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How to learn Piobaireachd
Learning from the music
Nowadays Piobaireachd is written on the stave, as in other forms of pipe music, with a time signature and the use of crotchets and quavers etc. to show the relative values of each note. The Society’s books 1-15 and the Kilberry Book are fine examples of piobaireachd written on the stave. Common to all music written this way is the difficulty of timing. To achieve good musical effect not all crotchets and quavers will be played the same length. Furthermore the written score fails to convey the accurate tempo for each piece. It is therefore essential that enthusiasts endeavour to enlist the assistance of a respected tutor who will guide them through their early difficulties in ceol mor study.
Students may find assistance with phrasing – again essential to good piobaireachd presentation – by referring to the unique collection ‘Binneas is Boreraig’. This book, by Dr Roddy Ross, is based on the playing of Malcolm R. Macpherson, one of the Macpherson dynasty of pipers who could trace lineage back to the legendary MacCrimmons. Dr Ross noted the tunes and devised the system of presentation for ‘Binneas’, writing each musical phrase separately without time signatures or bar lines. The music originally appeared in separate volumes but in 2003 a single book was compiled by Dugald MacNeill and published with the author’s agreement by the College of Piping.
Learning from a teacher
Piobaireachd was originally taught as an oral tradition, with each teacher passing down his knowledge by singing or playing to his pupils. Many people still teach like this today and it is still the best way to learn. Certainly it is easier than trying to sort out what is going on by simply reading the music. More importantly, by singing, the teacher will bring the music ‘to life.
This method of singing is often referred to as Canntaireachd (Scottish Gaelic: literally, ‘chanting’). The teacher uses the strength of his voice to emphasise how each note should be played. Obviously it is not possible to use ‘volume control’ when you are actually playing the bagpipe. Thus the skill in playing piobaireachd is to try and play musically, stressing the notes which are important, and gliding over the less important notes.
Where will you find a teacher?
There are a number of organisations which keep lists of teachers. In Scotland contact the College of Piping http://www.college-of-piping.co.uk/ or the National Piping Centrehttp://www.thepipingcentre.co.uk/
Outside Scotland you are probably best to contact a local solo competitor, who will almost certainly have contacts in the Piobaireachd fraternity. The other option is to look on the web – Bob Dunsire’s site has a lot of links to piping schools throughout the world – go tohttp://www.bobdunsire.com/bagpipeweb/bpwnewppr.html#schools
If you are lucky enough to be looking at the right time of year, a Scottish festival or Highland Games may be held within driving distance. These are good places to get piping contacts. There will often be a solo competition and the judges present (who will be sitting at a small table listening to the pipers) will be happy to advise you where to find a teacher – just go up and ask them.
Learning from a CD
Many tunes have now been recorded by famous and reputable pipers. One can always copy these performances, but beware of using this as your only method of learning. The method of playing tunes varies from one piper to another, and indeed from one era to another. Also the piper may have had an ‘off’ day while doing the recording. If you do learn from a recording, it is best to check your interpretation of a tune afterwards with a piobaireachd teacher.
Other CDs have been produced with teaching Piobaireachd in mind. The whole piobaireachd repertoire was gone through in this way, by the respected player and teacher Pipe Major Donald MacLeod. He sings the tunes, talks about them, and plays them in part on the practice chanter. This is a good introduction to a tune – though again be aware that this will always be “the way wee Donald played it”, and you would again be advised to getting your interpretation checked by a teacher.
Another series of CDs is the ‘Masters of Piobaireachd’ series where the renowned duo of Bob Brown and Bob Nicol of Balmoral, sing and play a number of tunes. At times they both sing together – it really is an interesting collection. This is to be recommended as an introduction to many tunes (with the usual advice to seek clarification from another teacher if possible).
More recently, modern pipers have produced CDs and MP3s for teaching purposes, and this is an area which is likely to expand over the coming years, here is a link to an index for all CD’s of Piobaireachd on the market until 2008. These and more recent recordings are also available at retail outlets.