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Where Is Your Line?
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Where Is Your Line?

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A gigging bagpiper can get a lot of inquiries for unusual tunes and events. Yes, I've played weddings and funerals, but I’ve also now gotten requests to play "Star Wars" at both a wedding and a funeral. There's been surprise birthdays, of course, and even a four-year-old’s birthday party (she just loved the bagpipes!). I’ve even played a fraternity’s memorial party for their house ghost.

It’s been a while though since I got a request like the one I received recently.

As a high school senior prank, the client (who identified himself as a parent) wanted a bagpiper to come in and follow the principal around for an hour, playing. It’s also his birthday, they mentioned. In all likelihood, they are looking for a clown to look silly and make a lot of noise.

Now, I consider myself a professional musician with a certain amount of pride in what I do, and a paying gig is a paying gig. But this request had me thinking about crossing a personal line of general dignity. What would you do in this circumstance? Would you:

  • Ignore the request completely without a reply?
  • Decline the event without comment?
  • Decline the event with a "how dare you demean the bagpipes" message?
  • Accept the request with some guilty feelings?
  • Happily accept the gig, make a racket, play the clown and quickly cash the check?

I thought for a while and at one point or another took each one of these stances, until I decided on this response:

I'm available for your event on Thursday. I can have a lot of fun with the bagpipes, including a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. If the intent is to annoy or harass your principal with someone in a silly kilt and loud annoying noise, I suggest you look elsewhere. However, if you are trying to bring in a fun, out of the ordinary, multicultural experience (that is also loud), then I am your guy. I'm proud of my music and heritage, and enjoy sharing that wherever I can, especially in unexpected places.

I suspect most Dojo U members who are gigging bagpipers would feel the same way. Highland bagpipers struggle constantly worldwide to be taken seriously as musicians. We all have our own personal feelings about what we do but sooner or later, an event might come along and test the limits of respect. You’ll have to decide whether or not you want to be a part of it, but it’s a good idea to think about them long and hard before responding, sorting out your personal feelings before you put them in writing. It can be a fine line between playing in a fun, unusual setting for your art, or having you and your music belittled and mocked.

When I was just starting out on pipes, my instructor received an inquiry from a professional clown (yes, a white face, red nosed, big shoed clown) who wanted to learn to play the bagpipes. When asked what brought about the interest, the clown replied that he just wanted to learn enough to use them in his clown act. My instructor read him the riot act and made it clear that she would have no part in helping to make fun of her beloved instrument. She sent him packing, and taught me to consider as well that fine line.

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Tom Crawford Tom Crawford is Pipe Major for North Atlanta Pipes & Drums and a piping instructor in Marietta GA. He’s been piping since 2000, when he began his studies with Winter Taylor. Tom has played rock, blues, country and Celtic music for nearly 50 years. He’s been a member of Keltic Kudzu since 2006, where he plays mandolin, bouzouki, whistle, and of course pipes. Tom has played and competed up and down the Atlantic coast, as well as in Canada and Ireland.

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