There has been a lot of talk recently about the “bagpipe lung” illness. The story circulating through the internet involves a person who contracted a fatal lung disease from playing the bagpipe. I read it with interest and ascertained that a lot of his problem could have been solved a long time ago with consistent bagpipe maintenance.
When I started playing the bagpipe in the early 70’s, we were playing the instrument the same way it had been played for years. We were using hide pipe bags, cane drone reeds, seasoning that consisted of “Neatfoot Oil” or some other caustic substance, and our blow stick valves were shoe tongues that we cut to fit the bottom of the blow stick. I remember chewing on that valve to make it nice and soppy. It was something that we changed a lot as it got pretty gross very quickly. This is where someone could contract an illness as that valve did indeed get moldy.
Today, things are different. We have synthetic pipe bags as well as hide pipe bags. Most of them have zippers on them so that you can access the stuff inside. We are also using moisture control systems (that can develop mold without the proper care). Our blow sticks have mechanical valves that don’t require us to chew on them. We’ve come a long way!
If you’re worried about “bagpipe lung disease” and you’d like to have a bagpipe that always works and is reliable whenever you need it, you should consider the “hard reset”.
As I play the bagpipes for a living, I play for long amounts of time. I happen to use the Gibson Universal Moisture Control System (MCS), which I believe is the best and simplest product on the market. I get a good 4 hours out of that system before I need to do anything with it.
If I know that I have a gig the next day, I do a “hard reset” on my pipes. I take them all apart with the bag unzipped on a table. I remove the components of the MCS and if it is moldy, it goes into a bleach bath. I might even start this process 2 days before so that the absorbent cloth that is inside the MCS can soak overnight and then dry. On the morning of the gig, competition, or concert, I assemble my dry instrument. At this time I take the opportunity to make sure that all of the joints going into the bag are hand- tight. I also make sure that my drone slides are finger tight, don’t wobble, and don’t fall out of position on their own. When I am done assembling my instrument, it is brand new.
If you do regular maintenance on your bagpipe, you won’t ever have to worry about dying of “bagpipe lung disease”. Your friends and family will be thankful!
Gary Guth is a professional bagpiper with over 45 years of playing experience and has been teaching bagpipes full time for the last 20 years. He has written "Bagpipes For Beginners", "the Bagpipe Hymnal", and " A Piper's Christmas".