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Young piper crosses gender, age barriers
Young piper crosses gender, age barriers
By SUE REID
When Gates Mills resident Ruth Chapman had her first encounter with a bagpipe, she was just 8 years old. At the time, the bass drum, the tallest of the three drums that comprise the instrument and rest on one's shoulder, was up to her chin, she said.
"It was overwhelming," Ruth, now 17, recalled. "It's a pretty big and marvelous piece of equipment."
One could say that Ruth, an 11th-grader at Cornerstone Christian Academy in Willoughby Hills, grew up -- literally -- with the instrument.
Ruth, who also plays the drums, guitar and piano, took her first try at playing the bagpipe by starting off on the practice chanter, which is like a recorder, she explained. "I was on that for two years, because I couldn't hold a bagpipe yet. That actually helped me, because I was able to get very good with my fundamental skills."
As a result, when she actually started to play the bagpipes, she was equipped with the basics.
Ruth said that, while the chanter does not take strong lungs to play, the bagpipe is something completely different. "At 10 years old, just trying to blow and keep the bag under my arms" was a challenge, she said.
"It took me a long time to adjust to the actual physics of the bagpipe, as opposed to the fingering, which I was good at," Ruth said.
To play the bagpipe, one blows, squeezes the bag and takes a breath. "That's how you have the constant sound," she said. "It was hard. My pitch would go up and down, and the air pressure would go all over the place. It was quite the adjustment."
Her initial desire to play, she noted, arose from the fact that her older sister, Rachel, was a bagpipe player, and she wanted to be just like her. She credited an "awesome teacher," Jerry Gibson, with honing her skills. He actually made her a bagpipe to form her arm length, she said. "He adjusted the drums to be closer together so they would not be falling off my arm. He fitted it for my body."
From the beginning, Ruth's mother would give her 5 cents for whatever tune she learned and a dime for every tune she memorized. "That was my inspiration," she said.
Ruth, who is 5-foot-6, went on to play her bagpipe in competitions throughout Ohio, as well as in Canada and Michigan. She would travel to them throughout the summer, she said.
Ruth placed in a variety of competitions and is rising through the ranks. Bagpipe players are "graded" from five to one, she explained, with one being a "professional." In a span of just a few years, she went from five to four to now a grade three. She also performed in a bagpipe competition band before high school.
A rare female player, she was accepted well, she said. "They treated me like family. It has really helped my social skills."
Ruth is a member of the Geauga Highlanders Pipes and Drum Band, a predominantly male group. "They are like grandpas to me," she said of her fellow members.
Ruth explained that the traditional bagpipe street bands are all male, but, on the competitive level, there are more and more women, especially since colleges offer bagpipe instruction.
As a member of the Geauga Highlanders for the past nine years, she plays at various pubs on St. Patrick's Day. "It's definitely an adult scene I was introduced to," she said.
Some of her favorite venues to play, she said, are weddings and funerals. "Especially now that I've gotten older and moved from competition to the entertaining scene, something I really love is when I play for a Scottish family at a wedding or funeral," she said. "It takes you back to a place. It is so unique and so cool to be able to be associated with that," she said.
"I love to be able to perform at those types of events and to offer my services for people in times of need. I enjoy it a lot."
Ruth has Hungarian, not Scottish, roots, she said with a laugh, but she comes from a musical family, with both parents playing the guitar. Her great-grandmother majored in piano in college. "She was the musical talent in my family," she said.
In her spare time, Ruth likes to hang out with friends and play music. "Music is just really a big part of my life," she said. "My friends who play music will jam, and my siblings all play. We put together tunes for Mother's and Father's Day and family friends' birthdays."
She explained that, because bagpipes have a very small key, the range of music the instrument can play is usually written specifically for it. "You couldn't play Frank Sinatra on a bagpipe," she said, "but usually Scottish and Irish music is written for the bagpipes."
Ruth said she is "definitely" hoping to pursue an education as a musical therapist. She has went so far as "shadowing" one at the Cleveland Clinic, she said. "It seems like a perfect job with what I'm interested in."
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