Bob Droppleman

Bob Droppleman
Pipe Major
Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums

Tottered on: 20 January 2007
Temperature: 22F
Ceiling: glaring sunshine
Ground: light snow over ice
Wind: WNW at 9 mph

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TT with HD: Bob Droppleman

[Ed. note: A couple of performances worth noting.

Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums
Thursday, March 8, 2007 7:30PM
Greenhills School Campbell Center for the Performing Arts
(Admission to this indoor concert format performance
is free and open to the public. It will include Celtic
dance performances, but no teeter tottering.)

Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums among others
Friday evening, Saturday, 13-14 July 2007
Saline Celtic Festival
Saline, Michigan ]

HD: What was the name of that tune?

BD: That's called Kenmure's Up and Awa, Willie.

HD: And that's a traditional tune?

BD: It is. A traditional 6/8 march.

HD: It sounds vaguely familiar.

BD: It would be.

HD: Do you want to get the pipes into a warm place at this point and then continue teeter tottering?

BD: Yeah, I think that'd probably be the best thing to do. Both my playing and the bagpipes are going to dislike the temperature more and more.

HD: So let's get the teeter tottering action going. This tune that you played, is that considered a beginning tune, the first tune that somebody might attempt if they were first just learning the bagpipes, or is that considered an advanced piece?

BD: It is in between. Pipe tunes come in parts, and more advanced tunes have more parts. Simpler tunes have fewer parts. This is a two-part tune ...

HD: ... when you say 'parts' you mean chronologically? Or do you mean simultaneously, there's two parts you're playing at the same time?

BD: Right, it is chronological, it's like verses. Unlike other musical forms, bagpipes don't have a--I don't know what--a solo part, then a chorus, a solo part and then a chorus. They have parts, so it'd be like solo part one, solo part two, solo part three, solo part four. That's changing a little bit. We're starting to experiment with different musical forms, which is good. That's always a good thing.

HD: So there's people still composing original bagpipe music?

BD: Probably more pipe music now is being composed than almost any other time I would think. There are more people doing it.

HD: I guess that does make sense, when you think about the world population, the total sheer numbers. Even if the percentage of pipers in the population is going down, the sheer numbers are going up.

BD: Exactly. And there's a lot of different players. Actually probably there are more good pipers now than at any other time. We're better about teaching, the technology is better ...

HD: ... is that something you do? You give lessons?

BD: I do, yeah. And so we're trying to perpetuate the art and let it move. You can't put it in jar and set it on the shelf, it would die.

HD: So is that part of the thought behind the event you have coming up at Greenhills, to sort of share the tradition, inspire people to take up piping?

BD: Yes, exactly.

HD: Is that something you really have to take up at an early age, like at elementary school age at least, or is it something you see people getting into at mid-life at all?

BD: You can learn pipes at any age you want. The best pipers tend to learn, or tend to start before they're ten. And that's because the neural pathways--your finger movements are crisper and it's easier to learn, while your brain is still a young brain.

HD: So when did you start?

BD: I started when I was seven.

HD: Wow. Is that something where you said, Hey, I'd like to do that! Or did your parents say, Hey, Bob, this is something you really ought to give a try.

BD: Interesting story actually. The short form story is my dad's adopted. He was a Dust Bowl baby and there were a fair number of adoptions. So he was adopted. Turns out he's a hundred percent Scottish. And when he found this out and he was getting back in touch with his roots, one of the things we found--I grew up in Colorado--we read in the Denver paper one day, Come down to this place and learn to play bagpipes and become part of this band! My dad said, Do you want to do this? And I said, Sure! I was seven, I had no idea. I said, Okay, whatever! And I took to it relatively well. My dad played for a couple of years. He's since given it up. And I stuck with it.

HD: So how long does it take before you can get a result, like a melody that you can play through? For a person of reasonable or average talent? How long do you have to work at it?

BD: Actually, having a lot of talent just means you're going to be better in the long run. There's actually a shorter, smaller instrument that's mouth-blown, straight to the chanter for the melody part, called a practice chanter. We start the students out on that. And if they're apt and they're practicing, we'll start them on tunes--simple tunes, these are simplified versions of tunes--we'll start them out at about three months, four months in. And to get a real tune on the bagpipe, I can't imagine that you could do it in less than nine months and possibly and year to eighteen months.

HD: Wow.

BD: It just depends.

HD: So it is a fairly significant investment to get to the point where you can say here's a piece I can play from start to finish.

BD: And actually it increases from there, so to get better, your practice time goes up and the investment goes up. And the bagpipe's physical. It takes a while even when you know the tunes on the practice chanter, it takes a while--to get the coordination primarily--to play the pipes. It's not really a lung power thing. Nine-year old girls, very small petite people play the pipes, and play them very very well.

HD: So how does the bag work? I was trying to figure out the physics. Is there a one-way valve so that when you blow air in, it can't come back out the stem?

BD: Now there are. When I started playing, they had leather valves that always leaked. You just use your tongue. So yes, but that's the way it works. You really don't want air coming back out, and you fill the bag and the bag supplies air to the three drone reeds--which are the tall sticky-up things--and the chanter reed. So you have four reeds: one double-bladed reed and three single-bladed reeds.

HD: So the single-bladed reeds are for the drones.

BD: Correct. And that's a constant tone. You see me fiddling around with them, you spend a lot of time tuning them. It's a relatively unstable system, because you've got four reeds that all have to be working fairly properly to get it to sound good.

HD: So I've lived in Ann Arbor close to ten years now, and I can remember there's been some summer evenings, more than one, when we've been strolling around downtown, there's been a bagpiper just wandering around the downtown area. Would that have been you?

BD: Could have been. This summer I was playing at the First Fridays, so I played at those.

HD: No, this was a guy who just sort of walks up and down the sidewalks playing. So not really ...

BD: ... Hmmmmm ...

HD: ... a part of any particular event, just sort of as a public benefit.

BD: Probably not me. By nature I'm shy, and so I don't tend to be very demonstrative about the pipes. I play inside during the summertime. I try to keep it to sanctioned events, if you will [laugh]. That wouldn't be me. I'd be interested to know who it is, though.

HD: Well, the other piper I've seen, and this was one specific occasion, down over by 415 Washington where the City has its maintenance facility and there's this driveway--and this would have been about four or five years ago--we were walking home from downtown, and there was this guy just pacing back and forth up and down that driveway, in a full kilt and bagpipes. Now based on where I now know you work, which is not far from the maintenance facility, I thought, Gosh, maybe that was Bob!

BD: Could be. We've certainly played down there. The band--I play for the Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums--we play at the various festivals in Ann Arbor in the summertime, and frequently we'd use that as a warm-up place. One of our guys who used to play with the band was one of the City people and we could use that lot to warm up in and that sort of thing. So if it was a red kilt it was probably one of us!

HD: So you mentioned the Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums, you're the Pipe Major for that, um, band, right?

BD: Right.

HD: Now 'band' that's the appropriate term?

BD: Right, band. Herd of cats, sometimes.

HD: When I had Dave Sharp--he's a jazz bassist--on the teeter totter, he was saying that a lot of his instruction from his mentors, and what he tries to accomplish with his own students, involves trying to remember as you play that you're trying to convey some kind of emotion. So I'm wondering, as Pipe Major, you're in some sense in charge of all these pipers, does it ever come up that you'd say, Look guys, when we're playing The Meeting of the Waters, we gotta remember that this is a song about the blending of the beauty of nature and the beauty of friendship in the context of that nature! Or is it mostly about just getting the notes right?

BD: Well, getting the notes right is certainly an important component. Melodies in Scottish music particularly, are frequently recycled. Meeting of the Waters is a great tune. I like the tune a lot. I'm not sure what it means as far as the emotion we want to convey, but the melody does have emotion. You do try to bring out that emotion and convey it as best you can. And some tunes, you can tell, they're clearly a sad tune versus a clearly happy tune. And you try to bring out those emotions. For the most part, you kind of get out of it what you put into it. So there'll be times when we're playing along and it'll just be flat--not pitch-wise, it'll just be flat, emotionless. And you can tell that very easily. You try to bring the best music you can out of the tune you're playing. It might be the same thing as what a jazz musician is thinking about, but I don't think it's as focussed as what he might have been thinking.

HD: Do people ever just improvise on the pipes, the way a jazz musician might?

BD: Because of the way the bagpipes work, it's quite difficult and it's really hard to get music out of it. Because, as you may have seen, the embellishments are fairly fast, and it's a lot happening at once, I would think it'd be very hard to do that successfully. I certainly can't. And I'd have to say, I haven't heard anybody do that successfully.

HD: Now you've earned Piper of the Day honors on several occasions with the Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums at these competitions the band competes in. So from that I conclude that it's possible for someone, for some judge, to hear the specific piping of an individual out of a large crowd of people? Or is it the case that the performances involve actual solos where you're the only one piping?

BD: Yes, that. What usually happens at a Highland Games--and this is a pretty historically accurate sort of thing that happens in Scotland, like county fairs in the U.S.--what happens is, in the morning you have what's called solo competition. There are solo pipers and then band pipers, lots of people do both. So in the solo competitions you play your solo stuff. Then the bands play usually in the afternoon, usually when the crowds are the greatest. And I think the crowds prefer the bands. So you can you have multiple opportunities for success or failure, depending on the day!

HD: So the Piper of the Day then was the solo competition across everything, okay. So does everybody who plays in a band also perform in the solo competition?

BD: No. A lot of bands discourage it. I encourage it, because I think it produces better pipers. But it's about half and half. There's no obligation, certainly.

HD: Currently Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums competes in Class IV, er, or it's ...

BD: ... we call it Grade IV.

HD: Right, Grade IV. The lower numbers are the more competitive, is that how it works? It goes all the way up to Grade I?

BD: Yeah, 'competitive'. The lower numbers are, not to put too fine a point on it, but they're just flat better. As you succeed in the lower grades, say Grade IV or Grade V, you're promoted up the scale.

HD: And is that obligatory, so you're not allowed to rest on your laurels and say, Hey, we can knock the snot out of Grade IV, so we're just going to stay right here in Grade IV and win every time?

BD: You hope not.

HD: But it's not required?

BD: There's umbrella associations. We play with the Midwest Pipe Band Association and they sort of accredit the Highland Games and make sure the judging is done fairly and all that other stuff. They will tend to put you in a category, so if we're a Grade IV and we're playing very, very well, then we'll probably get put up to Grade III.

HD: So is that a goal for Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums, to make the promotion up to Grade III?

BD: I guess I'd have to say, yes, but it's a lot more competitive and a much more difficult playing situation than Grade IV. The music is different, the requirements are different, you play longer, judges expect more, so it carries a lot of difficulty, honestly.

HD: In the photographs that are on the website, you see this formation of pipers and you can tell they're all stepping together. Is there a huge marching component to this? Anything say like the Ohio State University marching band, the guy who dots the 'I'? I mean, is there anything that is that flamboyant or is it mostly about marching out to the parade grounds, picking a spot, doing the piping and then marching off?

BD: Some of each. What we play here is sort of the military Highland Scottish tradition of piping in bands. There's a significant sort of militaristic component, so you want to have everybody in step, you want go around corners so that it looks nice and orderly, those sorts of things. But we don't do fancy formations.

HD: Does it factor into the judging at all?

BD: Rarely. Sometimes there is a 'dress and deportment' category of judging, that that will factor into quite a lot. Mostly you try to all be in step. And I sort of resist being too military or ...

HD: ... does that really fall more to the Drum Major to enforce?

BD: Well, the drum majors have less of a role now than they used to. Now, if you've been to a Highland Games, you've seen the mass bands, you have all the guys with the maces out front. It's a lot harder than it looks to get a thousand players, playing in tune, onto the field in an organized way, and that sort of thing. It's quite difficult. But that's their role, to make sure than in these formations, it looks somewhat professional and everything happens as it's supposed to happen.

HD: We were talking about original tunes than have been composed for the pipes. On the repertoire section of the website there's a tune that seems like it was composed especially for the Ann Arbor Pipes and Drums? The title of it is something like Arbor Pipes or something like that?

BD: Ann Arbor Highlanders.

HD: Ann Arbor Highlanders, okay. Who composed that?

BD: That was the founding Pipe Major of the band, who is something of a child prodigy. His name is Aaron Jensen and he composed that tune. Other people have composed tunes. A former Pipe Major who's still a member of the band, Ewan Macpherson, has composed quite a few that we use in competition. I have not yet. I hear pipes in my head a lot, it's mostly tunes that I'm supposed to know or already know, they're not new tunes. When that happens, maybe I'll start writing them down.

HD: So I plotted out the address for where you live and your place of work on a Google map, and it occurred to me that theoretically it'd be possible for you to start at home, head straight for the railroad tracks, and walk along the railroad tracks, along the path of the proposed Greenway, all the way to work. Pretty much that's how you could do your commute. Have you ever done that?

BD: I don't walk along the tracks, but I've walked to work since I started working at that location. I've stepped on them a few times, and I just don't like it. It's just uncomfortable to walk on for me. Now, I see lots of people doing it. There was of course, the whole fuss in our neighborhood about the poor woman who got arrested for it.

HD: I was just thinking actually that maybe the evenness of the spacing [between the ties] might help train the marching.

BD: That's a good point. I never thought of that. And it's probably the right step that you'd want to take. So yeah, that's a good point.

HD: Of course, like you say, there's the risk being arrested, which is maybe not worth it.

BD: And it doesn't go by the Dairy, which I have to stop and get my coffee. The Washtenaw Dairy, I go by on my way to work.

HD: You ever get donuts from there?

BD: Yeah!

HD: Do you have a favorite kind of donut?

BD: I suppose it would be the chocolates.

HD: Washtenaw Dairy is one of those places that I don't get over there as often as I think I do, you know? It's one of those local institutions that everybody knows about and everybody says it's great, but a lot of people, if you ask them then, When's the last time you had a donut there? it's measured in years, not even months. So you go really quite often?

BD: Oh yeah. Every morning. I get my coffee on my way to work there.

HD: I think it's one of those institutions where people love the place, but if they don't actually go there, eventually it will disappear from that corner, just like Metzger's did. You know Metzger's has found a new life out there on Zeeb Road, but I think a lot of people felt like they patronized the place downtown just because they'd been there a couple of times, enjoyed their experience there, liked the fact that it was there, but that doesn't really translate into patronage.

BD: Exactly.

HD: Anything else on your mind this morning?

BD: It's a beautiful day! It was a nice walk over.

HD: Yeah, it is a spectacular day. I was a little worried with the ice storm, I wasn't really sure how today was going to cash out.

BD: Yeah, when we made the arrangements for January I had my doubts. I was like Boy, this could be a real adventure! It's started to act like winter finally. I like that. I'm happy about the snow.

HD: Did you guys have any trouble with the ice storm and power at all?

BD: No, I think we're lucky. We really don't have a lot of power problems in our neighborhood. I guess they did when we first bought our house. And then we noticed that our wire had no insulation on it, and they replaced that, and since then we haven't had a lot of troubles.

HD: So the wire from ... ?

BD: ... the house to the pole. So it's very nice.

HD: We're almost setting a cold-temperature teeter tottering record today.

BD: Oh really, it's not a record, huh?

HD: It's not a record. It was 22 degrees when I just checked, and the new record was set recently at 21 degrees. But that was really early in the morning, the 21 degrees.

BD: And 22 and sunny is a lot different from 21 and not sunny.

HD: Indeed.

BD: This is actually very nice.

HD: Well, then, I'd like to thank you for coming and teeter tottering and for piping, that was spectacular.

BD: You're welcome! My pleasure!