How to Hire a Piper

by Dave McKenzie

So, you want something unusual and unique at your event; something different that will make the most memorable impression. There is probably no better choice than the Highland Bagpipe, due to it’s relative novelty, and it’s alien, “from-far-away” sound that inspires the imagination, moves the hearts that really listen to it, and creates an indelible image not only aurally, but visually as well, with all of the trappings of both the instrument and the uniform that accompany the average working piper of today. People hire me for many reasons: as on outward sign of pride in their Scottish ancestry or to reaffirm an historical Scottish connection, as a surprise- a big entrance, or exit. For Irish occasions, Celtic celebrations, British connections with “Empire” affections, “games”, “Dames”, and “fames.” I’ve even been asked to play the National Turkey Convention, a Turkish wedding, a Jewish wedding, for the NRA, The Freemasons, and Guiness (the beer company, not the world record book, although that would be cool), Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and every denomination present here in the South including Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral here in town, who were definitely the coolest church gig I’ve ever had! Thanks, Father Nick! Efkharisto parapoli, Papa Nicko!

Remember that you are hiring a musician and; depending on what you are looking for or what your budget may allow; hopefully a “professional.” You should want to get the best player you can find and the most for your money. You would hire a professional to do anything else worthwhile; yet often when it comes to hiring a piper, the average consumer is totally lacking good information or, at least, penny-wise and pound-foolish, making the mistaken assumption that one piper is pretty much like another. So often, the average person doesn’t even know what questions to ask or where to begin in hiring a piper. I am often struck by how people just grasp for words to even describe to me what they want or are looking for in relation to the bagpipe and there are pipers out there who take full advantage of the general public’s almost total ignorance of the bagpipe and the musical world that surrounds it, a virtual musical island unto itself. My goal is to make every one of my clients an informed consumer.

Beware! There are many pipers out there who may pass themselves off as one thing or another but you want to hire someone who really plays the bagpipe and not “plays at” the bagpipe. It is too easy to make a lot of noise and harder to really make music, with this instrument, in particular. There are many beginner and amateur players out there who are actively learning, practicing, competing in solos and working in pipe bands, who are slowly and carefully refining their craft and are obviously in it for the long haul but there also a lot of “hack” pipers out there for whom piping is some sort of dodge, hustle, or misplaced, good intention and it is they, who do the greatest disservice to an instrument with an already wounded reputation. They are the scourge of the piping world and do nothing but dishonor to the music and tradition of this majestic instrument. They try to teach, play, and even be the local expert about the bagpipe with too little knowledge or real-time experience to rely on. The United States, in particular, is replete with such “would be” expert pipers, despite all of our collective effort and relative success in the piping community at raising the standard of play in this country over the last 20 years or so. Many an event has been less than successful and even ruined because someone uninformed hired some inexperienced amateur who didn’t show up or cancelled at the last minute or, if nothing else, drove away listeners rather than drew them in because they didn’t know what they were doing. Often it is a case of inexperience at troubleshooting the bagpipe, itself. That is the Nature of the Beast.

It has been my experience in doing this over the last several years now that I have had to clean up after a lot of other piper’s messes. The biggest loser in all this is the client, not to mention the more qualified piper who could have done the better job, right, the first time. There, I’ve said my peace; you can take it for what it’s worth.

As knowledge is power these days in the information revolution, it is important that the consumer be able to ask the right questions to make an informed decision about how to spend their entertainment dollar. The following are some guidelines and questions to ask to get the best results for your event. Please see the FAQ portion of this website, some of the questions are pertinent to making a good decision. They will, I hope, help you to winnow the wheat from the chaff.

Ask for References. It could be as simple as a phone call or a website but ask for them. They may tell you everything you need to know.

Ask for Rates and Availability. These first two are all you really should have to do.

As experience is most valuable in any profession, you should ask for a resume or, at least, some list of accomplishments from your prospective piper. Ask how many years they have been playing; more is better but not necessarily so. I have known players of many years who will never play beyond fair on their best day. If you hire a piper for what seems to be a steal…you may be getting exactly what you’re paying for.

Ask if they have any experience at playing for your kind of event, especially weddings and funerals, as these can be the most sensitive, complicated, time-consuming, “one-shot” events to effectively coordinate and execute with music on cue and filling the time properly and adequately. If not, well, you get the picture…

(If any of the following questions become part of the hiring process with little or no feedback, you are probably dealing with a non-professional.)

Ask for their competitive status. If they don’t compete or don’t have much to offer in the way of competitive success or results, be suspicious of their ability. Anywhere in the world, pipers are involved, more often than not, in competitions and the competition system in their respective countries and this allows them to establish and maintain a professional reputation. In the U.S. the competition system starts with beginners in Grade 5 and progresses up through the “Amateur” ranks to Grade 1, The “Professional-Amateurs” or advanced players which is followed by the “Open” or professional class consisting of world-class, and veteran pipers who mostly make some or all of their living as piping experts, adjudicators, and elder-statesmen in the worldwide piping community.

A good guideline, as has been inferred to me by many “Open” players, is that if a piper is not competing, and, at least placing if not winning in “Solo Grade 2;” that piper probably shouldn’t be out there playing solo in public at all, whether pay is involved or not. “Solo Grade 2” represents 5-7 years of piping experience on average, rarely less, and is the best minimum standard to take on a piper for any occasion. “Solo Grade 2” means that they have demonstrated an ability to play most, if not all, of the various genres of pipe music at a level of ability that is beyond merely technical command of the music and the instrument and that they are accomplished, growing musicians. This also usually involves work in pipe bands. “Solo Grade 2” could be thought of as the point of public consumption for seller or buyer.

Ask if the have any “Pipe Band” experience. This should be competitive experience as well and not that they are simply a member of the “street band.” What is the name of the pipe band they play with and what grade they compete in. As with solo competition, Pipe Band competition is also graded in reverse order: 5 for the least experienced up to 1 for THE Premiere Pipe Band organizations on the planet today. Ask for a website. If none, be suspicious.

Ask who their teacher is or was and education in the instrument. Ask if they have ever attended any of the many piping schools and workshops offered throughout the year all over North America. They should answer with something like, ”my teacher was Pipe Major MacX, and I play/ed with the ‘What-its-name’ Pipe Band.” Ask for a website. If not, be suspicious.

What you’re paying for…

A bagpipe that sings! It should be in tune and have a robust, resonant, full-bodied sound that fills the air around it. There should be no wavering, wandering, or “wah-wah” sound coming from the drones- the pipes that produce that steady hum- the constant harmony or background sound of the bagpipe. The chanter should be in tune with the drones, it should have a bright, clear sound without any noticeably distorted, sour, or screeching notes. Neither the chanter nor the drones should over power the other in volume. A good bagpipe reflects a piper who understands The Nature of the Beast. The music should reflect good technique. It should be punctuated by many embellishments or “sound effects”- the gracenotes- which are to most ears heard as that “chirping and barking” in bagpipe music. These should give the music rhythm and a high degree of articulation in the melody, making it flow well and not come across as staggered, stumbled, or labored.

A piper who looks comfortable and in command of the instrument. There should be very little to, ideally, no physical movement in the drones while the instrument is being played. A lot of movement indicates: 1) a leaky bag, 2) a bagpipe that has been poorly set up in the selection of the right strength reeds and is, therefore, too hard for the player, or 3) a piper who cannot blow steadily yet. A piper should not look strained or “huffing-and-puffing” just to keep the pipes going. In any case it indicates a far less experienced player with one or more maintenance issues. Often in a case like this the chanter may cut in and out leaving holes in the melody where only the drones are heard; another sign of inexperience and poor play.

Time. A great deal of my profession is all about time and the application of a fully qualified musician and music suitable to the occasion. Time learning, time practicing, time rehearsing, time playing, time praying (at least a little bit to the piping gods), time on the phone, fax, cell, pager, emailing, traveling, dressing, “tuning-up,” and always striving to arrive at least an hour before performance time. It all adds up to a minimum 1 ˝ - 2 hours or more around any engagement. I encourage clients to use me as much as possible for their events since my time, and therefore my fee, devoted to an outing is essentially the same whether I play only once, as is the case many times, or many tunes. As the old saying goes, “time is money…” but more importantly, “You have to pay the Piper to call the tune…”

All of my rates are available upon request. Serious Inquiries only, please.

Experience. Professionalism. Expertise. Knowledge. Availability. Flexibility.

I hope my website speaks for itself.

What you’re getting…

Music. Pure and simple. The majestic sound of the bagpipe from a piper in authentic modern highland dress for your event or special occasion.