Celebrating the Bagpipes & the People Who Play Them
The Pipes Are Calling
The bagpipes are a unique musical instrument in that everyone knows about them and their iconic sound, yet they aren’t nearly as commonly played as other instruments like the piano, strings, or brass. They’re also uniquely tied to history, heritage, and culture in a way that many more common instruments are not. To combat the mystique surrounding this centuries-old instrument, we spoke with five local pipe players to learn more about not only the bagpipes themselves, but also about the people who play them and the enduring culture that surrounds it all.
Photography by Rich Smith
What got you into playing pipes? I was late signing up for a fine arts course one year and had bagpipes or knitting to choose from, so the bagpipes found me more than I them. I was raised in a classically trained home and sang in Tosca and La Bohème with the Arizona Opera Company in my youth. When my voice changed, I was delighted to have found such a unique musical instrument.
What do you love most about playing this instrument specifically? The capacity to stir emotion in people. Having played hundreds of funerals, it always strikes me to see the impact of my performance, and the same is the case for a wedding celebration, albeit a very different emotion. Also, the bagpipes are a very competitive instrument, and having the opportunity to challenge myself both in solo and band competition is very rewarding.
What’s the most challenging thing about playing pipes? Tuning and preserving accurate tuning throughout the performance. The bagpipes need time to warm up before final tuning, and they are affected by temperature and humidity. Maintaining the instrument well can help greatly, but in order to achieve the razor’s edge that can lead to a sublime sound, it takes some patience and practice.
Any memorable pipe-related experiences you’d like to share? I was invited to perform on stage with The Chieftains years ago when they were touring the country. To have the privilege to play with such a prestigious Celtic band was a great honor. I have also had the privilege to play the bagpipes for the funerals of active-duty military personnel. To add my contribution to such a moving and somber affair was quite the experience.
Photo by Emily Pérez Long
How long have you played the pipes? Do you play any other instruments? I learned and played the pipes for a couple of years when I was 12. I just got back into it five years ago. I also play the piano.
What got you into playing pipes? I have Scottish ancestors, and on top of that, I’ve always enjoyed listening to pipe bands.
What do you love most about playing this instrument specifically? I love the sound of the pipes, and it’s a pretty unique instrument.
Are there any popular misconceptions about bagpipes? If so, what is the truth? A lot of people think bagpipes are only a Scottish instrument, but throughout history as well as now, different variations of them are played in countries around the world.
What’s the most challenging thing about playing pipes? It takes quite a physical effort to play the instrument, so regular practice is important.
Any memorable pipe-related experiences you’d like to share? One of my favorite experiences was playing the pipes at two of my daughters’ wedding celebrations. Another was competing for the first time with the Chattanooga Pipe Band at a Highland Games last year.
Is there anything you’d like to add? Being in the Chattanooga Pipe Band is a great way to play the bagpipes with a wonderful group of people!
How long have you played the pipes? 30 years.
What got you into playing pipes? My Scottish heritage is what got me interested initially.
What do you love most about playing this instrument specifically? It’s wonderful to connect to Scotland’s past through the drone of the pipes.
Are there any popular misconceptions about bagpipes? If so, what is the truth? A truth about the bagpipes is that they are actually quite difficult to master. There are good pipers and there are bad ones.
What advice do you have for someone who is interested in learning to play them? Commit to it. Make it part of your DNA.
What’s the most challenging thing about playing pipes? There is a myriad of challenges you’ll be presented with when trying to master the pipes.
Any memorable pipe-related experiences you’d like to share? Every occurrence is a memorable experience.
Is there anything you’d like to add? Piping is an honor to perform for all occasions.
Thomas MacKenzie Arnold
How long have you played the pipes? 23 years.
What got you into playing pipes? My maternal grandfather, Donald MacKenzie, played the bagpipes and immigrated to the United States in 1925 from Stirling, Scotland. Additionally, my great-grandfather, William MacKenzie, served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Scottish Regiment during WWI. When my grandfather passed away when I was in college at UTC, I inherited his bagpipes, which are over a hundred years old. I haven’t set them down since.
What do you love most about playing this instrument specifically? When I play the bagpipes, it gives me a direct connection to my Scottish roots. Knowing that my grandfather played the exact same pipes brings me closer to my family’s past each time I play them. But one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing the bagpipes are all of the amazing friends I have made in the bagpipe community throughout the world.
What advice do you have for someone who is interested in learning to play them? Find a good instructor first. There is a lot of misguidance on the internet when it comes to bagpipes. It’s important to find an instructor to guide you through the journey. Once an instructor is found, it’s up to the piping student to decide how far they want to go with their piping. Also, learning and playing the bagpipes is not only for people of Scottish/Irish backgrounds. Anyone can learn to play at any point in their life.
Any memorable pipe-related experiences you’d like to share? My most memorable experience is serving as the Pipe Major of the Chattanooga Pipe Band. The men and women in this band are some of my closest friends. Experiencing the competition wins, losses, and creative music we produce with these talented pipers and drummers will live with me forever.
How long have you played the pipes? I started learning to play bagpipes in June 1997. I played the practice chanter for about eight months before I picked up my first set of pipes and tried to make a sound come out of them.
What do you love most about playing this instrument specifically? I love the emotions and feelings the sound of the pipes stirs up in others when they are played. I think it comes from the sound, the history, and the joy of watching others as they respond to how the pipes affect them. I’m not sure if another instrument is capable of all that.
Any memorable pipe-related experiences you’d like to share? I am in the military, and I was deployed in 2016 and 2017. I took my pipes with me and played every chance I got. I managed to make it home, back to Chattanooga, a few weeks earlier than expected. Our band was all set up to play at Shamrock City that weekend. None of them knew I was back. During one of their breaks, I started my pipes up and came marching in from out of nowhere, surprising them. It was a great reunion.
Is there anything you’d like to add? If you don’t want to learn the pipes or the drums, I would still like to ask people to please get out and support the Scottish Highland Games. We have many in the area; Stone Mountain Highland Games, Smoky Mountain Highland Games, Middle Tennessee Highland Games, and Blairsville Highland Games are just a few, and we’re hoping that we can add a Chattanooga Highland Games to this list one day. Music, food, piping, and athletes are all incredible things to witness. The Scottish people and their culture are a great gift, and supporting these games allows us to help keep that heritage alive and teach the next generation what the Scots are all about.