When it comes to technique there’s no one single, absolute and correct way to make things happen. By “things“, I mean the effective movement of fingers. “Technique”, simply stated, is the way we move our fingers to allow just the right amount of air to flow out of our melody-making chanter, the right amount of air to make gracenotes sound and appropriately place rhythmic flourishes (also known as embellishments). To me, that’s technique. Dead simple.
The language of pipers is full of euphemisms and one of my favourites is: “S/he’s got great hands [followed by silence]” (translation: they know bugger all about music). It’s the piping equivalent of the dating game: “S/he’s got a great sense of humour” (woof, woof).
I have occasional moments of self-awareness and I am happy to say that I have had the great good fortune – and that’s how I see it – to have been bestowed the “great hands (shame about the face)” line. I’ve always quietly worn it as a badge of honour.
We all know there’re nine measly notes on our scale [hey - reminds me of a great CD!], no rests, dynamics or much else to add colour to our music. So we are left with technique. Without technique where’s the music?
I don’t believe that pipers need virtuosic technique to create pleasing music. I do believe that pipers need to be aware of their technical style — including their strengths and limitations. It seems to me pleasing the ear of a listener — and your own — is so much more satisfying than an unpleasant blootery strafing of notes.
I just uploaded to youtube.com John Walsh’s solo from a 1989 concert in Edinburgh – and seeing that video prompted this note.
John is a fantastic piper (you may know, by the way, he currently plays with Shotts & Dykehead). In fact, I owe a great deal of my piping to his good teaching. But what always strikes me about his playing is his technique: his light, barely-moving hands create a really effective precision of rhythm and music. John’s a light-fingered technician. While he’s one of the lightest (and effective) technicians I can think of he’s in the company of many others: the late John Burgess, Alasdair Gillies and Brian Donaldson jump to mind, too.
The lightsome classics like, “Mrs MacPherson of Inveran“, “Cockerel in the Creel” and “John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage” were tailor-made for interpretation by the light-fingered.
Outside of a pipe band I never play “Mrs MacPherson of Inveran”. “That just doesn’t suit you”, said John Walsh years ago. And he was right. My technique is “heavy”. I’m more a “Sandy Cameron”, “Glengarry’s Gathering” kind of player - probably the product of John Wilson’s teaching in Ontario.
John Wilson lost parts of his left/top hand in a WWI-era explosion and went on to become one of the 20th century’s greats. He fought technique – and he won - his legacy is big, hyper-clean technique (listen to Bob Worrall or Bill Livingstone, for examples).
“Heavy” usually means micro-larger gracenotes, more emphasis on low g in leumluath, taorluath and crunluath movements.
I am not suggesting “heavy” or “light” fingered technicians have a set list of appropriate tunes – not at all.
I am suggesting that we all should have a clear understanding of what kinds of compositions best suit our technical predispositions – and look to play tunes that make the most of our technical abilities.
We’ll all be happier – including the listening public (such as it is).
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