In Praise of Round Reels

June 30, 2023 on 1:11 pm by Michael Grey | In Audio File, Solo Piping, Tips | Comments Off on In Praise of Round Reels

I’ve always been a big fan of “roundish” bagpipe reels. Not every reel suits this style but when I say “roundish” I’m talking about tunes that are less dot-cut and more even; that is, where time is more evenly distributed. In saying “dot-cut” I’m referring to a figure of notes where a note steals time from the note next to it and so the thief note is held longer than the victim note (and apologies for the strained metaphor).

Examples of tunes that don’t ideally suit much rounding out might be G S McLennan’s Mrs MacPherson of Inveran, D C Mather’s Loch Carron, the traditional Pretty Marion, Peter MacLeod, Junior’s Arnish Light and Major David Manson. Yet, it seems to me the majority of our competition reels absolutely suit rounding. In thinning the fat notes there is a balancing of note values that drive rhythm and, so, interest. In this style of reel playing the touch points for accenting are less obvious and so, I suggest, it takes excellent finger control (and, so, practice) to deliver a quality product – meaning, of course, an excellent reel.

When I was a kid playing in the amateur piping I would make a point to listen to the professional pipers whenever I could. If Bill Livingstone or Bob Worrall were up to play in the Strathspey & Reel event, for example, I would hope they might be asked to play tunes like Traditional Reel [hear Iain Morrison at the 3’00” mark] or The Ness Pipers [hear Anna Murray at the 2’40” mark]- tunes I loved – and still do. They both played The Ness Pipers, that great composition by the late genius piper, Iain Morrison (pictured). He was an advocate of round reel playing (at least, he played his reels mostly in this manner). In fact, The Ness Pipers might be the poster child for round reels. Bill Livingstone won the Strathspey & Reel contest (there was no A or B grade then) at the Argyllshire Gathering, Oban in 1978 with The Ness Pipers. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone play this tune in a solo contest anywhere in the world.

I wonder why? Is it the influence of pipe bands where competition march, strathspey and reel sets hold on to dot-cut reel playing with a death grip? I really don’t know.

In modern times it seems to me the leading exponents of the rounding of reels sprang from the the Gàidhealtachd – the Scottish Gaelic-speaking world. Iain Morrison, a Gael from Back, Isle of Lewis, the famous Glenuig MacDonald brothers, Allan, Dr Angus and Iain – all stylish players, all leaning to roundish reels. I’d have to think this way of things is due to the influence of other Gaelic musical sources beyond the pipes on these pipers: vocals – puirt à beul (mouth music) – the accordion, the fiddle to name three. The late Alasdair Gillies, an overwhelming musical force of his time, was a real exponent. Listen to him balance styles in this 2009 recording from the former winners march, strathspey and reel contest: The Smith of Chilliechassie at the 6’48” mark.

In teaching I lean to rounding of reels where it makes sense (for the record: I am not “anti-dot-cut”!). Tunes that suit this – beyond the two mentioned – include McLennan’s The Little Cascade, Broadford Bay, Caber Feidh, Dr John MacAskill’s Lexy MacAskill and the list could go on – and on. In teaching round reels I find the occasional push-back from my more expert pupils, “I’ll get slammed by the judge for playing that way”. I hope that’s not the case and our judges are more open-minded in assessing reel interpretation. If the style has merit and has genuine roots in the tradition – as round reel playing absolutely does – than please yourself and be true to our tradition. That matters a lot, in my experience.

Listen to Iain Morrison lay out a fine set of tunes culminating in a sublime rendition of Donald MacLeod’s Cockerel in the Creel. I can’t imagine any judge “slamming” his style.

Mon the round reels!


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