Zen and the Art of Piping

Why Zen and why apply it to piping?

Zen is about standing back, letting go - and getting in touch with the peace and wisdom that lies within us all.

It's an odd concept - peace and bagpipes. An instrument of war that is distinctively loud and violent in it's musical way - and linking it to peace and wisdom? Interesting concept indeed.The bagpipes are a unique instrument in that it has a simple scale of nine notes with harmony provided by the drones, both from the tenors and the bass and additionally they produce continuous sound. There are no breaks, no rests, no pauses, a constant sound. You can't stop then start again easily - it's extremely obvious and takes effort. In fact playing the pipes takes no small amount of effort - if you've ever watched a piper blowing a set of pipes you can see the physical effort that a piper makes as he blows his pipes (or her pipes with a tip of the hat to the ladies). So now we're looking to stand back, let go and get in touch with the peace and wisdom inside. I know that when I'm playing it can be hard to get to that point.

I've found that a few things like having a well set up pipe, being in reasonable physical shape and knowing the music well can make the inner peace a bit more achievable. But all of these things are not as important as the mental frame of mind that you take into playing.

Zen allows you space to play - not just the bagpipes or the drums, but life. When you stand back and become the observer, it allows space and time to be involved in what you are doing. Focusing on the moment - the only time you can truly control - is the way to access Zen. You can't think about it, you just do it. Talking about Zen or thinking about Zen is not Zen. Doing it is the only way to experience Zen.

And this is the great thing about piping and experiencing Zen. It's a physical instrument and there's a lot of complexity in the playing of the music and no time for thought. Extraneous thoughts cause problems. Playing without thinking gets wonderful results. I've seen interviews with some of the top solo pipers and they often say they just play without thinking. Once they start to think, well that's when the trouble starts.

Change is a major part of both Zen and piping and I want to link these two together so we can understand that change isn't a bad thing - it is a very necessary part of life. Most people resist change and make life very hard for themselves. Here are a few interesting quotes to consider:-

We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden - Johann Van Goethe

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge with it, move with it, and join the dance. - Alan Watts

Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely. - Karen Kaiser Clark

Be not afraid of growing slowly. Be afraid of standing still - Chinese Proverb

The Chinese proverb at the end is particularly applicable to piping when you consider this:-

To the make of a Piper

goes seven years of his own learning

and seven generations before.

At the end of these seven years,

one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge.

And learning, a fond ear to the drone he may

have to parlay with old folds of old affairs.

It is said,

"When a Piper plays, he's in touch with the past.

The sense of being at one with generations of long ago is totally unique."

- Neil Munro

I teach the pipes to a variety of people, some learn quickly and some slowly and to all I say - Learning to play the bagpipes is a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoy the journey - you only get to make it once!