A decade ago, Schenectady, New York-based musician Ally Crowley-Duncan would have been an unlikely candidate for fame. She is a talented musician and musical educator trained on a number of different instruments, but has come to be known as a master of the bagpipes. It’s an instrument that traditionally has not been prevalent in the mainstream music scene. However, in the age of social media apps like TikTok and Instagram, artists can connect artists with audiences around the world, becoming unlikely internet celebrities with thousands of followers.Under the name Ally the Piper, or Piper.Ally, Ally has not only gained a massive fan following, but is redefining the public’s perception of the often misunderstood instrument. Whether its putting bagpipe solos in the middle of Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses classics, gaining and the attention and being reposted by Metallica and the Dropkick Murphys, or collaborating with other cutting edge TikTok sensations such as Malinda Reese and Mia Asano, Ally has made an impression with viewers not only with her handling of the bagpipe, but also her creativity, style and sense of fun. And we’re not talking about just a few hundred followers. As of this writing, Ally has reached 198K followers on Instagram and an incredible 1.1 million followers on TikTok.
Now, for an aging musical hipster like me, who chooses more traditional ways of discovering new artists, Ally’s music and videos have been a gateway for me in not only understanding the way that social media platforms can catapult niche artists into the spotlight, but also in discovering more talented musicians who otherwise might not have gained public attention. Once writing off TikTok as a platform for attention seekers with questionable talent, Ally has made me realize the infinite possibilities that TikTok has in not only promotion, but bringing together musicians with both other professionals, and music lovers alike. I was a little late to that party, but Ally and her videos plugged me in.
I reached out to Ally at the beginning of the summer to talk to her about the bagpipes, her life in music, and the attention she has gotten via social media. It seems like I reached her at the right time, as the summer of 2022 has proven to be very busy for her. Not only did she crack the one million followers mark on TikTok, but she has done more recordings, more collaborations, and more live shows, making her one of the most famous bagpipers in North America.
(Editors note: This interview was conducted prior to Ally Crowley-Duncan hitting her one million followers on TikTok. At the time of this interview she was at 10K follower.)
Sam Tweedle: I don’t entirely remember how I came across your music. I know it was via a video, but I’m not on TikTok, so I assume it was Instagram, or perhaps Facebook reels. But I’m a big music guy, so obviously my algorithm picked up on you somewhere and I’m glad it did because I’ve become a big fan of what you do. Tell me a little bit about your history with music. What are your earliest memories of creating music?
Ally: Well, I hate for it to sound like a fictional story, but when my mom was pregnant with me, she was singing to me nonstop. That’s how she communicated with me. So, when I was born, my mother told me that I was humming and singing before I even started talking. My mom’s not a musician but she has a lovely singing voice, and I was happy hearing music. So, when I was about five years old or so, I had a little keyboard, and my mom came into the room I was playing in one day, and she heard me actually playing music on it. Like it wasn’t just gibberish. I was actually making music just from my head on this little keyboard. So, my mom looked around and found somebody in the neighborhood who had a nicer keyboard, and they just gave it to us, which was really kind, and I just continued to make my own music. I would compose little songs here and there. I didn’t have an understanding yet of how music worked, obviously, but I had an ear for what sounded good. My mother got me into piano lessons when I was seven, and that’s where it started.
Sam: I love that you were enchanted by music before you were even born. I think that’s incredible.
Ally: It’s just the way it went. My mom was a single mom and I had an older brother, so it was just the three of us.
Sam: I know you play a number of instruments beyond the bagpipes. How many instruments do you play?
Allu: I don’t really know how to quantify that, because I have a lot of instruments and I know how to make them all work. But, at a performance level I play piano, highland bagpipes, and small pipes. There’s also whistles, like the Scottish and Irish whistles. I also play the clarinet, saxophone, and I know how to play the guitar, but I wouldn’t perform on it. The same thing with, like, oboe, and trumpet,and instruments like that. I know how to play them, but you probably wouldn’t want to pay me to do so.
Sam: You’ve really created this very special niche career surrounding the bagpipes. I’ve never thought of the bagpipes as being something that contemporary music can be done on, so when I went from your videos to looking your music up on Spotify it really opened my mind to what can be done on the bagpipes. In particular, I love your cover of Owl City’s Fireflies. It’s so lovely and you put a unique spin on it. How did you start out playing the bagpipes?
Ally: The bagpipes were the seventh instrument I learnt. They came about a bit later, after I learnt a lot of other woodwinds, so I already had been building an understanding of music. When I was twelve, the man that my mom got married to when I was four legally adopted me. His last name was Duncan, which is why my last name is hyphenated. So, now I had a Scottish last name, and I was really interested in finding ways to connect with my adopted heritage a little bit more and I decided to look into Scottish music. I was raised on Irish music, but Scottish music is different. I did some research and I thought, what was up with the bagpipe. I remember looking at YouTube videos of this weird looking instrument on the guy’s shoulders, but I didn’t see any women playing them. Well, I told my mom I was interested, and she found a local youth bagpipe group and figured out how to get me into lessons. She got me a practice chanter for Christmas, and then I started taking lessons that February. By the summer I was competing in competitions and I really haven’t stopped since then.
Sam: You said that you never saw women playing the bagpipes when you were exploring it. I never really thought of it, but I don’t know if I’ve seen many women playing bagpipes. Is it primarily a male-dominated instrument?
Ally: It definitely is, but I was taught by a woman. The person who ran the youth band I learnt in, and who still runs it, is a woman named Maureen Connor. I teach with her now. She started when she was 25 and became an incredible piper. She’s created this empire of really top-notch, world-renowned bagpipers, and she’s absolutely amazing. However, most of the people in her band were boys or young men, and the girls were all under eighteen, so they weren’t as obvious. I think a lot of girls who start playing bagpipes, if they do play, kind of just stop. They don’t take it all the way. There are definitely more men who play pipes than there are women. But something that was really inspiring for me was the year that I started playing bagpipes was the year that Faye Henderson won the gold medal competition for bagpipes at the Glenfiddich Piping Championship. That’s the absolute highest level of competition that you can compete in, and she was the first woman to ever win it. She was also the youngest person to ever win the gold medal. She was 18 years old, and she was beating these 40- to 50-year-old men who’d been playing their entire lives.
Sam: Is it difficult to be able to, like, to take the bagpipes and do contemporary music on it? How creative or imaginative do you need to be able to do that? Is it done more than I think?
Ally: The instrument does have limitations. It’s not like a clarinet. The bagpipes have only nine notes and, for the most part, we can’t play anything outside of those nine notes. When it comes to sharps and flats, there are very few that are even remotely possible on the bagpipes. So, because of the range of the instrument and its limits, I can’t play solo on a lot of songs. People ask me all the time to play the national anthem, and it is just not possible. So, the bagpipe’s definitely about respecting the limits and boundaries of the instruments. I think it does take quite a lot of creativity and understanding of music theory and how music functions to be able to add bagpipes to a song where it really wouldn’t be possible. There are places where I have to go outside of the melody and take a harmony part so that I can get through a section that I can’t play with the range of the instrument, and then still try to make it seamless. That takes some work. Outside of just that, bagpipes are not tuned the way that concert instruments are and we kind of have our own tunings. So, if I took my regular bagpipe that I played and competed on for years and played it alongside a piano it would sound horrible. There are different adjustments, and you have to get different pieces for the bagpipes that are tuned the way that a concert instrument is so that you can physically even play some of the notes and have them be in tune.
Sam: You’ve had a ton of success with social media through multiple platforms, primarily TikTok. It’s gained you a lot of attention and connected you to some big names. I saw that Metallica reposted your video of performing One.
Ally: Yeah, they did. Isn’t that cool? When I tag the original composers on my Instagram stories, I’m not looking for attention from them. I really don’t expect it. I tag them because I know people looking at my stories appreciate having a link of where to go for the song I’m playing along with. But Metallica saw it and they shared it to their story, and we ended up chatting and DMing. The same thing happened with Dropkick Murphys. It’s so weird to me. I really suffer from impostor syndrome sometimes. But, to get back to your question, I started posting bagpipes on TikTok but really had no intention of building a career out of it. I mean, I wanted to be a professional musician, but I was just going to teach voice and piano and play pipes at weddings and funerals. That was my expectation of where my future would go as a full-time musician. But I had suffered from lack of practice over the pandemic, like many people, and I wasn’t taking my pipes out much because I wasn’t getting any gigs. So, one day I brought them out and played a tune and put it on TikTok. It was kind of awkward, but it got 130,000 views. It was really overwhelming because I had posted little videos on TikTok prior to that and those would get a couple of hundred views. But now I thought “Wow, that’s so many people.” Then people began following me, left and right, and asking for more bagpipe videos. I didn’t know why, because I never expected TikTok, where my “for you” page was filled with cats and dog videos, to become a place where people wanted to hear my bagpipes. I just thought that the bagpipes weren’t cool enough for TikTok. I mean, I think they’re very cool, but I didn’t think they were cool by TikTok standards.
Sam: What I like about your videos is that they’re clever and filled with a sense of fun. It’s not just the music, but it’s also your screen presence. It’s your personality, your attitude, and the costumes.
Ally: Well, we are the product of what people around us make us out to be like. When I played bagpipes through high school, of course, I wasn’t popular. I had to go outside of the school system to build my bagpiping career, and I found a really great community within the bagpiping world. But it’s very niche, soI really struggled to see a place for myself with the instrument in the mainstream. Just because I’m playing them online now, it’s very different from how I’ve seen them played in the mainstream. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but there is this really cool group from Scotland called the Red Hot Chili Pipers. They play contemporary music on the bagpipes. You should definitely look them up. They tie in a lot to their Scottish roots, like wearing kilts on stage, and they are all very talented musicians. I got to play on stage with them once, which was huge for me when I was a teenager. They’ve been a bit of an inspiration to me, but outside of that, there’s not too much out there in regard to contemporary bagpiping. Well, there is the guy who plays Thunderstruck and has flames coming out of his pipes.
Sam: I’ll admit that that guy came to my mind.
Ally: Absolutely. And then we have the Unipiper who’s from Portland. He’s the guy who rides a unicycle and plays pipes in a Darth Vader costume. He’s a fun guy. His whole intention is too help maintain the “Keep Portland Weird” slogan going. But, otherwise, there are very few people out there who are playing the instrument with the intention of pushing forward in a contemporary way. I am, by no means, the best bagpiper out there. I’m one amongst a million of pipers, and I’ve met some absolutely incredible players. I’ve gotten to play with some incredible pipers. But no one gets to hear that because we’re just stuck in that niche. So, for me, it’s really inspiring and motivational to be able to have a platform to bring bagpiping to people the way that I hear them, and then to be creative with it and be able to fit them into these songs. There’s been people playing bagpipes in rock and roll for a long time, but usually as a solo.
Sam: I was trying to think of some of the rock and pop songs that I can think of off the top of my head that uses bagpipes right. Mull of Kintyre by Paul McCartney and Jump Around by House of Pain obviously comes up immediately to mind. AC/DC, obviously, uses the pipes. I’ve heard the pipes in Korn and White Stripes songs, and in Canada we have The Mud Men.
Ally: Well, when bagpipes are interjected into rock and roll like that, it’s just a hint to the bagpipes. It’s like you’re taking the song and making it work so that you can have a bagpipe solo in it.
Sam: Okay, I got it.
Ally: But I feel like that doesn’t do anything to help evolve the instrument. Sure, I think what that does is create a cross genre moment, and I love it. But there are a lot of guitarists who will adapt their instruments to sound like a bagpipe. You can find YouTube videos of people doing bagpipe effects. Led Zeppelin has done it a bit. There are even bagpipe sound forums for guitarists on the internet. People want that sound in their music, but they’ll use a guitar, which is easier for them to put it into a rock song. So, I’ve taken inspiration from these songs, and try and adapt the bagpipe to fit into the music like if I’m playing guitar solo. That’s a lot of the videos that people see.
Sam: Are you hearing from young women, or kids, which have been inspired to take up the bagpipes because of your videos? I know you teach kids music, including the bagpipes, but are you reaching more kids beyond your reach via your videos?
Ally: Yes, and it’s so heartwarming. I teach kids, bagpipes, but I actually teach a lot of adults too. Both kids and adults learning the pipes are inspiring and heartwarming to me in different ways. The adults are people who have wanted to do this for their entire lives, but didn’t actually think it was possible for them, but one day just started. For example, one of my students is actually Roddy Piper’s daughter. She started after seeing me on TikTok. I’m sure I was not her only inspiration, but she reached out to me to teach her. She’s so sweet. But I think her seeing representation of women playing pipes made her want to do it. Then a lot of other adults who have written and told me that my videos gave them the push to finally do this thing that they’ve thought about doing but never actually went after. Then I get people who will send me pictures of their kids with a practice chanter. It’s so cute. Somebody posted a picture of their kid with a grumpy face on their story the other day and she said, “My toddler’s upset because he saw Piper Ally’s video and now, he wants to bagpipe.” That’s so crazy to me. I wasn’t even introduced to the bagpipes until I was much older than that. So, it feels nice to be able to bring that experience to such young kids.
Sam: Some of your most interesting videos have been your collaborations with another interesting TikTok musician, Mia Asano. Her work on electric violin is incredible and you two make a great combo. Can you tell me about how you two came together?
Ally: I love Mia so much. We met through TikTok. She lives in Boston, which is a few hours away from me and we just always assumed that we would just be online friends. We first worked together when we were featured in Malinda’s Drunken Sailor video, and I just felt that we musically meshed so well. So, I wrote to her and said “You know what? We need to do something in-person.” I had a little bit of a break in February and March, before I started doing festivals again, and I had a fantastic day gig in Boston. So, I made a weekend out of it, and I got to go meet Mia. I’m such a fan of hers, separately from being able to work with her, and I sort of freaked out. I think she’s so cool and what she does is awesome. We spent an entire day together. We got food and of course we spent the entire day just recording and making content and working together. I’m going to get to go on tour with her on Melinda’s tour, so we’re going to be doing concerts together.
Sam: I think you two are amazing together.
Ally: Thank you. I really hope that we can take it a little bit further. In the video we did of us playing It’s a Long Way From the Top, it’s 100% us. We’re not playing over a track at all. I introduced her to the version with the pipes, and she listened to it and made the backing tracks. She played all of that on her electric violin. The guitar parts and everything. I was just sitting there watching her record all of the different layers, and then she took her headphones off and turned the speaker on and played it back. She’s very talented and a pleasure to work with.
Sam: Now maybe it’s my age, or that I’m not the audience for TikTok, but my initial relationship with that medium was very underwhelming and I didn’t get it. But I’ve only started to understand it as a marketing tool and some of the musical stars from the app are starting to reach me. I used to have this attitude that the music on TikTok was awful, but it was discovering musicians like you which really helped open my mind and see how the platform can work to catapult talented people into the public eye.
Ally: Thank you so much for saying that. It genuinely means a lot. I feel like TikTok, in general, gets such a bad rap. I absolutely understand in some cases, but honestly, some of the people who I’ve been following over the year and a half that I’ve been posting on TikTok are so inspiring. There are so many intensely underrated and creative people out there. Another person who you should look up is Colin Vance. He’s a percussionist, and we got to work with him on Melinda’s Drunken Sailor on Melinda’s page. I think he’s one of the most insanely talented people on the app.
Sam: Now that you have gained attention via social media, what are your long-term goals, or plans? What do you hope to do with this?
Ally: I would love, love, love love to go on my own tour, and do more solo performances. Most of my performances are short and exist online, or they’re at Renaissance festivals, which is amazing. But it’s not my brand. I really want to take what I do offline and make it tangible. I’ve had a little bit of an experience of doing that, and I’ve gotten to do a couple local live performances. But I really want to take it further. I really like engaging with an audience, so live performance is something that I really want to get back to doing. I’d also love to plan my own tour, and I’m working on another album right now. My goal for 2022 was to do a lot more collaborative work and to get more music out. I feel like it’s happening slowly. It takes forever, but it’s happening. The collaborative work is really kicking off, and I have a couple songs I’m trying to hold back and not release right away. I’m bad about holding on to stuff and compiling it. I always want to upload it immediately. I’m too excited about it to hold on to it. I have a bunch of unreleased stuff, and a lot of more progressive tracks. Every ounce of self control in my entire body to leave it in the folder.
Sam: You currently have 10K viewers. What’s it like to know that that many people have seen you? That’s an extraordinary number.
Ally: It’s an insane number. It’s an absolutely crazy number, but it’s the 10K “likes” that’s… that’s the one that really gets me. Nearly half a million people enjoyed my music.
Upon hitting the one million followers mark on TikTok, Ally had a bagpipe tattooed on her wrist, which debuted on her social media feeds in August 2022, as a permanent symbol of her incredible success.
I’m not surprised that so many people like Ally’s music. As a musician Ally is both talented and inspired, and as a creator she is fun and highly original. These are the factors that have led t over a million people worldwide to think about bagpipes in a new way thanks to Ally’s videos. You can obviously follow Ally on Instagram and TikTok, as well as Facebook if that’s more your speed. On n Patreon, you can find more information about Ally, along with tour dates and merchandise. You can also explore her music at Spotify.