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John McQuaig on the bagpipes: First come the jokes then come the haunting notes

By on August 29, 2017 in Arts with 0 Comments

John McQuaig — of Scottish ancestry — said playing the bagpipes was on his bucket list.

By Susan Lagsdin

John McQuaig is learning to play the bagpipe. He knows the jokes, and he tells them pre-emptively; a bagpiper, particularly a novice, needs to steel himself to the reality of his avocation and deal with it.

Q: “How can you tell if a bagpipe is out of tune?”

A: “There’s air going through it.”

Q: “How can you end up with a million dollars?”

A: “Start with two million and open a bagpipe store.”

Q: “What’s the definition of a gentleman?

A: “Someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but chooses not to.”

That said, John has learned to stay in tune, he has other income streams, and he is a consummate gentleman.

He also knows that bagpipe music can stir the soul. It often brings tears of nostalgia to people with no Scots-Irish blood whatsoever. It conjures green highland ridges with marching phalanxes of plaided pipers and drummers leading the troops with Scotland the Brave. If you hear Going Home on bagpipes, you’ll probably reimagine police and firefighter funerals from a closer age. Danny Boy is always good for a cry.


John has no answer, but when he visited Scotland, the sounds tapped into his own family heritage, and he yearned to make the music.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said, “but I felt like Scotland was in my soul.” At a Holden Village retreat last winter, he met a man who offered to teach him the basics, and he’s persevered since then, practicing alone on his small Fireside pipes, not the larger Highland style, with no intention of wearing the kilt and sporran or marching in a parade. Yet.

“The plaid is all about history — the Farquharson plaid (similar in color to the more familiar Blackwatch) is the one our family can wear,” he explains. And though Wenatchee used to have a British Brass band, and there are Scottish dance aficionados, John hasn’t yet found local bagpipers with whom to play, let alone march. He said he’d welcome any responses — bagpiping can be a lonely enterprise. The internet helps him with technique, but instructors and co-pipers are rare in the region.

As a musical instrument, John explained, the B flat bagpipe has a very limited range of only 13 notes, no sharps and flats, and a single octave. He admits, “It doesn’t play well with others,” and so we don’t see it in local gigs or casual combos.

Pipers learn to insert quick related notes, using breath and agile fingering to add texture, and those embellishments are a challenge. “I’m working on adding in the ‘grace notes,’” he said. “That’s what makes bagpipe music really interesting. And it takes a lot more practice than I thought.”

John has to squeeze in (!!) time to practice the pipes, because ever since his Wenatchee High School days, with a hiatus for college and his career start, he’s been active in the performing arts.

He said, “I love it that I can have a business meeting at six, make choir practice at 7 and be at an 8 play rehearsal on time. This town makes it very easy to be involved in whatever you love to do.”

Mountain climbing captivated him about the same time he started taking notable roles in Music Theater productions, so he’s been using and enjoying the best of the Wenatchee area for decades.

And he’s conquered other peaks. “I’ve climbed three of the Seven Summits,” he said. “Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in the Andes, the Elbrus in Russia. It’s not quite half. I can’t decide if I want to do one more to make it 4/7 or not…” (Since he’s gone halfway up Everest, suggested the interviewer, why not call it an even 50 percent? This career accountant will run the numbers and consider the option.)

In his working life John evolved from CPA to, simultaneously, business strategy consultant, orchardist, property developer and bank board chairman.

He also folded his love of mountain climbing in with his business acumen and in 2007 wrote an inspirational management book, Parallel Peaks.

A lifelong learner, John has delved deeply into the arts, outdoor activity, community concerns, and now this very singular new musical instrument.

“They say learning something this complicated can help stave off some of the problems of aging,” he said. For all the reasons one might choose the bagpipes, this one alone might suffice. But remember that the music is also in his blood.

One last joke about this iconic, soul-inspiring, much-loved instrument with its own martial and musical history. It’s OK — the bagpipe’s been extant in some form since 1000 B.C. It can take the heat.

Q: “What’s the difference between a bagpipe and an onion?”

A: “When you chop up a bagpipe, nobody cries.”

As for “crying,” we know lots of people who lose composure when the first long notes furl out of a regimental pipe and drum band. If you’ve been on the joshing side of bagpipes for a while, then go online, google bagpipe music or Scottish bagpipes and then listen, eyes closed, to capture the spirit of the songs.

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