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The Eclipse and Bagpiping
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The Eclipse and Bagpiping

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What does viewing a total solar eclipse have to do with playing the pipes? More than you would expect.

On August 21st, 2017, a total solar eclipse inched its way through North America along an arc starting in Oregon and ending in South Carolina. For those in the path, the eclipse would be total; day would, briefly, turn to night.

The media had made the point clearly; traffic would be heavy. “Plan ahead,” they warned. I did not necessarily ignore the media’s advice. It was more a case, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, of hearing but not observing. “Who would come to our little state of Nebraska to see an eclipse,” I thought to myself.

The eclipse was scheduled to start at 11:40 with totality occurring at 1:02 p.m. We thought that we could travel the sixty-five miles, easily, in an hour, so we left at 10:00 a.m. The Interstate was backed up, but we knew a State Highway that appeared green on Google Maps.

We breezed through the first fifteen miles, patting ourselves on the back for our guile and insider knowledge of the back roads.

Twenty miles from the Platte River Bridge, traffic came to a complete, and sudden, halt. We were trapped. No way to escape. We moved ten feet and stopped. We waited twenty minutes. Then, ten more feet and twenty more minutes.

I looked, longingly, at the Interstate, just past the field to my right. Traffic was heavy, but it was moving. I glanced furtively at Google Maps. The South side of the Platte River Bridge was being repaired. Traffic was reduced to one lane. Moreover, the bridge over Salt Creek, just a stone’s throw beyond the river, was also reduced to one lane due to repairs. I kicked myself for not being thorough.

Two hours and twenty minutes into our journey, we made it past the construction and revved the engine up to sixty. But we had one more obstacle. Lincoln has more traffic lights per capita, it seems, than any city in the United States. On the 21st, every light was red. Travel one block, wait at the light. One more block, one more red light.

We made it to the outskirts of the city; true to form, the State Highway leading up to our viewing spot was closed. We quickly rerouted one mile to the West, pushing the speed limits all the way, and finally arrived at our viewing location at 12:50. Just about ten minutes to spare.

By then, the eclipse was almost total. The skies became dark. The quail in the fields called “bobwhite, bobwhite,” thinking that it was time to roost up for the night. Then, darkness.

It was an experience that I will never forget. Day had become night. For a moment, everything had become peaceful.

It occurred to me then that everyone’s journey to becoming a successful piper is much like my journey to see the eclipse.

You breeze through the initial steps and make progress. Then, you hit some roadblocks. Your grips or your throws may not be up to standard. Your teacher or your pipe major may have admonished you “the instant that you play the low G come up to the grace note on C.” You may have heard her or his admonition, but you may not have been paying attention. Or you may not have been able to execute the movement properly.

So you slow down, almost to a crawl. You play through an exercise, D throw from all notes. It doesn’t sound quite right, though. You try to put it in a tune, but still, not right. Too much low G. You go back, exercises, take it slow, listen to the Dojo Tutor, play tunes. You repeat the sequence over and over and then, something gives. You pass the roadblock. You’re coming off the low G smartly and quickly with precision. “Yeah,” you think to yourself, “it could be faster.” But it is coming together.

You are able to rev the metronome back up and you progress. But then you notice, your birl is falling apart. So you stop, practice slowly, make each note even. You try the tune back at tempo, but the birls are still collapsing. So you stop, run them slowly. Stop, run them slowly, rinse, repeat.

Your almost there, but then you note that your throws are starting just ahead of the beat. A quick detour to a slow tempo allows you to focus on starting the throws right on the beat. And, as you detour, you note that your birls are just ahead of the beat as well. The quick change of direction allowed you to adjust, correct, and move toward your goal.

Then, you perform. The tempo is good, the throws are crisp, and you only miss a birl or two. It was an experience you won’t forget. It’s over; you’ve done well. Everything is peaceful.

The road that you will travel, whether preparing for a performance or driving to see an eclipse, will be filled with delays, roadblocks, red lights, and detours. Some delays you can control, others, you cannot. You may receive advice or direction that you can’t execute, but if you stick with it, you will eventually understand the advice. But, if you stay the course and deal with the impediments gracefully, you will eventually reach your goal or arrive at your destination.

It is worth it; make sure to stay the course in your piping travels.

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Mark Olson Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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