Be a Better Piper: Tuning Preludes Part 2

Piper, teacher and adjudicator Duncan Watson follows up on the Editor’s earlier article on the subject of tuning preludes

It seems that tuning preludes were of greater importance in piping in the past as examples appear in several publications. Mostly they comprise of fragments of variations from ceol mor. Probably the earliest reference we have is from Joseph MacDonald’s ‘Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe’ (c.1760) where it is headed ‘General Prelude for the Pipe, Deachin Ghleust’.

It is suggested that ‘Deachin Ghleust’ may refer to a test of tuning or a more or less conventional set of tuning phrases. This book also has another section headed ‘Voluntary Preludes’.

Joseph MacDonald

Since first written on the stave, finger technique has gone through evolution and development and the old style notation requires an element of transcription before we realise how what is being portrayed is to be played.

While there are basic rudiments in the Joseph’s book which have stood the test of time and can still be recognised by the modern day piper, others have disappeared from use – but others have been added. Or perhaps they were around back then but Joseph, only a very young man in an isolated corner of the country, didn’t know about them.

Under the heading ‘General Prelude for the Pipe’ there is notation in the shape of three motifs with F, D and an E grace note, parts of a descending phrase and similar to what is described by the canntaireachd vocable ‘chelalho’ found in the last phrase of the ground and ‘thumb’ of the End of the Great Bridge.

We learn that some of the ‘old pipers’ played this movement when tuning their pipes. It is possible that in the past similar such movements were used but faded away over time. (Most piobaireachd players will be aware that ‘chelalho’ appears in several tunes, an obvious example being Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.

Moving on to 1822, Donald MacDonald in his published book again makes reference to ‘Deachin Ghleust, Preludes of Tuning’ and when the notation is studied, we see a similar aspect of the vocable ‘chelalho’ appearing in a descending phrase.

Donald MacDonald’s book

There are other motifs which are more easily recognised. It is therefore clear that in past times tuning preludes were of interest and importance. Whether they were formally taught is maybe doubtful, but perhaps pipers just adapted suitable phrases from ceol mor and used them to test their tuning and generally settle themselves before playing. This practice continues today and certainly by some pipers to good effect.

In William Ross’s book of 1885 he includes ‘Preludes of Tuning’ and has five numbered examples, the first of which is a fragment of the tune The Old Woman’s Lullaby.

In the editor’s earlier piece we read of Malcolm MacInnes including tuning preludes in his book and there might be other writers who have thought it important enough to include them in their publications. Does anyone have examples other than those mentioned?

What more can be said about the subject? Well at the turn of the last century there was a man called John Grant who was the author of the ‘Royal Collection of Piobaireachd’ and he wrote the following. I paraphrase: ‘Although there are several books which contain preludes of tuning there are very few pipers, if any, that use them.

‘Individual pipers get into preludes of their own. No two pipers play the exact same tuning notes and some players can be identified by the tuning preamble they perform. Some seem to foster tuning preludes more than the regular practice of good piobaireachd.

‘Hence the saying arises ‘when a piper of this type has performed a few most elaborate preludes, or a series of flourishing tuning notes, his best performance is over’.’

(To avoid confusion this man John Grant is not the other person of similar name, namely Sheriff JP Grant, Rothiemurchus.)

John Grant

From my personal perspective in my limited judging and audience experience at the likes of the Northern Meeting, there are occasions when pipers go through their preamble or prelude process and often there is no relevance to what they are about to play.

There is such flourishing of elaborate notes as John Grant described that it begs the question: are some trying to flatter to deceive? Are they taking time to actually listen to their instrument to assess if it is in tune?

Done well the preamble can bring the audience and indeed the judges (who are part of the audience) into the ‘zone’ of positive anticipation of what is to come. It can, hopefully, settle the performer helping him/her get used to the acoustics, particularly in the indoor competition venues.

Perhaps if pipers paid attention to the pentatonic scale of a tune they were about to play and chose a variation from a tune with that in mind, tuning preambles would be more pleasant and less to endure.

The tuning prelude does not form part of a competition, but an interminable meaningless stream of notes does not make pleasant listening and, like it or not, we pipers should give audiences more respect than we do in this regard.

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