Kilt creased, eyes closed and cheeks puffed, Jori Chisholm breathes into his bagpipes while walking slowly in an open field and tuning the gangly instrument amid the morning chill.
Suddenly, Chisholm launches into a sprightly hornpipe and jig, his left foot tapping the grass as his nimble fingers close and expose the holes on his chanter—the part of the bagpipes that looks like a recorder.
Though the misty setting and instrument’s haunting drone evoke the sights and sounds of Scotland, Chisholm’s outdoor stage last July was in Enumclaw, Wash. (pop. 10,699), where the champion piper competed in the Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games, his final American contest before traveling to the United Kingdom to challenge the best pipers in the world.
“It’s not all about winning,” says Chisholm, 37, who went on to earn a second-place trophy in September at Scotland’s Cowal Highland Gathering. “It’s about the music, the preparation. It’s about trying to have that peak experience as a performer.”
Chisholm, of Seattle, Wash., is a consummate musician who has parlayed a childhood hobby into a place among the world’s elite pipers.
His accolades include three U.S. Gold Medal Championships and top prizes at the leading Scottish competitions at Oban, Inverness and Cowal. He’s played with the celebrated Irish band The Chieftains, ex-Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and on numerous recordings as a soloist and band member, including his own 2009 CD, “Bagpipe Revolution.” He also plays with the highly decorated Simon Fraser University Pipe Band in British Columbia and coaches the Keith Highlanders Pipe Band in Seattle.
Chisholm, whose first name is pronounced “yoh’ree,” began playing the bagpipes at age 11 in Lake Oswego, Ore. (pop. 36,619), as his brother and sisters took up Scottish dancing. The thundering sweetness of the music seeped into his bones, and he has devoted his life to mastering the iconic Celtic wind instrument.
“I’ve always loved the sound of the pipes,” Chisholm says. “When the pipes are in tune and they’re working and sounding the way they should, there’s just really nothing like it. They pull you in.”
Bagpipes are physically demanding to play. Pipers blow air into a bag positioned under one arm to create sound and keep the bag full by huffing constantly into a blowpipe. They control airflow by squeezing the bag, all the while playing a melody on the chanter over the hum of drones—which each emit a single note—resting on the player’s shoulder.
Chisholm is known for his precision, the resonance of his pipes, and meticulous preparation, says Michael Cusack, 51, Chisholm’s coach and mentor and among the first Americans to win piping competitions in Scotland.
“He’s one of the best players in the U.S.,” says Cusack, of Houston, Texas. “I could talk for hours about why—the quality of the sound he gets out of his instrument, the great technique, his fingering execution. He’s very musical. He just gets your feet tapping.”
When he’s not competing, Chisholm teaches bagpipe lessons, both in person and through the Internet, to more than 50 students in the United States, Canada and Australia. He’s taught people as young as 7 and into their 70s, and he’s upfront about what it takes to play one of music’s most challenging instruments.
“A lot of work,” he says matter-of-factly. But he cites himself as an example of the rewards. “People will ask ‘What’s your day job?’ And I get to say I’m a piper.”