PP Academy: How to Get the Best Out of Your Strathspeys

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Robert Wallace

If there is one form of pipe music many bands and soloists struggle with it is the strathspey. As I have written before, played well these tunes can lift the feet of any heavy-toed clodhopper on the planet. But without snap and crackle they become a lolloping masquerade of a dance tune, suitable only for a theatrical horse.

The Education Scotland website defines the strathspey thus: ‘The strathspey is said to have originated from the Strathspey area, the strath or broad glen of the River Spey, in North East Scotland. It was originally written for the fiddle and used for dancing to: nowadays, the strathspey is played on many different instruments. It is actually a slow and stylised form of reel and was originally called a ‘Strathspey reel’ while the standard reel was known as an ‘Atholl reel’. Like the standard reel, it is in 4/4 time, but it sounds quite different because it is slower and contains dotted rhythms. One of these rhythms has a special name and is called the ‘Scotch snap’ or ‘Scots snap’. This consists of a very short note followed by a long note played in sequence, giving a ‘snap’ sound when played.’

In piping we have two types of strathspey, the dance tunes and the competition, and it is wrong to say that as this last needn’t be danced to and we have licence to round things off to keep our unison (bands) or get all the fingering in cleanly (soloists and bands). Whatever form we play our tunes should all be characterised by ‘lift’ and a strong, weak, medium, weak rhythm. The finest exponents of this I ever heard were P/M Donald MacLeod and his protégé P/M Iain Morrison, Lewis, both playing them with a  lightness of touch and perfect rhythmic balance. Donald’s advice to the competition piper struggling with strathspeys? Play for dancers: a visual guide was there in every Sword Dance. Hearing P/M Morrison with ‘Captain Colin Campbell’ and ‘Caledonian Canal’ had you tripping along ready to dance all night.

Yet if strathspey playing is suffering at times in the solo world, in the bands things are much worse. Unfortunately the drum beating some bands employ today have these tunes sounding like slow jigs. Since the imposition of ensemble judging, unison has become the watchword at the expense of the required ‘dot and cut’. I am also reliably informed that if drummers  do not fill in between the salient four beats then adjudicators consider their accompaniment simplistic and will mark them down. It is for this reason that the more ’rounded’ strathspeys, Inveraray Castle, Cameronian Rant, Islay Ball etc. suit the bands much better than say Shepherd’s Crook or Maggie Cameron. Have a listen to two experts, P/M Stuart Liddell and L/D Stephen MacWhirter of Inveraray & District Pipe Band playing the ‘Rant’ at last year’s World Solo Drumming.

So what is a strathspey? Loosely following the definition above, it is essentially a dance tune played in 4/4 time with a staccato feel and liberal use of the ‘scotch snap’, the cutting of one note and resting on that which follows. The timing of each smartly played beat or note grouping, must be ‘strong, weak, medium, weak’, though occasionally the melodic line may encourage a small difference in emphasis. The phrases too have to be heard and we must use the last note of each to launch us into the next. Sometimes the piper’s lack of understanding of this is such that you hear a pause on the connecting note to the next phrase.

Another frequent  failure is a lack of stress on the third or ‘medium’ beat; result: loss of rhythm. In the example below, the first part of Caledonian Canal, the notes marked 1 & 3 are the strong and medium beats, 2 & 4 the weak. The connecting notes are marked with an X. Practice the phrasing by omitting these ‘X’ notes and you will immediately notice a difference in the musicality of the piece. Every melody is composed of phrases and we must show these.

                         1      2         3         4   x            1        2          3          4       

Cal Canal ist part


Here’s part of a lesson;  email me at pipingpress@gmail.com for more:

There are parts of some strathspeys where cutting the melody into four strict groups does not work too well however. The runs in the third and fourth parts of the Caledonian Society of London for example. These should be played in a continuous roll, one triplet running into the other, in ‘bouncing ball’ fashion as Duncan Johnstone used to describe it. This is a good rule of thumb for all such passages in pipe strathspeys, but don’t forget to get back onto the strict timing once the runs are over, with control and a steady tempo throughout.

When performing strathspeys the professional piper will average around 55 beats per minute. There is no need for the amateur or junior player to attempt this. Lift can still be imparted to the music if our rules of rhythm are adhered to. Never confuse tempo with rhythm. Resist playing faster when you feel things are not going well; it is usually because you have lost rhythm. Slow down and try your tune on the practice chanter at, say 45 or even 40 beats per minute. Re-established your strong, weak, medium, weak and then you can raise the tempo to what your fingers are comfortable with.

Finally, your technique needs to be really up to it if you are to reproduce this music satisfactorily. If not stick to the simple dance strathspeys: Devil in the Kitchen, Molly Connel, Campbeltown Kiltie Ball. Practice hard movements such as the B and C doubling cutting down to low A and low G. These feature regularly in strathspeys and need to be executed smartly or you will lose rhythm and end up playing them with no invigorating dash at all, the very antithesis of what we are trying to achieve with our strathspeys.  

2 thoughts on “PP Academy: How to Get the Best Out of Your Strathspeys

  1. Hi Robert, can I say your article on Strathspey hit a chord with me and I have to say I am disappointed in modern day Strathspey playing in bands. I learned the art from the master, Ian McLellan and cannot forget his teaching. A lot of Pipe Majors in my opinion should read your article and take it on board. All the best

  2. An excellent guide Rob,
    I would like to add that both mentioned PM’s and the late Capt . John MMacLellan always instructed that the Strathspey be played on the upbeat of the foot, thereby making the music sound light and springy.
    It is only an assumption of mine, but have always thought that the Strathspey could have developed from The Highland Shottishe. There is no proof of this though to my knowledge.
    I agree totally with you, as something should have been done years ago regarding round playing especially. The introduction of the Irish rolls and crans have not helped the situation. People tend to forget that music is a language whose dialect is changing all the time.

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