Toward Technical Forensics for Border Pipers

By Bill Wakefield

Any piper trained up in Great Highland Bagpipe technique attempting music from the Border repertoire quickly finds his training somehow inadequate or inappropriate to the purpose.  Various factors seem contributory, first and foremost being significant differences in the two musical idioms such that, for example, the vocally mimetic character of GHB embellishments that fit so well the Highland music and often even rhythmically reflect a Gaelic text (even in light music) are superfluous or irrelevant in Border music.  Additionally, certain acoustic differences, and even “touch” or response factors associated with dry-blown as compared to wet-blown chanters, seem to steer one away from use of many standard, automatic techniques associated with Highland piping.  This is even more true with straight-bored, Scottish smallpipe chanters which, though not historical, are often used for playing Border music now and, somewhat ironically, actually seem better suited to playing Border rather than Highland music.

Players deal with these phenomena in different ways.  At least one, with superb control, plays music from Peacock’s Tunes and the Dixon manuscripts on his Border pipes exactly as it is written, resorting to simple gracenotes only to separate consecutive notes of the same pitch.  Other pipers, rather more convincingly — or at least more instinctively if they are GHB-trained — use gracenotes on strong beats with occasional grips, throws, or birls thrown in according to their taste.  It does not appear to matter to some players,  or perhaps even occur to them to consider, what was done ‘back in the day,’ so long as they’re having a good time and/or entertaining others by playing, and one respects this attitude wholeheartedly,  enjoying their music all the while.  For players with a pedantic streak, however, the question nags — not least because it’s one of those that will not likely ever be answered definitively!  The following represents musings of many years regarding some of these and related issues that have been addressed by pipers and scholars in various publications with a view to suggesting a possible, fruitful avenue of exploration for those interested in considering and attempting plausible reconstruction of some aspects of earlier technique for Lowland and Boarder pipes.  I would suggest there may be a reasonable answer to some questions right before our eyes…


 First, a word about “standardization” which will have some direct and indirect bearing on this argument.  Over the years, in various publications associated with alternative bagpipes, one sometimes detects what seems a kind of scorn for GHB’s standardized technique; and sometimes this is expressed with what seems a kind of contempt for the military that was responsible for it as well.  As if it was plot by a load of curmudgeonly pipe majors hell-bent on stifling creativity.  Alternative pipers would do well to consult Highland pipers if they would like a balanced view on the matter, and it is doubtful that a Highland piper could be found anywhere who would deny the immense service done piping by the British army.  Obviously a standard technique was necessary as pipe bands developed; but also, just as Picasso had mastered the techniques of perspective and so on before he branched out and, just as (someone said) ‘a fountain shoots higher by diminishing the aperture,’ a standard is a thing to master whence tasteful, controlled, credible departure can be made as, indeed, it is by most Highland pipers in solo performance.  The innovations of expert players raise the bar, or standard, and this is no small part of what makes the tradition vital.  If some things were lost in the process of standardization, most would agree the losses are well outweighed by the gains.

Furthermore, it could be argued that the history of the gradual standardization of GHB technique for light music is really the gradual elucidation of a system already inherently part of the instrument’s technique in context of piobaireachd — along with eventual agreement upon various expedients found to facilitate ensemble playing and sonic unity.  That would be a topic for another publication, but leads to the main point here, namely, technique as reflected in the earliest collections of light music.  Before considering specific aspects of this, however, it would be good to call attention to articles by Mr. Keith Sanger in the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society Journal (Common Stock) from June 2009 and June 2012, on Lowland pipers in the muster rolls of early Highland regiments.  These articles show that the Highland regiments were comprised of significantly more Lowland than Highland pipers for a time, just as many of the standard tunes of the early regiments originated in the Lowlands.  Given this it seems fair to ask whether or not the techniques of the Lowland pipers could have found their way into the early collections of Highland light music.  One also wonders if this possibility may be more likely if musical literacy could be regarded as having been more widespread among Lowland pipers.

A group of pipers trained in the modern, standard, GHB technique, given a page of melody notes for a tune none of them knows and being instructed to embellish it, will agree remarkably on what is to be done.  It has been conventional wisdom among GHB players for nigh on two hundred years that early collections of light music were spare on gracenotes because players “know what to do.”  By the same token, modern GHB players looking at old collections (disregarding differences in the way things were notated in them) quickly recognize the system that came to be the modern standard and, alongside it, often in one and the same tune, these pipers also notice some very peculiar embellishments and patterns of gracenoting that conflict with the instincts they develop with their training.  Once more:  Far from this instinct being the result of some brainwashing conspiracy of dour and draconian pipe majors, it may more reasonably be argued as evidence for the existence of a fingering system internally coherent, elegant, and ultimately instinctive, that has its foundations in the ceol mor technique, and is surely among the wonders in a world of musicology.

 So what to make of those other, peculiar patterns and embellishments?  Is it unreasonable to ask if they might not represent vestiges of another system or systems of fingering associated with pipers from outside the tradition of ceol mor, that made their way into print during the rather inchoate, incunabula period of the early GHB light music collections?  Could some of the techniques and patterns recorded in the early collections of light music, often bewildering to modern GHB pipers, represent contributions and influence, techniques, of Lowland and Border pipers whose presence in the early Highland regiments was apparently so marked?  Does not this possibility seem at least as likely as that of regarding days of yore as some fingering free-for-all, a promiscuous orgy of random gracenotes and embellishments as might appear from not a few tunes in some of the early books and seems sometimes to be a general consensus among some?

 For one thing, as noted above, the musical idiom of the Border tunes militate against the use of many GHB techniques.  Some have noted how obtrusive the heavy, bottom-hand embellishments, like taorluaths, are in playing Border music.  But what about the ‘light’ taorluaths (and grips, for that matter) as recoded in early GHB collections, in which the D gracenote is played on an A rather than a second G?  What about bottom hand doublings shown in the early collections with consecutive D gracenotes or an E followed by a D gracenote?  What about movements that seem to approximate the trills, turns, and mordents of other musicians, sometimes, apparently, hinted at in notation of old light music collections — allowing for the fact that old collections were sometimes intended to appeal to musicians other than pipers?  What about regularly gracenoting with the finger immediately above the principle note, or striking with one finger immediately below it as is frequent in the early books?  Maybe even the oft-discussed, different styles of D throw arose as regional variants?

This variety outside the modern standard GHB technique still exists and comprises the kinds of tricks GHB players resort to in solo performance, most often when playing slow airs — tunes which support such techniques in ways Border music does because of, e.g., the absence in them of the ‘Scotch snap’ with which GHB technique is so thoroughly integrated; and also because, for Highland pipers, solo performance is an opportunity to showcase subtleties of gracnoting and ornamentation not possible in band situations where a system facilitating unison is paramount.

‘Man does not live by bread alone,’ and once pipers achieve the necessity of separating two notes of the same pitch with a gracenote, they seem to want to splash out and decorate with gracenotes as well.  Where staccato is possible on other instruments, successive, hard gracenotes may serve a piper; a glissando seems hinted at by a descending slur or ‘catch’ as some call them, or even by the “cadences” in piobaireachd, and so on.   It seems a real pity that more Highland pipers than appears are not interested in exploring the repertoire of the Lowlands and Borders because, arguably, they have the technical skill, the ability to make sense of the variety of embellishments and gracenote patterns that appear in the early light music collections and, along with these most importantly, the instinct for appropriate application of their skill and gleanings in context of the tunes associated with this extraordinary repertoire.  Their efforts might possibly contribute to plausible recovery of some historic techniques associated with it.

 Bill Wakefield lives in San Francisco and has been piping for more than 40 years. Having trained on the Highland bagpipe from an early age, he took up Northumbrian and Scottish smallpipes in his 20’s, and presently anticipates delivery of a set of Border pipes in September 2014.

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