Chanters and drones

The unmistakable sound was echoing between buildings on the University of Kentucky campus, but Robert Adams couldn’t find where it was coming from. The next time he heard it, his search for the sound, and his future wife, was successful.

It was 1996 when Adams, associate professor of Computing and Information Systems, heard the sounds of the bagpipes that led him to Cammi. He was a graduate student at the time.

“The sound of the pipes can carry for miles,” said Adams. “When I finally found her, I introduced myself as a fellow piper. There aren’t that many of us and we became best friends.” They got married in January 1998.

Adams hadn’t been playing for very long at that point, and was self-taught. Cammi would help him perfect his sound.

Adams’ love for the bagpipes comes from his desire to stay connected to his Scottish heritage. That passion began while he was in high school. He heard a performance by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a brass and pipe band and regiment of the British Army. He was intrigued by the music and the skill necessary to play the bagpipes, but couldn’t afford the instrument or the lessons.

 “I was drawn to the sound,” remembered Adams. “You either love it or hate it. To me, the sound of the bagpipes is stirring. It has elements of an ancient, noble sound. It reminds me of Scotland and ties me to my heritage. It makes me happy.”

A few years later, use of the Internet was beginning to explode and Adams found a reasonably priced instructional book and practice chanter online. The chanter, which resembles a recorder, is used to learn the fingering for the bagpipe.

 “You can’t learn to play on the pipes because it takes weeks to learn how to blow and maintain pressure on the pipes themselves,” he said. Six months later, after learning the notes and several songs, he turned to the Internet again and ordered hand-made Scottish pipes for $2,000.

“Some instruments look difficult to play, but are actually easy to play. The bagpipes look complicated to play — and they are,” he said.

Playing the bagpipes requires diligence and patience, as it is different from any other instrument. The process begins with air being blown into the bag while the arm squeezes it in order to make the drones and chanter sounds. Once the bag is blown up, the arm controls the sound. The chanter and drones must receive air at a steady and constant pressure. A piper must learn to apply the right amount of pressure against the bag. If the arm moves, the sound of the drones and chanter can change, making the notes sound out of tune.

Adams said it can be difficult to concentrate on a tune while the notes are blaring. “When the bag is filled with air, you can actually talk or carry on a conversation until more air is needed. You have to focus because there are no pauses between notes,” he said.

Once the bagpipe is mastered, the difficult part begins — learning to walk or march while playing. “It takes a bit of training. You don’t want to run into anything, or anybody,” he quipped.

Adams’ dedication to his heritage extends past playing the pipes. He sports the Gordon Tartan when playing for weddings, funerals or in parades, and on special occasions, like Tartan Day in April or St. Andrew’s Day in November.

He wears a green, blue and yellow kilt, with white socks and ghillies (shoes with no tongue or laces to avoid getting stuck in the mud). His kilt pin is a mini sword. “A kilt pin dates back to Queen Victoria,” Adams explained. “A guard was having trouble keeping his kilt closed in high winds. Queen Victoria took her hat pin and stuck it in his kilt.”

The outfit also includes a sporran or money bag as the kilt doesn’t have pockets. “It was designed to carry money, but today you’ll find cell phones inside,” he said.

His white socks are decorated with ribbons and a sgian dubh (a small knife).

Adams has also become known for his homemade haggis. Haggis, the Scottish national dish, is a combination of sheep lung, heart, and liver combined with oats and spices. The mixture is stuffed into sheep’s stomach and boiled for several hours. “It’s like a stuffing or barley, not like oatmeal like many think. It’s not gooey,” Adams explained. “I’ve been told by many Scots I make the best haggis around.”

The computer professor came to Grand Valley in 1998, after earning his bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University and his master’s and doctorate from the University of Kentucky. He has had plenty of opportunities to play the bagpipes in West Michigan and is often asked to play for weddings or funerals. He also played in the Grand Rapids and District Pipe Band, participating in several local parades.

Adams is passing the love for his Scottish heritage to his three children, evident by the names of his daughter and two sons. Turah (“fair weather”) is 7, Liam (the name for William) is 5, and Seamus (the name for James) is 2.

Left: Robert Adams, associate professor of Computing & Information Systems, wears his Tartan to class on Tartan Day in April.  Middle: Adams’ kilt pin is a mini sword. Right: Adams’ hand-made Scottish bagpipes. Photos by Courtney Newbauer

Page last modified July 29, 2011