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The pipes, the pipes are calling…

  • Published
  • By Monte Miller
  • 375th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Imagine the Scottish moors in the cool early morning hours. As the fog rolls in off the Loch the faint sound of bagpipes can be heard in the distance.

Although the trip to Scotland may not be a reality, hearing bagpipes on Scott Air Force Base is very real thanks to Tech. Sgt. John Cooper, 561st Network Operations Squadron Detachment 5, NCOIC Network Systems Shop.

Sergeant Cooper started playing the bagpipes about year ago and has immersed himself in the history and tradition of the instrument.

"It's something you don't hear very often," Sergeant Cooper said. "I've always liked them and in October 2007 found an instructor in St. Louis to teach me to play.

So far he's played in 15 or 16 parades, two POW/MIA ceremonies, tours of the travelling Vietnam Memorial Wall and most recently the September 11th ceremony at Scott.

Sergeant Cooper explained the first step in learning the bagpipes is to learn tunes on the chanter, which is the piece of the instrument with the note holes cut into it.

Once you've mastered the basics of learning the breathing and fingerings, the next step is the full bagpipe.

"First you fill the bag with air," Sergeant Cooper said. "There is a one way valve that fills the bag. The bag is then depressed with your arm, which forces air through the drones (the upright tubes on the bagpipe). There are two tenor drones and a base, one octave lower. When played correctly, it should sound like one tone."

The bagpipe sound consists of only nine notes including low G, low A, B,C,D,E,F, high G and High A.

As with any skill, practice makes perfect. A key factor in learning and mastering musical instruments is muscle memory. Accomplishing this takes many hours of repetition to master the techniques of this complicated instrument.

"It's really easy to play the bagpipes poorly," Sergeant Cooper said. "I just jumped in with both feet. It comes from just doing it over and over. Jimi Hendrix didn't learn to play the guitar in a year."

Sergeant Cooper practiced with just his chanter for about six months before graduating to a full set of pipes, which is a major step personally and financially.

A good set of bagpipes can range in price from $2,000 up to $10,000 to $15,000 or even more depending on how ornate and the age of the instrument.

Sergeant Cooper's bagpipes are made from African Black wood, which is a hard wood dried to the point it's almost like plastic.

"The more you play them, the better they sound," Sergeant Cooper said. "The rule is to practice until you're worn out, then practice for five minutes more. This is the only instrument I've ever played and I never read music until now."

Playing a musical instrument is not only mentally tough, but some can be physically challenging to play, which is the case with the bagpipes.

Not only are you constantly blowing air and filling the bag, but also constantly squeezing the bag with your arm to make a continuous sound, while at the same time fingering the notes to play the songs.

"Some people can play for hours," Sergeant Cooper said. "I can play for about 30 minutes than I need to take a break. It takes a lot of skill and lot of practice. Being good at anything whether it's the bagpipes or your everyday job depends on the amount of work you put into it."

Because the bagpipes have such a distinct and overwhelming sound, there is no room for error in their execution. Sergeant Cooper has played solo and with groups and feels the little extra the bagpipes add to events is worth the hard work.

"Anyone I've talked to says this is the most challenging instrument they've ever played," Sergeant Cooper. "I plan to keep playing as long as my fingers continue to let me do it."