Hollis Easter — Watson Fellowship Closing Statement

Autumn 2004 Watson Closing Statement

Auld Tunes and New: the Bagpipe Music of Scotland


I remember working on my Watson proposal during the summer before my senior year at Swarthmore. It was a long process of pulling ideas together and sorting them, keeping some and discarding others. Over time, a kernel began to emerge, a Project that I could call my own. Writing my project summary and personal statement went quickly, as I already knew what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to do it.

It hardly seems possible that I wrote that proposal more than two years ago. My Watson year seems to have left me a little disjointed in time, and thoughts of Time Before Watson are often unwontedly fuzzy. I laughed when I re-read my original proposal today. Who was that young man, so sure of himself, so careful and clever? To read that paper, it seems that he already knew many of the things it took me a year in Scotland to learn. How can that be? The very real history, the plans, the excursions . . . I can see them all in that original proposal. I guess that means I did well—I knew what I wanted, and I worked to find it.

This has been a much more difficult thing to write, precisely because I don't know what to say. I delayed in writing, hoping that time and distance would unlock the meaning of my year, fill me with powerful words, and give me the perspective to write a compelling narrative. It simply hasn't happened. Each day brings a new realization of something I learned in Scotland, be it the way to pulse strathspeys or the way to pour a proper pint of good real ale. It was easy to write the proposal, because I was trying to sell my project. But who buys this paper? At the conference, Beverly made the point that, if the fellowship were really about the project, more than a five-page paper would be required as product. So I believe that the paper is the last gift the Foundation can offer: an opportunity to think and talk about what matters to me.

The beginning

As planned, I moved to Glasgow, the centre of Scotland's piping world. I set myself up in a shared flat on Napiershall Street, where I lived with a widowed English banker, an English psychologist, and a future policeman from New Zealand. I had a lot to learn about the basic necessities of life at first, never having lived on my own before. O brave new world, that has such wonders in it! Due to the steady decline in the exchange rate, I learned to live frugally, cooking most meals from scratch and shopping for bargains wherever possible. I really learned to enjoy it, too—what friends saw as hardship gave me a lot of pleasure. At Napiershall, I also met Tony, a 57-year-old retired schoolteacher and piper who became friend, mentor, and confidant. We had many adventures, traveling around Scotland and talking.


So much of my luck this year came from the people I met. All the people at the National Piping Centre became friends of mine. I needed a route into the piping community, and volunteering there gave it to me. I cannot overestimate the value to my project of volunteering at the Centre. People respected me, and that changed their interactions. I would have been taught differently had I simply been a paying customer walking through the front door.

During the year, I worked as recording archivist, librarian, teacher, babysitter, competition organizer, planner, crisis counselor, journalist, publicist, and a few other things at the Centre. Volunteering there was a valuable thing to do. I know these people, and they know me, and our friendships created great opportunies for me. What price can you put to that, when it can only be bought with time and effort?

I'm glad to say that every person I listed on my application ended up a friend. My original plans changed a lot, but I still managed to study with Dougie, and to have many good discussions with Alan and Simon. I chose to follow the military tradition of piping, and took as teachers Gavin Stoddart, Jimmy Banks, and Paul Warren. Each had been a high-ranking piper in the British Army; Gavin was the director of Army bagpipe music for 16 years. Paul ended up being my pipe major. They gave me the music as they had learned it.

I wish I could go back, knowing what I do now, because I'd be a much better student. I thought at the beginning of the year that I was well-prepared to learn, and it's true: I was. But never well-enough prepared. I understand so much more now, enough to know how much I still need to learn. And you thought Zen had nothing to do with bagpipes!

I had thought that my daily life would include 6–8 hours of practice time each day. It didn't turn out that way. At some point I realized that my chosen practice schedule would have taught me nothing I couldn't learn at home from books. And so I changed my focus. I spent more time listening to other pipers, more time talking to them about music and history and life. I learned things that aren't written down.

I could have left Scotland with a much stronger set of fingers, but I would have learned less. I am pleased with the choice I made.

The Mighty Clyde

I hadn't planned on joining a pipe band this year, but I'm glad I did—most of my dearest friends came from Lomond and Clyde Pipe Band, with whom I won a British Championship and learned a great deal. L&C was the first team I've ever played on where the team mattered more to me than my own participation. I flew back to Scotland after the Watson conference planning to compete in the World Championships. At the last minute, whether due to my fatigue or to the fact that my band pipe hadn't been played in two weeks, my pipe major asked me to sit out for the performance. This happens to players all the time, but it was still a blow.

I shook Paul's hand, said "good luck!", and asked if there was anything I could do to help. I don't know if I would have had the strength to do that two years ago. I made the right choice.

There were a lot of better days than that one. We traveled all around the United Kingdom, and I learned about being a man among men as much as I learned about being in a cocky bunch of damn fine musicians. I've missed the band terribly since coming home. I know they'll always be there for me, and I'll always treasure my time with them.

Flexibility and life plans

If there's one thing a Watson project demands, it's flexibility. The foundation said so, and I believed it.

I had no idea how right they were. So many things can change in a year—in a day, even—that planning can seem downright impossible. Flexibility becomes a mantra of sorts, a habit of mind that one tries to ingrain. I could natter on about the virtues of flexibility, but let me be very clear: acquiring it was rarely simple, and never comfortable!

I know when I began really learning to be flexible: my trip to Orkney in late May. Everything—weather, schedules, bus bookings, lack of information, ticket sellouts—conspired to make it impossible. But something just clicked in my head, and I decided No. I will not be put off by this. I made it work by altering my plans to fit the situation, and I had one of the best trips of my whole year. I had wanted for a long time to visit the islands of the north, and had thought it would prove impossible. I had wanted to stand among stone circles, and I made it happen. I met a lot of new friends at the music festival, and played a lot of tunes during those four days and nights. I slept for about six hours over the whole weekend. I started learning to roll with the punches. I haven't been the same person since.

Flexibility in planning wasn't the only lesson I had to learn. I also had to wrestle with ideas. Even for an academic—or perhaps especially so—it can be very difficult to change one's mind or alter a deeply-held belief. For years I had believed that I would never teach, but at some point during the year, I got bitten by the teaching bug. Paul Warren, my best friend and pipe major, said he thought I would make a good teacher. Several months later, he invited me to teach a workshop to some students on whom all the other teachers had given up. The kids weren't motivated, they rarely practiced, and the teachers had decided that the kids were "punters", a derogatory Scottish term meaning people with money but without a clue. I spent a day with them, and at the end of it, I had taught them to play as a band, and had shown them how to march, tune their instruments, form up, and lock their playing together into a tight unison. I watched them give their first performance at the Skye Pipe Band Festival. Paul told me he was seriously impressed, and I was very pleased.

I used to think I would never teach anything—why would anyone want to? The pay is lousy, the rewards are few, the hours long. Nobody told me about the joy of sharing something you love. I found it this year, and I will be forever grateful. I learned much from my students while I helped them learn to be musicians. I know I need to keep teaching.

It's not a comfortable realization, though! My old life plans are chafing a little, needing adjustment. The solid, dependable life I had organized for my return to the States is falling away like a moulted skin, and I am crafting a new plan as I go. Flexibility has become even more necessary now than it was in Scotland.


In late spring, partly because of that piping workshop, Paul asked me if I'd do him a favor. He's the director of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland as well as Lomond and Clyde's pipe major, and he'd been teaching me the art of pipe majoring throughout the year. He asked me if I'd be willing to lead the NYPB on a performance tour of northern Spain, since he was unable to attend. I agreed—it's a Watson truism that when life hands you an opportunity, you step up and take it.

It was, in many ways, the best part of my year. Musically, it was intensely satisfying. I proved to myself that I really can direct a group of pipers, that I have the skills to arrange music, teach it, set up and tune instruments properly and quickly, and produce a good concert. Going to Spain helped alleviate some of the guilt I felt at going only to a single country, and an English-speaking one at that. I learned a bit of Spanish and learned how little more than good intent is needed for two people to share a conversation. I chatted for hours with Spanish musicians though we shared only three or four words in common, and found it stimulating and valuable. I learned some of the costs of responsibility—chaperoning 17 teenagers in a foreign country is exhausting—and the rewards of hard work.

And I played with Carlos Nunez, the Chieftains, and Sharon Shannon in front of 100,000 people, and was broadcast live to 2.3 million Spaniards. My parents watched the broadcast from home via the Internet. I practiced hard, learned a lot, and had a great time. As with so many good things this year, I couldn't have made this opportunity happen. It was given to me by luck and friendship.

"I long to be homeward bound." — Paul Simon

Being home hasn't been easy. Paul Michel told me at the conference that the fellowship was intended to knock us off balance when we got home, and to shake us out of our old patterns. It definitely worked on me. I feel like a different person in the same skin, and familiar surroundings only accent the changes. I believe this is a good and healthy thing—it's just not the most comfortable. Is the real goal of the fellowship to help us become comfortable living on the cusp of change, and not to fear it for its own sake? I hope for the strength to keep the Watson spirit present in my life wherever it goes from here.

To the Watson: Thank you. You've left me a changed person—scarred and healed and made stronger. I've learned more than I know how to tell, and have come to know myself better through your offices. There's no going back from here, I think: these changes are for life. I'm glad. I had such hopes for this year, and it never disappointed me. I am still learning what this time meant for me, and I suspect I always will be. I hope life will keep teaching me.

I hope. Such a simple phrase, and I've learned this year that hope goes a long way. As I write this closing, I am once again listening to Karen Tweed and Timo Alakotila, just as I did when crafting my original application. I heard them perform these tunes live, among friends, at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival last January. It felt right, like the weaving of a thread through my life. And here at the end of this chapter, the right music still makes a difference.

I hope the next path will be so bright.

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