John Mulhearn: Listen

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By John Mulhearn

“Do you ever listen to pipe music?”

“… Em, not really… I sometimes hear a busker when I’m in the town…”. So began conversations I had a with a number of students recently. In my day-to-day role as an instructor at The National Piping Centre I often find myself reflecting on the tuition I received as a youngster. All of us that teach pipes rely heavily on our own early role models, the teachers that laid the foundation of our own playing, and in turn influenced the way we approach teaching. Indeed history indicates it has ever been thus – master and apprentice imagery is a central tenet of our tradition. That said, in reflecting on my own learning curve, I’ve come to the conclusion that I learned as much, if not more, from listening to and watching top level piping as I did from weekly lessons.

I grew up with piping in the 1990s, first getting a practice chanter in 1992. The 90s was the decade that saw CDs emerge victorious as the recording format of choice. Relatively cheap to manufacture and ship, in comparison to cassettes and vinyl, many of the releases of that decade have gone on to be considered as pivotal. A small number of modest record labels brought us the World’s Greatest Piper’s series, Gordon Duncan, World Pipe Band Championship compilations, Martyn Bennett, 78th Fraser Highlanders, Robert Mathieson, Old Blind Dogs and many, many more. The music and sounds contained on these recordings provided inspiration and excitement. Equally importantly, they provided a quality, or standard, to aspire to and emulate. Perhaps most importantly, they helped develop an ‘ear’ for the unique tuning and sound of our instrument.

The early years of learning are undoubtedly the most important. Mastering one’s fundamental techniques early on, free of bad habits, enables a clear progression into the varied repertoire aspiring pipers will inevitably tackle. It is therefore important that one must also listen to, and watch, good piping from an early stage. It’s true that some pipe music only becomes truly rewarding with time and knowledge of the repertoire and conventions – Lament for Donald Bàn MacCrimmon is unlikely to inspire much other than fear and trepidation to the student working on G gracenotes – but a familiarity with the names and sound of serious pipers and bands should be part of any would-be piper’s education.

In the past – even until just 10-15 years ago – accessing good piping, be it recordings, footage or in person, required a degree of patience and knowledge of where to look. Today, everything is seconds away on any one of the major music or video streaming platforms. The wonders that YouTube can unlock for even the most passive of students is incredible compared with the dedication that was required 30 years ago. With this in mind, along with the help of some of my NPC colleagues, I’ve compiled a Spotify playlist, below, with over three hours of music. I’ve tried to include a wide variety of piping, showcasing some of the recordings that inspired me as youngster, as well as pivotal pipe band/solo piping recordings, and more recent recordings from pipers and bands that are carrying our instrument into the future.

My focus at the moment is very much on Highland pipes, while including a few Border pipe, smallpipe and uilleann pipe tracks. The playlist is not exhaustive or comprehensive and I will in time add to it, making it a developing repository, presenting the breadth and quality of the music that’s out there at our fingertips. Hopefully, this will give my own students a resource to draw inspiration and learn from, beyond their occasional encounters with Glasgow’s piping buskers!