Shelburne’s Eric Goodchild carries on bagpiping tradition

  • Bagpiper Eric Goodchild plays his bagpipes for his sheep at his Shelburne home. “Bagpipes in general produce a sound that you just don’t get from other instruments,” he says of his love for the bagpipes. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Eric Goodchild grew up in Shelburne and was influenced by his mother, who played violin, to be musical from a young age, but it wasn’t until he was 14, when he heard the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards’ LP, “Amazing Grace,” that he knew he wanted to be a piper. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • The bagpipes consist of a “chanter,” which is fingered like other wind instruments; a blowpipe; a bag, normally made of leather or a synthetic fabric like Gor-Tex; and three “drone” pipes, which provide the harmonic background hum of the instrument. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • The bagpipes consist of a “chanter,” which is fingered like other wind instruments; a blowpipe; a bag, normally made of leather or a synthetic fabric like Gor-Tex; and three “drone” pipes, which provide the harmonic background hum of the instrument. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Eric Goodchild plays the bagpipes near his Shelburne home. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Eric Goodchild plays the bagpipes near his Shelburne home. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2019 12:54:46 PM

It’s a cold January day up in the rolling hills. Sheep graze upon the sun-starved grass of the open fields, and the distinct buzz of bagpipes emanates from somewhere in the distance.

It’s not the Scottish highlands, but the hilly section of Shelburne north of the Mohawk Trail, where Eric Goodchild, sporting a long beard, kilt and cap, tends to his sheep, practices leatherworking and teaches the bagpipes from his plot of land across from Davenport Maple Farm.

Goodchild, 58, has been teaching the bagpipes for 25 years, having been piping himself for 44. He’s been a teacher, performer — especially at the annual Robert Burns Night at the Deerfield Inn — competitor, and even builds an important bagpipe part, the drone reed, which he’s proud to say is still used by some professional piping bands. His dedication to the instrument is a product of its unique sound.

“Bagpipes in general produce a sound that you just don’t get from other instruments,” Goodchild said.

“It’s the sound they make. The reality is, as a musical instrument, you have no volume control, you can’t play rests, you can’t play staccato. It’s on or it’s off,” he added. “In terms of expression, it all has to come from the rhythm, which means that a flute, a piano — almost any other instrument — can be more expressive, which means what are you left with? The sound.”

Finding his talent

A musician since a young age, Goodchild also plays the violin and banjo, but it’s the bagpipes that he is most passionate about.

“I would be diminished to lose any of them, but the bagpipes would probably be the biggest diminishment,” Goodchild said.

Goodchild has lived in western Massachusetts his entire life. He grew up in Shelburne and was influenced by his mother, who played violin, to be musical from a young age, but it wasn’t until he was 14, when he heard the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards’ LP, “Amazing Grace,” that he knew he wanted to be a piper.

To his surprise, he discovered his Scottish ancestry, mostly from lowland areas near the English border, and the pipes took on an extra layer of meaning to go with his love of the bagpipe hum.

“As far as my exposure to bagpipes, what little Scottish ancestry I have I didn’t know about until after I started piping,” Goodchild said.

“When people ask, ‘Are you Scottish?’ my pat answer is, ‘I’m an American.’ I’m an American, I play the bagpipes. I very rarely try and put on a Scottish accent, because I’m not,” he added with a laugh.

But, as an American, Goodchild appreciates the cultural heritage of the bagpipes. Goodchild began taking lessons in Greenfield, then from respected piper Donald Lindsay in Petersburgh, N.Y. Lindsay himself was taught by several pupils of Donald MacPherson, a famous Glaswegian piper who became one of the most successful competitive pipers of all time.

Like some of Goodchild’s ancestry, the knowledge of the bagpipes imparted to him can be traced back to Scotland.

“We have a pedagogical genealogy going on,” Goodchild said. “I’m hardly a moon-cast shadow compared to those guys, but I do try to carry on that tradition that they imparted to Donald, and Donald to me.”

Different musician, different sound

The Great Highland bagpipes of Scotland emerged in the medieval ages, when they were carried into battle by tartan-clad clansmen. To this day, ceremonial pipe bands exist in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and the U.S., among others.

The instrument has a long history and, despite looking relatively complex to some, is a fairly simple construction, Goodchild explained.

It consists of a bag, normally made of leather or a synthetic fabric like Gor-Tex; three “drone” pipes, which provide the harmonic background hum of the instrument; a “chanter,” which is fingered like other wind instruments; and a blowpipe. There are no sharps or flats, just nine notes.

“You fill the bag up, the chanter has a reed, each one of the drones has a reed, and the squeezing of your arm provides the pressure to make the reeds work, and all your blowing does is just keep the bag full,” Goodchild said.

Goodchild no longer pipes competitively, but began after training with Lindsay, and used to compete at the Franklin County Fairgrounds, in Northampton and throughout New England. He’s been a judge as well, and during his journeys, through meeting other bagpipers, he’s learned that the instrument, with its nine-noted chanter and three drone pipes, is unique to the person playing it each time it is played.

The weekend after Sept. 11, 2001, Goodchild was in New Hampshire for the New Hampshire Highland Games, which typically include a Sunday recital by pipers who have won silver and gold medals in the event’s competitions. Because of air traffic across the country having been halted due to the threat of terrorism, many of the pipers expected at the event were not there. There was almost no recital.

However, his old teacher, Lindsay, was there and offered his bagpipes to judges — who could play the bagpipes, but did not have them with them. Four people took turns piping with Lindsay’s instrument, giving the attendees a recital after all.

“It was fascinating,” Goodchild said of watching the recital. “Four different guys got up and played on Donald’s bagpipes, and it sounded like four different instruments.”

‘A vessel of tradition’

The camaraderie with other pipers is the one thing Goodchild misses about competitive piping, but he still gives private lessons, which is more fulfilling to him than playing himself.

“To quote my teacher, Donald Lindsay, I view myself as a vessel of tradition,” Goodchild said. “I try to pass on what I have learned as I learned it.”

“As a bagpipe teacher, I try to convey the cultural meaning of the pipes,” he said. “Bagpipes today, people mostly think of Scotland, maybe Ireland, and as such, there is a lot of history and culture wound into the pipes. It gives the music more depth, knowing about it, but it doesn’t really matter whether your name is Goodchild or McLellan or Marinelli. I’ve got a student who both of his parents are Italian, both of them spoke Italian, and he’s not a bad piper.”

Students who begin piping use a practice chanter, a small pipe that looks similar to a recorder, to practice fingering and learn melodies. They are sometimes let down to learn they won’t be starting on a full set of pipes, but the practice chanter is important to their learning, Goodchild said.

“You’ll use it to learn new tunes, you’ll use it if you discover there’s a flaw in your fingering to fix it,” he explained. “I can tell in my piping if I’ve been neglecting my practice chanter, because things start to become less than they ought to be.”

But the biggest tip for newcomers, he said, goes right back to “the sound.”

“I tell my students the most important thing you can do — and this is true with any instrument — but with a bagpipe, you have to listen,” Goodchild said. “If you’re not listening, then you’re missing the biggest reason for doing it.”

In it for the long haul

Piping has been, and will always be, a huge passion of Goodchild’s, he said. He’s even built reeds for the drone pipes, which the late, accomplished piper Alasdair Gillies used while winning seven of his 11 “silver star” awards for piping.

“I do a variety of different things, which can take a lifetime of work to be good at, and things you can spend a lifetime enjoying doing,” Goodchild said. “Today, people always have these electronic things in their hands. If they’re not getting instant gratification from something, they’re not doing it. The bagpipe is something you do for the long haul. It’s something you do perhaps because you have Scottish ancestry. It’s something you do because you love the sound, you like the music.”

Though bagpipes are “a demanding instrument” that is difficult to learn to play, Goodchild said, the hard work always pays off.

“You have to work hard at it, but I haven’t run into anything worthwhile that doesn’t take work,” Goodchild said. “It gives me a lot of pleasure when I get the chance to play for other folks. It gives me even more pleasure when I get to listen to my students play well. I can sit back and say, ‘I did that.’”

​​​​​​To reach Goodchild to inquire about private lessons, call him at 413-625-8203.

Goodchild will be emceeing and entertaining, bagpipes in tow, at the Robert Burns Dinner at Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern at the Deerfield Inn, 81 Old Main St. in Deerfield, on Saturday, Jan. 26. Socializing starts with a cash bar at 5 p.m., with dinner following at 6 p.m. There will be a traditional supper, music, songs and poetry, a “stabbing o’ the haggis and the skirl of the pipes” in celebration of Scotland’s national poet. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com/event/3915653.

Staff reporter David McLellan started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. He covers Orange, New Salem and Wendell. He can be reached at: dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.


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