SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Attack of the Killer Bagpipes



September 06, 2016
Tuesday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
Many of you know that I have been fighting with musical instruments most of my life.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

Several times a week I engage in pitched battles with a variety of saxophones, flutes, clarinets and other sordid instruments of misintonation.

I guess it's not really a war, because most wars have a finite time span. For me and my instruments it has been more like everyone's favorite police action, the Korean War. The stalemate continues a half century later.

But at least the Koreans had the sense to put up a demilitarized zone and avoid contact. I just can't keep from trying, foolishly, to get all these infernal instruments to succumb to my will.

This may come as a bit of surprise because I suspect that many of you think that playing a musical instrument is an "unmitigated joy," a "wonderous thing," the gift of "music" from the Divine.

Fine. See it your way.

My sense is that mankind's only true "gift from the Divine" is the ability to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. And in that area, I was clearly not blessed either.

Making music is most certainly a battle. To quote the eminent musicologist Pat Benatar, "music is a battlefield."

Or something like that.

Well, for me, it certainly is.

You know those folks who are naturally natural musicians?

Those ones who can pick up any instrument and make it sound like they have been playing it all their lives?

The type of person who can pick up either a two by four or the bagpipes and make it (them)sound musical (more on bagpipes later)?

Well, I aint one of those folks.

If there has ever emanated an acceptable sound from any of the many instruments I have played, it was more like the result of the two dozen monkees with two dozen typewriters pecking away until the Gettysburg Address comes out.

For score and seven years ago (not quite literally, natch), I went into a practice room and began pecking away on a musical instrument and that is where I am today.

And I am here to tell you that if you practice real hard, someday you can hope to still be practicing real hard.

So why is this suddenly worth expounding on?

Well, according to scientists, what I have always thought to be a one way battle - me trying to wring acceptable sounds from a seriously blunt musical object - may actually be a two way war. Even unto the death.

It seems that a recently there was this gentleman in England who played the bagpipes (ha, ha, I used gentleman and bagpipes in the same sentence) and he became sick over a period of several years.

His doctors tried to treat him but nothing seemed to help, except for three months in which he traveled to Australia (where the role of ubiquitous, irritating, cacophonous instrument is played by the didgeridoo).

When he went back to England, he got sick again and eventually died.

It was only after he had passed away that the smarty pants folks discovered the cause.

In trying to determine why he got better in Australia, they first considered the weather. Dry and sunny Down Under, wet and dark in England.

While that seems as clear as a Bondi Beach day, it just wasn't the answer.

Then someone pondered that he regained his health during the three months that he did not play his bagpipes every danged dinking day.

To be clear he was not a professional bagpiper, just a sadistic amateur who didn't care of whit for anyone else within earshot.

Just kidding, o bagpipe friends! Please do not, repeat DO NOT, protest by circling my house and playing Amazing Grace for 236 hours straight.

Unfortunately, like many wind instrument players, the rowdy piper had been less than fastidious in keeping his instrument clean. Turned out at that some pretty noxious things had been growing in his bagpipes (think high school science project in the refrigerator). Especially in the parts that were made from unnatural products and therefore did not "breathe" like the more natural ones.

When they swabbed a culture from the bagpipes and put in in a petri dish, well let's just say the results were more spectacular than the finale of the "1812 Overture."

It seemed that for years the bagpipes had been returning a very ill wind to the lungs of the player. Eventually it led him to the big Tacet in the Sky.

Now, some of you may think that I am just trying to malign bagpipes here. I can assure you that bagpipes need none of my help to be maligned. In fact, the most popular song for bagpipes is called "Scotland the Knave," or something like that.

It is true, at least anecdotally, that one of my Scottish forebears was the first person to put a rudimentary tripod under an arquebus in order to increase the range at which he could dispatch the bagpipes leading the opposing forces in battles. He was not a big fan of the skirling dervishes.

My mother, on the other hand, never truly enjoyed a Fourth of July parade unless there was the caterwauling of a bag pipe or two. That was her Scottish heritage showing, though to my knowledge she never once wore a kilt.

But, of course, I digress.

This is supposed to be about some laddie being killed, killed I say, by his very own bagpipes. And I agree this is a sad thing. This a very sad thing. To misquote John Donne "any musician's death diminishes me." Even accordion players.

All this of course has led to an alert issued by the Musicians Protective Society also called the Society for Continuous Rehearsing Every Evening (til the) Cows (come) Home.(SCREECH).

SCREECH has sent out a warning that all wind players should be aware of the noxious bacteria that can grow in their beloved instruments, especially trombones and saxophones, which - big surprise here - tend to have the least fastidious owners. SCREECH recommends those instruments be cleaned occasionally now and again, say at least once every five or sixth months.

Well, that's pretty onerous. I clean my saxophones no more than once a decade because, well, because I think that's plenty often enough to ward off "Bagpipe Lung." After all, I don't play the bagpipes. They aren't calling this new scourge "Saxophone Lung." Case made.

Now, I will admit that once upon a time I didn't clean my clarinet between Fourth Grade and Sixth Grade at Houghtaling Elementary School. While that was clearly high risk behavior (I could have gotten black reed disease), the danged thing still DID NOT kill me.

Or at least not quickly. Of all the instruments I play, the clarinet is the one least likely to make a joyful noise when I blow into it.

And it has disregarded my efforts to pacify it for nearly half a century. Maybe I should call it Korea.

Which makes sense because a fellow musician once referred one of my clarinet solos as a "police action."

"It really should be illegal for you to play that thing," he said, with conviction.


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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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