Category Archives: Blog

Musician’s Focal Dystonia Update and How I’m Playing My Bagpipes

During Autumn of 2019, while the kids were away at school during the day, I made great progress in playing competition style tunes. This culminated in competition success at the Salado festival in November. Starting in December, however, my playing gradually decreased and I came back into it once the Spring 2020 semester started and the kids were away again. However, I was plagued by my focal dystonia, as if all progress had been lost. Previously, this dystonia would result in unrhythmical pauses in my playing. However, it had started to manifest psychologically as chanter cut outs as I’d encounter finger movements affected by my specific dystonia (vigorous contraction of the left pinkie upon and preventing most E grace notes from sounding).

I struggled with various solutions to the dystonia to try and boost my confidence and hopefully address the chanter cut outs at the same time. One solution was consistent with retraining the muscles in a different way to do the same thing, which is no easy task, but known to circumvent dystonia. I tried doing this by simply moving my top hand fingers further over onto the chanter to more closely mimic the finger placement on the bottom hand. This actually helped somewhat as it gave the chanter a different feel allowing the E gracenotes to sound without triggering the dystonic muscle firing sequence. However, I still struggled with the chanter cutting out at points where the dystonia would, or used to, manifest. It’s like my brain had decided it was better to have no sound than garbage sound. “Here comes the part you suck at, better just give up!” This was very demoralizing. But then I fixed it.

I decided I needed to change my approach to playing the bagpipe. Specifically I needed to address keeping the pressure constant and decoupling how I filled the bag with air from the music itself. I’m not saying my blowing rhythm was, or ever has been, attached to the musical rhythm. I had started letting the pressure drop when reaching dystonia inducing passages in the music. My solution to these chanter cut outs was to keep my breath intakes very, very short to the point that as soon as my lips parted to intake air I’ve already started closing them again. I’m making a point to be blowing through every dystonic passage as best I can and in general just always keeping the bag topped off with no hesitations in refilling the bag. You may see this in a set of recent videos I made about Ackland 480 Overtone drone reeds. For whatever reason, this has taken my mind off the dystonia allowing me to resume a more normal hand placement on the top hand of the chanter and still sound notes with correct rhythm, but it has also improved my overall steadiness to better than it ever has been.

I know I can’t get my hopes too high that this will be much of a permanent solution to my focal dystonia. It does not negate its effects entirely, just by a significant fraction. I believe it is linked to the confidence that I am going to sound this bagpipe as full as I can and whatever happens…happens, and so by random chance I generally play better even in dystonic passages; as opposed to not having the confidence to play well resulting in the chanter cutting out. So, my advice, keep that bag as full as you can as often as you can!

Link to the youtube videos mentioned above:

My 2 Week Competition Season

Having switched studios, my daughter’s yearly dance recital did not conflict with the Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival & Highland Games in May (Albuquerque, NM) so I finally had a chance to return to a favorite games of mine, after 15 years if I’ve done my figuring correctly. At only 5 hours away this is the closest piping competition to Lubbock, TX. Two weeks later, I competed at my first indoor competition, the Austin Piping and Drumming Competition; Austin is 6 hours away. If I were not going to Yellowstone for vacation, I’d also attend the Pikes Peak Celtic Festival in Colorado Springs in another 2 weeks (about an 8 hour drive), making my competition season 4 weeks long. But, that’s it really for games that have piping competitions. There’s one in Tulsa, OK in September but I can’t find a website, hrm.

With owning many pipes, the first thing to do is pick which set of pipes to play in competition. The pipes I play most are my band pipes, my old Hendersons. The only other two currently in rotation are my Colin Kyo and Tim Gellaitry sets. It had been some time since I featured Tim’s pipe in competition and so I decided to go with them. This decision was reinforced by the glorious drone tone I’ve been getting with them. I have always loved the tone of them as one of the best and most stable using all original Kinnaird drone reeds, however I have recently switched to Chris Armstrong’s X-TREME bass drone reed and it is all sorts of fantastic. THE BEST BASS DRONE I HAVE EVER HEARD. Coupled with the tenors still using original Kinnaird, I get a most excellent, harmonic drone tone. I got many compliments from fellow competitors and judges alike on the tone of the drones. It should come as no surprise, my chanter of choice is Colin Kyo. A custom straight cut Husk was used in ABQ as their weather is similar to Lubbock’s but it started double toning on F in the humidity of Austin so about 10 minutes before I was to start my series of performances in Austin, I had to switch to a different CK chanter equipped with a Gilmour reed that’s as probably as old as my 7 year old son, luckily it played nicer with the humidity.

Below, you’ll find recordings of the pipes as played in Austin, though the chanter isn’t quite settled in for non-humid Lubbock as I’m still moving the reed and tape back to where they were prior to Austin. EJ Jones once told me it takes days to tune a bagpipe. TRUTH.

The mic is behind me so you can hear the drones clearly (understatement of the month). Most of the tunes below are competition tunes and some are ones I actually played, but not all.

Bessie McIntyre, Alick C MacGregor, Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree – I almost make it to 90 bpm by the end!

Highland Harry and Charlie’s Welcome – a bit quick into the terminal taorluaths in Highland Harry and just outright missing a few gracenotes in Charlie’s, haha. Someday I’ll get it!

Clachnacuddin Hornpipe and Rakes of Kildare – Clachnacuddin Hornpipe is an old version of The Inverness Gathering arranged by Capt. John A. MacLellan and son, Colin, and is a previous tune of the month with sheet music available in the archive.

One topic I have pondered much in recent years is tempo. I grew up listening to recordings of pipe music about as old as I was. Much of my MSR repertoire mimics the 1984 Grant’s Piping Championship album (available on iTunes if you can tolerate the random distortion from the “old” recording). While digitizing this album yesterday from my old cassette tape, I took a few tempo measurements. Iain MacFadyen played one of my MSR: Kantara to El Arish at 74 bpm, Inveraray Castle at 142 bpm, and Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree at 95 bpm. Truly an engaging performance. The slowest reel came from Hugh MacCallum’s John MacKechnie at 85 bpm, Malcolm MacRae’s at 98, Murray Henderson’s at 92, Gavin Stoddart’s at 90, and Bill Livingstone’s at 94. Other strathspey tempos were anywhere from 128-138. Marches in the low 70s. I feel that common tempos have fallen to slightly lower values at the current time. Marches are often in the mid 60s, strathspeys right around 120, and reels in the low to mid 80s. While I have enjoyed more measured performances, with great care taken in rhythm, and have tried to mimic them on occasion, I have come to the conclusion that I prefer slightly faster tempos. Marches are for marching and strathspeys & reels are dance music (and I don’t mean modern highland dancing). Strathspeys are a derivative of reels evidenced by, if nothing else, the often quoted SWMW emphasis in 4/4 time strathspeys which directly coincides with the cut time of reels: 2/2. Piping has many idioms, and I find myself favoring the THIS IS A HIGHLAND BAGPIPE AND I’M GOING TO GET YOUR BLOOD PUMPING style because MACPHERSON HOLDS THE FLOOR.