A piper’s pride
The proud, mournful sound of a bagpipe is heard playing from a stereo in bagpiper Victor Hale’s Veguita home, beneath the squawks and chirps of his and his wife Victoria’s exotic birds.
Sun filters in through big south-facing windows, illuminating the green velvet and African blackwood of his custom-made highland bagpipe displayed on a wooden chest. At an antique table passed down from his wife’s grandmother, Hale talks about the ancient history of the highland bagpipe in Scotland and later Wales, Ireland, America and even the Middle East.
Hale doesn’t know for sure when the bagpipe was invented, but calls it an “ancient instrument,” with appearances in different forms in various countries around the world. There are rumors, he says, that ancient Egyptians were the first to play the bagpipes.
He says in Spain and parts of North Africa people have been known to play different types of bagpipes. The Irish play a two drone, or pipe, bagpipe and are known for an instrument called an uilleann. But the highland bagpipe, identified by its two tenor and one bass drone, or pipe, are unique to and originated in Scotland as a military instrument.
“In Scotland, they originally were military instruments,” said Hale. “And actually, when they had what were called the ‘clearances’ and the English invaded Scotland, they would not let them play the bagpipe because they called them an instrument of war.”
Hale said during the highland clearances that began in the mid-1700s in which Scottish highlanders were forcibly displaced by the English, the English took the bagpipes away from the Scottish. Then, during the Revolutionary War, he said the English were in need of more soldiers and decided to enlist the Scottish to fight, thus giving them back their bagpipes.
Hale, who calls himself a “Heinz 57″ with Welsh and Irish heritage, says he likes to joke with his Scottish bagpipe mentors, telling them that the Americans are the reason they got their bagpipes back. For Hale, a former-Marine who fought in Korea, the bagpipe’s military history resonates with him, especially, he says, because in the Scottish regiments, pipers are also machine-gunmen, just as he was. Bagpipes, he says, have been in all the wars since World War I.
“The pipers were part of the infantry, and even today,” said Hale. “It’s like a brass band in the United States military, like a bugle. And they were great moral builders.”
Born in Las Vegas, N.M., Hale, 63, says he took up the bagpipe 15 years ago, but that it took six or seven years before he felt like he sounded decent.
He says he knows he’ll never be a master since he took up the instrument so late in life, but has nonetheless invested in learning the craft due to his love of the challenge and the music itself.
He’s gone to the United States School of Piping in Flagstaff, Ariz., every year since 2001. In 2006, he and Victoria traveled to Scotland, where he attended the Glasgow College of Piping for a month. He returned in 2007, this time attending the Achíltíbuíe Bagpipe College, where he met his long-time tutor Maj. Bruce Hitchings, pipe major for the Queen’s Own Highlanders.
“Some of (learning to play) is not hard. The fingering part, about anybody can get that — just nine notes and one key,” says Hale. “But mastering the pipes to make them sound good and in tune, that’s more difficult than actually learning the music part — just mastering the bagpipe itself.”
The chanter and each drone contains a reed and the key, he said, is to harmonize. A novice piper should begin by purchasing a practice chanter to learn the fingerings before investing in a bagpipe, which can range in cost from $1,000 to $4,000 or more.
In Scotland, he says, it’s a bit like the movies in which lone bagpipers will go out onto the highland and play to the emerald landscape. But, he says, it’s more common for local pipers to just get together and play for fun or for the community, sometimes visiting schools.
Back on stateside, Hale plays with the Shrine Band of the Albuquerque Shrine Center. He’s also played with the band The Chieftains at Popejoy Hall and at the Marine Corps Ball.
The bagpipe is not for everyone, says Hale, especially if they happen to be listening indoors.
“They’re pretty raucous. A lot of people don’t like them because they’re pretty obnoxious. They are loud,” he said, adding that his birds are among those less enamoured with the instrument.
But many more have a deep affinity for the distinct sound of the highland bagpipe.
In the 1970s, a bagpipe band called The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recorded “Amazing Grace,” introducing the bagpipe as a popular part of American culture.
Because the highland bagpipe has a limited range due to its nine notes and one key, not every song can be played on it, but among those that can be played, and played well, are “Amazing Grace,” and the “Marine Corp Hymn” — the only military song that can be played on a bagpipe.
But, says Hale, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hundreds, if not thousands, of songs that have been written for the instrument. His favorite though is still the “Marine Corps Hymn.”
He said he also likes to play marches and “the slower stuff,” and he often plays along with recordings by other artists, such as piper Robert Watt. As for his favorite bagpipe master, he says he admires them all.
“The guys that really know how to control the instrument, I have a lot of admiration for them,” he says. “Once you get playing you understand, this thing’s going to try to conquer me.”
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