Things Growing Inside Bagpipes, and the Piper's Health

Copyright 1996 David C. Daye

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This item refers mainly to the Scottish Highland bagpipe and other bagpipes which are blown by mouth.

>I have to do a report on a fungus that only grows in bagpipes.

There is no such thing. Nothing living ever gets into a bagpipe (well, except for ants or termites in the jungle!) unless it is blown into the pipe from a piper's lungs. Any fungus or bacteria found in bagpipes have come from the piper, blown in during playing, unless the bagpipe has been left lying unused in an attic or standing water somewhere. In those cases the instrument is unplayable anyways, and no sensible person would put such a thing into the mouth without cleaning it!

Since anything normally living inside a bagpipe was already living inside the piper, pipers typically do not get sick from blowing bagpipes. Remember, the piper is already exposed to all these organisms and is already fighting them through his or her immune system. Blowing into bagpipes can make a piper sick, sicker if (s)he is already ill, if the bagpipe was recently blown by someone else with a cold or the flu, or if the piper is fighting a cold and the sheer stress of blowing aggravates an existing illness. Otherwise bagpipes do not seem to create any new illnesses in pipers.

In fact doctors have for generations recommended bagpipes for patients with lung problems such as asthma (it greatly strengthened my asthmatic wife for example), In the Middle Ages, Scottish pipers were known to keep performing until they were nearly 90 years old. Piping is an exceptionally healthy activity.

Another obvious point about the piper's health has to do with opportunity. The air normally flows from the piper into the bagpipes -- and not back. The blowpipe has a valve at the bottom end which keeps air from coming back into the piper's mouth and lungs because the bagpipe would not work if air were leaking out of it very fast. When the piper blows into the bagpipe, especially in the beginning when first inflating the bag, (s)he blows very fast, and can expel a lot of saliva, bacteria and fungus into the pipes. But if any air leaks around the valve it will be moving quite slowly and have little chance of sending material back into the piper. Furthermore, most of the bagpipe lies on the other side of the valve (the bag, the reeds, and all the pipes that actually play), and even when the valve occasionally fails, the airflow in these parts of the bagpipe very slow, not fast enough to send very much material back up the blowpipe to the piper.

>I need to know what it is called, why it grows in bagpipes, etc.

I have no idea of names but I'm sure your family doctor or ear-nose-throat specialist could give you the names of fungus and other organisms that live inside average human beings. The obvious reason that things can grow inside bagpipes is that mouth-blown bagpipes can remain moist for long times after playing.

However bagpipes are a "mixed bag" for growing organisms. On the one hand, they have no immune systems to fight living intruders. But on the other hand bagpipes are designed to dry out enough after playing so that things won't grow inside them, if the instrument is made with the traditional materials and handled sensibly (mouthpiece and other pipes that may have become dripping wet are wiped dry after playing). Another consideration is that the bagpipe is not itself a living organism so there is nothing to infect, nor is there much of the same kind of food that organisms would find within the body. Furthermore the modern sealants used inside bagpipe bags to make them airtight, usually contain a mild disinfectant which is also hostile to growing things. Actually the traditional sealants (honey, sugars) have some anti-bacterial properties too.

Every other wind instrument I've played has been more likely to grow foul and scary things than my bagpipe. The pipes seem to me to be cleaner than the plastic clarinet, metal flute and plastic recorders that I have played. Hope this helps!

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