False Fingering an ‘Unforgiveable Error’- Playing Advice from One of the Greats of Piping and Pipe Bands

The following is from the Piping, Drumming and Dancing Journal, 1960s. P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay was a brilliant player, pipe major and composer. Tunes to his credit include classics such as the 6/8 Miss Lily Christie, the 2/4 march Jimmy Young, and the hornpipe Tam Bain’s Lum. He won World Championships with the City of Edinburgh Police Pipe Band and came close to doing the same with the legendary Invergordon Distillery band. He is credited with introducing hornpipes and jigs into the pipe band repertoire. The picture above is of the Edinburgh Police band after they won the Worlds in 1954. Pipe Major Ramsay is pictured front row seated, third from the left.

MOST pipers choose to play marches, strathspeys and reels but not piobaireachd.  Why is this?  Some of the expert piobaireachd players are mediocre when attempting marches, strathspeys and reels.  Why is this?  It would take a great amount of explanation indeed, and is not the subject of this article meantime. 

As far as is known, there were no bands in Highland Regiments playing marches prior to 1760.  It is even doubtful if quick marches were in existence before the Highland Society introduced their competitions in 1750.  Our present quick marches include many tunes which were adapted from songs or from the music of other instruments: Highland Laddie and Bonnie Dundee are typical examples of this. 

By P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay

Such tunes, however, were considered as improper for playing on the Highland bagpipe in the early days.  We have no tunes called after any battles before Waterloo in 1815, or indeed before the Crimean War forty years later. There are, of course, stories of pipers playing in the Peninsular War and Waterloo, but the tunes are piobaireachd such as Cameron’s Gathering. 

It seems that pipers were not officially recognised by the War Office until about 1854.  Prior to that date there were Company Pipers who played individually in camp or in barracks but seldom in concert.  In 1854 solo pipers were abolished and pipes and drums were united to play at all ceremonial occasions.  Marching tunes in these days were called quick-steps to distinguish them from piobaireachd, which were called marches.  Such tunes as the Braes of Glenorchy and the Campbells are Coming were probably jigs originally.  It appears that in the 1870s competitors at the Northern Meeting, Inverness, played simple three-parted marches of the character of the Earl of Mansfield. 



The earliest competition marches had been composed before then of course, but not long before.  Angus MacKay, piper to Queen Victoria from 1840 until his death in 1858, is one of the earliest composers, and when at Balmoral made several competition pieces including Balmoral Highlanders, the Glengarry Gathering, Stirlingshire Militia [sic], the Duke of Roxburgh’s Farewell to Blackmount etc. Other composers were soon at work on similar productions.  MacDonald composed Leaving Glenurquhart, Ross [sic] composed the Atholl Highlanders’ Farewell to Loch Katrine, and MacKinnon composed the 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh.

These tunes have been rearranged to meet with present-day standards, and not a few of them require the fingers of an expert to interpret the scripts reasonably well. It is my considered opinion that the tunes mentioned should be left aside by learners or mediocre players so that they can concentrate on simpler scripts to perfect their technique.  In connection with this it should not be forgotten that false fingering is an unforgivable error and a player in his desire to fit in as many grace notes as possible should never relax his vigilance against playing falsely.

If the right notes are accented, competition strathspeys and reels will have life in them even if played slowly…

P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay

To enlarge on this, let us consider notes E and F, the bane of players of modern arrangements in marches, strathspeys, and reels.  The causes are (a) too many grace notes and (b) too much playing of difficult tunes by pipe bands in particular.  One only requires to listen carefully to bands, even Grade 1 bands, in contests to hear the irritating false fingering in such selections as Balmoral Highlanders and Abercairney Highlanders. 

In strathspeys and reels it should be remembered that these are for dancing, and when played should be so executed that anyone can dance to them.  It is not advisable, however, to play a competition reel fast enough for dancing an eightsome reel.  Steadiness is more important than speed.  If the right notes are accented competition strathspeys and reels will have life in them even if played slowly. 

Let us now consider the march for competition purposes.  In most quicksteps the required lilt is contained in the melody and the tune usually ‘plays itself’, so to speak.  The competition march, on the other hand, is of peculiar setting, and expression has to be forced out of it by accenting certain notes and cutting others.  Unless this is done, tunes like Abercairney Highlanders and Stirlingshire Militia sound feeble and uninteresting.  A piobaireachd played without expression is bad enough, but lack of expression in a march is more likely than anything else to bring the bagpipe into disrepute. 

The last bar of many competition marches consists of a doubled C and a low A in the first beat and two As in the second formed by a double strike of the little finger. Many marches finish with a double strike on low A.  It is surprising how few pipers realise that this movement is done by a double strike of the little finger [birl].  It would appear that some players just draw the little finger across the chanter and hope for the best to happen. 

Again, there are some players – you can hear them on the BBC – who finish their marches with a high G grace note before the double strike with the little finger in the last bar, and so make three notes instead of two.  It is agreed that the player who introduced this extra note – the late George McLennan – had probably the most wonderful fingers a piper ever possessed and the notes suited him.  Nevertheless, I think the practice should be cut out, because putting in extra notes in any tune does not always enhance a player’s reputation. 

GS McLennan introduced the added G gracenote on the birl at the end of marches

A beat in a competition march consists, as a rule, of four notes written as semi-quavers or a quaver and two semi-quavers. The first principle to be remembered is that the note on which the foot comes down should be lengthened at the expense of the other notes in the beat, and this applies particularly to the note on which the left foot comes down.  Another principle is never, never, to cut the high A or low A of any march.  Leaving Glenurquhart is a good example on which to observe and practice these principles.  It is a typical competition march and a splendid piece of music when well played but a paltry thing when played by a tinker. 

To play the mere notes of a competition march should not be enough. Listen to some of the outstanding first-class players and you will understand what I mean. 

No doubt you may desire to try out some of these points mentioned when your time is not dictated by a drum.  See to it that your pipe is in good order, as no player can give of his best on a poorly set-up instrument.  The pitch of the chanter is most important.  There is a great divergence of opinion on the matter of correct pitch among pipe-majors, but I do not hesitate to say that the ideal pitch is that used by the popular Highland Brigade ITC Band under Donald Maclean. 

  • To be continued.

4 thoughts on “False Fingering an ‘Unforgiveable Error’- Playing Advice from One of the Greats of Piping and Pipe Bands

  1. Interesting point about the addition of a G gracenote before a birl forming an “extra” note.
    Strictly speaking it does but within the timescale of the original movement sans gracenote.
    Should we not be looking at this as a complete movement with a different character to a plain birl rather than as a collection of notes ???????

    The finish to a lot of tunes has a doubling on C down to A with an E gracenote with the Birl bang on the next beat.
    This gives a pleasing mid beat accent probably lifted from strathspeyesque styles with a similar structure but not played as a triplet, and is completely different in character to a plain birl.
    So…..should we be looking at the movements and what they add to a piece of music or should we be getting mired down in the resultant note structure ??????

  2. Donald Ramsay won the World Championships twice with ECP, in 1950 and 1954. The photo shown in this article was taken in front of Donaldson’s School, Edinburgh after the 1950 win.

  3. Hi Rob,
    Just a reflection on today’s article. It is uncanny how many of the points made by D.S. Ramsay, were repeated so often by my Jimmy! A quick tempo being less important than emphasizing the right notes in S & R. The emphasizing of beat notes at the expense of others, especially in 2/4 Marches. The faux-pas of false fingering that he could pick up in an instant.
    Such an interesting read.

    ~~Joyce McIntosh

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