For anyone using this time, or even this Easter weekend to either learn or teach (using a telecommunications application, of course), this article may be useful. It was written by the famous Seumas and published in the October 1992 edition of the Piping Times.

By Seumas MacNeill

Seumas MacNeill
Seumas MacNeill

There are several different ways of teaching someone a new tune. Some prefer to get the song across first. To have the tune in the head can be an advantage, and teachers who favour this method seem to feel that you can always clean up the technique later on. It has been suggested that this is the way the MacCrimmons worked. There is some evidence, however, that the old masters had a different approach. And there is a great deal of evidence that many modern piobaireachd players have not been properly taught to play the different embellishments. For example, a whole slew of winners of professional prizes do not play the throw from high A to F correctly. This was also a flaw in the playing of some of the prize-winners of 20-30 years ago [1960s-early 70s]. Why did they win the prizes, you ask? Well, maybe the judges didn’t notice, although in many cases the judges of a generation ago were quicker to spot technical flaws than some of the judges today [1980s-90s].

Just in passing, we may as well look at a common mistake. The movement, in canntaireachd Ivedare, is written in staff as

This is read as high A, F, E, G gracenote on E, F.

What many pipers play is high A, F, G gracenote on E, F. This would be written as

In spite of the ‘go for the song’ teachers, it is highly unlikely that the legendary teachers of the past were anything but martinets from the very beginning, so far as technique is concerned. Angus MacPherson (1877-1976) told me on several occasions that his father, the great Calum Piobaire, started him on the chanter when he was seven years of age, but kept him on exercises for the first year. At the end of the year he was taught his first tune, the piobaireachd The Duke of Atholl’s Salute.

So, teaching the song first is not traditional nor is it a successful way of operating. At one summer school in Canada some years ago I was teaching a class of seven adult pipers all from one band, including their Pipe Major. On the first morning, having discovered what tunes they did not know, I passed round copies of a simple march with which they were totally unfamiliar. Before I could do anything about it the pipe major said, “One, two” and off they went at full speed, all playing together, with the Pipe Major thumping his foot on the floor. Naturally, every one of them, especially the Pipe Major, was making a complete clown of the tune. How it would have sounded when they had eventually got if off on parade would have been a good teacher’s nightmare.

The way to teach a new tune is to examine the technique first. In most cases, except with early beginners, the pupils will already have met any difficult movements, but it is as well to check. In most cases also, if they have been properly taught, they will be practising the 12 good exercises and true and so there should be no excuse for faulty doublings.

The method to produce top class solo pipers consists of four steps, as follows:-

  • 1. Get the execution (the technique) right. Demonstrate the tune slowly and carefully then ask each member of the class in turn to play it over. Remind him that he is only trying to find a path through a forest of notes, gracenotes and doublings, and that he is not trying to play you a recognisable tune.
  • 2. When each student in the class has played the measure over twice (by himself) and all the other measures in the tune have been dealt with in the same way, then send the class away to memorise the tune. Tell them that when they come back with it memorised you will then teach them how to play it — and that will cause consternation among pupils who have not had the benefit of your instruction before.
  • 3. When they have memorised the tune, demonstrate with each one in turn how the tune should be expressed, still everybody playing very slowly. Expression is, of course, given by the indicated duration of the notes, but not exactly given. Seldom do you see a double dotted eighth note in music, and yet regularly this is what we play. There follows another spell when they are trying to learn to play the tune with the expression you have indicated.
  • 4. Later, sometimes much later, you can encourage them to play up to tempo.

The four fingers of the left hand are useful for demonstrating these stages. The forefinger represents the period of finding the path through the forest. The middle finger is the memorising. The ring finger stands for expression and the little finger is the period of playing up to tempo. It is important to emphasise that nobody should try to jump a stage and certainly nobody should attempt to do all four stages at one.

Learning to play correctly requires a great deal of patience. Hasten slowly, should be the slogan. If the pipe major or the officer in charge wants the band out on the road quickly then there is no hope of producing top pipers. But if a learner wants to play like a professional some day, then he [or she] must learn as the professionals have done.