The first time Corbin Allgood McKinnon heard the bagpipes he was vacationing with his parents at Epcot in Disney World.
He was 5 years old, and in his words, he fell in love with them. As chance would have it, the next time he heard the pipes was practically around the corner from his home in Decatur, where the Atlanta Pipe Band practiced every Thursday night at Decatur Presbyterian Church.
It became a weekly outing, listening to the APB play on Thursday nights, then dinner at Mick’s in Decatur. He simply loved the bagpipes and couldn’t get enough of them, said his parents Beth Allgood and Bill McKinnon.
Soon all three were traveling to festivals to hear bands play. The powerful music had struck a chord in Corbin, inspiring him to pursue his passion, learning how to play the bagpipes.
Today at 22, Corbin, who calls himself the Dall Piobaire (blind piper), is visually impaired from complications of being born three and half months prematurely, is a respected member of the Atlanta Pipe Band, traveling, competing and marching in festivals throughout the country. He’s been playing for seven years and last year won the “President’s Award” from the Atlanta Pipe Band.
“The Atlanta Pipe Band over its 40 years has never had a piper like Corbin,” said Bob Boyd, president of the APB. “Too bad because we could have used his exemplary talent and determination every day. At least now we have him with us.”
The journey has been a family affair. Bill attends band rehearsals and gives Corbin feedback on his playing. Beth takes him to private lessons and helps with his marching. Wearing all black and walking behind him, with her right hand on her son’s shoulder she guides him through the ranks. Both Bill and Beth often go to the Scottish Highland Games events.
There are no shortcuts, or excuses for his disability and Corbin, who plays by ear, is expected to play on a high level.
“All my students learn to play properly or not at all,” said Corbin’s private teacher, John Recknagel, pipe major for the APB.
“As a musician he is very good. He listens and takes corrections — Corbin’s, desire to learn and his perseverance make up for what he lacks in sight,” added Recknagel. “He pushes me in that respect — I like that in him.”
Corbin’s first mentor, John Quinn, a fellow member of the APB likes to jam with Corbin outside of practice. “We have a great time hanging out together,” said Quinn, an Avondale Estates resident.
“Corbin was a skinny, red-headed kid when I met him,” he said. “His parents came up to me after I’d performed in a festival in Franklin, N.C., and asked how to get him started playing the bagpipes.”
Playing the bagpipes is complicated. First students must master the practice chanter, learning the scales and the intricacies of fingering which can take a year or more. When the pipe drones are added, students learn how to blow into the bag and keep the pressure steady. That's a skill Corbin mastered quickly, Quinn said.
“Corbin and I share a love of Piobaireachd,” said Quinn. The Gaelic word, (pronounced pea-broch) is the classical style of Scottish bagpipe music. The form focuses on a single ground theme with variations repeated throughout and can last from eight to 25 minutes. As the piece progresses, the piper’s fingers move at lightning speed playing grace notes and embellishments.
The young musician not only loves the classical style, he excels in it. Last year he placed first in the Piobaireachd competition at the Stone Mountain Highland games in Senior Grade IV and just last week in Charlotte, he placed second in a competition while playing in a deluge of rain.
Corbin, who graduated a year ago from the Georgia Academy for the Blind is currently attending and will play the pipes at the graduation ceremony. He also plays the flute, the piccolo, the Native American flute, and the Djembe, an African drum.
McKinnon is scheduled to play at the Easter sunrise service for Kirkwood United Church of Christ at Bessie Branham Park.