The Piobaireachd Society
Patron HM The Queen

How to learn Piobaireachd

Nowadays piobaireachd is written on the stave, as in other forms of pipe music, usually (but not always) with a time signature and using 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 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 be able to add nuance and pulse to the melody thus bringing it 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 particular notes. Obviously it is not possible to use ‘volume control’ when you are actually playing the bagpipe. The skill in playing piobaireachd is to try and play musically, stressing the notes which are important, and gliding over the less important.

Where will you find a teacher?

Members can contact the officials of the Society who may be able to put them in touch with a local instructor. By checking the piping press the student may also find someone qualified to teach ceol mor.

Overseas pipers can readily obtain teaching via the internet which failing the local piping assoiciation such as the EUSPBA in the US and the BC Pipers’ Society and PPBSO in Canada should be ab;e to help. There are also strong piping associations in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and oin continental Europe.

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 happy to advise you where to find a teacher.

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.

Commercial CDs have been produced with teaching piobaireachd in mind. For example a large part of the 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 but you would again be advised to consult a teacher – you may have picked things up incorrectly for example..

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. 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.