The Royal Scots Cap Badge


A History of Piobaireachd, Part 10


Another essential is to mark the phrases, to cut the ground into sentences or lines of poetry by accenting the first and last lines of a phrase. In the ground and in the variation singling the end of phrase is often marked by a three note cadence, for example E long grace note with high G grace note before it, C with D grace note before it and low A should have plenty of time given to it. It is the same as a full stop. Do not hurry away from it to the next note.


The difference between good and bad piobaireachd playing is the same as that between good and bad reading or writing. The good reader pays attention to his commas, his question marks, full stops and the meaning of the words he is reading. The bad reader drones out a whole page without pausing for stops, without altering his pace, and without raising or lowering his voice.


Yet another rule could be stated that the conventional variations are to be played so as to keep the original melody of the ground, in other words so as to bring out what are called the theme notes and not to make them subordinate to the variation notes. Sometimes as in the Suibhal the strong accent is on the variation notes, but the theme notes should not be clipped away to nothing.


On the other hand the final A of the Taorluath and the final E of the Crunluath are not to be dwelt on. The older pipers (that is to say counting from the revival of piping in 1700) used to stand for Taorluath and Crunluath doublings and to play these doublings considerably faster than the singlings. They also repeated the ground after the Taorluath doublings and after the Crunluath doubling. Thus the Crunluath singling was played about the same pace as the first variation singling.


Nowadays as a rule the ground is only played once and the tendency is to increase the pace gradually throughout the tune, playing a variation doubling only a little faster than the singling and playing the singling of the next variation about the same pace as a doubling This may be well enough but it is a pity to forget the old way. The old way had more variety, sometimes we would have a variation played in the middle of a lament played quite briskly and then the player would slow right down for the singling of the Taorluath.


My own criticism of present day playing is that the ground and earlier variations are played too slow, and the singlings of the Taorluath and Crunluath played too fast. However, as I have said already no general rule can be laid down except perhaps this: The two extremes to be avoided are dragging and hurrying, and it should be remembered that a piobaireachd ground or variation can be played slowly without being dragged or played briskly, without being hurried.


In conclusion I am going back for a minute to the other forms of music. In connection with them it must be remembered false fingering is a horrible error and that never should a desire to get in all the grace notes he can manage, slacken a piper's vigilance against playing false notes. False E's and F's are the curse of modern march, strathspey and reel playing and the causes are firstly: too many gracenotes and secondly: too much playing of difficult tunes in bands. This is all that can be said about strathspey and reels except that you are playing Dance music, and that people must be able to dance to what you play although it is neither necessary nor advisable to play a competition reel fast enough for an eightsome. Steadiness is more important than speed. If the right notes are accented Competition Strathspeys and Reels will always have life even if played on the slow side. Competition Marches require more to be said about them. In most quicksteps the required lilt of a good march is contained in the melody itself, and the tune usually plays itself' so to speak .


The Competition March on the other hand is a peculiar thing and expression has to be forced out of it by accenting certain notes and cutting others. Unless this is done, tunes like ‘Abercairney Highlanders’ and ‘Stirlingshire Militia’ are usually feeble and uninteresting. A piobaireachd played without expression is bad enough but a competition march played without expression can bring the art of piping into disrepute more completely than anything else.


A beat in a Competition March consists as a rule of 4 notes written as semi-quavers, or a quaver and two semi-quavers. The first principal is to lengthen the note on which the foot comes down at the expense of the other notes of the beat, and particularly the note on which the left foot comes down. Another sound principal is never to cut the high A and to cut a Low A very seldom. ‘Leaving Glenurquhart’ is a very good tune in which to observe and put into practice these principals. It is a typical competition march, a splendid piece of music when played properly and a paltry thing to listen to when played by a tinker.


The last bar in many competition marches consists of a doubled C and a low A in the first beat and two's in the 2nd formed by a double strike of the little finger. In the preceding bar, that is the last bar but one, the best players emphasize the 1st note of the last half beat of that bar, this is the last semi-quaver but one. In the case of ‘Leaving Glenurquhart’ it is an E, in ‘Stirlingshire Militia’ a B, it is a low A in the ‘Duke of Roxburgh's Farewell to the Black Mount,’ it is a D in the ‘Lochaber Gathering.’ This is nothing more than a trick but it is an effective trick and you should always be on the lookout for similar tricks.


You should never be content with being able to play the mere notes of a competition march. When you have learnt the notes study the tune carefully and see what tricks you can introduce by lengthening some notes and shortening others to give the tune life and spirit, or better still listen attentively to some first class player and see what he does in that line.


The trick mentioned above is not employed in every tune. In ‘Abercairney Highlanders’ and ‘Bonnie Anne’ for instance, you will find very often that the note emphasized is the last semi-quaver of the last bar but one, not the last semi-quaver but one. Still I think I can remember John McColl emphasize the last semi-quaver but one in those tunes, too.


Finally, in my opinion and that of your instructor it is a fault to put a high G grace note before the double strike with the little finger in the last bar and so make 3 notes instead of 2. This practise was introduced by that very fine player the late Geo. MacLennan and although some people have tried to argue that it suited his wonderful fingers, I personally think it was a blot on his playing. Unfortunately however, as I think, he has many imitators today. All that I can say is that my own instructors Angus MacRae, John MacColl and Pipe Major Ross would have nothing of these three A's.


You will see then what you have to learn at this class are marches you will never play for marching, dance music you will not play for dancing and Piobaireachd. You are not to be hampered by thoughts of what will suit the particular dancers in front of you. You will not have your time dictated to you by a drum or by the tramp of marching feet behind you. You have to show off the powers of your instrument and the quality of your own musical talent and the best I can wish you is that you will discover very soon that you can do this best by playing a piobaireachd on a good going pipe.


Piobaireachd as I have said before is difficult music to understand. This difficulty must be recognized and in learning piobaireachd what will matter most will not be the time spent on it on a chanter but the hours spent turning it over in your mind note by note and thinking how you lengthen one note here and shorten another there, or quicken up a little in one variation, or slow down in another.


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