I’d like to explore the different approaches to learning ‘appropriate’ material when starting out on the road to achieving a better understanding of Piobaireachd, our classical music. Of course, it applies to light music as well.

In any endeavour, anyone wishing to reach the heights (whatever level that may be for them) always has a development plan.

It is encouraging to hear the capability of young players. There is no doubt in my mind that the standard and number of young players has never been higher. Through fantastic training programmes (such as the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland), many are stepping straight into the ranks of top Grade 1 pipe bands at an age and in numbers that would never have been possible even 10-15 years ago, which is a marvellous testament to all the very good teaching available.

However, on the solo scene, pipers at the Competing Pipers’ Association’s C and B Grade levels, one can’t but help notice that the lists are often packed with big and difficult tunes. I also think, particularly in the C’s, this is an obvious extension for the young players coming up from the juniors and the material they have been playing before entering the Open grades. Sometimes these tunes are played quite nicely, and other times it can actually highlight a lack of understanding of what you may call the basic principles of good Piobaireachd – regardless of style. Here are some of my guidelines:

Urlar: Punctuation and phrasing.
It is so nice when you are listening to a performance to hear nice phrasing and a nod to the end of lines. This will hold the interest of the listener (especially a judges’ bench!) and also make the delivery for the player so much more enjoyable, as they will be thinking in musical passages (phrases) rather than a bar-to-bar – or sometimes a note-to-note approach. The late, great Hugh MacCallum often described this as a, “Piobaireachd by numbers” approach. Thinking in phases also keeps a nice calm approach for the player, which will tend to put her/him at ease with the delivery.

Thereafter, through the variations: pulsing within the phrases/transitions/pacing are all basic elements that go into keeping the music flowing, interesting and musical.

Murray Henderson playing with The Big Music Society in 2015.

If these basic principles are learned from the beginning and applied to smaller tunes, these key elements become second nature. As the player develops and the tunes studied get longer and more challenging both musically and technically, nothing becomes ‘more difficult’. The basic principles have been put in place, and it is just a matter of delivering them confidently. As a result, the player will be comfortable, and the performance will be enhanced by the delivery of these key aspects.

I think what sometimes happens, is a player may hear an elite piper play a tune that really appeals to them, and because they are ‘capable’ of playing it, they give it their best stab. The problem with this approach is the top professional has been learning and honing their craft over a lifetime and is, therefore, able to demonstrate with great ease all the subtleties of the tune.

For instance, if a player was to learn a breabach style tune like Lament for Donald of Laggan, they would be learning so much in a marvellous tune that is often described as a masterpiece in miniature. In the Urlar they would be mastering hiharins, D, E and F echoes, dare, plus a nice relaxed Piobaireachd delivery for a high A throw. How to treat the lovely, small link notes to keep a natural lilt to the delivery thus avoiding the note to note approach. Natural two-bar phrasing. That’s a whole lot of basic learning to bank for the future.

Into the Taorluath and you learn the art of balance between the theme note (preceding the movements) and the balance note (the ending note of the movement). These control the pacing – obviously stretched a little more for the sadness of the singling of a lament. Then the little ‘bounce’ note that leads you onto the following theme note.

The crunluath would cement the delivery of how to deal with the two notes following each movement that gives a crunluath breabach such an attractive rhythm. This would all be achieved in a lovely little package and be a joy to learn and play.

If the same principle was put into play for a fosgailte tune, something like The Little Spree could be studied. In the Urlar, the art of the glide from low note to high note (opening low A to D and etc.) would be learnt straight away. Natural two bar phrasing. Edres are introduced, plus the simple but effective delivery of grips, which will be close – but ever so slightly different to the slicker light music grip. How to pick up the pace just a shade for a doubling of the Urlar. The subtle introduction of a strong, medium, medium, strong (SMMS) pulsing on the theme notes in variation one, plus the musical delivery of the short notes.

David Glen’s setting of the ‘Wee Spree’.

Into the taorluath variation which is a GDE style, and finishing with a crunluath fosgailte movement which is a combination of regular crunluaths, and the skill of how to smoothly deliver fosgailte and regular crunluath movements.

Glengarry’s Lament could be a plain style taorluath/crunluath tune consideration. Cadences to B and C in the Urlar, also the two note cadence E to low A. Strong melodic line to follow, with a natural two bar phrasing pattern.

Variation 1 teaches the subtle pulsing pattern (SMMS), and how to highlight the theme notes by reducing the length of the small notes – but in a musical style which means not too clipped, but short enough to make sure there is a nice little musical sharpness. Variation 1 now goes to a doubling so we get to consider the pacing aspect in relation to the singling.

Taorluath singling and doubling will follow the same melodic pattern/pacing/sharpness as established in the two previous variations. The same can be said of the crunluath singling and doubling.

We have so many basic skills that could be learnt by studying three different types of tunes from the outset. These allow the player to hone basics and prepare for the next stage of the journey that would take them to the next level. More challenging in all aspects, but in real terms, no more difficult to play as the skills required are already well developed and will feel ‘natural’

The same could be said for memorisation. The three suggested tunes are all so easy to commit to memory. If a simple phrase by phrase learning approach was used these tunes could be memorised – and bear in mind everyone learns at a different pace, but let’s say we allow two hours per tune. That would mean that the three tunes could be memorised in a week and all played on pipes within 30 minutes – including tuning!

The same reasoning goes for the instrument management. By starting with shorter tunes you build up to maintaining a good steady controlled sound. Remembering that for piobaireachd, quality of sound should prevail over quantity.

Following a careful tune plan will have you reach your destination quicker than just taking a random, “I fancy this tune” approach. You will enjoy the journey as you are raising your bar all the way along the road. Everything is ‘manageable’ from the outset, and as you progress you will end up in C/B grade fully prepared – and all the way up to elite.

You should enjoy the journey, and you will also reach the destination quicker and better prepared!

• Murray Henderson is one of the world’s most successful solo pipers. His competitive career includes wins at all the major prizes including, on four occasions, the Glenfiddich. Murray is now a respected solo piping judge.