Why is the Great Highland Bagpipe our instrument of choice? In what was originally a précis of a lecture which ‘Fergus’* delivered to the musicology department of an American university, we publish today a piece written in praise of the instrument.
Comparisons are odious, but in the course of art and science they are very necessary. If there is more than one way to achieve an objective, one must compare the different ways and use the one which is best suited to our purpose. In our deliberations today our objective is to impinge – no – ‘inflict’ music on the ear of our fellow man. Why do we wish to do this at all? Ignoring the baser element who merely wish to demonstrate their personal prowess, it is fair to say that we wish to instill in him feelings of joy, peace or nostalgia, to motivate him to march or dance. To stimulate him to perform deeds of heroism or to console him if he is bereaved.
There is only one musical instrument that can achieve all these objectives and that instrument is the Great Highland Bagpipe.
Consider, is it possible to play a piobaireachd on a double bass? Can you play a jig on a euphonium? If we wish to cater for all the emotions listed above, the only alternative to the Highland bagpipe is a symphony orchestra.
The bagpipe provides a melody from the chanter and a simultaneous accompaniment from the drones. “Ah!” you might say, “A piano can do the same thing”. Such a statement, of course, could emanate only from a very thoughtless person. The question of mobility immediately springs to mind. Can you imagine the difficulty in getting a grand piano, or even an upright piano, on to the luggage-rack in a railway carriage? Compare this with the ease with which the bagpipe is transported. Perhaps I did not say that the instrument had to be transported. I credited you with intelligence enough to realise that if the listener is reluctant to come to you, then you must go to him.
An undergraduate once raised the point that one does not get trouble with reeds in a piano as one may with the bagpipe. This, of course, is true. However, a set of spare reeds for the bagpipe will fit in the jacket pocket. A set of spare wires for a piano would need a very large crate, and what a tangled mess you would find when you tried to sort out the A-sharp wire from all the others. Even having extracted the desired wire, you need a spanner to fit it to the board. Just think of the embarrassment if you have left the spanner at home and it is necessary to enquire of your audience, “Is there a three-sixteenths spanner in the house?” A moment’s reflection will convince you of the truth of my contention that the piano cannot be compared with the Great Highland Bagpipe.
In our comparisons, we must note that the double bass also presents problems in mobility, although not so great as the piano. Here I commend to you a programme of fieldwork on the following basis. Take a double bass to some remote Highland glen, and have an assistant take a bagpipe. Make comparative notes on the ease, or otherwise, with which the two instruments are transported over hills and through the heather. Continue the work by tabulating the volume of sound at various distances from the source instrument. You will find that the decibels so recorded will bear a direct relationship to your observations of sound ricocheting from crag to crag on the mountain tops. It would also be interesting to observe the reactions of any curious people who stop to watch your experiments.
I think that safely disposes of the double bass.
Let us now consider other wind instruments. Here, of course, the bagpipe is supreme.
First, the sousaphone. Like the bagpipe this instrument is balanced on the shoulder and the bell-shaped part is above the head. When in playing position, the topmost point of the souzaphone is much higher from the ground than the top of the bass drone on a bagpipe would be – assuming players are of the same height. This presents difficulties to anyone wishing to practise in the rooms of a modern flat where ceilings are low and the top of the instrument hits the electric light fittings. Thus, practice becomes a most hazardous operation, because, being made of metal the sousaphone conducts electricity from damaged light fittings direct to the player’s hands. This may well cause him to “dance” a jig, but, as I have already pointed out, I have never heard anyone “play” a jig on a souzaphone. Of course, one might argue that one cannot play OOUM -PAH, OOUM – PAH, OOUM – PAH – PAH on a bagpipe. This is a moot point as attendance at a beginners’ class will prove.
The sousaphone has one other characteristic that completely eliminates it from further consideration. It is this. The sousaphone sits on the right shoulder – what if the player is left handed and must have the instrument on the left shoulder? If he merely places the instrument on his left shoulder it would face backwards and he would have to put his hands behind his back in order to twiddle the knobs. As many of you will know, the bagpipe is normally played with the drones resting on the left shoulder. If it is desired to play with the drones on the right shoulder, it is a simple matter to turn the bag inside out, replace the stocks and drones and the instrument is then perfectly set for left handed performers. I cannot imagine anyone successfully turning a sousaphone inside out, although I understand that this was attempted on one occasion when an ‘amateur’ military band was performing outside a tavern at closing time.
I will mention the trombone only in passing and call your attention to some of its more obvious drawbacks. I do so, because you students invariably pursue the obscure and ignore the obvious.
Like the bagpipe, the trombone rests on the player’s shoulder. It is operated by pushing and pulling a horizontal slide. Manipulating this slide in and out, often at very high speed, can, at best, create ludicrous situations and at worst, downright disaster. I recall an incident when the trombone player in a band pushed his slide too far forward and knocked the hat off the fellow in front of him, and on the rebound, he pulled it too far back and broke his false teeth. Medical research has shown that as a result of all the exercise at pushing and pulling most trombonists have tremendously developed biceps on one arm whilst the other is comparatively weak.
Finally, if a person wishes to practise bagpipe music at home, he uses a practice chanter. I assure you there is no such thing as a practice trombone, one must play the instrument itself. An acquaintance of mine was doing this in front of a window and in his enthusiasm to play a particularly low note, he drove the end of the slide through the glass. As he lived in a block of flats, this caused complaints from the neighbours.
There are many other instruments that we should consider, for example the tuba, the xylophone and the musical saw, but I think, in every case, you will find that the instrument in question fails to measure up to the qualities of the Great Highland Bagpipe. I will, however, call your attention to two other instruments, First, the jaws harp. I have often heard marches, strathspeys and reels played on this delightful instrument and indeed, it can produce birls which are the envy of many pipers. However, I cannot visualise a jaws harp band marching along the street and remembering that one of our objectives is to “stimulate men to deeds of heroism’—when the platoon commander shouts “Right lads, fix bayonettes –over the top,” I do not think a jaws harp would motivate the required response from the troops.
Lastly, as part of the suggested fieldwork, I refer you to the concertina, and I recommend you to make your own comparisons. Bear in mind that, like the bagpipe, this is a traditional wood instrument in that it is made of wood and hide and produces music by forcing wind through various holes that the player covers with his fingers.
In conclusion, I will again pose the question which I posed at the outset: “What single instrument, other than the Great Highland Bagpipe, can instill in men feelings of joy, peace or nostalgia, motivate them to march or dance, inspire deeds of heroism and console the bereaved?”
• From the April 1979 Piping Times.
* If anyone knows who ‘Fergus’ was, please contact us in the usual way.