Scotland Studies With Shannon: Bagpipes

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Upon my arrival in Scotland, I promised myself three things: to continue my habit of eating at least two oranges a day, to find a way to keep up with “Game of Thrones” and “Hannibal” as diligently as possible in order to avoid spoilers, and to never be ‘that American’ in any situation, ever, while abroad.

Courtesy Of Shannon Ho
Courtesy Of Shannon Ho

About two weeks into my trip, I found myself sitting in an informational meeting for a piping class.

At my UCEAP orientation in Edinburgh, the coordinators mentioned that those of us going to Glasgow would have the opportunity to take instructional piping lessons at The National Piping Centre for credit.

I paid little attention, focusing instead on the fact that I had been denied approval for all of the English classes I had signed up for.

Two days later at the University of Glasgow, all international students were running in a frenzied panic from department representative to department representative trying to get approval signatures for the various classes needed to fulfill requirements back at home.

After lengthy discussion with the English Literature representative, I was pointed in the direction of Scottish Literature, where thankfully I gained approval for two classes I desperately needed.

I looked at my timetable and realized then that I still needed a scant 10 credits in order to be counted as a full-time student.

“What do you think I should do?” I asked the girl who was standing behind me in the Scottish Literature line.

“Piping. Or photography. But I’d choose piping,” she replied.

Courtesy Of Shannon Ho
Courtesy Of Shannon Ho

I walked over to the table, found out the course was worth 20 credits, signed myself up for the informational session, and went outside and called my friend back at home.

“How’d it go? Did you get all your classes?” she asked, sleepy-voiced thanks to the eight-hour time difference.

“Yeah, I got what I needed. Oh and I’m taking a piping class,” I said.

“A what class?” she asked.

“A piping class. Bagpipes. I’m going to learn how to play the bagpipes.”

There was a bit of a silence, then a burst of wild laughter.

“I think it’ll be fun!” I protested over the noise.

“I’m sure it will be! But man. Bagpipes of all things?” she responded.

I could see her point — an American taking piping lessons in Scotland seemed like ideal material for a Saturday Night Live skit.

The course consists of two components — a once a week one-on-one lesson with an instructor, and a once a week two-hour lecture focusing on the historic and cultural aspect of the bagpipes. Beginners start with a practice chanter, which looks like the grown-up, sophisticated cousin of the recorder.

My first instructional lesson was also a lesson in character — there’s nothing quite as humbling as being 21 years old and struggling to go up and down the chanter scale while a boy about the age of 12 flawlessly plays a tune the next door over.

“Keep practicing! You’ll get it soon,” my ever-patient instructor encouraged.

For enquiring minds, yes I am able to go up and down the scale now, and I can even do gracenotes and strikes and doublings now. I haven’t yet attempted to play a tune, but I’ll get there before you know it.

The lectures go in depth into the history of the bagpipes, which can be dated as far back to the 14th century.

We also are taught different musical styles, and we listen to clips of various types, such as jigs, laments and marches.

I’ve come to find the bagpipes to be quite a beautiful instrument, and have an immense respect for those who play it well.

Truthfully, my biggest concern was the idea of being a clueless foreigner looking especially ridiculous in attempting my hand at something with such great Scottish cultural significance.

But it all really boils down to newfound appreciation and respect for something you don’t really find back at home.

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