Piobaireachd on old instruments

I heard an interesting pairing of tunes on this week’s edition of the BBC Radio show Pipeline. Gary West’s guest was Glenn Brown of Ontario, and he gave a fine performance of The Big Spree. On the same show Gary featured a tune called The Gathering of the MacDonalds of Clanranald. This was performed by Decker Forrest on a reproduction of a Donald MacDonald chanter, which would mean that the instrument should sound like those from the early 1800’s.

The differences between the tone of the modern instrument and the “old” one were quite marked. To my ears, I preferred the sound of the older instrument, but maybe that’s just my enthusiasm for archaia speaking. In any case, there is a movement within piping (similar to that in classical music), toward playing tunes on period instruments. I know the purists on either side will argue that their sound is the “correct” one – either true to the original, or allowing the evolution of the instrument to speak for itself – but I’m personally happy to listen to both.

Glenn Brown and Decker Forrest both gave beautiful performances of two great tunes, and I’m glad to live in times when I can hear both side by side.

Piobaireachd workout!

Last night Justin Howland, my band’s resident instructor hosted the first in a series of Piobaireachd Workshops.

Five others were in attendance, and certainly from my perspective it was a great evening. Justin used a kind of back-to-front approach to the tune he had selected – Too Long in This Condition. Thus, we learned the two doubling variations, so that the theme notes would be prominent. The other effect of learning the parts of the tune in this order is that you take care of the most technical aspects of the tune first. Since these are the features that require the most practice, the theory is that you will finish learning the tune with all the technical pieces in place!

In the case of this tune, the technical features consist of the edre and dare (or E- and F-throws) and the crunluath fosgailte, which contains the edre. My edres are not that great, so it was good to give them a public workout. In addition, I’d never attempted to play the crunluath fosgailte, so overall it was a challenging workshop. Despite this, Justin is a very patient teacher, and evidently good at teaching a group with mixed abilities, so I didn’t feel at all awkward.

I’m looking forward to the next meeting in two weeks time.

Too Long in This Condition…

I refer, of course, to my current instructorless state.

Time and again the question arises on the Bob Dunsire Forums, “How do I go about learning piobaireachd?” and in almost every case the first answer is “Get an instructor!”

This past season I have been teaching myself The Lament for Captain MacDougall, and I even had some moderate success with the first two parts at the local Salt Lake Highland Games. My untutored condition is about to change, however, thanks to the efforts of Justin Howland, our band instructor (and resident Grade 1 soloist). Next Monday will be the first of a piobaireachd workshop series taught by Justin.

To get us started, Justin has picked the tune “Is Fada Mar So A Tha Sinn”, or “Too Long in This Condition”. It’s a beautiful tune – actually not “Too Long” (just the Urlar + 5 variations) – and is from a group of tunes with the Fosgailte structure. These are tunes that use the crunluath fosgailte (a kind of high-hand crunluath) in place of the regular crunluath, which produces a lighter more rippling sound. I’ve never tried to play this embellishment, so it should be interesting for that alone.

In any case, it goes without saying that I’m looking forward to Monday, and kudos to Justin for initiating something like this.

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!

Dastirum gu Seinnim Piob!

Well, after patiently waiting for one of the internet piping radio shows to play the track for months, I finally got lucky last week!

Crunluath, the weekly piping show on the gaelic-language BBC radio Alba, featured “I Am Proud To Play a Pipe”, played by Allan MacDonald.

The tune is essentially the title track of Allan’s new CD, “Dastirum”. Dastirum is a slightly obscure term, adopted into Scots Gaelic, but possibly Roman in origin. It roughly translates as “pride”, but in battle-cry kind of way. In that sense, the phase translated as “I Am Proud To Play a Pipe” is a strong, declamatory statement.

Allan’s path through the tune is a very different performance from one you’re likely to hear in competition. He reinterprets many of the familiar embellishments to give a very lyrical, almost extemporaneous feel to the music. In the taorluath variations he plays a timing I have not heard before, which propels the tune forward at a moment when performances often seem to languish.

This particular interpretation aside, I Am Proud To Play a Pipe is a beautiful tune, filled with unusual note patterns. I have seen it described as “probably non-christian”, due to its frequent use of the augmented 4th – an interval called the “devil’s interval”, and historically eschewed by the church. This, of course, endears to tune to me still more!

Piobaireachd in a novel

I have just finished reading “A Certain Slant of Light“, a novel by Cynthia A. Thayer.

The novel hits close to home for me for several reasons, not least of which is the central role played by piping. Without giving away too much, the protagonist is a retired piper, living a somewhat hermetic life near the coast of Maine. Circumstances throw him together with a young, pregnant women on the run from her church and husband.

You won’t get any more plot spoilers from me, but an interesting feature of the book is that to each chapter is attached the first line of a pipe tune, many of them piobaireachd. Included are: Too Long in this Condition, The Daughter’s Lament, The Unjust Incarceration, Lament for the Children, The Sound of the Waves Against the Castle at Duntroon, and (I was pleased to see) I Am Proud to Play a Pipe.

Although Ms. Thayer acknowledges Andy Rogers and Bob Worrall (both pipers of note from Eastern Canada), it struck me from reading the novel that she must also be a piper; she writes about piping, and the finer points of piobaireachd, with the air of a performer, and even includes a piobaireachd she has written. Maybe I will try to contact her and get the scoop.

The book was enjoyable, gripping even, and I will be recommending it to my literary piping friends.

Payson Scottish Festival

Today was the Payson Scottish Festival – a smalltown highland games, with a lot of stuff packed into a small space. The park where the festival is held is full of mature trees, which provide much-needed shade for the participants. This shade was especially welcome today, since the temperatures have been in the 100’s for the last few days.

This was my second time competing solo (and with the band) so I had an opportunity to put into practice the lessons learned from the Salt Lake Games a month earlier. At Salt Lake I had shot myself in the foot somewhat by choosing a 2/4 march that was way too hard. I decided, as an experiment, to change to very easy tune (The High Road to Gairloch) and this proved successful. I did not place in the solo events, but I felt I gave a much better account of myself, and garnered some encouraging remarks from the judges in both the 2/4 and the slow march.

It is clear to me now that the lack of regular, critical feedback is an issue. Despite my good intentions, I still have yet to schedule a regular personal lesson with an experienced piper. Currently I am piping blind, as far as technique is concerned. I will have to remedy this situation if I want to improve.

I was a lot less nervous about the band competition than I had been a month earlier at Salt Lake. I’ve practiced with the band plenty, and play the tunes quite confidently, so I could focus on our Pipe Major and making sure I kept my blowing steady. One of the solo judges in the morning had given me a heads-up: he told me I was moving around a lot and this was a sign of unsteady blowing. He told me he always looked for the waving drones in band competitions and stood behind those pipers. I tried my utmost to remain motionless during our set – I think I did OK!

Well, that’s my last outing competing this year – my band plays in California and Ontario before the season ends, but I am traveling to neither, so it’s time to plan for the Fall and for next year.


Dastirum gu sein im Piob – I Am Proud to Play a Pipe!

This is my theme song (like Ally McBeal – remember that?) and “Dastirum”, or pride, is the title of a new CD by veteran piper Allan MacDonald. This is piobaireachd with a difference. After years of playing by the book (literally, in this case) MacDonald decided something was missing from his performances of ceol mor. He has taken his approach back to basics and produced a CD of piobaireachd quite different from anything I have heard before.

This is not a stilted attempt to “modernize” the form, by adding swirly synthesizers or heavenly choirs in the background. Rather, MacDonald appears to have lived with the music (and sung it) until more natural phrasing emerges. (It probably didn’t hurt that he has also been hanging out with Barnaby Brown, the guy who rapelled down a sea cliff to pipe in a cave, and on whose label, Siubhal, the CD is being released.)

I have been able to listen to two tracks from Dastirum – The Lament for the Young Laird of Dungallon, and The Lament for Alasdair Dearg MacDonnel of Glengarry. Both begin with Allan singing part of the ground, after which he strikes in and plays the whole tune on the pipes. The interpretations of the tunes on Dastirum are being hailed as a watershed in ceol mor. Bill Livingstone, Pipe Major of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, and prodigious piobaireachd player of recent years, said he wished he hadn’t heard MacDonald’s playing:

I can’t play the tunes any other way afterwards, and I want to win the prizes

It’s a telling comment, and exposes the way piobaireachd has been interpreted through the prism of competition these past 100 years.

I can’t wait to hear the whole CD and, of course, Allan’s take on I Am Proud to Play a Pipe, which is naturally included in this collection.

The Desperate Battle – with live birds

There was a magic moment at the Salt Lake Highland Games this past weekend.

The piobaireachd judge, John Partanen moved his competition around the corner from its original location to beneath one of the entrance archways to the fairgrounds. That gate was not being used and I guess he was seeking a little more shade. It was a wide archway, more like a tunnel really, about 20 feet wide by 30 feet long, and about 15 feet high in the middle. Playing surrounded by concrete and stone produced a really nice acoustic, and began to draw a crowd to the opening of the arch. Among the audience was a pair of swallows who, it turns out, were nesting beneath the arch. They were quite concerned to discover 110 decibels suddenly showing up outside their front door and began to flutter around the drones of the pipers as they played.

Strangely (or appropriately) the tune they seemed most interested in was The Desperate Battle of the Birds, played by Sande Storms, of the Salt Lake Scots. She expressed some frustration with elements of her performance after she finished playing, but I pointed out to her that it was probably the best performance of that tune ever, since it was the only one featuring actual birds.

The Rout of the MacPhees

OK, so it would be nice to play a tune that commemorates a great victory of your clan over the degenerates who live in the next valley over. Sadly, for the Macfies this is not the case.

The Macfies (or MacPhee, MacPhie, etc.), despite a long and interesting history there, were finally kicked off their ancestral island of Colonsay in 1620, just as another group of people, an ocean away, were arriving to settle the Americas. The Macfies had resisted as long as they could, but their relatively small number, coupled with some double-crossing, finally ushered in the end of their occupancy. The clan moved onto the mainland where they dispersed. Many ultimately moved to North America.

There is a tune that commemorates this dispersal. It is called The Rout of the MacPhees. For better or worse, it is the one tune in the ancient repertoire that names my family, so I feel a certain attachment to it. It is not often played, and I have not been able to find a recording of it, other than Donald MacLeod on practice chanter, on his set of instructional tapes. Lewis Turrell, of New Zealand, became the first overseas player to win the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in 1958, playing The Rout of the MacPhees. He learned the tune from Donald MacLeod, and is himself still playing ceol mor, although in his 70s. I called Lewis at his store in Auckland, to see if he had recording of himself playing the tune. Sadly, he did not, but I am sure he will be glad to see that it features among the Piobaireachd Society’s set tunes for 2008 in the Silver Medal list. This means it is likely to be played during the 2008 season, and I may yet find a recording.

For now, I will try to learn the tune, and there is a new point on this story arc. About 15 years ago the Clan Macfie organized a gathering on the Isle of Colonsay. The clan piper, Bob McFie, wrote and played a new piobaireachd for the event. Next step is to contact him and see if I can start learning that tune.