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Sounds, and sweet airs

15 August 2014

By Simon Skelton-Wallace

THE great Highland bagpipe is an uncompromising musical instrument: when the pipes sound, they speak with authority. The three drones, resting on the left shoulder, each with their own reed, provide bass and two tenors, which fortify and strengthen the music from the chanter. Such a concord of sound psychologically elevates both player and listener.

When the drones strike in, first before the chanter, the human spirit is ready and eager to submit to its ancient magic.

There are two branches of pipe music. For hundreds of years, until the middle of the 19th century, generally the only music heard was Ceol Mor, "Big Music". Ceol Mor is the classical music of the Highland bagpipe, and this branch of piping still flourishes. Ceol Mor's repertoire encompasses salutes, gatherings, laments, and more.

The music known to all as "bagpipe music", however, is Ceol Beag, or "Little Music", comprising marches, reels, strathspeys, and general Scottish airs. The two branches, therefore, are distinctly different.

Ceol Mor is really what the pipes were invented for. Little Music needs to have a strict time and rhythmical structure. Ceol Mor is not strict in its timing or rhythmical in structure, but is interpreted by the player.

Before you embrace the bagpipe itself, you will need to learn the basics of piping on the practice chanter, ideal for practising at any time because of its size and quiet nature - thus you will avoid family conflict with either humans or pets. This chanter is always used to learn new tunes and their embellishments, known as grace notes.

Anyone seriously interested in taking up piping can garner information relating to practice chanters, pipes, tutor books, and CDs, etc., from the internet, where there is a wealth of practical information. Practice chanters cost from about £40.

But, if you consider learning the pipes, seek the advice of an established player, pipe band, or piping society. Do not seek assistance from the general high-street music store, unless it has a piper on the staff.

Piping has now become a worldwide phenomenon, not only in parts of the former British Empire but, for example, in Germany, too, where piping is now a significant musical activity. Those readers who have heard the pipe tune Highland Cathedral, now popularly played at weddings, may not know that it was composed by a German piper.

Pipers are always in demand, from Burn's Night haggis suppers to weddings, funerals, St Andrew's Day dinners, and other community gatherings. Your first step in taking up the practice chanter could lead to an interesting and proud future in playing the Highland bagpipe. After I retired, I was invited to teach it at a famous English preparatory school, from which I have just retired after 13 wonderful years.

Should you wish to seek further advice, you may contact me at johnappin@aol.com.

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