PP Academy: How to Play Jigs

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

In last week’s references to Duncan Johnstone I deliberately avoided mention of his oft-used description as ‘King of the Jigs’. I don’t know where or how he assumed this epithet but it was one he disliked. 

He was good at them mind. His was a rounder style perhaps, and, given his Barra roots, an island way of handling this much-maligned tune form. Duncan’s presentation was often misinterpreted as straight as a die and this, unfortunately, is what we hear all too often nowadays both in the solos and in bands.

In the latter, things are straightened out to accommodate the drummers. They find it much easier to rattle along with even quavers and the occasional bit of syncopation thrown in to lighten the monotony. When the tempo is up the attention is held; drop it down for safety and what should be the liveliest part of a performance becomes a trudge. 

The idea is that stick for stick = note for note and the ensemble judge is happy, unison tight as (yes) a drum. Disappointingly he/she will not penalise the resultant musical vacuum and thus paucity of expression is endorsed and the band continues to do what it does unaware of its deficiency.

My rules for jig playing are these:

  • Don’t play too fast.
  • Generate lilt by gently pointing the first note of the three note groupings.
  • Don’t overdo the pointing or you will end up with a 6/8 march.
  • Pay attention to two-bar phrasing. A fractional pause at the end of each will produce the required effect.

Soloists who play in bands need to be clear: what you do for the P/M will probably not be what is required on the solo board. Keep clear lines of demarcation. As with warm up slow airs in piobaireachd competitions, avoid the rat-a-tat, even quaver style like the plague.

Re-score your tunes into a dotted quaver, semiquaver, quaver shape then play them over carefully following the rules above. Increase tempo and you will find that the melody naturally evens out – but without losing its essential lilt. Practice tempo for jigs is around 60 beats per minute and for performance, either in competition or at ceilidh, about 90 bpm.

Pipe majors who insist on the straight quaver style must ensure a brisk tempo; without it, the trudge mentioned above will be the inevitable outcome. To this end, don’t select tunes which are over-difficult for your pipe corps, in other words tunes which might require a slower tempo if unison is to be preserved.

Reference my comments earlier on tips for the Games, I should have mentioned jig contests. We don’t find them at many games, but where they do, pipers should treat them like they would any other contest they play in: good pipes, good fingers with expression following the rules above. 

Jigs may be considered ‘bottom feeders’ in our bagpipe taxonomy but this is no reason for considering them unworthy of a proper musical approach such as we are about to hear in Stuart Liddell’s fine performance of Peter MacLeod’s Blue Lagoon at the Northern Meeting a few years back. Stuart (pictured up top) is absolutely superb (and the hornpipe’s not bad either):

No surprise that Stuart was placed first. 

Is anyone still around who heard P/M Donald MacLeod winning the jigs at Inverness with his own brilliant compositions? PP Audio Archive has some good examples. 

In the bands, what about Field Marshal and their Fiddler’s Rally at the Worlds several years ago now? Tempo up: take a reading P/Ms and make sure your jigs are no slower than this –  if your pipers can manage it. If not, try easier tunes. Here are FMM with another championship winning performance:

And when valuing the worth of the genre, here are the words of GS McLennan: ‘I am immensely fond of jig playing and consider it one of the finest methods possible of putting one into form. In fact one cannot play jigs unless in tip-top form.’

That should be good enough reason for us all to play them and if you are an ageing slow hand there are still plenty of easier tunes with which to impress your listeners.