Editor’s Notebook: Pipes Difficulty/ Muirheads Articles/ Paddy Moloney/ Jim Murdock/ John MacLellan Recital

In a recent poll covered in the national press the pipes came on top as the hardest instrument of all to play. The order given was 1 Bagpipes 2 Piccolo 3 French horn 4 Violin 5 Oboe 6 Flute 7 Cello 8 Accordion 9 Organ and 10 Drums.

I’m not sure who conducted this survey or what the criteria were, but it seems spurious to me – no mention of the piano – and it goes on: ‘On paper, the bagpipes seem like a relatively easy instrument to learn how to play. After all, bagpipes only have nine notes and there are no dynamics or rests. It is however highly unlikely that you will be able to pick up the bagpipes and play on your first day.

‘The bagpipes are difficult instruments to break into and it takes people years, literally, in order to be able to play them. The physical aspect of playing the bagpipes makes them incredibly difficult to learn as it takes loads of air to keep the pipes going. If you tried to play bagpipes right now you would most likely faint.

Apart from the constant air, you must also keep even pressure on the bag so that there is no fluctuation in the tuning of the drones and play irregular fingerings in order to achieve the proper tone [sic].

As I say, spurious. It all depends on the LEVEL you want to achieve I suppose and no one should be put off the bagpipe because of its difficulty. You may not end of up playing for a Gold Medal or in a top grade band but you can gain a lot of satisfaction just aiming for, and achieving, Grade 4.

Wisely the survey ends with this conclusion: ‘Although these instruments are indeed difficult to learn, they are not impossible. There are enough musicians playing them to highlight that it is indeed doable. The first step towards conquering one of these difficult instruments is to simply do; simply just start learning an instrument of your choice and keep practicing to get better at it.’

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Thanks for all the comments on Gordon Ferguson’s articles on the Muirheads band. Gordon has been in touch: ‘Before sending the articles I asked my eldest son Alasdair to have a read and he suggested that I add some more ‘stories’, some of the amusing things that happened in the band.

‘Now I have several that I can remember e.g. our trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1966, our trip to Russia in 1967, the Bond film Casino Royale which you have already mentioned, the recording of our LP in Leith Town Hall, and a few yarns mainly about ‘Big Andra’ the band’s unconscious comedian! 

‘I read in Piping Press the very interesting articles about Donald Morrison. If my memory serves me right he was on that trip to Halifax back in 1966, as was Seumas McNeill, Arthur Rowe and Sandy Grey and another heavyweight whose name escapes me.’

Thanks Gordon and I am sure evewryone will be looking forward to more of your tales from yesteryear.

RIP Paddy

The passing of uillean piper Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains is a source of regret. Paddy was a great man, always at the vanguard of Irish music and a seminal influence on those of us striving to incorporate pipes into the Scottish traditional ensemble back in the 70s.

He actively encourgaed us in our endeavours. His arrangements for flute, fiddle, clarsach, pipes and bodhran showed what could be done. This recording of Rory Dall O’Cathain’s Give Me Your Hand from their ‘Chieftains 5’ album, is a favourite:

Northern Ireland reader Gareth Tumelty has been in touch about our picture of Jim Murdock used a few weeks back (top). Gareth writes: ‘My grandfather was Jim Murdock and I’m absolutely proud he’s been mentioned here.
‘He was the biggest influence in my life and I remember years at pipe band contests. Have you any more info and pictures?’

Afraid not Gareth but someone else out there may be able to help. When we originally ran the picture Harry Stevenson supplied the necessary info on it: ‘The piper in the middle is Jim Murdock who was P/M of the 29th BB Old Boys Pipe Band.

‘Jim was a good player and had some very good successes with the 29th. They were second in Grade 2 at the 1962 Worlds in Belfast and I think they had a couple of seconds at Cowal. Jim was a near neighbour of mine in the Ballysillan area of North Belfast.’

From the ‘Edinburgh Weekly’ magazine late 1960s: ‘Pipe Major John A MacLellan, principal of the Army School of Piping, Edinburgh Castle, told us of a feast of piping in store for local enthusiasts.

‘So that those interested in the art in this area will have an opportunity of hearing the very best piping there is, I am arranging a recital in the Celtic Lodge, Lawnmarket, on 10th November.

‘I have been fortunate in getting Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, who is world-renowned, to play, this year’s Champion Piper John MacFadyen, who is a headmaster in Busby, Pipe Major Iain McLeod of our City Police Pipe Band – and I will also play myself.

‘We have not had a recital like this in the past in Edinburgh and I feel that with piping at the very best it will be an opportunity for those other than pipers to hear what good playing can sound like.’

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1 thought on “Editor’s Notebook: Pipes Difficulty/ Muirheads Articles/ Paddy Moloney/ Jim Murdock/ John MacLellan Recital

  1. With regard to the question about which instrument is the most difficult to play, I asked my daughter once to voice her opinion. Heather has an MA in ethnomusicology and also in violin performance and pedagogy. She successfully competed at the Gr. 1 level in piobaireachd and light music and played other instruments such as piano (Gr. 8), accordion, viola, penny whistle, snare drums, orchestra percussion, trombone, voice, flute, etc. Which did she choose? Her response: “Well, after I learned to play one, all the others seemed to be a lot easier”. My early observation was that she always very much enjoyed listening to music.

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