forth. It will do it every time IF AND ONLY IF it is played well.
Really bad bagpipers are the plague of the piping profession. And especially, they plague our clients. There are very many pipers who are just plain not good at it. Some take a few lessons and present themselves on the market as experienced, even expert. By the time their poor musicianship is discovered, the damage has been done. The dignity of the wedding or funeral ruined. Guests talking more about the “horrible bagpiper” than about the tender moments. Precious memories are forever polluted.
There is so much to a good bagpiping performance that it would take many pages to describe it. It goes far beyond being able to tune well and play with good musical expression, yet most so-called “professional” pipers cannot do even those basic things (not to mention show up sober, stand up straight, and be polite).
Here is an example of what can happen when good people say, “We only need one easy tune. What could go wrong? And besides, this piper costs $50 less than that piper. Let’s hire the less costly one. NOBODY WILL KNOW THE DIFFERENCE.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3W1R8DhYSc
Amateur pipers count on that statement: NOBODY WILL KNOW. But people do know, even if it vague or hard for them to describe. When I meet someone who says to me, “I have never really liked bagpipes,” I know they have probably heard bad piping. So choose carefully, dear prospective client. Choosing the piper is no time for misguided thrift. The added cost of hiring a professional is minimal (usually $25 – $75).
See my blog entry “How to hire a qualified piper” for easy questions to ask that will keep you safe from embarrassment.
I have performed at two presentations during the past month for the not-for-profit organization American Fallen Soldiers Project. Phil Taylor paints portraits of fallen service members. He and Lisa present them to the family in a touching ceremony with honor guard and piper. They do this without charge in a spirit of true patriotism and love. I am honored to have been a part of their kind work.
Who is she? When and where was she? What was the tune? Was this a contest? We may never know, but certainly she is lovely and her uniform does her perfect justice.
I played for Jack’s celebration of life recently. Several generations of his family and many friends attended to pay tribute and express their love. He was very dear to his family and it was a sentimental day. Jack’s golfing friends were there and spoke of him with great fondness.
Jack was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco during the years after WWII and was a piper for the 6th Army Pipe Band. It is always a special honor for me to perform in memory of such a man. Thanks to his son, Mark for these photos and blessings to his wonderful family.
Hap was a pioneering spirit. She learned to fly WWII trainers hoping to be a WASP, one of the women who flew stateside. After the war, she toured Scotland on a bicycle, staying at youth hostels. My own mother did the same thing at about the same time. These women may very well have met. Hap documented the trip on the same official youth hostel map my mom passed on to me. Hap framed her map, placed her photos around her route to illustrate the experience, and wrote a book about it. She skied, wrote, played viola, started a new career (technical writing) late in life, and nursed California jays back to health. Would that we all could live so well and fully. She clearly did a great job of raising her children, too. Thank you to her son Brooks, Sharon, his wife, daughter Kate, and grandson Jason (in his kilt at the service) for your kindness. Blessings to all.
I was not informed of the genre for this wedding so it was a delightful surprise. Maureen and Aaron invited everyone to wear Victorian and gears for their big day at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. The ceremony was outdoors overlooking the flower garden, the cocktail hour in the conservatory, and the reception in a hall behind it. The guests attracted lots of attention from tourists and locals alike. Park rangers stood guard to keep the general public from invading out of curiosity. Lots of love and liquor flowed. When I left, the good vibes were still building. What a party, as they say. Thank you Aaron and Maureen for welcoming me so graciously. It was a joy performing for you. I hope your honeymoon in Scotland is as magical as your wedding.
For those of you who are not familiar with Steam Punk, here is the Google Images page. You can also read this good description in Wikipedia.
Jeff grew up in Pacifica. His brother Bruce along with lots of his friends have fine memories of their early days. He was an electrician after serving in the National Guard. His wife, Susan, daughters, and many family members honored him in the most fitting way. The common thread was that he was an easy guy to know and knew how to treat people. Even his prom date spoke, relating how their ride home did not show up and he walked her several miles home, a perfect gentleman, then walked to his own home, all in his formal wear. They rode lots of motorcycles in those days, Bultacos and Husqvarnas, the motocross cycles of the 60’s. Some of his old buddies are Harley men now and they lined them up proudly out front.
It was a good day at the historic Pedro Point Firehouse. I will always remember it. Thank you Susan, Melissa, Bruce, Minister Miles, and the honor guard for your kindness and consideration.