How do I learn to play piobaireachd?

Get an instructor.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Before I had an instructor, I think I harbored a slight mistrust of what seemed to be a cartel of interpretation spread from the top down by the Piobaireachd Society. While there may be valid reasons for this mistrust, I have come to realize that the mature position is to accept my own limitations and allow my elders and betters to give me guidance.

It is certainly true that there is a particular style of interpretation of piobaireachd that has been significantly influenced by the Piobaireachd Society and its system of adjudicated competition. While there may have been no way round this in the first part of the 20th century, the world of piobaireachd is opening up these days. Scholarly research is taking place, both inside and independently of the Piobaireachd Society, and very experienced and well-respected pipers are demonstrating new ways of approaching the music consistent with a living, oral tradition.

All this said, I believe the responsible position for a piper just starting out (like myself) is to get some tuition from a good teacher. At the beginning, regardless of the approach you decide to take later, there are some fundamentals of technique that should be learned correctly. These skills will be necessary whether you pursue a cutting-edge piping career playing piobaireachd in night clubs with electronic trance beats in the background, or simply try to impress judges at highland games.

Learn the old, and once you’ve a good grasp of that, explore the new.

How to find a good teacher? That can be easier said than done. I am fortunate to have access to a Grade 1 solo piper, whose own teacher is John Cairns, a world-class piobaireachd player. Find the best teacher you can locally. Failing that, many of the good teachers offer distance-learning options. As a backup, and in fact you should do this anyway, try to listen to as many performances as possible and emulate the ones you like.

So, that’s my piobaireachd primer. If any of this was not understandable, do please comment and I will do my best to clarify.

Good luck, and enjoy the Big Music!

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