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The Controlled Wildness Of a Saturday Bagpiper

IT was one of those days when joy spread its blanket over our always-animated but sometimes contentious neighborhood. I was doing my Saturday morning shopping. A conviction that all was right with the world pervaded my thoughts, even though I had listened to the morning news. Then suddenly I was enveloped by the whole marvelous mystique of ancient Scotland. I heard the sound long before I saw the scene - the sound of the bagpipe. It is a sound that never fails to thrill me and fill me with faraway visions. As I drew closer, there he was, in full Scottish finery, oblivious to all but his pipes.

His cape and kilts were of a dark green plaid with thin red stripe, his headgear handsome atop his massive head. He was a big man and played with merciless authority; several spellbound people had gathered in front of him.

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Most street musicians have a receptacle on the sidewalk for contributions. Not he. Nothing anywhere, and one could hardly hand him money, with both of his hands so constantly occupied.

Was he doing it all for love? I've seen other examples of selfless devotion to the pipes. Anyway, I somehow couldn't imagine his taking money.

The drone bass seemed pledged to eternity, and the tune above it was both wild and martial. He had a faraway look as he played doggedly on. I stopped for a few magic moments, then continued on my way with the sound ringing in my ears.

I have a nephew who is a devotee of Scottish culture. He has the costumes and the pipes. He has taken bagpipe lessons, but has never mastered the instrument. I understand it is formidable.

Years ago when I was taking voice lessons from a teacher in Carnegie Hall, the studio was used just before my lesson by a young woman who practiced the bagpipe. I could hear her even when coming up on the elevator, and all the way down the hall the music beckoned me aggressively. Sometimes she lingered to tell us of the difficulties of the instrument and her doubts as to whether she would ever conquer it. She was quite apologetic, yet I rather envied her. Singing seemed such a tame thing, coming after s o insistent a sound. I felt I was the one who should apologize.

When I returned from my errands the piper was still there, the drone bass was still holding its own, and the wild tunes were still tugging willfully at the solid stability of that ground-bass.

He made my Saturday, and I wished I could tell him. But how does one go up to a fierce, preoccupied bagpiper and say, ``You've made my day!'' It would seem so trivial. There would not have been a flicker of response in those faraway eyes. He was in Scotland, several centuries ago: a figure of dignity and dedication, of history and nostalgia. The controlled wildness of his music stayed with me all the day.

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