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MailTribune.com
  • Pipe Dream

  • When her parents asked Michaela Brynn Nuss what she wanted for Christmas, they got a quick answer from their then 8-year-old daughter. She wanted bagpipes.
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  • When her parents asked Michaela Brynn Nuss what she wanted for Christmas, they got a quick answer from their then 8-year-old daughter. She wanted bagpipes.
    "I have been infatuated with the sound of pipes for as long as I can remember," said Brynn, who lives in Medford. (She uses Michaela Brynn as her professional name.)
    She remembers being about 4 years old when her mom wheeled her around in a shopping cart at Walmart and stopped at a kiosk with CD music samples.
    "I would select the bagpipe CD sample to listen to over and over. After that, I would see them in the parades. I'd get so excited when they came past," she said.
    "I find that the pipes have a way of calling the soul. Maybe that's why I fell in love with them."
    Now 22 and a senior music major at Southern Oregon University, she will finish her studies next spring toward a B.A. in vocal performance. Brynn is a mezzo-soprano and performs as a vocalist as well as a piper.
    That Christmas when she asked for bagpipes was 14 years ago. In the interim she has mastered the instrument, is one of very few female players on the bagpipes scene, and gets invited to play at many events.
    Her parents, Michael and Kelly Nuss of Medford, started her on a practice chanter. It is a long, thin, tubular piece of wood or plastic with a double reed and holes that are covered and uncovered by the fingers to produce a melody when the player blows on the mouthpiece.
    It's much quieter than a full set, which was a bonus for the family. A person getting within earshot of a beginner playing bagpipes could suffer a nosebleed or worse. They're loud.
    The full-blown instrument includes a chanter, mouthpiece, a bag and drones, which have reeds that produce the constant bass and/or tenor tones under the melody.
    It wasn't long until she wanted to try the full instrument and take lessons.
    Her parents agreed, but insisted she make a commitment of at least three months.
    Transitioning from the small chanter was traumatic, she said.
    "When you get the real set, it's like going from a tricycle to a car. I was incredibly discouraged at the beginning."
    But she kept at it and soon she was hooked. She took lessons for about four years. Afterwards, she practiced and perfected her technique on her own.
    Her parents were very supportive throughout. Her grandmother, however, wasn't so encouraging when she learned that her granddaughter wanted to take up the bagpipes.
    "She thought it would be too challenging for me," Brynn said.
    "A year later when I played 'Amazing Grace' for her on the pipes, she was amazed. She just stood there with her mouth open."
    There basically are two kinds of bagpipes — mouth-blown and bellows pipes. Brynn owns a mouth-blown instrument but wants to get a bellows one, too.
    With the mouth-blown pipes, the player alternately blows into the mouthpiece and exerts pressure on the inflated bag under her left arm. Keeping the pressure even helps the piper play in tune.
    In the other version, the bag is not filled with breath from the player's mouth, but instead is supplied with dry air from a set of bellows strapped under the player's right arm. This keeps the reeds drier, which helps keep the instrument in tune.
    When she was 11 and 12 years old, she played pipes with a couple of boys who also played the instrument.
    "We had our own miniature band and would harmonize," she said.
    Then they joined the Jefferson Pipe Band, a group of up to a dozen pipers, all adults except for Brynn and her two young friends.
    "I competed at highland games from California to Canada when I was 11 and 12 and won twice," she said. Highland games celebrate Scottish culture with music, dance and athletic competitions such as the caber toss, stone put and hammer throw.
    It wasn't long before she started playing for special occasions.
    "I do parades, funerals, weddings and charity events."
    A recent gig was with the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers at their season-opening program, "The British Are Coming," on Oct. 27. Brynn provided bagpipe accompaniment for some Scottish folk songs.
    The bagpipes can be temperamental.
    "They're incredibly sensitive to temperature," she said. "I get it in tune at home before a performance, but by the time I get to where I'm playing, I might have to spend another 10 to 15 minutes retuning."
    Unlike other instruments, the sound is continuous on the bagpipes. So, when the piper wants to play the same note two or three times in a row, she has to precede the second and third with a grace note or other embellishment. Those ornaments help give the pipes their signature sound.
    She performs in full regalia, which includes a kilt made of 100 percent wool. It's not so bad at the Ashland Christmas Parade when temperatures are colder.
    "But in the Fourth of July Parade, when it can be 103 degrees, it gets pretty hot under eight yards of heavy wool," she said.
    She's never had a major miscue; however, before a rehearsal she was tuning the drones and thought for a moment she had broken the instrument.
    One method of tuning drones involves detaching the chanter and corking up the stock.
    "During the tuning, the bag suddenly collapsed. I was terrified," she said.
    She thought the bag had ripped. Not to worry. The cork had simply come out.
    "Because of the pressure I put on the bag, the cork blew out and shot across the room!"
    No pipers were injured in the tuning of that instrument.
    She loves playing the bagpipes. But music in general is her passion. She's been singing longer than she has played the pipes.
    "I've sung around the house, in church choirs, in a barbershop quartet and now in the SOU Chamber Choir."
    Other experience included stints with the SOU Madrigal Choir, the Rogue Opera, SOU Wind Ensemble and SOU Brass Choir.
    During her voice and academic studies, she has served as an assistant instructor for a class voice course, improved her music theory chops and is taking conducting lessons.
    Besides all her musical activities and SOU studies, she works 15 hours a week at the MAC Cosmetics counter at Macy's and is a freelance photographer.
    After graduation, she plans to get a master's degree in vocal performance, then a doctorate in music education, with hopes of having a career in which she can teach and perform.
    Playing the bagpipes will always be part of her repertoire.
    Is being a female piper in a field dominated by males part of the fun?
    "Yeah!" she said, smiling.
    Jim Flint is a retired editor and publisher living in Ashland. You can reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com. For information about bagpipes performances, contact Brynn at MichaelaBrynn@gmail.com.
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