I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I took for granted as a kid piper, compared with the challenge of balancing piping with the rest of life as an adult. When I wrote “Afternoon at the Green Monster” I was 14, playing my first year as a grade 1 piper, and thinking about nothing else than the next competition. I was also in eighth grade at Islander Middle School at the time, but looking back at my childhood, piping just seemed so much more important. I knew big things were coming, but could not have predicted what life and piping would be like ten years down the road.
My family – which included my mom, dad, and older brother – could not have been more supportive. My family drove me to lessons and highland games, wrote checks for lessons, and listened to the pipes in the house every evening, whether or not they were in tune. For that I am forever grateful.
For about a year from around 2011-2012 I would frequently go weeks, or even as much as a month without playing my pipes. This was for the same reason it seems so many promising, young players set them aside: I had burned myself out driving up to Vancouver, BC for band practice every weekend, struggling to compete against the array of amazing professional pipers on the west coast, learning to live on my own, taking courses at the University of Washington, and working a part time job. My relationships with friends in Seattle suffered as a result of me being gone every weekend during the summer. I knew this was the case when my college friends stopped asking if I was available when discussing their weekend plans, because they knew that I wasn’t. I felt I was missing out, and for quite a while I focused on honing my GIS skills, picking up the basics on the mandolin, and spending summer weekends climbing peaks in the Cascades.
Since moving to Portland, I’ve once again made piping into a major life focus. My first rented room in a shared house included a spacious upstairs where I would spend hours practicing, often to the frustration of roommates and neighbors. Still, it felt good to pick up the pipes again and begin to undo the atrophy that had affected my piping skills from so many months of limited commitment.
Eventually, my roommates, tired of hearing so many hours of piping from me and my students, politely asked me to not renew the lease. So I found a basement apartment that would be affordable for my girlfriend and I, and began renting space at a studio near my office so I could continue to practice and teach the pipes. For the first time in my life, I had strict limitations on when I could play, where I could play, and to top it all off had to pay monthly for the privilege of playing. I don’t think many pipers (especially young pipers who live at home) understand what this is like. Still, the important thing was I could still play, teach lessons, and work at my GIS job for the county.
Today, my situation is much the same. My girlfriend and I still live in a basement (it’s a very nice basement, so I’m not complaining), I work for the City not the County, and I now rent a VFW Hall for practicing and lessons.
The transition from living at home with no other care in the world other than preparing for a competition, to now living with my girlfriend, working, cooking, and piping has highlighted the benefits of parental support in ways I hadn’t realized. When I think back to practicing the pipes as a child, I used to remember the hard hour and a half practices, the endless recording sessions, and the tough lessons. Now, I also remember that dinner would just “appear” right after a tough practice. I remember not worrying about whether the oil was changed and the tabs were up to date if my parents were driving me to Canada for another competition. I didn’t have to worry if $250 in new reeds was in the budget. I didn’t have to worry about my family requesting that I not renew a lease with them.
So, to my parents and my older brother: thank you from the bottom of my heart. You put up with so much bad piping, and I’m forever grateful. To the adult pipers that I have learned from: I am newly impressed with the way you have fit piping into your life. The circumstances of growing up push us to set aside “hobbies” like piping at almost every turn. Life gets more complicated with each new year of life, and us adult pipers have to fight to keep piping in the forefront.
To any young pipers who may read this: congratulations on all the hard work you have put in. Just remember that without the support of those close to you, you would not have come as far as you have. As you age, other priorities will inevitably bubble up. Relationships, money, house, food, and social status will all present challenges to your continued excellence with the pipes. You’ll be faced with friends who are disappointed that you are always off piping on the weekends, at a time when you’re family and childhood friends are not there to fall back on. You may find yourself in a relationship where you have to compromise time spent piping for the sake of your partner. You may even choose to set the pipes aside for a short time. The fight to retain piping as a centerpiece in life while transitioning into adulthood will not be easy. In the end it will shed new light on the love and support you received in your piping past, while making you appreciate the hours spent with the pipes on the shoulder that much more.