I’m back…and I choose a tune from my previous two posts!

For reasons too numerous to mention I have not posted for nearly two months. I didn’t really notice the time passing (which is either good or bad), so now I ought to rectify the situation.

It seemed reasonable (after such a long break) to start back by referencing my previous two posts, and I can do so without artifice because I really have had to make a choice which involves them both. The 2008 competition season has arrived for this lowly piper and with it a choice of tunes in piobaireachd for the upcoming competitions. All winter I have been putting off the decision: should it be my eponymous web tune, “I Am Proud to Play a Pipe” or my family-connected tune “The Rout of The MacPhees”? Both tunes are on the Piobaireachd Society’s Silver Medal list for this year, both have reasonably straightforward grounds and 1st variations (that is all I have to play in my grade), and both have compelling reasons for me to choose them.

Well, the wait is over – I finally made my choice. I picked The Rout of the MacPhees. It comes up in the competition list a lot less frequently than I Am Proud to Play a Pipe and is perhaps a little less technical. And there is that wonderful family connection. Still, I’m going to have to work on my edres and D-throws, since the ground is stuffed full of them. I will also have to get inside the tune, since on the face of it, it is quite repetitive. That makes interpretation very important, or the tune will just end up being boring. My instructor (and soon-to-be belt winner) Justin Howland will help me with that, I have no doubt.

Well, I’m back. I’ll try not to be silent for quite as long this time.

A bittersweet piobaireachd

In 1615 James Macdonald of Islay, beginning what was to be the final chapter in the Macdonalds’ struggle against the rule of England and Scottish surrogate rulers, escaped from Edinburgh castle to fight one last time with the clans against the crown.

Among the clans he gathered to his cause were the Macfies of Colonsay under their chief Malcolm. Late in the year Colla Ciotach MacDonald,or Colkitto (a Macdonald who had secretly joined the forces of the crown under the Earl of Argyll), betrayed Malcolm Macfie. Malcolm was forced to give up the clan’s hereditary right to rule Colonsay. For a few years Malcolm remained on Colonsay, but it must have been a strange existence. In 1623, as colonists were unwittingly founding a new nation in Massachussetts, Malcolm Macfie was killed by Colkitto on Colonsay, bringing an end to the little island nation of the Macfies. The Macfies gradually dispersed from Colonsay over the following generations.

This, then, is the backstory to the tune The Rout of the MacPhees. The tune is on the list of Silver Medal tunes from the Piobaireachd Society for 2008 and thus stands a reasonable chance of being heard during this competition year. Still, it is probably not a first choice of pipers given that it is not as “tuneful” as others. I’m not sure who wrote the tune – if it was a Macfie, a Macdonald, or some other person. Knowing this might help to understand the tune a little better, but in the meantime I am choosing to interpret the tune as one of those “angry” tunes which appear occasionally in the repertoire.

At the recent Winter Storm competition in Kansas City only one competitor played the tune out of a field of nearly 30. But one is better than none, and we can be grateful for Captain Ken Eller’s omnipresent recording device.

Visit The Captain’s Corner and scroll down to enjoy David McNally’s performance of The Rout of the MacPhees, the first recording available of this tune in recent years. Thank you David for choosing to spend some time with this tune – this Macfie appreciates your efforts.

I Am Proud To Play A Pipe – new performances

Because this wonderful tune is on the Piobaireachd Society’s Silver Medal Tune List for 2008, I have a feeling we will be hearing a lot of it this year.

Alex Gandy (Bruce Gandy’s son) played it at the Winter Storm competition in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago. You can hear Alex’s performance courtesy of The Captain, Ken Eller, on his website. Alex was second in the Silver Medal ceol mor with this performance.

Also, you can listen to (and watch) new arrival to the United States, Dave Mason, play the tune on YouTube. He has posted his performance for EUSPBA grading purposes, but has given me permission to link to it.

Allan MacDonald has already brought his talent to bear on his interpretation of the tune on his new CD Dastirum.

Now we can hear how (slightly) lesser mortals play it.

Something Blue? Winter Storm Piobaireachd.

Well, I guess it’s a stretch, but I had this literary device hanging over me, so I decided to use part of it right away.

Two weeks ago the Midwest Highland Arts Fund held their Annual Winter Storm Weekend, an indoor piping and drumming competition. The competition draws top pipers from across North America and even a few overseas competitors. The judging panel is drawn from the World’s top pipers and many other distinguished players show up to perform at the big concert and give workshops. Angus MacColl is a regular in Kansas City and others you can expect to find in town include Alasdair Gillies, Mike Cusack, Willie McCallum, Andrew Wright, Fred Morrison, and so the list goes on – you get the idea.

The performers in the Gold and Silver Medal competitions played tunes from the respective 2008 Piobaireachd Society set tune lists, the first outings for these tunes this year. A few recordings of the proceedings are now available. Go to Ken Eller’s Captain’s Corner site for the prize winning tunes. Ken was MC for the events and also made recordings.

In addition, a couple of the performances have shown up on YouTube. I particularly enjoyed Donald MacPhee’s performance of The Clan MacNab’s Salute. This is not a tune I knew before, but I have listened to it several times now and it’s really growing on me. You have to listen in two parts, but it’s still worth the effort.

I hope there were some people there with professional sound equipment, since it would be good if some of the piping radio shows would carry these performances. In any case, enjoy the tunes!

The Overachieving Highlanders…

That is my fictitious name for a new pipe band, formed by Roddy MacLeod, M.B.E., Principal of the National Piping Center.

In my previous post I wrote about Roddy’s new piobaireachd website. Well, apparently it’s not enough to be organizing that and running the Piping Centre. He has gathered a group of world-class solo pipers to populate a new band, with the goal of playing at the World Pipe Band Championships.

The pipe corps, as announced so far, claims a total of 14 Highland Society of London Gold Medals and reads like a Who’s Who of current piping.

Aside from being really, really exciting to hear an all-star band of this calibre play, it also muddies the waters of the FMM/SFU/Shotts cartel at the top of the pipe band world.

This should be fun..

I am better than half of the pipers a third of my age

I’m fresh back from the Utah Pipe Band’s inaugural David Barclay Memorial competition.

It was very smart of the UPB to organize an indoor competition at a time when next season seems so far off. The competition was well-supported and well-organized, despite the biggest snowstorm of the season showing up as a snowy white background out the windows.

This was my first time competing since Payson back in July, and it would appear that I have improved a little. I managed two 5th places out of a field of about 12-15 in Grade 4 – results I was more than happy with. A late entry to the Grade 4 piobaireachd robbed me of the 1st place I was sure was mine (I was the only entrant initially) but that was OK – I was happy with how I played and the judge, Jack Cairney, gave me some very helpful advice afterwards.

Thank you Utah Pipe Band – you did a good thing, and I hope the competition comes back next year.

Cherede Darievea – the tune with no name

Lovers of piobaireachd should definitely check out BBC Radio Scotland’s Pipeline show this week.

The star of the show this week (10th November, 2007) is a beautiful performance of a tune that actually has no name. I suppose this is an artifact of oral transmission, but many tunes in the ancient piobaireachd canon have come down to us with no name. When this has happened the tunes are left designated as “Nameless”, although the first few canntaireachd vocables are usually attached to the designation. In the case of the tune played on Pipeline this week, the tune shows up in only one manuscript source – Colin Mor Campbell’s Nether Lorn canntaireachd – and is usually referred to by those vocables, “Cherede Darievea”.

Cherede Darievea is one of the very long tunes in the repertoire. Iain Speirs is the performer this week, the recording having been taken from the recent Glenfiddich Piping Championships. He keeps a good level of forward momentum in the tune, but even so he comes in at a little under 19 minutes.

With the nameless tunes one wonders what they might once have been called. Still, even deprived of a back story, Cherede Darievea has a lyrical and haunting melody and Iain Speirs’ performance and beautifully set-up bagpipe are a delight to listen to.

The show switches editions on Saturday evenings so you still have a couple of days to listen. The tune is not often played, so be sure not to miss this rare treat.

I Play in a Grade 3 Band!

Yesterday WUSPBA, the Western United States Pipe Band Association, made it official – my band, The Wasatch and District Pipe Band has been moved up to Grade 3.

This move is clearly the consequence of some very hard work on the part of those involved in the running of our band, and the band members themselves. The team of Andrew Morrill, Ross Morrill, Mike Postma and Justin Howland have created the conditions where this could happen.

    Andrew, our Pipe Major, has pushed the band (in the friendliest possible way) all season, never letting up and being relentlessly positive.
    Ross has tamed the beast that is tuning 20+ pipers, so that our unison playing sounds so sweet – you can hear the results of his pipe set-up in this video of the band playing at Pleasanton this past Fall.
    Mike, our Drum Sergeant, set a bewildering list of new standards for the drum corps at the beginning of the season, all of which they exceeded. The consequence of this was that the drummers actually outperformed the pipers. I hope they’re still willing to play with us!
    Justin provided the all-important guidance that shaped our playing of the tunes. It makes a big difference to have that particular set of critical ears constantly monitoring our playing – I never leave a rehearsal without some nugget of useful information that improves my playing.
    I’m pretty sure also that the level of solo piping and drumming has helped the band as a whole. A significant number of the players compete, and do very well. The depth of the pipe corps is evidenced also by the number of pipers playing piobaireachd. We are not just Jig and Reel players – we want to get to the soul of the music!

All this adds up to a band that is improving very quickly. This progress does however present the band with some new challenges: We currently have between 20 and 30 pipers. That’s too many for one playing band, but maybe not quite enough for a Grade 3 and a Grade 4 band The problem here is that everybody may be too good – how do you decide the roster of the Grade 4 band? I’ll start that particular ball rolling and volunteer myself! Another new challenge will be how to find competition to play against locally. The Salt Lake Scots are a Grade 3 band, but that’s it for Utah. Travel has been a topic of conversation this past week or so, because of the attendant expense involved in taking so many players to out-of-state games.

In any case, I’m sure all this will be worked out, and for now Congratulations to all. This is a great band to be in, and I’m sure we will all prove worthy of our new standing!

Piobaireachd Technique – Advice From An Expert

My previous post drew some comment about whether or not one had to be very experienced to interpret piobaireachd well.

I have an article written by Jim McGillivray called “Piobaireachd Technique: Perspiration before Inspiration”. Jim is very experienced player and competitor, so when he speaks on the subject, it’s usually worth listening to. The article was given to me as a photocopy by my old Pipe Major, so I can’t tell you where it’s from, but I think it is from an old copy of the magazine “The Voice”.

The article is basically in two parts: the first a short essay on why good technique is so important, and the second a description of the more common movements in piobaireachd, and how to nail them!

What is interesting to me is how Jim puts technique into perspective. He makes the case for practicing all the movements (edres, taorluaths, crunluaths, etc.) relentlessly, until you can play them effortlessly. You have to put in the repetitive work, before you can play the tunes well.

If you’re thinking about the gracenotes, the argument goes, then you can’t feel the song.

I think this is a really interesting point, and it gets to the heart of balance in performing any kind of music. Flawless technique, devoid of expression can be produced by a robot, and is boring to listen to. (When my daughter took Suzuki-method violin classes briefly, we learned this the hard way.) On the other hand, the enthusiastic and motivated performer playing a tune that is obviously too hard for them can be just as painful. (That’s me, playing my 2/4 march at the Salt Lake Games this past Summer.) Expression is vital, (or the music will not be), but you need to have at least a minimum level of technique to execute the tune you’re attempting to play.

A highlight of the games I mentioned was hearing Alex Morrill, one of our younger band members, play Struan Robertson’s Salute. He had a few note errors here and there, which is to be expected – he was playing in Grade 3, but he clearly had adequate technique for the task at hand, and he gave what I thought was a very beautiful performance. I guess John Partanen (the adjucator) agreed, because I think Alex got first place that day.

Anyway, my point is that as long as you are able to play the notes and the gracenotes on a well-tuned, steady pipe, and you can keep it up to the end of the tune, you then need to add your personal take on the expression and you will be ready to give your listeners a performance to remember. From there, the only way is up!

Oban – Home of the Argyllshire Gathering

The games season is in full swing in the Scottish Highlands, and that means lots of piping!

Two of the biggest competitions in the solo piping year happen at games a week apart: The Argyllshire Gathering, in Oban, took place last week, and The Northern Meeting, in Aviemore, is this Thursday and Friday.

Richard Hawke of New Zealand took the Gold Medal in Piobaireachd, a first for him. This signifies a graduation of sorts, for once a piper has won this medal, they will play only in the Senior Piobaireachd in the future. (That competition was won by the evergreen Gordon Walker, incidentally). For a limited time you can hear Richard’s winning performance of Rory MacLoude’s Lament, by listening to Radio Planet Pipe. You will also hear the second- and third-placed performances (both of Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Fancy) played first by Niall Stewart, and then by Marion Horsburgh. Marion is also from New Zealand, so it was a good day for the Kiwis.

It is interesting to hear the same tune played on the same day, for the same judge, by two different people. Listening to them back to back can you tell the difference between the two?

Check out the full results on Andrew Berthoff’s Pipes|Drums, and look out for the results of the Northern Meeting soon.