On 24th September, we had the opportunity to speak with Alastair Dunn from RG Hardie. In this interview, Alastair shares how he was introduced to the bagpipes, and his solo playing career!
The second part of this blog will be posted on 16th October. Make sure to keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!
Alastair, would you mind just briefly introducing yourself to our readers?
I’m Alastair Dunn, Director of RG Hardie bagpipes.
Fantastic! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today, Alastair. It would be great to start by hearing about how you initially got involved with the bagpipes…
I think I was eight or nine years old at the time, when a school friend said; “Do you fancy learning the bagpipes?”. With the culture in Northern Ireland, parading bands are quite popular, so my mum was quite keen for me to go into something like the bagpipes. A retired police officer was able to teach me, in fact, he dedicated a lot of time to teach me – it was almost five days a week after school! I took a while initially to get really interested in it, but I suppose when I went to my first big competition, that’s when I really got the bug. That was when I decided to take it more seriously, practice hard, and try to get better.
Wow, five lessons a week must have been intense!
Yes – he was a pretty intense character as well!
I suppose your progress must’ve been a lot quicker, having lessons that frequently. You mentioned that you started to take it more seriously after your first big competition. Was that participating or watching?
I probably would have been watching, but might have been a member of my first band at the time. You’d often start by watching when you were new to it all, then start joining in with bands later in the year. I think it was just the atmosphere of the bands. We’re quite fortunate in Northern Ireland that we have a lot of very good bands, one of which I ended up playing – The Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band. As soon as you go and hear that level and what it’s all about, that’s when I knew it was definitely for me. That’s what made it more interesting and something I wanted to practice.
Definitely. I imagine there’s a decent social side of it as well?
To be honest, it took up pretty much all of my social life! Most of your summer is taken up with competitions.
How long were you learning for before you were able to get involved with any bands?
It was pretty quick. I think my first World Championships was 1990…not to give away my age or anything…
Not to worry, my mental maths isn’t fantastic!
Within around two years I was playing in a grade 4B band, and I managed to do each grade one year at a time. So, it ran through 4B, 4A, 3, I spent a few years at Grade 2, then went to Grade 1 in 1995. I went through a lot of the grades within probably a six-year period.
Am I right in thinking you have a background in engineering as well?
Yeah. I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. As you can hear from my accent, I’m from Northern Ireland. I studied at Queens University in Belfast. I moved here [Scotland] for several reasons – my now wife lived in Scotland, and there were more opportunities for jobs in Scotland too. The idea was to come and join a graduate program in engineering in around 2003. I pursued that, but eventually didn’t go into engineering in that form, but as it turns out, it’s worked out well for the business now!
It certainly seems that way! It’d be great to speak about the business in a little bit, but I understand you’ve done a fair bit of solo playing too, could you tell me a little more about that?
Yes, people tend to do that alongside the band playing, but not everybody does it. I was taking it quite seriously, and I wanted to be a better piper. I had been competing in Northern Ireland and doing quite well, but came across to Scotland in 2001, as that’s what you’ve got to do make a name for yourself, or find out where you are in terms of standard. It went ok, but not great, so realised I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to play at that level. I started getting instruction from a Scottish piper, Roddy MacLeod. He’s one of the finest there’s ever been, so I took it seriously, and managed to do quite well. 3 years after that, I won the silver medal for piobaireachd.
I think you’re probably being quite modest when you’re saying that you did quite well. Have you been able to play much recently? Covid aside…
As soon as the kids came along, I’ve had to do less and less. So the first thing I did was unfortunately give up on the solos, because I really enjoyed the band. Then the second one came along, and the business was growing, I was just getting pulled in all directions! I unfortunately had to stop the band as well, but I do recitals and workshops and some teaching now, which still keeps me practicing…not so much traveling these days though…
I think that’s the same for most of us at the moment!
I’ve been doing some online adjudication. I was actually in Kansas City in January, that’s the last trip I did.
What kind of competitions are you adjudicating?
Solo events, nothing band-related happening at the moment, unfortunately. Yeah. It’s great that a lot of organisations are running these events and keeping Pipers interested. There’s a worry that people will lose interest and think, you know, there’s life outside of pipe bands! We’re quite keen for the interest to stay, so that when things pick up again, there are enough pipers still around!
Of course, I think that goes for all instruments at the moment. People are really missing that sense of community that playing in ensembles provides. When you are adjudicating these competitions, either virtually or in person, is there anything specifically that you’re looking for in a performance?
Absolutely. There are probably three different aspects – the sound of the instrument, what is being played and how it’s being presented, and then also the technique. With piping you have a lot of embellishments because we only have nine notes to work with, so we use a lot of these embellishments to enhance the music. You’re trying to cover those areas when you’re judging such competitions.
Fantastic. Is it something that you enjoy doing?
I do. It does depend though, as some of the events can be quite long. Especially online – it’s a little bit trickier because you have the option of going back and checking things. I do try and judge it like a proper live event and try not to listen to things twice and so on. It is enjoyable sitting in your living room and judging a competition!
Are you teaching online at all at the moment?
Normally my wife teaches, and she’s doing that from home at the moment. She works at the National Piping Centre. I mainly involved in making the bagpipes, rather than doing any teaching. Other than one off events, such as Kansas City, for example. A lot of playing the bagpipes is about the instrument itself. You can get a piano tuned by professional and then sit back and play it, but the pipes are not like that. Knowing the instrument and understanding how to manage it – those aspects are very difficult online. You can play on a chanter, and you can listen, but you can’t help somebody so much with the instrument itself.
Speaking of lessons, how do you start learning the bagpipes?
You start on a practice chanter, which is basically a mouthpiece on a chanter where you practice the finger technique and learn the music. We [RG Hardie] also brought out an instrument called the Twist-Trap Practice Pipes, which uses a practice chanter, but it also has a bag and some drones that come across your front. It’s a lot easier to blow than the bagpipes, because you need quite a bit of stamina to play the bagpipes!
I know this will be dependent on how much practice someone does, but how long would you expect a new player to be on a practice chanter for before then moving onto the next stage?
I would say 6 to 12 months to learn some basic tunes, but then it’s really down to how committed you are. Band practices really help because you’re encouraged by your colleagues. In a band environment, you can play along – you don’t need to be a fantastic standard. It’s a bit different for solos, with everything being exposed.
Do you have any highlights from the solo playing side of things in particular?
A personal highlight of mine has been getting the gold medals. Nobody else has ever won a gold medal from Ireland actually! I never thought I could win a gold medal to be honest, coming from Northern Ireland and nobody having done it, you know? When I won the silver medal I thought; “Maybe I have a chance here if I keep on working hard”. It was 2006 when I won the first gold medal, then after that I took it much more seriously! Winning another won was just terrific…
Such an incredible accomplishment, especially to win the Gold Medal multiple times. How do competitions like that actually work?
The gold metal is referring to what I mentioned before, the classical music, the piobaireachd. There are set pieces, so you might have tune tunes which you need to learn six of. Piobaireachd’s quite challenging because a piece could last anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes. Unlike other instruments, you can’t have music in front of you, you have to memorize everything. You need to get your instrument perfectly in tune from the start to the finish, which is a challenge. You’re competing against 29 other people at the event, which there’s a selection criteria to get into. I got into the gold metal having won the silver medal.
The solo piping is graded, so you have amateur piping, then you have, I don’t know if you’d strictly call it professional piping, but pipers almost playing full -time. The Competing Pipers Association grade solo pipers, so you’ve got C Grade, B Grade, A Grade and Premier. If you’re B Grade, you’ve got a chance to get into the Silver Medal by winning a C Grade or B Grade competition. And then from that point, once you’ve won that, you’d be graded A to get into the Gold Medal. Once you’ve won the gold medal, you’re then graded P for Premier. The good thing about being Premier grade is that you never get downgraded. Until you’re P grade, you can get downgraded from A to B to C. I can go back to it at any point, if I decide I want a challenge again.
I see, that’s really interesting. Do you think that is something that you might do if you can find the time?
Yeah. I played in London last November, so that was the first one after a three-year break from it. I enjoyed it – it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but I think it would’ve been just the nerves of not competing as much. It would be nice to go back to it, but again, it’s just time permitting. It’s busy at work and certainly with the kids, I need to support them at the moment.
Of course. Do they play at all?
No, they don’t, they find it too loud! They’re taking piano quite seriously, my wife leads that. She’s a piper as well you see…
Yes, and a very accomplished one at that!
She studied Scottish music, and through that knows a very good piano instructor. I’m quite happy for them, they don’t have the hassle of the instrument, the bagpipes! They can just sit down and play the piano.
It’s great that they’re involved in music, and so very fortunate to have two very talented musicians as parents who can help them out, I’m sure!
…this blog will be continued on 16th October – keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!
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