Pipes are still calling, 50 years later

Carl Robinette

Tue March 1, 2016 2:55pm

From glorious battlefield marches to jaunty celebration songs, the powerful wail of bagpipes tends to dominate any occasion, and its distinct sound is a classic staple of Hollywood police dramas, regimental funerals and St. Patrick’s Day parties.
“I play a lot of funerals and one thing that is difficult for a lot of bagpipers is you get asked to play ‘Amazing Grace.’ And when you’re playing it and you see the mourners are moved by the music and they’re crying and they’re looking at you, it can be hard to keep it together and not cry yourself,” said Larry Samuels, who has been playing bagpipes since he was 10 years old.
Samuels was born in Indiana and soon joined a boys and girls bagpipe band formed by well-known piper James MacRae. Samuels has played his whole life and in 2002 he quit his tech industry career to become a full-time piper.
With origins as a peasant-class or folk instrument that date back centuries, the bagpipes are relatively simple in that they only offer nine notes, just enough for an octave plus a note. It is played by blowing almost constant air into the blowpipe and applying steady pressure to the bag with an arm while fingering notes on the chanter, a recorder-like pipe.
“Even though it’s relatively simple musically, it can be challenging to make all of that work together. People who are new to bagpiping are often surprised by how challenging it is,” said Samuels.
He plays the Scottish bagpipes, which are larger and a bit more unwieldy than the more familiar Irish bagpipes.
“When you see the movie ‘Braveheart,’ it’s supposed to be Scottish bagpipes on the sound track, but because the Irish pipes are smaller and maybe have a little more flexibility to be more expressive, movies tend to prefer them to convey those emotions,” Samuels said. “So it’s actually Irish bagpipes you’re hearing in many movies that take place in Scotland.”
While the musical simplicity and small melodic range impose limitations on the instrument, enthusiasts like Samuels will tell you those same limitations help create the distinct sound and character of bagpipes. It’s much more difficult to convey emotion with a simple instrument like bagpipes than it is with others such as the piano or violin, Samuels said.
Bagpiping as a practice has historically been passed down from father to son and, to a lesser extent, to daughters. But they have recently had a surge in popularity due to online communities and ecommerce sites where pipers can learn to play and purchase essential equipment like kilts.
“When I was a boy there was one place in the U.S. that sold bagpipes and that was all the way in Seattle,” Samuels said.
The traditional Scottish bagpiping kilt often measures up to 10 yards in wool. All of that fabric is heavy and can get hot in Southern California, said Samuels. Luckily the digital age has also brought kilts made of new lightweight fabrics that can be found online.
Other than the changes brought by the Internet, bagpiping still remains so steeped in tradition that to see a bagpiper in trousers is almost shocking to the eye, and despite the recent popularity boom, bagpipers are still a relatively small community.
Outside of marching bands, bagpipes are for the most part a solitary instrument because the pipes tend to drown out the sound of strings and other wind instruments.
Finding a space to practice and learn to play them can also be tricky because the sheer volume can be a disturbance.
“Bagpipes only have one volume,” Samuels said. “Loud.”
Samuels is set up to practice in his house, but he says many pipers head to the park or the beach, even freeway underpasses, to practice where the sound won’t bother anyone. But the challenges of the bagpipes and their massive sound are exactly why folks like Samuels stay faithful to the instrument for decades.
“Pipers typically just love the sound of the bagpipes and I definitely do,” said Samuels. “When you get the pipes all tuned up and they’re just humming away, it’s the most grand thing to be right in the middle of it all.”