Gracings, fingerings and other contentious issues

The question of ornamentation in Lowland music is probably the most confusing for pipers. Most come from a background of highland piping and have put a great deal of effort and time into acquiring the necessary repertoire of gracings that form the distinctive character of highland pipe music. They are also familiar with the inclusion of these gracings in any notated source. However, when it comes to lowland music, whilst indications of ornamentation do appear in some sources, they are uncommon, and where they do appear we have no direct information about how they are to be interpreted.

It is not surprising then that performances of items from the lowland repertoire almost always involve the introductionof highland gracings, albeit often 'unorthodox' ones. It is a consequence of the changes that have occurred in highland piping in recent decades that more attention has been paid to the earlier sources of notated music and an interest has grown in the graces used there which have, for one reason or antoher, fallen out of the accepted canon.

However, there is no reason to presume that any such highland gracings were in use by the pipers of the Lowlands before the mid-18th century. Traditions of piping exist across the whole of Europe in which such gracings play no part, which have developed their own solutions to the challenges of articulation and phrasing on an instrument whose sound is continuous. What is more, we have in the lowlands two quite separate bagpipes, the 'small' and the 'big' and both have unique characteristics.

Since I play almost exclusively on the smallpipes, I shall have more to say on that topic than on that of the big pipes - however, I will say that at present I can see no reason why one should not approach the performance of the lowland repertoire on the big pipes from the starting point of, say, French piping, or Irish piping and proceed towards a performing style from there rather than from a highland direction. As far as I am aware we know more or less nothing about the finer points of tuning and fingering of the oldest survivng sets of big lowland pipes.

As for the smallpipes, we have further complications, since there is evidence, though meagre, that these pipes were played with a system of fingering which is much closer to that of the Northumbrain smallpipes than to that of the highland pipes - indeed, many tutors of smallpipes now stress the hazards of importing some highland gracings onto the smallpipes. Since I came to lowland piping from an English music background, with no highland experience whatsoever, I happily adopted this 'covered' fingering system, which immediately seemed to me to be convincingly appropriate. Only much later did I notice that almost all European 'smallpipes' are played in this fashion, especially those those from the east of Europe, from where, it is currently considered, the Scottish smallpipes originated. It is also my opinion that that part of the repertoire which includes developed sets of 'variations' is more suitably performed on the smallpipes, it being, apparently, 'parlour' music, rather than 'public' music.

[to be continued]

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