Monday, July 26, 2004


A Happy Also-Ran

Well, with only the fiddle contest to concern myself with on Saturday, I managed to come in a good solid 4th out of 5. I don't feel that's all that bad - the competitors were truly fantastic. Andy Dodds and Melinda Crawford were 1st and 2nd (no surprise!), and I feel like that I would have been a close contender for 3rd had I had a steadier bow hand. I got a little nervous, and that led to weak and bouncy bowing, but other than that, and some slight intonation problems, I had no significant technical flubs. I did receive the "Best Set" prize, and Elke (the judge) mentioned that she felt that I picked particularly hard tunes. I'm not disappointed in my showing - considering the quality of the other competitors, and that this was only the first anniversary of my being in competition at all, I'd say I did quite well. The most noteworthy moments came after the competition, when all the other open competitors who had seen me play before came up to me and remarked (sometimes effusively) at how much I've improved over the last few months. That was a very high compliment, and I'm grateful for it.

I hung out with the Appins for much of the weekend, getting pictures of the lot of them. The fiddle club concert went fairly well, though I became increasingly distracted, mainly because my smallpipes weren't behaving. There was a sudden (and upward) shift in humidity not long before we started, and my chanters went very flat. I could have handled it a bit better, I think, but my inexperience kicked in. Oh well, there's always next time!

Friday, July 23, 2004


A Teensy Oversight

I could kick myself. When I sent in my registration form for the pipe contests at the Virginia Scottish Games, I forgot to include a check with my fees. So I'm not registered for the pipe contest tomorrow, and there's nothing to be done about it.

Oh well. Between the anticipated rain and the fact that the fiddle contest is so bloody early, it's probably for the best. I still have 5 or 6 pipe contests this year I should be attending, 4 of which have fiddle contests as well, and there's always next year (in which, hopefully, I'll be competing in Grade III).

I'll wear my period costume tomorrow, and my Walker kilt w/ fiddle club t-shirt on Sunday (addendum: I wore the period costume all weekend).

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


The Proud Owner of Socks

I just completed my first pair of short hose last night, with the assistance of Appin reenactor Gerry Orvis. It's in a very bright red-and-black check pattern, with black pinstripes on either side of the black checks. The woolen tape I bought from G-street Fabric to use as garters is a great match - the red is just different enough to lend contrast.

All I have to do before going out in the costume Sunday is to add a disk of leather to the inside of my basket-hilt (to protect the hand from sword-tips poking through the basket), and pick up my doublet, which is having some additional buttons and buttonholes added to the front, and I'm good to go.

Whether the same will be true of my competition and fiddle club sets remains to be seen. I still have a few more days...

Monday, July 12, 2004


Grandfather Mountain Fun

Wow. I just got back in town from the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, my first trip to the grandaddy of all Highland games. I camped there from Friday night to Monday morning, and got to hang out with a great group of folks.

First, the vista:

On Friday, I arrived at the campsite, and after some initial confusion, was placed with some of the old-time attendants of the games, who had formed their own little community into which I was quickly accepted. I did a little pipe warm-up practice, but mostly spent my time on fiddle, first just practicing, then playing for a group of campers. I got to explore a little bit; there's an overlook on a nearby hill that allows one to see the entire games site, and it was really spectacular at night. I saw a bit of Off Kilter at their jam that night as well.

On Saturday, I spent most of my day preparing for the pipe competition, waiting around to compete, unwinding, and getting the results. On the Grade IV Sr (Group B) Piobaireachd contest, I did very poorly - possibly even last - but that appears to have not been a reflection of my playing, but that I had seriously annoyed the judge. I had already begun playing when I noticed the judge still frantically looking up the tune in a book; I had not heard of judges following along in the book. This certainly soured him against me, and he didn't have a good thing to say about my playing, or my instrument. But this judge has a reputation for unreasonableness, docking people for having soles on their chanter (they're obsolete, he thinks), or having a low-pitched chanter (which he confuses with being dull). So though in the future, I will look closely at the judge's table so as not to repeat the unintended insult, I'm taking this judge's comments with a big grain of salt. In the Grade IV Sr (Group B) 2/4 March contest, I took 1st place in a field of 16, with very favorable comments from the judge. The worst thing, again, was my blowing, which he thought was slightly unsteady, and he thought my drones were slightly out of tune. But this judge thought I had a bright chanter, and bright and well-balanced drones, and had excellent technique and expression. I then went to a fiddle workshop held by Barbara McOwen, where we learned some pipe marches in B dorian. That was a lot of fun, and I really needed the practice on the ear-learning. That night, a group of us went to go see Off Kilter and The Rogues, and then came back for the annual camp ceilidh. The pipers played, some girls sang, other girls danced, and some kids fiddled. I was called out to fiddle as well, and I had a 79 year-old Appalachian step-dancer doing his steps while I reeled, an utter blast.

On Sunday, I spent the morning warming up for the fiddle contest. There was a jam session at the fiddle tent an hour before the contest, and then the contest itself, which kept me until 2:30, almost until the games were over. I thought I had done very poorly after I competed. In the first repeat of the b-part of my march, I completely forgot the tune towards the end, so I had to make up about 7 beats of improvisation with a march rhythm in the key of D until I got the last measure, which I played without a hitch, then picked up where I left off. I doubt anyone who didn't know the tune even caught my mistake, but though I recovered, I didn't recover from my recovery. I grew increasingly nervous, my bow arm grew increasingly unsteady, and though I finished my march well, and my strathspey was okay, by the reel it was all I could do not to fall apart. I forgot the tune again in the repeat of the first part, and thought I didn't get much off the beat, I had to go back and restart the part from the beginning. I was convinced that I'd bombed it, and this was reinforced as I listened to the other competitors, who were pretty fantastic. Of a field of 9, two should have been in novice, so I was pretty sure I'd come in 7th. Imagine my shock when I actually placed! It must have sounded better to everyone else than it did to me. The judge (Barbara McOwen) said that we were all very close, and that there was effectively a tie for 1st, and that I had tied with someone else for 2nd. But since SFIRE rules don't allow ties, she had to break it down, and I officially took 4th place, and also earned the Best March award (the irony is not lost on me). Also, I (along with the girls who took 1st through 3rd) all were qualified for Nationals. I am very grateful for that showing, but humbled at the same time. The people who took 5th through 7th were great players, and I feel that considering my mistakes, one of them should have deserved my spot.

After the contest, I did some window-shopping, then went back to the campground. After an afternoon downpour cleared up, I did a little fiddle practice. One woman in our camp wanted to hear me play Are You Sleeping Maggie?, and she had a song-book with music, so I promptly learned it. Another guy, a great grade 1 piper, brought his tenor banjo and let me play around on it - that was a lot of fun. I got to give some encouragement to a nice young girl who is also aspiring to play pipes and fiddle. Sunday night was a lot more subdued, but still a blast. I got a good night's sleep, and in the morning packed up my gear early and headed home.

What a great weekend, all the better because I got to spend it with great people.

Monday, July 05, 2004


More on Gibson's Book

Gibson points out that though pipers are known from Scottish military units from the sixteenth century on, especially becoming noteworthy in the 17th and 18th, it was not until 1854 that the piper acquired any official status in the British Army, and about this time that pipe bands began to form (though occasional unison playing has a far longer history). Prior to this, individual pipers were retained as servants of the gentlemen-officers, and paid either as privates, out of the Captain's pocket, or by "cooking the books". Similarly, they seem to have been non-military supernumeraries, "civilian contractors" in today's parlance, not strictly subject to military law. People came to the army already trained as pipers; instruction did not take place there. As such, the oft-heard claim that it was the British Army that sustained piping can be effectively dismissed.

Gibson reminds us that pipe competitions began in the 1780s, but the first (parade) Pipe and Drum band can not be attested before the 1860s or so - at the time that both pipe and drum ceased serving in a signal capacity on the battle line. As such, it seems highly likely that the requirements of competition and/or literate playing, and their attendant standardization, rather than doing things "the Army way", were the primary influences in the evolution of modern regimental piping from its traditional Gaelic origins.


A Good Book

I've recently been reading John Gibson's Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping, 1745-1945. It's a very interesting book.

He begins be demolishing the myth that bagpipes were ever banned, or even discouraged, by the Disarming Acts; and even shows that the proscriptions on Highland dress were paper tigers, unenforcable, and unenforced, until the Seven Years' War gave the British army a pretext to enforce it: since (after 1748) the punishment for wearing Highland dress was conscription, and the army needed soldiers. Rather, he discusses the effects of immigration, first of tacksmen and the middle class in the 18th century, then the poor in the 19th, as factors in the disruption of Highland music.

Some of his conclusions - or implications - I find harder to swallow. He notes that the reference in MacDonald's "Compleat Theory" stating that playing on the pipes violin music using the "small Dote & Tich" (dot-flag) prevents the pipe from being properly cut, and thus such music is "never peculiar to the Pipe". Gibson takes this to mean - as far as I can tell - that Strathspeys were played in the 1750s in a completely different fashion - that there were no dot-flags, but only tachums, and argues that this remains true in Cape Breton music. Honestly, this seems unlikely to me. He may live in Cape Breton now, but he has a piper's ear, and not a fiddler's, and though no fiddle strathspey, except the Northeast style ones, is nearly as pointed as a pipe strathspey, all regions, Cape Breton included, make extensive use of the dot-flag.

An alternate explanation, which I favor, is that Strathspeys, as a regional style that had was only a few decades old by MacDonald's writing, and diffusing out of their native region only later, may have been adopted less readily by pipers outside their home area than by fidders, especially if (as has been suggested) Strathspeys began on the fiddle. MacDonald was, after all, an Anglicized Gael living in Edinburgh, and his tastes may reflect the pre-strathspey sensibility.

MacDonald's statement about the inappropriateness of the dot-flag in Scottish music does not, to me, say much about whether the reels and jigs he mentions as part of the ancient pipe repertoire were swung or not. No one but a modern regimental piper swings a reel so far that it becomes a dot-flag, nor is a jig swung to dot-flag-even without becoming a 6/8 march in the process; nor do anyone but modern regimental pipers notate that way. There are good reasons to think that in varying degrees - depending on the dance context - swing was present in 18th century Scottish dance music. That MacDonald explicitly mentions jigs at this early date shatters notions among modern pipers that the jig is a late import to the pipes; and in the broader sense Gibson effectively demolishes the usual canard that ancient pipers only played ceol mor, and turned their noses at ceol beag, until modern times.

Some of Gibson's comments about the ornaments played in 18th century reels are fascinating. Several sources refer to pipers boasting that they used the crunnludh in their reels, a practice essentially unheardof today. Does this speak to tempo of reels? Complex piobaireachd ornaments would be nearly impossible in the fast tempos modern reels are played at on fiddle, and in the beer tent on pipes.

This bears on the question of whether "wild" Cape Breton pipers are playing in a conservative ancient style or a derived one. Gibson mentions that ceol mor did not survive well in the New World. In addition, he mentions sources that claim that Cape Breton pipers would, in the place of a taurludh or similar ornament in a given tune, play an undeciperable pattern of gracing. The combination of these comments suggests to me that the "wild" Cape Breton piper is playing in an evolved, not original, style. Without ceol mor, there would be no reason to learn its ornaments, much less incorporate them into ceol beag; leaving the place open for ad hoc substitutions. While there is probably merit to the claim that Cape Bretoners preserved aspects of rhythm and pulse lost to the regimental/competition idiom, the assertion (not made directly by Gibson, but I've heard from others) that ancient Gaelic ornamentation was un-formalized, just because Cape Bretoners made up their own ornaments, remains unproven, and suspect, in my view. It does seem likely that the choice of ornamentation in a given tune's performance was improvised, as it is in fiddle, but the "tool kit" of ornaments were probably piobaireachd-derived, not truly freeform.

I think there's some great scholarship in this book, my nitpicking aside, and it's made me even more interested in bringing together the study of historical piping and fiddling into a unified whole.

One last thing - there are several indications that in the early 18th century, pipers and fiddlers worked closely enough together that many musicians were proficient on both instruments, both in Cape Breton and in Scotland. Could it be that my approach really does have historical merit?

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