Monthly Archives: March 2020

Musician’s Focal Dystonia Update and How I’m Playing My Bagpipes

During Autumn of 2019, while the kids were away at school during the day, I made great progress in playing competition style tunes. This culminated in competition success at the Salado festival in November. Starting in December, however, my playing gradually decreased and I came back into it once the Spring 2020 semester started and the kids were away again. However, I was plagued by my focal dystonia, as if all progress had been lost. Previously, this dystonia would result in unrhythmical pauses in my playing. However, it had started to manifest psychologically as chanter cut outs as I’d encounter finger movements affected by my specific dystonia (vigorous contraction of the left pinkie upon and preventing most E grace notes from sounding).

I struggled with various solutions to the dystonia to try and boost my confidence and hopefully address the chanter cut outs at the same time. One solution was consistent with retraining the muscles in a different way to do the same thing, which is no easy task, but known to circumvent dystonia. I tried doing this by simply moving my top hand fingers further over onto the chanter to more closely mimic the finger placement on the bottom hand. This actually helped somewhat as it gave the chanter a different feel allowing the E gracenotes to sound without triggering the dystonic muscle firing sequence. However, I still struggled with the chanter cutting out at points where the dystonia would, or used to, manifest. It’s like my brain had decided it was better to have no sound than garbage sound. “Here comes the part you suck at, better just give up!” This was very demoralizing. But then I fixed it.

I decided I needed to change my approach to playing the bagpipe. Specifically I needed to address keeping the pressure constant and decoupling how I filled the bag with air from the music itself. I’m not saying my blowing rhythm was, or ever has been, attached to the musical rhythm. I had started letting the pressure drop when reaching dystonia inducing passages in the music. My solution to these chanter cut outs was to keep my breath intakes very, very short to the point that as soon as my lips parted to intake air I’ve already started closing them again. I’m making a point to be blowing through every dystonic passage as best I can and in general just always keeping the bag topped off with no hesitations in refilling the bag. You may see this in a set of recent videos I made about Ackland 480 Overtone drone reeds. For whatever reason, this has taken my mind off the dystonia allowing me to resume a more normal hand placement on the top hand of the chanter and still sound notes with correct rhythm, but it has also improved my overall steadiness to better than it ever has been.

I know I can’t get my hopes too high that this will be much of a permanent solution to my focal dystonia. It does not negate its effects entirely, just by a significant fraction. I believe it is linked to the confidence that I am going to sound this bagpipe as full as I can and whatever happens…happens, and so by random chance I generally play better even in dystonic passages; as opposed to not having the confidence to play well resulting in the chanter cutting out. So, my advice, keep that bag as full as you can as often as you can!

Link to the youtube videos mentioned above:

Overtone (Ackland) 480 Overtone Drone Reeds

Over the last few years I have been giving Terry Ackland feedback about prototype drone reeds he has been making. We settled on a design for 440 drone reeds and have since shortened those reeds to play at 466 Hz / Bb and 480 Hz. So you’ve heard the 440 reeds and also the Bb reeds before if you’ve dug into some of the more recent posts on the blog (not that I’ve been active much lately). I’ve raved about the reeds so figured I better put my money where my mouth is and record the 480 reeds, having just put them in my Gellaitry pipes yesterday. This is significant because while I’ve played, but not really recorded the 480 reeds in all my other pipes, my Gellaitry’s are my solo set, my rock, my sound. And I really like the results with the Overtone (Ackland) reeds! I find them bold and harmonic, but in that they are easy to tune. Sometimes reeds with prominent harmonics are hard to tune because it’s hard to lock in the harmonics even though the beat frequency seems absent. This is not the case with Ackland Overtone reeds.

Here they are with the mic on the drone side (so the audio is a bit drone heavy).

Here they are with the mic on the chanter side:

Here’s me walking around (this is the very first set of this recorded series):

Here are some small strathspeys, reel, and a hornreel or reelpipe:

Here are some MSRs: