1-3 May 2010

Niall Anderson reports on the smallpipe class at this year’s Fèis in Ullapool

Fèis Rois Inbhich (The Adult Fèis) is an annual 3-day festival offering tuition in traditional music, song, dance, Gaelic language and culture in the beautiful setting of Ullapool. The event has a long history – this year was the 20th Adult Fèis weekend and 2011 will see the 25th anniversary of Fèis Rois. Classes take place all day on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the first weekend of May and are led by an ever-expanding team of well-known traditional musicians. Many classes are grouped into ability levels, with options ranging from complete beginner to advanced, and participants take two different classes over the weekend – one each morning and one each afternoon.
This year was only my second visit to the Fèis, and having attended non-piping classes last year, I decided to join the smallpipes class run each afternoon by Mike Katz of the Battlefield Band. The class consisted of three students (including myself), all of whom were upper intermediate-level players or above (the advertised standard for the class). Although not perhaps an ideal class size for the Fèis from an economic perspective, this was a great advantage to the three of us – providing an excellent teaching ratio.
After hearing us play, Mike decided to concentrate on teaching a number of new tunes and to concentrate on musicality and style, rather than issues of technique. He taught entirely by ear, and at a fast pace – this demanded a lot of concentration, but started to feel much easier by the second day’s teaching. Luckily, we all just about managed to keep up with him… He is a hugely enthusiastic tutor, with a vast repertoire and great energy, and this pulled all of us up to his level (if only for a short while) – no mean feat.
The tunes were a mix of modern compositions, such as Allan Macdonald’s Seudan A’Chuain (Jewels of the Ocean), and older tunes that might be familiar from recordings of players such as Fred Morrison, Finlay Macdonald, Rory Campbell and others, such as the 9/8’s Would the Minister Not Dance (also to be found in the LBPS tutor, of course!) and The Grinder (Amadan Gòrach Saighdear). To stretch us even further, Mike also taught the traditional reel Och is Duine Truagh Mi (in Allan Macdonald’s book) in both G and A, to illustrate the range of musical options within even the limited range of the pipe chanter, and looked at adapting two commonly played non-pipe tunes (Put Me in the Big Chest and Out on the Ocean) to the pipe scale, with the intention of developing versions that could be played alongside instruments playing the full melody (although admittedly the second tune required transposition away from it’s most common key…)
The Fèis weekend also includes a number of organised and led sessions at beginner, intermediate and advanced level on the Saturday evening. I was fortunate to have been allocated to one led by Mike Katz and others, so this ensured that a large number of pipe tunes featured during the evening. In future years, I would probably swap to the session being led by the piping tutor, to try to repeat the experience. On the Sunday night, there is a concert featuring collaborations between groups of the tutors from the weekend. The standard of playing, singing and arranging is incredibly high, particularly in view of the fact that rehearsal time is usually limited to a lunchtime or two, or in some cases during the interval of the Tutors’ concert itself!
I would thoroughly encourage everyone to consider a trip to Ullapool next year – it is a truly immersive experience, and I found Mike’s teaching to be enjoyable and inspiring. Tutors tend to vary from year to year (smallpipes have been taught by Rory Campbell and Allan Macdonald in the preceding two years, for example), but the Fèis team always seem to manage to pull in some of the best players from the traditional music scene across a large number of instruments. Don’t just think of this as a piping workshop – it’s a broader musical experience that will give you ideas and inspiration for the year ahead. I hope to share a few tunes with LBPS members at the 21st Fèis Rois Inbhich next year.
[See www.feisrois.org further details.]

Christine Grace also took part in the Fèis event. Here she describes her experiences moving from Highland pipes to smallpipes

I started learning the pipes at 10 at home in Fort William, with Pipe Major Evan McRae, in the days when girls were just beginning to break into the mans world of piping, and I played obsessively until I left home at around 18. Then I stopped because it was difficult to keep it up when I was living in London. I only took my GHB’s out of the box again four years ago (I’m now 50) and started attempting to play again. Feis Rois was the incentive and my first time there was in the big pipes class with Iain MacDonald as tutor. That inspired me to keep trying, though my fingers are not what they were or could have been, but with practice I am improving. My big issue is lack of a contemporary repertoire, and the having the confidence to play in front of people, which I have lost.
I got myself a set of Nigel Richard’s smallpipes about 3 years ago and I took them to my second Feis Rois when I had Allan MacDonald as a tutor. He was also brilliant and I learned such a lot from him. Rory Campbell taught me last year, also a skilled tutor, and this year was Mike Katz.

Having come from a very traditional piping background involving competition and having my fingers smacked if I played the wrong notes at chanter practice, and also with the big gap in playing, I felt I was a generation behind. I’ve found that the music has moved on so much since those days both in musicality, and with so many wonderful new tunes. I learned to play from written notes, and in competition style where every note and movement was essential, but I wanted to get away from that and to be more musical even if that meant being less technical in my playing.
That’s what was so great about Mike’s class this year. He, like the other tutors I’ve had at the Feis, taught by ear, which for me is a really difficult process but one which I really want to get to grips with. He taught us tunes which were fairly simple in structure, and taught them in a simple way, but crucially for me, didn’t teach us the embellishments and ornamentation, so it’s up to me how I play the tune. I’ve found this liberating! It’s just what I need because it allows me to express myself in the music in the way I’m comfortable with, and it’s almost like being given permission to break out of the traditional straightjacket. This might sound terribly obvious to those who’ve grown up playing like this, but I didn’t, so for me it’s freedom.
Mike also showed us how to adapt tunes which aren’t suited to the pipe chanter, and also to play the same tune in different keys…for example, transposing a tune in A down to G. That’s not something I had ever thought of, yet it’s so simple (for some tunes anyway).
At the end Mike gave us the dots, but without the ornamentation so the process of self discovery for me goes on. I’ve also found that although I had difficulty in remembering the tunes at the time, now I have the notes and recordings I took as memory joggers, they’re miraculously in my head. I loved the class. I’m looking forward to next year already!