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Martin Lowe considers teaching methodology for the Border pipes and Scottish small pipes, in the light of an LBPS initiative


WHEN Border Pipes and Scottish smallpipes made their spectacular re-emergence from oblivion on to the musical scene in the early 1980s, it was necessary, in the absence of a continuous teaching tradition, for those involved to develop their own methodology.

While the fingering is closely related to that of the great Highland bagpipe, teaching methods also have to relate to distinctive features in respect of technique, repertoire and maintenance. Earlier this year the LBPS committee felt that it would be useful to hold a one-day seminar for the purpose of exploring approaches to teaching which have developed over the past 25 years or so, and I was asked to convene a meeting of invited individuals with a view to arriving at conclusions which might be taken forward by the LBPS commit- tee and other interested parties in support of those who are currently teaching or may wish in the future to teach Scottish bellows-driven piping.

Without preconceptions about possible results, we felt beforehand that discussion might usefully include the following topics: approaches to teaching adults and children; the needs of Highland pipers converting to bellows pipes and of those with no previous experience of Scottish pipe fingering; the needs of folk and classical musicians and of those with no musi- cal background; how best to handle those who can read music and those who cannot and may have no wish to; the related question of teaching through the musical score or through the direct oral/aural method; bellows technique; repertoire; the implications of different teaching structures; playing with other instruments (including the use of harmonies); the use of teaching aids such as recording equipment; and maintenance of the instrument.

The seminar was by invitation, to ensure a manageable number attending and so to promote open discussion. Twenty-one people attended, including several who had been in- volved throughout the revival. Others who could not be present sent in comments and two


important papers were received and read in the absence of the authors at the start of the day: these were from Dr Kath Campbell of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies (who had written her PhD on traditional music teaching methodologies, with particular reference to the fiddle) and from Dougie Pincock, head of the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School, and a well known performer on pipes and other wind instruments.

Dr Campbell’s paper concluded that teaching is best done through the judicious use of a mixture of oral and literate methods as different learners have different needs depending on their age and experience, and set out several other considerations that the meeting should address. Dougie Pincock’s notes were in part a comment on the former paper and also related to his 30 years of varied teaching experience: he touched on methodology (supporting the mixed literate/oral approach, with a range of learning options), repertoire (the need to balance old and new tunes and the value of a common repertoire for group sessions) and technique (again tailoring to the needs and tastes of individual pupils), and referred to the wide range of teaching aids now available through the IT revolution.

We then had short presentations from Jock Agnew (drawing on his own long teaching experience and referring to relevant references that had appeared in Common Stock over the years), Colin Ross (from the Northumbrian tradition, but also early on the scene in the manufacture of Scottish smallpipes, who concentrated on bellows technique and distributed a new pamphlet he had recently published on that subject), Barnaby Brown (who empha- sised the need to create a sense of excitement in the young and was keen to encourage more use of the voice in teaching), Matt Seattle (a well-known advocate of the Border repertoire, who conducted an innovative stance, exploring interdependent relationships between music, tuning, the instrument, technique, the musician and tradition), and Hamish Moore (who commented on the previous presentations and then on the loss of a social context for the music combined with the impact of the competition stage; he regretted the lack of passion and emotional content and wanted to get back to the use of music for dancing as in Cape Breton: while there was no equivalent Border template he believed there was scope for research into Border dance).

The seminar then broke into four groups to discuss more deeply some of the issues raised, and reported to a concluding plenary session at which there emerged a remarkable degree of consensus. Among the main conclusions reached were;

  • It is helpful to know what is done currently in teaching bellows piping. Is there scope for more interaction between established teachers? .
  • There is probably scope to explore further a standard core curriculum of what should be taught, perhaps building on the contents of the practical guide More Power to your Elbow (LBPS, 2003).
  • Certification of qualifications should be treated with caution for fear of over- standardisation and thus inhibition of creativity; nevertheless it may be helpful to


some bellows learners to have such a target to aim for. There might eventually be an approach to the Institute of Piping/Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board regard- ing the introduction of an elementary certificate of competence in bellows piping.

  • The production of a teaching CD might be helpful, with a selection of tunes played slowly and then up to speed and including some Border music, and the provision of say six “first tunes” might be helpful to beginners, with a mixture of styles demon-
  • The re-integration of bellows piping with dance music should be actively explored. Perhaps the formation of a small dance band might help.
  • The use of the internet should be taken into account, both in terms of what is already there and of what the LBPS might put
  • The production of a simple publication to help teachers might be considered, perhaps in the form of a
  • Maintenance requires attention and methods of developing confidence in this should be explored. Small written leaflets could be produced (as with Colin Ross’s bellows leaflet) and courses specifically on maintenance could be
  • There should be more co-operation and communication between the various interested parties, and it would be good to get the National Piping Centre and the College of Piping more actively involved: both offer bellows teaching if it is requested, but it is perhaps not yet regarded as a core

The LBPS committee has now received my report and has asked me to try to take forward at least some of these matters through a small working group which will meet largely by electronic correspondence and telephone. I have already had some welcome volunteers to support this work and would be interested to hear from others who may feel they have a contribution to make in one or more of the areas listed above (my telephone number is 01620 842 146 ).