June 24, 2007 on 7:17 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Tips | 2 Comments

The other morning I received a note from a 16 year old piper.  He was looking for advice about a couple of bagpipe “issues” with his main challenge revolving around tempo.  No matter how hard he tried his march playing was always “hurky jerky”.  That’s a new phrase for me but I picked up straight away what he meant – I think.

To start I suggested getting hold of a metronome.  Unless you have a classic antique Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (1772-1832) wind-up version in your possession  [pity him with that name in the schoolyard] , electronic metronomes – alas – don’t lie.  By the way, I’ve yet to find any musician who particularly enjoys playing to the relentlessly correct know-it-all clicks of Mälzel’s invention.  But as a guide, as a tool to help balance phrases and lend a hand in the initial interpretation of the cold manuscript it is invaluable. 

When I was Pipe Major of the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band I always had a small e-metronome in my jacket pocket to help keep me right in starting the band off.  In hindsight I suspect it was as much crutch as anything – but I did use one and I imagined it helped keep the team consistent in practice and performance. 

In practice I still use one – always.  For me it’s not so much the assistance it might bring in avoiding the “hurky jerky” in my playing but it helps ground the speed that I play phrases.  I set my competition 2/4 time marches to 72MM (a reminder MM is the convention in time-keeping and represents, “Mälzel’s Metronome”).  I don’t know about you but I have always found that as my form improves tempo rises.  So the lugubrious renderings of February tend to be replaced by Willie Ross specials (presto) as summer nears. The metronome helps temper my own little reality.

I have to admit the whole concept of tempo sometimes puzzles me.  On the one hand it unquestionably dictates the mood and, to some extent, the groove of a piece of music.  On the other it stands as an artificial barrier to musical possibilities and adventurousness.  You know, “marches must be played at 68 and reels at 102” … that sort of thing.

What a struggle I had last summer learning Breton marches for the Lorient competitions.  Mon Dieu! Breton marches have no tempo [some may laugh and say, “Ha, Grey, you were in your element!”]!  All those years of training and practice dismissed in one cultural dip of the toe. Tempo – non!

A Breton march reminds me of what little I know of Piaf or Trenet: phrases sung so often rise and fall and know no tempo constriction.  No doubt the ardent Bretagne would resent the comparison to French singers but I only write of a general impression.  It seems to me the Breton “march” is all about feeling, a musical intuition with little room for pesky metronomic interference.  They’re damned hard for Highland pipers to play but I encourage you to investigate and have a go yourself.   

There is no doubt the metronome is a handy tool for musicians.  Though increasingly I think for us Celtic types there is real merit in the approach to tempo demonstrated by John Cage and others: in lieu of MM marking the manuscript provides the total execution time of a piece of music – a general sort of guideline to help musicians best represent the composer’s intentions: sort of like “you must play this hornpipe in 80 seconds and its up to you how you do it”.

A thought.



  1. How about a little insight from yourself Mike about the difference in tempi between solo playing and band playing. I know this will play on the mind of many people like myself who do both.

    Comment by Greigc1 — June 28, 2007 #

  2. Will do, Greig … M

    Comment by mike — June 28, 2007 #

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