GSU Law Professor Doug Yarn
Doug Yarn says playing the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes takes discipline and precision. He also plays the Irish uilleann bagpipes, which he says requires less discipline but is even more difficult. (Photo by Meg Buscema)

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Long before attending law school, Georgia State University Law professor Doug Yarn was totally immersed in the music industry. He was a member of several cover bands and owned a chain of musical instrument retail shops in the 1970s, which provided instruments to several well-known artists. From there, he says, he “sort of stumbled into practicing law.”

After earning his law degree, Yarn, who is also the executive director of the Consortium on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Georgia State, didn’t touch an instrument for years. But in the late 1990s, he fell extremely ill with viral pneumonia. “I was in ICU and really on the edge of life,” he says.

When he recovered from his illness, Yarn decided to go after a few things on his bucket list. One of those items was to learn to play the bagpipes. He began by playing a pennywhistle, “because it only cost seven bucks,” and soon was drawn into traditional Irish music. He learned to play the Irish bagpipes and, more recently, the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes.

Yarn, who splits his time between Athens and Atlanta, says he still considers himself a novice on the Scottish bagpipes, but welcomes the challenge of discipline and precision the instrument requires.

The Daily Report caught up with Yarn to discuss his diverse musical career that spans many genres of music and musical instruments.

How long have you played the bagpipes?

It’s kind of an odd story. I only picked up the Scottish Highland bagpipes a few years ago, but before that I was playing the uilleann pipes that are the Irish bagpipes. The word uilleann means elbow. You squeeze the bellows with one arm and you squeeze the bag with the other. I started playing Irish music around 1999 seriously and had an Irish céilidh band for about 10 years that played all around north Georgia. The name of that band was Banish Misfortune.

How did you get that name?

We just came up with it. Actually, there is a jig by the name of “Banish Misfortune,” and we sort of took that up as our theme song and named our band. We had quite a number of people playing in it. We had every instrument that you can imagine for Irish music.

When did you first get interested in music?

I sort of started teaching myself music at the end of high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I lived in Atlanta and had an Alice Cooper copy band. I had a boa constrictor. It’s kind of funny.

That is kind of funny. So you went from an Alice Cooper copy band to playing Irish music?

Yeah, there was quite a transition there. I had an Alice Cooper copy band and then when I went to college I started a Jethro Tull copy band, and I played the electric flute in that band. Then we started doing original material, but we also played all that sort of progressive rock stuff from the seventies.

During college I did field work in India—anthropology fieldwork—and became interested in musical instruments in India and began to import them into the United States. I started a musical instrument retail store that turned into a chain. It was one of the largest retailers of musical instruments in the United States, called The Music Service. By 1979, my partner and I had three stores in the Connecticut area.

We had a store in North Carolina where we did a lot of bluegrass instruments. We sold to the Nashville crowd as well. I sold musical instruments to Stephen Stills. A lot of his guitar collection I found. I sold instruments to the Winter brothers, Johnny and Edgar Winter. In fact, for years I had the R2600 (guitar) that Edgar Winter recorded “Frankenstein” with.

What happened to the business?

The industry collapsed in 1980 during the high interest rate period, and we were really highly leveraged so we just decided to take the thing apart. At that time, I could play most any instrument, but I couldn’t play bagpipes. We’d get bagpipes in, and I’d go what the heck? I could not figure it out at all, but I put it in the back of my mind (that I wanted to learn to play). The Scottish Highland bagpipes were the one instrument that when it started up it would make the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

Do you play the bagpipes with a group or do you only play for yourself?

I primarily play for myself. We have a pipe and drum corps, very small one, over here in Athens that I’ve been involved in a little bit. For the most part, I play for my own enjoyment.

You said you became interested in music in high school. What prompted your interest?

I saw the Beatles live in Atlanta during their American tour. … My brothers and sisters bought their records, and I guess that’s when I started getting hooked. But it wasn’t until high school that I picked up an instrument and started with guitar.

Did you ever think about getting a degree in music when you were in college?

No, I never thought about getting a degree in it because I didn’t read music. I played these instruments but I never had any formal training at all.

Do you read music now?

I credit the bagpipes for that. By the time I got around to the Scottish Highland bagpipes, I didn’t read music. But to really play them with other people you have to learn to read music. So I learned to read music because of the Scottish pipes.

So, after all this time, you finally learned to read music.

Yes, I played all these other instruments. That’s kind of another reason I picked it up. I played so casually and without any discipline, just pure enjoyment and everything by ear. Believe me, playing music by ear really helps with the Scottish bagpipes, but you need the discipline of reading the music and putting the pieces together. When I started to learn it, I realized I really had to and I did.

One of the things I like about the Highland pipes is the preciseness of it. If you play with other people everybody has to be at the exact right spot when they do ornamentation. The ornamentation has to be exactly right and that requires reading music and really being disciplined.

Is it the hardest instrument you’ve ever played?

The uilleann pipes are probably harder, but I didn’t have to be as disciplined. When you put the discipline together with the difficulty of getting pipes to just play right, I’d say “yes,” it’s the hardest instrument I’ve ever played. And it’s going to take me years to really get it down. It’s kind of a hobby for life.

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