Published in the Current
Doug Campbell may have the most understanding neighbors in all of Cape Elizabeth. He is a bagpiper who practices at home.
Sometimes – rarely – he plays the instrument in the back yard. His neighbors tell him they enjoy it, but he worries that could come to an end.
More often, he practices inside, where his family has become so accustomed to the loud noise that nobody bats an eye when he starts to play.
Sometimes, Campbell practices at Fort Williams, but he finds that can be more trouble than it’s worth. When he’s practicing, people come by and consider it an impromptu performance.
They wonder why he’s not wearing his kilt, or why he’s playing one section of a song over and over.
But repetition is the key to perfection, and “it’s hard to do that when you’re outdoors,” Campbell said.
The bagpipe is a deafening instrument indoors, by design. “It’s intended to be played outdoors,” Campbell said. “It demands attention.”
The bagpipes, he said, have a connection to the spirit somehow, and instruments with an air reservoir can be found in many cultures across the globe.
As a result, bagpipes have a unique role at ceremonial functions, including funerals and memorial services. “I played at services after 9/11,” Campbell said, including a service in front of Portland’s City Hall. He also played at Cape’s Memorial Day celebration this year.
His playing started at age 13. And though his last name is Scottish, he wasn’t raised with an appreciation of his Scottish heritage. Instead, he learned about the bagpipes from a friend of a cousin and fell in love with the instrument.
“It sort of came up unbidden,” Campbell said.
He also played guitar at the time, and that ended up taking more of his time. He stopped piping for about 20 years. When his family moved to Maine about 12 years ago, he picked it up again.
“I’d always regretted having stopped,” Campbell said. Though it wasn’t easy, starting over wasn’t as hard as he had feared. “The fingers remembered the patterns,” he said.
He called around and found a teacher in Winchester, Mass., who comes to Maine every two weeks.
“It’s very important to find a good instructor on a bagpipe, because it’s about your technique,” Campbell said.
Breathing to fill the bag, squeezing to create sound, and fingering to make the music are all important and complex. And they have to be coordinated – any error can make a bagpipe squeak and squeal.
“So few people hear (bagpipes) played really well,” Campbell said. “You have four reeds going simultaneously. ”
There are three drones, which make constant tones that serve as the background to the medley, which is played by the chanter.
Keeping the airflow out of the bag steady is the especially difficult part of playing the bagpipes, he said, because it involves keeping pressure on the bag when blowing into it.
In most wind instruments, breathing is crucial to the music. “Your phrasing is connected to your breath,” Campbell said. Not so in a bagpipe. A piper can choose to take short breaths or long ones to keep the bag full. The key is to keep air flowing out of the bag consistently.
If there is too little pressure on the bag, the music starts to sound bad.
Other factors can also affect the quality of the sound, including temperature and moisture changes in the air either inside or outside the bag. When the instrument is not being played, the reeds can dry out.
At most services, Campbell said, the piper plays at the beginning of the service, waits through the rest of it, and plays at the end. After all that idle time, the instrument can sound very strange when it first starts up again.
Practice is the best way to learn to control the bagpipe, which Campbell called “an organism.”
Pipe bands are often a good way to get experience in a group and learn from other pipers, he said, but “there’s nothing in Portland, which is kind of surprising.”
“I enjoy playing solo,” he said. When he needs a group, he can call on his three sons, who are also studying the bagpipes.
For a couple of weeks each summer, the whole family travels to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to intensively study music and dancing.
The island, Campbell said, is a truer representation of traditional Scottish culture than in Scotland, because it is an isolated island to which whole communities transplanted themselves in the 17th and 18th centuries to escape English persecution.