Playing a piobaireachd

By Capt. John A. MacLellan

Now that the notation and structure of piobaireachd has been explained it is time to consider methods of producing a musical performance.

The first consideration must always be the tuning of the bagpipe. As piobaireachd music produces many long notes it is quite essential that, as they are played, the chanter be in complete accord with the drones and that the drones be rock-steady. Only on a well tuned and nicely toned instrument can one expect to do justice to bagpipe music and most especially, ceòl mòr.

Can we think of the pianist for the moment, who sits down at the keyboard and having made himself comfortable, begins to play? The pianist is not worried about the tuning — a piano-tuner has attended to that, neither does he have the physical effort of producing and sustaining constant sound. Thus the piobaireachd player in particular should try to achieve a similar situation, so that as it were, the bagpipe be part of the player, with the production of sound being an automatic process. The tuning should be absolutely steady and stable and what is essential, stay fixed until the end of the performance. Thus, along with the technical finger work there is also a technique of producing good sound. Ideally, a first-class player will not be concerned about either pipes or fingers, only because the necessary preparation to bring them to their peak will have been completed before an actual performance commences.

Now to the tune itself. The mood of the piece must, of course, be considered, but the beginner will, in the first place, be attempting to play as taught. The aim of music making must be kept in mind. There is nothing strange or devious about piobaireachd — it is just music, the same as any other and the classical music of the Highland Bagpipe. Apart from the different note and variation combinations that are encountered in piobaireachd when compared with ceòl beag (marches, strathspeys and reels etc) one of the main constituents which is available in piobaireachd is that of changing tempo, not only from one variation to the next, but within the variations themselves. Such lowering and raising of playing speed, all completed with due consideration to the type of variations in question gives great interest to both player and listener alike.

As a fairly general rule, the Urlar or Ground of a tune is taken in rather stately manner. To produce good music at this point is the hardest part of piobaireachd playing. There are many different types of embellishments to the main text notes which must be skillfully played so that they blend into the flow of music as the phrases connect with each other.

Good musicianship
Some tunes have variations on the Grounds and these have been referred to in some quarters as second or even third grounds. By and large, there is little variation in the tempo of this type of variation although the general rhythmic pattern may alter. However, the most essential point to keep in mind is that the player should be making music.

The next types of early variations to be encountered are those of the Dithis and Siubhal. Sometimes the flow of the Siubhal variation may be interrupted at the end of each phrase by cadences, but where this does not occur a steady rhythm should be maintained, with either a change of tempo and/or rhythm being effected to distinguish between Singling and Doublings.

As the piobaireachd passes through to the Taorluath variation, be they Fosgailte (Tripling), Breabach (one note between Taorluaths) or convential Taorluath, it is often necessary to drop the tempo to allow the increased gracenote embellishment to be properly effected. But like the variations that were played earlier it is considered good musicianship to make a difference when the doublings are played. This usually takes the form of increasing the tempo. Similar treatment is meted out to the Crunluath variations in their differing types.

It must be remembered that the foregoing is a very basic guide which will, as experience is gained, become more varied as the player becomes more expert at making subtle musical variation throughout the tune.

It is usual for the piper when playing piobaireachd to walk very slowly, really perambulating. No attempt should be made to beat out or walk to any type of rhythm. Indeed the slower the movement the better, as it has been found that any quickness when walking can be conveyed to the music which may well end up being agitated and sounding ‘busy.’

Finally, to return to the instrument, while accurate tuning is most important, so is the production of good tone which allows the listener to savour the inbuilt harmonic system of the bagpipe as each note creates its own harmony with fixed sound of the drones. Consequently, the art of ‘reeding the pipe’ is much more than just accepting the first set of reeds that are true and stay reasonably in tune with each other. Once again experience will be the counsellor and time alone will create efficiency in obtaining the optimum tone from the instrument.

*From The International Piper, March 1981.

Here is a clip of Iain Speirs performing The Prince’s Salute at the 2014 Glenfiddich:

•The structure of piobaireachd, 3
•The structure of piobaireachd, 2
•The structure of piobaireachd, 1
•The notation of piobaireachd