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Piper Sarah Forsyth
Piper Sarah Forsyth

Heard Up North: Bagpipes, love 'em or hate 'em

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There's no shortage of pipe and drum bands across Canada, in communities large and small. Sarah Forsyth pipes as a civilian volunteer with Ottawa's Air Command Pipes and Drums, the longest continuous serving Air Force Pipe Band in the Canadian Forces. It's a major commitment. Roughly 40 members practice weekly and perform in parades or public events at home and abroad. Forsyth says the right band feels like a second family--that works hard and has fun together. Lucy Martin caught up with Forsyth at the famous Glengarry Highland games in Maxville, Ontario. Bagpipes fall into the love 'em or hate 'em category. The piper told Lucy she caught the bug when she was five.

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Reported by

Lucy Martin
Ottawa Correspondent

 Reporter: “What's it cost to get into bagpiping?”

Sarah Forsyth: (sighing) “Your sanity.  Pretty much!  Ah, you start off with the practice chanter, which will run you somewhere in the area of – median, eighty dollars – with an instruction book, probably a CD.  The best idea is to get an actual person, to teach you.  If that works for you, and you can make that go, then you would progress to a full-blown bagpipe, a new starter set of bagpipes. You're looking at eight hundred dollars, anywhere up to six thousand.”

Reporter: “How do you know when to make that commitment?”

Sarah Forsyth: “When your teacher tells you to.  Or, when you have the money to! (laughs) Generally, with pipers, if you really want to, you will find a way.  It's like any other obsession.  It takes over.”

Reporter: “When were you bitten by the bug?”

Sarah Forsyth: “Apparently, when I was five.  We were at a church picnic, someone was playing the bagpipes outside, and I told my mom, 'I am going to do that.'  And she said the thing that struck her was, it wasn't 'I want to do that', it wasn't 'Can I do that?',  it was 'I am going to do that.'  Twenty-some-odd years later, here we are!”

Reporter: “Other than your sanity, no regrets?

Sarah Forsyth: “Absolutely none!” (laughs)

Reporter: “Some people love them, some people hate 'em.  Is there any figuring out why that is?”

Sarah Forsyth: “I don't think so, other than there's no volume control.  They're loud.  That's all there is to it.  And if they're inside, they're really loud.  They do have a certain musical pitch.  You're looking at a musical pitch of – depending on the instrument, and the band, and the year – somewhere about 480, Hertz, and if that doesn't work for you, then you're not going to like the bagpipes. (both laugh) Oh, also, and if you don't know how to play a bagpipe well, or you're just beginning, it definitely does sound like you're killing a cat. Which is never pleasant.”

(Small band of pipers nearby starts warming up in the standard squeaky and discordant manner.)

Reporter: (chuckling) “Speak of the devil.”

Sarah Forsyth: “It does take a certain amount of practice.”

Reporter: “Well, and the start-up is always a bit... (both laugh)

Sarah Forsyth: “Yes, there's the whole, ah, tuning part, which is never pleasant for spectators to listen to. (laughs)  You kind of want to just gloss over the first five minutes or so, and then start listening.”

(Near-by pipers finally, and loudly, kick into an actual tune)

Reporter: “Right on cue!”

Sarah Forsyth: “There you go!” (2:21)

(bagpipe music fades out)

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