Guest Blogger: The Three Wise Men and Some Thoughts on Technique

Your favourite web magazine, pipingpress.com, is open to all those who wish to blog about some piping or pipe band matter and who feel a shorter letter would not do their opinion justice. Today we turn a page over to piper, teacher and adjudicator Duncan Watson…..

I read the letter from Jimmy McIntosh regarding the reference to piobaireachd embellishments and was reminded of, and amused with, the reference to  ‘The Three Wise Men’ [Capt. John MacLellan,  John MacFadyen and Seumas MacNeill pictured l – r above] and, although a lot younger than them, heard them playing when I started out. The octogenarians among us will have better recollections.
They were still playing and then John MacLellan got the job at the Castle and took to the pencil a short time after I started having a shot at the games.  At this time of course I was still doing the under-18 competitions and there were not many of us in the north.
Seumas MacNeil and  John MacFadyen continued competing for a while after that into when I was in my early twenties, so can recall some of their playing. The label  ‘The Three  Wise Men’  had nothing to do with religion!



 Piping was going through turbulent times with various controversial, and indeed pretty robust, comments being made about those and other dominant piping personalities, but there was a good deal more fun to the solo piping scene then than we have today.
As regards the reference made to piobaireachd embellishments, I  noted how James described the exercises used to achieve the playing of the dre, dare, and crunluath.  The person who taught me the dre and crunluath   was William M. MacDonald, Inverness, who was teaching at a night class at Conon Bridge, near Dingwall , my home town. What James describes is pretty well what Willie MacDonald taught.
William M. MacDonald, Inverness
William M. MacDonald, Inverness

Willie had teaching from John  MacDonald, Inverness, but I think he went earlier to Jockan MacPherson, Calum Piobair’s brother.  The  lesson from Willie required playing the dre from the low G − which of course required the clean lifting of the little finger from low G to low A whilst simultaneously lifting the E finger, making the E note.  If there was a crossing noise when using those fingers, it was a fault and had to be rectified. The E finger was replaced to the chanter making a low A and then the F gracenote was played on the low A, the movement completed with return to the E.

The same idea held for the dare movement and so on, and, with practice, fluency was achieved.  Of course the dre is part of the crunluath.  I still do those exercises and have developed a few other such exercises in the hope of retaining an ability to play reasonably well when now approaching the three score and ten milestone! As I commented in the review of James’s book, his useful method of writing does have a revisionist  flavour to it.
I am not sure if discussing the method of playing the taorluath  and crunluath can be done fairly without making comment on the ‘redundant’ low A.  I would have played the  redundant low A in my formative years probably because the  only piobaireachd book we had in the house was a tattered copy of the William Ross book and I would have tried to play what I had seen written − with doubtful results. Of course pipers can play what they wish and try to deduce what may have been played in the past  from what was written in the old sources. But there is undoubtedly a great deal of guess work in this and it is sometimes couched in flowery academic  parlance.
In truth, we really need  teachers who can articulate the idiom until we learn it ourselves. I suspect strongly  the same could be applied as regards the old sources. The playing of the extra low A in taorluath, crunluath, and indeed in the leumluath embellishments, can be very intrusive to rhythm when it is played with significant value.  In any case, whether the crunluath is played with the inclusion of the ‘redundant’ low A or without it, the exercises involving the dre and dare are worthwhile if the piper is to achieve the rippling or fluent, percussive effect of  well executed crunluath embellishments.

There are examples of some of the older players who had excellent technique whether they included the low A  or not. One major exponent of the crunluath with the low A was the late Pipe Major Robert Reid. I did an experiment with a recording of him and another significant player and asked a sharp-eared pupil to identify which of the two was playing the low A. After repeated listening the pupil actually got it wrong, but after more intent listening was able to detect the slight difference. Both recordings had crisp percussive technique and in truth it was difficult to distinguish what the difference was.


James McIntosh in his book referred to being astonished at the playing of an individual in the Gold Medal competition in 2011 in respect of the dre and forecast problems for the piper in crunluath movements and, apparently, so it proved.  He suggested that this may have been caused by the way in which The Piobaireachd Society has produced the notation.  In the  review, I responded by suggesting that it might not a good idea to generalise on the basis of one player. but did refer to having heard  most of the Gold Medal and Clasp competitions at Inverness over the last 10 to 12 years where it is expected that technique would be of the highest standard. I wrote that in this time that I have heard the playing of crunluath  movements in both inaccurate and unbalanced fashions. I was not referring to odd mistakes but what seems to be a fundamental errors in execution. But let us not forget that there has always been some very good technique, as one would expect at this level.
It should be emphasised and acknowledged that the players in the Gold Medal competition are there as a result of successful track records of prizes and a stringent grading and eligibility system.  There are, nevertheless, some players who seemingly have recurring problems with technique. If what James McIntosh states is correct, then recognition of this problems is required by teachers, pipers and of course the judging fraternity. In the few years that I have attended the judging seminars which take place, this subject has never been discussed in detail.


Beginner Piobaireachd


To go back to the crunluath, I have been aware that some pipers  have been taught that all that is required is to add to the taorluath, an F grace note on low A and then to raise the E finger to sound the E note. I think this can cause  the problem which James McIntosh identifies and results in what can be a slight hiatus in the midst of the movement. This is counteracted by opening the fingering too much, resulting in a clumsy sounding, unbalanced embellishment instead of a crisp fluent delivery. Of course there are some who have a hiatus on the low G at the commencement of the movement, but that is another subject. Undoubtedly there are pipers who are uncomfortable with the basic crunluath and steer themselves to the easier option of fosgailte tunes and then are graded based on this easier options.  In the set tune scenario, when tunes outside their comfort zone are then chosen, the problems that James McIntosh seems to be referring to, become evident.

In his book James states that judges do have influence on the direction our music takes. I suspect he means adverse, but we would hope also positive. Let us not be despondent. There are pipers who are displaying good technique and, encouragingly, this can be found in the lower grades too and, indeed, sometimes the technique in those lower graded players eclipses the technique displayed by their more senior colleagues.

2 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: The Three Wise Men and Some Thoughts on Technique”

  1. I’ve been reading some unpublished manuscripts by Frans Buisman, wherein he describes how “silly” the modern “redundant A” argument is because, in fact, it appears from the Hannay-MacAuslan and Hector Ross collections that it was the second G of the heavy grip that was redundant! The A was always there! :^)

    All of this bespeaks a simple, immutable truth which we should embrace: music is rooted in culture. Culture, being ever changing, ever fluid, will make its impact upon music accordingly.

    Culture is also never monolithic: tastes, often at odds with each other, exist simultaneously.

    The joy of history is being able to observe those changes and those differing tastes.

    The hope of the future is wondering what changes may take place.

    And the much welcomed open-mindedness shown today may portend an incredible vibrancy in that future.

    PS You know what would be lovely to have? a brief audio snippet of the kinds of exercises you have found to be the most useful for achieving the kinds of results being described.

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