Piper Tom Plays On After Injury to His Birl Finger

A US-based piper has suffered an unfortunate accident to his little finger but is determined to play on after doctors pinned it back together again.

Tom Hyatt plays with the US Border Patrol Pipes & Drums and is based at Marta Station in Marta, Texas. The band is made up of Border Patrol pipers and drummers from around the US.

Tom takes up the story: ‘I injured the pinkie finger of my right hand in edged weapons defence training. As you can see from the photos I split the knuckle and the surgeon had to pin it back together. It was a bad break.

An x-ray showing the fracture
An x-ray showing the fracture

‘I had a metal pin sticking out of the side of my finger for six weeks and was unable to bend the finger at all making my birl very rough if not impossible. Since the pin’s removal I have been going to physical therapy three times a week but still only have 30 degrees motion.

The pins in place
The pins in place

‘My birls are ruined because I can’t bend my finger properly. Any suggestions?’

The Editor replied: ‘That is very sad news Tom but the important thing is that you keep piping. Don’t give up playing because of the injury; you will overcome it.

‘There are various ways of making the birl, and from our lessons I think you used the ‘7’ method. Now you might like to try to play the movement with two taps on the low A hole if you can cover it.

Tom compares little fingers
Tom compares little fingers

‘If you can’t, try moving your bottom hand across the chanter a little so that the lower part of the finger is on the hole. The ‘two tap’ birl won’t be as efficient as your pre-accident method but would be worth a try. After practice it will become easier to execute.

‘If all else fails, replace the birls in your tunes with low A doublings. That way they won’t sound too different.

‘Injuries to the little finger are not uncommon though seldom are they as drastic as your’s Tom. When learning new tunes keep away from those with a lot of birls.

‘Don’t get depressed about the injury. Keep playing at all costs. Nothing cheers you up more than a tune on the pipes, even if the birls aren’t what they used to be.’

Smiling through....Tom doesn't let the injury get him down
Smiling through….Tom doesn’t let the injury get him down

The picture up top shows Tom on piping duty before the accident. He can take inspiration from the story of professional piper John Wilson, Edinburgh and Toronto, who as a 12-year-old lost the tops of the fingers of his left hand in an accident with a railway detonator. He retrained himself to play with his hand further over the chanter so covering the holes. John Wilson went on to become one of the most decorated pipers of pre- and post WW2 eras winning most of the top awards available to him.

• Do readers have any other suggestions or comments that may ease Tom’s predicament? If so, please email them to pipingpress@gmail.com.