It’s a Long Way to the Top

It’s a Long Way to the Top…

A couple of months ago while browsing facebook, this video came across my feed:

Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this video. It’s particularly striking to me that a wildly popular band like ACDC would make a song that celebrates/laments the struggles of aspiring musicians, and that it happens to be among the best-known rock n’ roll songs featuring bagpipes.

It’s probably just a coincidence. Still, watching that video I can’t help but think of my own experience getting Dram & Go off the ground.

Gettin’ old, gettin’ gray
Gettin’ ripped off, underpaid
Gettin’ sold secondhand
That’s how it goes, playin’ in a band.

Don’t worry, I’m aware that we’re in no danger of being compared to ACDC! Furthermore, I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation for every festival, pub, and venue that has chosen to have us play. Still, promoting a bagpipe-driven Celtic ensemble in the Pacific Northwest can feel like a Sisyphean task.

For one thing, everyone asks if you’re that unicycle guy.

In all seriousness, a career as a competitive piper prepares you well to play a great birl and E doubling, but in terms of convincing folks to hire your band, it gets you almost nowhere. As competitive pipers (or fiddlers, or flute players) we are trained to seek perfection – in technique, tone, and expression. These are noble pursuits for any musician, but unfortunately they are unlikely to translate into a reliable fan base, which is really what a pub or venue is paying for.

If you are a piper considering taking your hard-fought talents off the boards and onto the stage, prepare for this, at least early on:

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Yes, many Dram & Go performances end up being, shall we say, sparsely attended.

The key thing is to appreciate the fact that a venue invited you to play, and that some people (even just one) showed up and stayed to listen.

All artistic endeavors require perseverance, patience, and imagination. That, and lots of turtlenecks:

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Even with a bit of musical skill, perseverance, gratitude, and a solid ReverbNation page, the process can be taxing. As the de facto promoter for my band, I have assembled and mailed dozens of press kits and sent hundreds of promotional emails to prospective venues. It may be the cognitive dissonance created by a bagpiper with a Polish last name, but my response rate is likely in the high single digits.

Even when I do get a response, some are dismissive or downright rude. Mostly, I just have to revise my rates significantly downward. This may come as a surprise, but as a solo bagpiper I invariably make more money per paying gig than I do with Dram & Go, by a lot! This is likely because when folks hire solo pipers, it’s generally for a wedding, funeral, or other celebration tailor-made for the music of a single highland piper. There is a significant cost in terms of time and money to maintain a decent sound on the highland pipers (not to mention the kilt, glengarry, shirt, tie, belt, Argyll jacket, sporran, hose, flashes, and gillie brogues which make up the piper’s uniform) and individuals looking to hire a piper tend to be aware and respectful of that.

Dram & Go, or indeed any niche musical act looking to expand their audience, must grapple with the fact that:

  1. Most people don’t consider ‘Musician’ to be an occupation deserving of a middle class wage (except New Orleans and a few other very special places).
  2. Pubs only make money when people order drinks. Your awesome arrangements and killer harmonies don’t necessarily make that happen.
  3. A lot of people just want to hear “The Irish Rover,” “Danny Boy,” or “Braveheart,” whatever that is.

Of course, there are numerous examples of great bagpipe-driven Celtic music out there to keep us inspired and hopeful. Molly’s Revenge, MAC, Ben Miller, Will Woodson, and of course the great Fred Morrison are all out there delighting audience, making great music, and generally kicking ass.

There are fewer examples in the Pacific Northwest where we are from (although Puirt Na Gael is a wonderful example), then, say, New England and the North Country in the Eastern US, probably due to their proximity to the cultural hotbed of Nova Scotia. Dram & Go has had numerous highland games, Burns Suppers, Saint Patrick’s Day events, and pub gigs cancelled by the organizers due to lack of community interest, sponsorship, and bar closures. It’s an unfortunate situation when it happens, and it points to the challenges facing any band or organization working to promote a somewhat obscure element of Scottish culture.

One of our goals as a band is to travel to Nova Scotia, Scotland, and the bagpipe-loving Northeast US to take in the culture, enthusiasm, and passion of the musicians there and bring some of that energy back to the Northwest.

Which brings me to one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned over the course of my journey with Dram & Go:

Begrudging others’ success leads to failure, but encouragement and support leads to success. Or, as T Swift would say, “Haters gonna hate (hate hate), and the players gonna play (play play).”

All of this gets me to thinking, maybe Dram & Go just needs to cover some Taylor Swift? It could be our Golden Ticket! Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go barricade my door before my bandmates (and Taylor’s lawyers) break it down and strangle me.

Something For Everyone

Something For Everyone

 

One of my favorite parts about going camping is the incredible variety in how you can “go camping.” For some, it’s an Army Navy surplus tent, tacos made on a Coleman camp stove, and marshmallows around the fire. For others, camping means taking the comforts of home into the great outdoors in a stylish and well-stocked RV. Other people still don’t consider it “real camping” unless it’s living out of a heavy backpack on a thirty mile trail, with only the stars, wildlife, and blisters for company.

Since I started to broaden my approach to the bagpipes nearly ten years ago, I have been similarly struck by how much diversity there is among the players and fans of not just highland pipes, but other types of pipes too. As a young piper, ahem…

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…there’s really no way I could have imagined how many fun and varied playing experiences the instrument would bless me with. A lot of my friends in the competitive piping scene describe piping as a “lifestyle” probably because of the intensity of so many events, friends, bands, gear, and awesome music that one can experience as a player in that tradition. What I’ve come to realize is that there are in fact multiple piping “lifestyles” out there, each equally valid and delightful in it’s own way.

Highland Piper Lifestyle

 

For a solo or band player at any level, any given Saturday may play out like this:

05:00: Wake up to the alarm, put on the coffee and cook a hearty breakfast. While that happens, double check the pipe case, make sure all parts of the uniform (kilt, hose, shirt, ghillie brogues, flashes, belt, sporran, jacket, and glengarry) are prepped by the door.

05:15: Eat breakfast, shower.

05:45: Make sandwiches for lunch and make sure sunscreen and cooler are prepped.

06:00: Pack pipes, uniform, lunches, cooler, and lawn chairs into the car. Drive for two hours to the highland games.

08:00: Arrive at the games, and haul stuff to the band tent.

08:15: Check in with piping table and the steward at your competition platform.

08:30: Pipes up! Tuning for the piobaireachd.

09:00: Play the first competition of the day – solo piobaireachd. Brush out the drones and make sure the reeds are dry afterward.

10:00: Tune up for the MSR.

10:20: Play the MSR. Brush out the drones – make sure the drone reeds are dry too!

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10:45: Tune up for the Hornpipe Jig.

11:00: Play the hornpipe jig competition. Relax for 30 minutes, eat a snack, and then…

12:00: MASSED BANDS!

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12:45: Scarf the sandwich.

13:00: The band warms up with a 10 minute tune-up, and 20 minutes of running through the competition material. This is to check the pipes for issues and get everyone comfortable for band competition.

13:30: This is as close to “down time” as we will get today. Walk around with buddies, check the final solo results, people watch, or sit in the shade of the band tent and take a nap. The pipe major needs you back at the band tent with pipes out by 15:00 sharp, and (as you’ve learned the hard way) you’d be a fool to not to heed those instructions!

14:50: You’ve been hydrating. Hit the bathroom and then get that band pipe out! IMPORTANT: Don’t forget to tuck your glengarry into your kilt.

15:45: Band contest!

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16:30: Massed bands again, and awards.

17:15: Pack up the instrument, gear, and clean up the band tent. Then head over to the beer tent to catch up with old friends.

18:45: Head out to dinner with some bandmates. In the Northwest, odds are pretty good that this means Red Robin. Yum!

20:15: After a leisurely supper with a lot of laughs, head back home.

22:15: What a day! Exhausted, you unpack your gear and head straight to bed.

Now repeat this process about ten times every summer. Throw in plenty of indoor piping competitions, recitals, and pipe band gigs, like parades. Add weekly band practices, daily solo practices, and, let’s be honest, a ton of pipe band drama 😛 There you have it!

Renaissance Piper Lifestyle

 

If you’ve ever been to a renaissance faire, you know that they can be hilarious, weird, raunchy, and charming all at the same time. When I was approached about joining Tartanic, I had never had the pleasure of attending one of these festivals. Boy was I in for a treat! Where else can you find fluent Elvish language speakers rubbing elbows with expert leatherworkers (tanners?) and hoisting a tankard with masters of medieval swordplay technique? Why not stroll over to the demonstration put on by 14-time Guinness World Record Holder for Whip Cracking?

I’m guessing that other countries likely have renaissance faires of their own, but to me it really does feel like a great fit for American culture: the variety, the escape from the day-to-day realities of a 9-5 job, the turkey legs, and the whimsical atmosphere where adults and children marvel at the same spectacles (although plenty of cheeky humor will be lost on the latter).

Playing with Tartanic at the faires it really hit me – there is something for everyone here. And there’s a huge appetite for piping! Playing in Tartanic was a lot of work but I was amazed at the energy and appreciation from the audiences – especially children – for the pipes.

Although sadly I haven’t made it out to play with Tartanic at a faire recently, I’ll never forget the camaraderie, friendliness, and eclectic nature of these incredible events.

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Folk Piper Lifestyle

 

It’s really a shame that I never designed and marketed that mobile app or algorithm that allowed me to retire wealthy at the age of 25. If time and money were unlimited I’d probably continue to play in pipe bands and join Tartanic at the faires today. However, like so many musicians, as I’ve stepped into adulthood it’s become necessary to balance my love of piping with the requirements of day-to-day life.

Balance is the key word. I often think of a headline from The Onion: Find the Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do it On Nights and Weekends For the Rest of Your Life. It’s a sad truth that too many people are forced to put their creative passions on a back burner in favor of a more “traditional” career, like data analyst.

Another memory that I think of in the context of balancing creative pursuits with the costly reality of life in America is a third grade school exercise from my elementary school in Oakland, CA. As a way to get us kiddos thinking about jobs and careers, we designed business cards. I still remember how mine read, in this order:

Micah Babinski – Piper and Surgeon

Anyways, my view is that when you are a musician in your heart, you owe it to yourself to give it your best shot, and fight the urge to give up the gift of that music. So, two years ago I founded Dram and Go, my folk piping trio based here in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

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It’s been a slow, steady process to get Dram and Go to where it is now (more on that in a future post) but it allows me to stay connected to piping, avoid the six hour round trip to band practice, and really explore traditional Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton, and other forms of folk music that are really old but new to me.

Last weekend we took our act to the Galway Bay Irish Pub in lovely Ocean Shores Washington. The Galway Bay is also a restaurant, Irish import shop, and cigar shop. I admit I was a little worried that not too many folks would be visiting the Washington coast on a rainy weekend in February. Ocean Shores is a charming town, but it’s not on any major coastal highway, such as US Highway 101.

My worries evaporated when we arrived and began our set. The restaurant was full, the patrons appreciative, and the staff was excellent. Galway Bay hosts all kinds of different Celtic music acts, with an emphasis on Irish music and a healthy dose of rock-n-roll thrown in.

Playing in a folk band is a whole different universe from playing in a traditional pipe band or renaissance faire band. For one thing – it requires a set of skills including marketing and banter that I’ve really had to work on! No one expects an engaging chat between sets when you are in the ranks of a pipe band. And pipers in Tartanic must be friendly, but the real heavy lifting of crowd interaction is handled by Adrian, the charismatic drummer and frontman. Additionally, there’s additional gear to haul, a stage to set up, and appreciative audience members (and hopefully future fans) to chat with on breaks. Also, you have to determine whether this is a massive glass of Guinness, or the door to the patio:

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More Alike Than Different

 

Although the schedules, routines, and aesthetics differ greatly between a highland games, renaissance faire, and lively Irish pub, they have a tremendous amount in common in their effects. All three offer an escape from the cubicle and the monotony of the work week to both performers and audiences alike. The different piping lifestyles I’ve sampled all allow for exploration and innovation while staying rooted in tradition. As life goes on I’m full of gratitude for the experiences and friends that piping has bestowed upon me, and excited to see what comes next!

Letter to Gordon

Letter to Gordon:

A Decade Without You

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Image from Gordon Duncan Memorial Trust

Dear Mr. Duncan,

We’ve never met, but I feel like I know you the way kids in the 1960s who dreamt of outer space felt they knew John Glenn. I’d guess that countless other pipers and piping fans feel the same. I had the chance to hear your Piping Centre recital at Piping Live in Glasgow in 2003 but I succumbed to jet lag and took a nap instead – a decision which turned out to be the biggest musical regret of my life.

Now a decade has passed since you left the world and pipers play your music more than ever. Watching a documentary about your life, I was struck by the words of Alan MacDonald, another piper/composer/hero of mine who said of you, “He extended the boundaries of traditional music. He knew that this was the only way forward. There are only nine notes on the chanter but he was capable of composing a tune…and valued the importance of tunes.”

There have been many moments in my piping career where I have felt afraid. There’s only nine notes. What do I have to offer by playing this music? What if I make a mistake? Am I in tune? What if the tune I am writing has already been written? What if this tradition is not compelling, and should fail to grow with time?

Gordon-Duncan

Image from Gordon Duncan Memorial Trust

Time and time again, the sound of your music and your spirit makes those fears disappear. If I had to pick one word to describe Gordon Duncan the man and the musician?

Fearless.

I’ve heard your tunes played by a top Grade 1 band at the Worlds on Glasgow Green. I’ve played them with a gang of fiddlers, guitarists, and percussionists at the Ben Nevis Pub. I’ve watched YouTube videos of Breton teenagers playing your music like it is second nature to them. Even the BadPiper, the “punk-rock” piper who rode to fame on the back of your musical legacy, knows in his heart that you managed to banish fear from our music and allowed us to continue the tradition with vigor and wild abandon.

Every time your tunes are played, the edge that distinguishes Scottish music gets sharper. The fire burning in the souls of Celtic musicians the world over gets hotter. The chains of stagnation and staleness which threaten to bind our music are broken.

Thank you Gordon. You will never be forgotten as long as wind fills a bag and causes reeds to vibrate somewhere. My musical world owes you a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid.

 

Yours Truly,

Micah

Dram & Go Milestone – Our First CD!

Dram & Go Milestone – Our First CD!

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve finally crossed the finish line at a race we started running nearly 11 months ago – our first professionally-recorded CD! If you’re not familiar with Dram & Go that’s ok: I’m happy to fill you in.

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Dram & Go is many things. In the most obvious sense it is a folk band heavily influenced by my background as a Scottish piper. Personally, Dram & Go represents a choice to not only keep piping in my life, but to expand the range in which I engage with the bagpipes.

Allow me to explain. For 10+ years I worked hard to attain a decent sound on the pipes. The main focus here was solo competition

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…pipe bands

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…and a healthy mix of side projects thrown in for good measure.

Like many of life’s most worthwhile activities they were equal parts rewarding and exhausting. I met and kept lifelong friends, played some amazing music, and learned a great deal about leadership, camaraderie, discipline, and respect.

Today life is different. The demands of a full-time job, a loving spouse (who wants to see me on the weekends!), and the need to save and plan for the future has made life as a bagpipe rambler…less tenable. So, rather than let all those hours of doubling exercises go to waste, I started Dram & Go. Here’s us doing our thing:

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With Dram & Go I can express my own enjoyment of Scottish music alongside Rachel, our awesome fiddler, and Avery, our multi-instrumentalist and Irish music expert. Who’s going to sit around in a pub or festival grounds listening to a three hour borderpipe set, you may ask? It’s a question I’m still trying to answer! What I can say is that since solidifying our lineup we’ve had the opportunity to play at highland games, local pubs, and folk festivals. And people like it!

The Portland region has a lot of great Irish bands. Some are strictly traditional while others mix it up in wild and unpredictable ways. Na Rósaí, Hanz Araki, Colleen Raney, and anything playing at Sam Keator‘s house are always favorites. The hard work of these musicians and their contemporaries is further amplified by the esteemed gentlemen at the helm of 67 Music, Portland’s concierge to Celtic music.

My sincere hope for the future is that Dram & Go can inject a little Scottish “juice” into the turkey of local Celtic music (can you tell Thanksgiving happened recently?) Our mission is to deliver to audiences the hard edge, the attitude, and of course the immense joy that Scottish and Celtic music have given us.

So please, preview and buy the CD on CD Baby, attend our CD release party at Biddy McGraw’s, and follow us on facebook to see what happens next with Dram & Go. Who knows – you might be surprised at what Portland’s Celtic music scene has to offer!

Yours Truly,

Micah

The Term “Professional Piper” Explained…

The Term “Professional Piper” Explained…

I’ve been reflecting lately on the rather vague term “Professional Piper” and have concluded that for someone not intimately familiar with piping culture, it can be a bit confusing. Consider this excerpt from the website of Portland’s “The Unipiper”:

Alternatively, as a professional piper with over a decade of experience, the Unipiper is equipped to perform in full highland dress, playing all the bagpipe standards, even without the unicycle – perfect for a more traditional wedding/gathering.

 


 

Like most in my (non-piping) line of work, I call myself a “Geographic Information Systems Professional.” I make maps, manage data, write scripts, and help City employees get their spatial analysis working correctly. The best part is, I get paid to do it! In addition to a four-year degree and many instructor-led and online training sessions in GIS technology, I am also certified as an “ArcGIS Desktop Associate” by Esri, the company that makes industry-standard GIS software. I can say this because I took a standardized exam (for which I had to study for several months) and received a passing grade. I got a certificate and a snazzy logo to put in the footer of my work emails. Folks in my profession can also apply to become a “GISP” which is a portfolio-based application process which takes into account your work experience, overall education, and contributions to the profession like writing articles, organizing GIS events, and things of that nature.

Here is the point, in case you were starting to wonder if I had one: Despite the credentials mentioned above, in GIS as in piping, there is no legal or industry-sanctioned credential required to earn income. While most GIS workers and paid bagpipers will receive at least some training or credentials, it is not a requirement for calling one’s-self a “professional.” In GIS, Esri technical certification and the GISP were introduced as a way for workers in the field to distinguish themselves. In piping, we have sanctioned competitions for bands and soloists, where competitors are divided into grades in which they compete for top prizes. Here is a very high-level overview of the grading in North American competitive piping:

  • The entry grade is grade 5
  • The highest grade is called “Professional”
  • Players progress through the amateur grades (5, 4, 3, 2, and 1) by winning points and being identified by the organization which sanctions the competition as on the “Promotions List”
  • Points are won only by placing in organization-sanctioned competitions
  • Once a player has obtained a Grade 1 ranking, she may self-promote to the Professional Class
  • Professional players are awarded cash prizes, while amateur (grades 5 through 1) win medals or ribbons
  • Typically, a Grade 1 player will not self-promote to Professional until she has won at least one major Grade 1 competition

So, while many pipers will claim to be “Professional,” this only means that they are paid to play (or have been at some point in the past). It does not reflect on the quality of the playing, the intonation of the bagpipe, or whether or not they will make 20 mistakes during the 15 minutes you have hired them to play.

I played in the amateur grades of the British Columbia Pipers Association for many years, and invested much sweat and tears to work my way up to the Professional Class. In 2006 I won the George Sheriff Amateur Invitational competition, which pits the top Grade 1 players from all major North American piping organizations against each other in a solo competition in Toronto, ON. Following that, I became a Professional Class player and have been competing against North America’s top pipers since then.

Receiving the first place award for MSR at the Nichol Brown Invitational

Receiving the first place award for MSR at the Nichol Brown Invitational

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that while many pipers will use the term, “Professional Piper,” it is not a meaningless phrase. Even among pipers who are paid for their services, when it comes to competitions (which is the most accurate and reliable means of assessing the quality of a bagpiper), some are Professional…

 

…and some are not.

 

Now, I would not be surprised if this post results in accusations of elitism, snobbishness, and general sour grapes because I’ve never been invited to play on Jimmy Kimmel. This commentary doesn’t concern me, because the intended audience for this post is people who hire pipers and want good music – not schtick, not gimmicks, and not second-rate playing passed off as the best around. I am not offering any policy proposals or advocating for the formation of a Pipers’ Union that would protect the income-earning potential of individuals who actually spent years of hard work to produce good sounds on the pipes. I do, however, offer this list of questions to ask the next piper you hire who claims to be a “Professional Piper” :

  • What solo piping competitive class do you play in?
  • What is the biggest competition you have won or placed highly in?
  • When was the last competition you participated in?
  • Do you have a regular instructor, or do you attend bagpipe camps/schools to get tuition?
  • Can I hear an audio recording of your playing?

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I would caution folks looking to hire a piper against hiring anyone who cannot answer these questions directly. There are certainly very good pipers competing in Grades 1, 2, 3, and even 4. However, be wary of pipers who bill themselves as “professional” without a competitive resume to back up the claim.

Don’t let THIS happen to you!

 

Announcing: Dram and Go!

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Announcing: Dram and Go!

Hi friends, I am very pleased to announce that I have teamed up with an awesome fiddle player named Tricia Fairman, and have formed a new group called Dram and Go. We play traditional and contemporary Scottish and Irish music, including a couple of our own compositions.

We are making our performance debut on Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, playing first at the Firking Tavern on March 14th from 6-8pm, and then on St Patrick’s Day itself at the Double Mountain Brewery in Hood River from 8-10 pm.

I would be very grateful if you would attend one or both of these events and show your support for my new project. I personally guarantee a rip-roaring good time!