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One of the Society’s staple activities, the annual teaching weekend at Melrose, was once again organised by Rona Macdonald with the help of other members of the committee.

A lot may be crammed into a short weekend, especially if the organisation is on top of the situation and the participants willing. Both these criteria were met (again!) in Melrose this year.

The form was, as previously, that each of the three tutors was allocated a room, while the students migrated from one to the other, either individually or en masse as the programme demanded or their individual whims took them.

Meanwhile in the body of the Kirk, so to speak (the bar, in fact!), help was at hand for any beginners who needed pointing in the right direction towards balancing bag against bellows (we’ve all been there) while lifting the correct finger for the right note. Also with, at one time, three pipe makers available, doubtful reeds could be looked at, wrappings checked and advice given on maintenance.

A short weekend of this sort can really only introduce pipers to new ideas, allow them take heart from hearing others with similar problems to their own, and be introduced to some new aspects of piping to take home and digest (or preferably, practise!) on their own. A good time to have a portable recording device, I would have thought, but only one person (in the groups I joined) made any attempt to take advantage of this aspect.

The three tutors (Allan Macdonald, Iain MacInnes and Hamish Moore) focused on three quite different aspects of piping.

Allan concentrated on Piobaireachd, for which his individual approach is well known and, in some piping circles, even notorious. He gave us his interpretation and the justification for linking the origins of Coel Mor with its modern competition practice. It was interesting to hear some of the history of the tunes, and how they sounded when played in modem compe- tition style. Allan argued that over the years some of the introduction, or lead-in notes, had become exaggerated and embodied in the tune itself, so that when compared to the song version it appeared distorted, stilted and forced. Indeed, sometimes the first or second varia- tion might sound closer to the original melody than the Ground itself. With Allan singing the Gaelic words, and playing the adjusted music on his smallpipes, we followed as best we could. What we heard made sense. The tunes came to life with a lilting swing to them, and although the words themselves may have been unintelligible to those of us who do not have the Gaelic, the sense came through in the melody and the way in which it was expressed. I have the hand-outs in my pipe case, but without Allan singing the air to remind me, it is doubtful if I will ever recapture the essence of what we were shown. Which brings me back to my point about having a tape recorder available.

Hamish, for the group I was in, concentrated on Border pipes. But what was this? He didn’t have a set of Border pipes himself. Fin, who’s own set was stolen last year (see page 4), had taken his father’s pipes on tour, so Hamish had to use smallpipes when demonstrating the tunes. There was a brief pause while he tuned each of our chanters with tape and enviable dexterity, before we were introduced to some timing techniques. We sat and mimicked his actions as he pounded his thighs with open palms and a ‘slappity slappity slapitty’ rhythm


suited to the step dancer’s jig - and not a single set of lederhosen in the room! To illustrate the principle he worked his feet on the wooden board beside his chair and even, when chal- lenged, played some of the tune while dancing a few steps. We on our part took it in turns to play from the music, while the rest of the group slapped out the timing with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

The relationship between reels and strathspeys was discussed, and we worked through a system of foot tapping, using toe and heel to emphasise the strong beats while maintaining the intermediate in a typical 4/4 reel. This technique would help give lift and life to the mu- sic, Hamish explained

Then came the finger twisting part. Taking advantage of the Border pipe chanter’s ability to cross finger C natural, Hamish took us through a couple of tunes that needed this option.

Unfamiliar finger movements have to be taken in stages, and this we did, until at the end all five pipes were playing (almost) in unison. So how did Hamish achieve this on the smallpipe chanter? Well he spread tape across the top half of the C finger-hole which, al- though it reduced the volume of that note, brought it within a few whiskers of C natural. But it all came unstuck (pun intended!) when the tune moved into major mode requiring the standard C sharp, and it became instantly apparent how difficult it is to remove tape while maintaining the rhythm of a tune!

Iain, with smallpipes, introduced us to some 9/8 and 6/8 Border tunes. Working at them in the traditional way, he took each phrase at a time, slowly at first then working up to speed. We were encouraged to listen to the emphasis he put on certain notes and followed, where possible, his ornamentation. Like many experienced players he sometimes didn’t know ex- actly what gracings he used until asked to play them slowly and in detail. He finished the session by inviting anyone in the group to come up with a tune that the rest could play.

Then, without the music, we all (including Iain) learned The King’s House- a slow, thought- ful air, which had itself been learned from a recording - by ear. This exercise required con- siderable concentration and attention to detail, but it occurred to me that this could arguably be the modern equivalent of oral transmission of music - from recording, to individual, to tutor to class.

The Melrose weekend has evolved over the years to follow (more or less) a proven formula. Part of this formula is the Saturday night dinner, complete with after-dinner speaker. It was slightly disconcerting on this occasion when the speaker rose to his feet and it could be seen that instead of a few notes to jog his memory he had volume after volume of serious looking tomes. We need not have felt apprehensive, for Julian used them purely for quotes, and some he did not use at all. I would challenge anyone (including Julian) to remember just what he did say that night. At first there was a hush of awe around the tables, but soon there was hardly a straight face in the room as Julian took us through a labyrinth of nonsensical facts and figures to prove, as far as I could determine, that bagpipes didn’t really exist at all.

The Sunday afternoon I cannot talk about, because I wasn’t there. My schedule required me back home that evening, which meant an eight-hour drive.


So, to finish with a couple of general observations. Punctuality for the various classes was not widely practised, and this situation wasn’t improved on the first day when the hotel staff failed to prepare one of the rooms on time. And the habit of letting chanters dangle high above a hard floor while struggling to connect bellows to bag was not the sole preserve of student pipers. It is like a man who has forgotten to zip up his pants: looks ludicrous and un- tidy but is otherwise of little consequence provided nothing slips out! To be fair, though, tu- tors tend to keep their pipes well-maintained, and so are less likely to shed a chanter and damage the reed - but what an example to set!

All in all a good weekend, with a lot of hard work put in to make it a success - and it showed.