Pittsburgh piper plays with precision, passion


George Balderose, a longtime Manchester resident, came to the bagpipes not because of an interest in Scotland, but an interest in Appalachia and the region’s music.

That story may be surprising, as the cultures, geography and traditions of Appalachia and Scotland seem like two opposites, one comprised of remote mountain people with a distinctive dialect and the other a proud people with an ancient history.

Despite their distance from each other, the cultures share characteristics, as much of the Appalachian population descended from Scottish and Irish immigrants. Although the two cultures have separated over time, one important link remains in the form of music.

The technology for making bagpipes didn’t survive the trip across the Atlantic until the 1950s, but traditional Scottish and Irish music flourished in Appalachia, and it’s not uncommon to hear traditional bagpipe tunes played on fiddles, even today.

That link is why Balderose, in the 1970s, decided he wanted to learn the bagpipes and sought out a teacher.

“[The bagpipes] have a lot of heritage and tradition behind them,” Balderose says. “I’ve always been interested in tradition. The more I found out about the heritage behind the instrument, the more I was drawn into it.”

Now, with almost 30 years of piping experience and many high-level awards under his belt, Balderose teaches about 30 students a week, both privately and in groups. Balderose also co-founded the Balmoral School of Piping and Drumming with his former teacher James McIntosh, and helped found Calliope: the Pittsburgh Folk Music Society, both in the 1970s.

Both organizations have been run out of Balderose’s “Calliope House” on Pennsylvania Avenue, and Balmoral is currently headquartered there.

His dedication to the instrument and excellence in playing shows not only in his commitment to teach and bring great pipers to Pittsburgh through Balmoral, but in the way he approaches his own instrument. For one, he must always precisely tune the pipes before launching into song — he refuses to play an out-of-tune instrument.

“When you get on the pipes people can’t really do much else but listen,” Balderose says. “It’s a demanding instrument. It demands to be listened to.”

Balderose, in turn, demands much of his pipes, but more of himself.

None of the virtuoso’s pipes are new. His main instrument, a Great Highland Bagpipe made in the 1890s, rings clear and powerful, the force of history behind its notes. When he plays the instrument in his small office, it vibrates your whole body and fills your head, making thinking impossible and unnecessary.

If you listen closely, you can make out the sound of the drones, the three pipes that stick upward out of the bag. They emit a steady tone behind the melody, which flows along like a stream, occasionally splashing up over rocks or branches with a pop.

Balderose holds himself like a teacher: confident, steady, sure. When he speaks, his voice, like the bagpipes, demands to be listened to. His office overflows with boxes of photographs and archived files from the Balmoral School, reference books and cases of bagpipes and bagpipe parts and reeds, though he has no trouble locating what he’s looking for.

The bagpipe is not an easy instrument to play. Unlike many instruments, you can’t pick it up and teach yourself, or you’re likely to pick up bad habits that become hard to break.

The instrument requires many things of its players. They must blow into the chanter, squeeze the bag with the same pressure with which they blow in and play the melody with their fingers.

The fingering, too, is different. Most wind instrument players use their fingertips to make notes, but bagpipers have to use the flat part of their fingers. The bagpipe also uses a nine-note scale, different from the eight-note scale of most other instruments.

For those reasons, beginners learn on a practice chanter, which looks somewhat like a clarinet and is much quieter and flatter sounding than the bagpipe.

Balderose has his students perform finger exercises for a month before teaching them any songs. Only once the student masters three songs on the chanter can he move to the pipes. It can take up to a year, but no less than six months, to learn how to play the bagpipes at a basic level, Balderose said.

Even expert pipers like Balderose learn new songs on the practice chanter to ingrain the finger motions into muscle memory.

“If there’s any inaccuracy in finger movements, you can tell,” he says.

Pipers must also be mechanics. Four reeds, one in the chanter and three in the drones, need to be tuned, and nine joints must be airtight, but moveable. There are also three different ways to tune the reeds, and on top of that, different kinds of reeds.

Luckily for modern pipers, technological advances like Gortex bags and synthetic reeds have made maintaining a bagpipe much easier than ever before.

Of course, that’s no excuse for being lazy or sloppy in the instrument’s care or play.

“It’s a unique instrument, difficult to learn, but the rewards are worth it.”

For more information about George Balderose, check out his website, www.pittsburghpiper.com.

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