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:


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:


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…


…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!


10:45: Tune up for the Hornpipe Jig.

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



12:45: 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!


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.


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.


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:


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!

Announcing: Dram and Go!


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!