John Dew: Painting a picture

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By John Dew

Two weeks ago, I, along with four other piobaireachd prize winners from the recent Duncan Johnstone Memorial Competition, was invited to a seminar conducted by Murray Henderson. The subject was piobaireachd performance.

We arrived at 09:00 for tea and coffee and by 09:30am the tunes had started. It was clear from the start that the five of us have good piobaireachd tutors and it was fair to say that we can all get through a tune. To then receive a workshop from a man who can really perform a tune and is a master of the art was a real privilege and was exciting to say the least. We all played the ground of a piobaireachd of our own choice followed by a taorluath or cruanluath singling or doubling, what Murray Henderson referred to as ‘the business end’ of the tune. It must be clear that Murray offered his observations rather than a critique of tunes. He was very open-minded about interpretation and was not there to undo any work that our tutors had advised. He simply offered a few more ideas and approaches to various aspects of our tunes.

The tunes covered were the Pipe Major Donald MacLeod composition, Lament for John MacDonald of Inverness (played by Tim Ness), The Earl of Ross’s March, (played by Archie Drennan, winner of the C Piobaireachd at the DJ) Dan Nevans (playing The MacDougall’s Gathering, a tune which at first glance seems very tricky to memorise), me with The Battle of Strome – a Silver Medal tune for 2019 – and The MacGregor’s Salute, another Silver Medal tune, played by Finlay Cameron, winner of the B Piobaireachd at the DJ.

Murray Henderson.
Murray Henderson.

We played each of our tunes in succession, discussed some points that Murray offered, went for a fine lunch in the Pipers’ Tryst and then played the tunes again in reverse order, trying to execute those points made earlier in the day.

As stated before; Murray was there to offer ideas and thoughts rather than criticism. Murray Henderson is a six time Clasp winner, yet his focus was not on how to win competitions: it was about presenting good music, something we can often forget as competitors and focus on playing 50 cruanluaths in a row technically well. He spoke about the music and its dynamics, colour and execution, before placing us back in a competition context, showing that playing good music and enjoying the moment is far more important than winning prizes and second guessing judges’ opinions. He did of course relate it back to the competition platform but again, it was about playing well, not directly pleasing a judge.

This workshop was very dynamic. There were discussions on music rather than lecture points; we all had our opinions voiced at some stage. Murray often asked for individual responses on musical ideas and ascertain what our approaches were to various aspects of piobaireachd playing. He would ask things like, “What do you think of when playing a ‘battle’ tune?” or “What is the most important note?”, things that make you scratch your head and think, “I’d never thought of it like that before”. Murray provided a wealth of knowledge on the subject matter with great enthusiasm and energy. Similarly, he used adjectives such as “stretch” and “make brighter” and “give lift”, rather than making very generic comments like “play this faster/slower”. This descriptive approach was more effective and easier to execute and made us play less rigidly. Below are some of the main points we covered.

Getting the pipes to be ‘good to go’ straight out of the box was important. The quicker you can get your pipes up and tuned, the quicker and more effective your practice will be and you will be able to focus sooner. He noticed that this aspect was handled better by the B graded players compared to the C graded players in the group. He said he could guarantee that the best players will have the pipes ready to go within a few minutes of having them out of the box. It makes you enjoy the music more.

Murray was very good at making us think about what our tunes represented and how we can use certain variations to highlight aspects of the story line. For example, in a lament, the ground could represent the sadness and sorrow we feel for that particular person whilst the second variation could represent a happy reflection of that person’s life and therefore we could play that variation a little brighter as opposed to keeping the whole thing slow; branding it as a ‘lament’. Similarly, the ground of a battle tune or salute could be bold but later variations could act as the release after the tension in the aftermath of a battle. He made us think how we can treat the melodic lines in being used to gather clan members, such as descending melodic passages within the ground depicting clansmen being called from high and low, and how woeful it would be to see fellow clansmen lying on the battlefield at Culloden and how melodic lines can represent all sorts of emotions. This idea was maybe something some of us hadn’t considered before and it encouraged us to play those pieces boldly. He made us think about creating an image with the music and think about what we are portraying to the listener – something which a good judge will be able to pick up on. It was clear that the attitude was not, “There is only one way to play a tune”, but many. How could we then apply these ideas to the tunes that we were playing? This idea of painting a picture of with a tune based on its title is something which ultimately made our playing better before we had even picked up the pipes: it’s all about ‘feel’.

Colouring groups of fours and threes was another talking point and it was important to bring out dynamics within these phrases, making the music far more interesting to listen to. In groupings of three, like in Lament for John MacDonald of Inverness, we should have a strong-medium-strong pulsing approach for each bar. However, he also mentioned that on the second of the two bar phrase the last theme note should be stretched ever so slightly more to mark the end of the two bar phrase. This could suggest that we play medium/medium/strong-medium/medium/slightly stronger. Similarly, when expressing tunes in fours there is a similar approach of strong/medium/medium/strong, like in later variations of The MacGregor’s Salute. This helps keep the piece interesting and well phrased. The same applies in the taorluath and cruanluath variations. When it comes to the weaker pulses he advised us to think about what not to hold and play through the phrase making the phrase ending more dynamic whilst adding a touch of subtlety to the music. Again, this will ultimately make our playing better and therefore more enjoyable.

The taorluath and cruanluath variations were of interest. Murray explained that this is the ‘business end’ of the tune. We had to continue pulsing our tunes in the same way that we had done in earlier variations. In addition, Murray made us think about the melody continuing through these variations. The low A after the taorluath and E after the cruanluath should not interrupt the flow of the theme notes and that the rhythm of the theme note should be the exact same as playing those theme notes with no embellishments. The idea being that the lyrical aspect of the tune remains the focal point. Some of us were guilty of having too much or too little low A or E after the embellishments. After these had been altered our playing improved immensely.

A fosgailte crunluath can be too clipped or too open and so finding the balance comes from a “gliding” sensation, as described by Murray. Similarly, he advised us not to hang on to follow-on notes preceding cadences, especially in battle tunes. He asked us what our approach was to playing breabach movements. Our responses included, “Think of it in groups of five”, “groups of six” and simply “just play it”. Use whatever works for us best but think of a short 1-2-3 action after you play the E after the cruanluath, similar to a waltz pulsing. There should also be a natural feeling when approaching cadences from these movements also. Similarly, we should have our own way of singing/chanting these movements and we should have them in our head when playing. If we do, well never miss one.

These descriptions weren’t black and white and generic; they were much more elegant, which this softer approach enhanced our playing. This made us thing less rigidly and therefore play less rigidly. It’s these subtle points and little touches that really take the music to the next level. It is important to note that a small change in the way we approach and think about the music automatically makes the playing different and our portrayal of the tune has much more depth to it. Therefore, we can improve our playing without being on the practice chanter for hours on end.

It is important to entertain your audience but it's also important to please yourself and enjoy the moment.
It is important to entertain your audience but it’s also important to please yourself and enjoy the moment.

Being bold vs being nice. This was an idea which again relates nicely to the battle tunes. We could all play a tune nicely and technically correct however, what impact would that have on the judge or the listener? They may not remember that performance so well, even if it was maybe enjoyable. Similarly, the boldness that comes out of the doublings of variations is enhanced when we think to bring back the tempo singling a little more. Murray made the point that there is nothing wrong with playing nicely, but it could fall short to the audience. How much more exciting and enjoyable could a bold interpretation/performance be to the listener or judge? Would they enjoy it more, be entertained more? Would we as the performer also not enjoy playing it more? After all, isn’t that what good music is? Entertaining the audience? But also, it is important to please yourself and enjoy the moment.

Murray also mentioned that memorisation of tunes should take hours, not days or weeks. When he was preparing for competitions he would aim to have the set tunes learnt by Christmas so that he would have the rest of the winter to prepare. We each had varying lengths of time to learn a tune. Murray did empathise and said that some tunes are much harder to memorise than others, yet tunes could be learnt in a matter of hours, not days and he gave us methods of memorisations that will help us in future.

After we had played through our tunes he took us through The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute. He conducted us through it, explaining how we can portray a bold approach whilst adding subtleties. He often added pauses on certain which he describes and “sensations” which add to the dynamic of the piece. This further allows us to make the piece more interesting and therefore entertaining. Where then can we add these sensations to our own performances? We then went through The Bicker and that’s where he addressed our technique. He advised us to play a crunluath a-mach in this tune as well, but don’t lose the contest in this section of the piece. All of these aspects enhance our entertainment to the listener.

Flawless technique is essential. Murray’s reasoning: why ruin good music with faulty technique? Yet he pointed out techniques and approaches to improving technique. The example we used was the chedari and idari. He made us think of fingers falling from High G to F to E and then play a doubling on E followed by a high G again. Due to this easier approach our chedaris were instantly better. Those were the types of approaches to technique that Murray covered. Effective yet so simple.

Murray said preparation is key. We should be relaxed in the final tuning room and never be startled by what tune we are given. He said that there was never one tune he didn’t want to get in the medals or the Clasps. Any doubts you have or concerns that arise in the practice room will be amplified on the platform. Effective preparation will reduce the chances of these errors occurring on the boards. This will help us enjoy our music more and so playing in the moment will become much more exciting. He backed this entire workshop up by saying that good success comes from the top two inches – if we are mentally, physically prepared and have been thorough in your thought process then you will have success. Don’t blame the fingers for missing ornaments and embellishments and going off the tune; that stems from the top two inches.

This was an absolutely fantastic experience. The knowledge and passion that Murray has for piobaireachd is truly inspiring and it has changed my personal approach to performing this art form. He has made us think about it in ways we maybe wouldn’t have been able to conceive and he planted ideas in our minds for future use. His enthusiasm for piobaireachd is really quite admirable and I would encourage anyone to take a leaf out of his book – it could only make your playing better. If weren’t already, we all became piobaireachd enthusiast by the end of Murray’s seminar. He made us want to perform the perfect tune on the perfect pipe and said that the only person stopping ourselves from playing the perfect tune is indeed; ourselves. We have it in the palm of our hand.

• John Dew is a student on the BMus (Traditional Music – Piping) Degree course run by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the National Piping Centre. He also plays with Inveraray & District Pipe Band.

This event and the Duncan Johnstone Memorial Competition is supported by the James and Patricia Hamilton Charitable Trust.