This year’s LBPS Teaching Weekend attracted sufficient pipers describing themselves as ‘beginners’ for a separate group to be formed. Here, two of those who joined that group describe their experiences.

Are You a Piper?
(Anne Duncan writes of the ups and downs of attending her first teaching weekend)

After some years of saving, then waiting for my smallpipes, I was finally able to collect them just before Christmas 2013. During the holiday my son suggested a New Year's resolution to sign up for the first available teaching weekend. I thought probably Glen Esk in November, plenty of time to be forgotten. Then I came across the LBPS site, became a member and horror of horrors realised that the first teaching weekend was at the end of February. Obviously I was too much a novice to benefit, so emailed George Greig for confirmation. Not only did he feel I would benefit from the experience but he sent a long reply with tips  and strategies to work on in the meantime!  I was not much comforted when I arrived in Bridge of Allan to discover my name on the class list for Finn Moore on Saturday morning, surely a mistake.
On Friday evening my desire to work with this instrument was confirmed whilst listening to the variety of players, styles, instruments and music, something about this touches my soul. But how to achieve the skill?
Finn's class involved one spell of playing a long 'A', no chicken arms allowed, see the improvement when you get it right? The experts in the class were there to help and quickly sussed where it was required.
After break (and a chat with some top- notch GHB pipers who still find themselves blowing as they play!) we moved to the topic of pipe maintenance, not an issue for me, my pipes are new. But hemp settles down and I had leaks! Now I know what to do about them!
The vexing subject of tuning drones was also covered. Number one, you can't tune your drones if you can't play a steady note, obvious, but good news for me! All the more reason to master that steady note. More experienced class members  asked the questions I wouldn't have thought of so I ended the morning with a more playable set of pipes and some idea of what to aim for next.
The afternoon session had space for individual tuition from Judy who reinforced my new improved technique and sent me back to class.  Gary taught us to learn a tune first through singing, then section by section. I only managed either notes or technique but was delighted at being able to play with others, sort of.  Pete Stewart showed us more of the mystery of tuning drones by highlighting how many notes are produced by a drone and then that the harmonics are an effect created by cancellation of sounds, the mystery deepens.In the discussion of drones Gary gave the analogy of drones representing the mood and melody representing the feelings of a piece. The differences between Lowland and Highland music and how  they work were discussed. I had thought that mastering Pibroch tunes could be a project but some beautiful minor tunes played by Pete in the evening left me understanding more of what had been said about there being two separate instruments each with it's own repertoire. The smallpipes are not a mini GHB and are at their best singing their own songs.
As the afternoon progressed I was developing a sinking feeling that I would be attending dinner dressed in my jeans as packing is never a strong point for me. However the friendliness and accepting attitudes of the participants convinced me that it wouldn't be a big deal. For the event the hotel provided a lovely setting with white linen and elegant candelabra but few of the pipers had dressed up and the focus remained clearly on the piping.
Instead of after-dinner speeches we were treated to enthralling smallpipe sets from Hamish Moore, Gary West and Fin Moore. Commanding GHB performances by Duncan McGillivray and Bob Lowe confirmed beyond doubt the polar opposites which these instruments represent and the beauty of each playing their own repertoire.
When asked on Friday evening if I was a piper I had to answer 'No, but I am here for the piping weekend'. Now my response would be 'Not yet! But I know where to start to become one.'  So, to the tutors whose words of wisdom now ring in my ears as I practice and all the other 'real' pipers I met this weekend I say 'thank you' for your patience, kindness and encouragement. To any 'not yet' pipers out there who might be interested I suggest signing up for a beginner set available for hire from the society and starting on a journey with centuries of heritage waiting to be recreated.

[Ed.: Anne’s experience of the LBPS competition is on p. 11 ]

First impressions
Duncan McIntyre discovers he is not as much of a beginner as he thought

When a ‘volunteer’ was sought to write up the LBPS Training weekend in early March 2014, everyone else must have taken a swift step backwards - but it was also something I was happy to take on, having decided already that the experience was going to a positive one. It’s worth saying that this will be a personal perspective, and as the small print says, the value of opinions can go up as well as down!
To set my background, I’ve been playing Highland pipes since I was in school, but have only recently thought about exploring any alternatives. My first contact with LBPS was picking up one of the ‘hire’ sets from Allan Sturrock on a sunny autumn day. A few months of un-tutored bellows squeezing later and it seemed to me that a bit of instruction wouldn’t go amiss.
So, the weekend started in the hotel bar on Friday night. I hadn’t really known what to expect - the ‘worst case scenario’ was perhaps a slightly stuffy gathering, sticking to a repertoire of lowland or border tunes I wouldn’t know, and maybe less than welcoming to someone with un-polished technique. On that basis I’d left my pipes up in my room. There’s an old Gaelic saying which translates as: “better to stay silent than sing a bad song”. That was roughly the logic I was working to.
However the reality of the Friday session was very different, and when I realised I knew more than a few of the tunes, and that ‘mucking in’ was more the style, then it wasn’t long before I was up the stairs and back down with the pipe - a little surprised to be playing them ‘in public’ so quickly.
So, from my point of view things were already going well, and the arrival of the weekend’s tutors; Fin Moore; Gary West; and Duncan McGillvray did nothing to change that impression! However I did begin to realise how long this new ‘learning journey’ might be.
I thoroughly enjoyed the night (and early morning!) and on looking back, apart from meeting some new folk, I think there are two things that strike me. The first is, coming from a GHB background, how well the small-pipes lend themselves to a relaxed and relaxing ‘session’ like this. Given the volume and more competitive ethos of Highland pipes and pipers, I’m not sure such a thing would be possible.
The second is how seldom we get an opportunity for collective music-making like this these days. I also come from a background of Gaelic song and culture and grew up with impromptu house ‘ceilidhs’ where everyone did their own bit - Friday night’s session had a lot in common with that sort of tradition.  
So, Saturday morning follows. I’d not opted to take up a ‘one to one’ session with more experienced LBPS members, so my first session was in the beginners group with Fin. There was a range of experience in the group, from folk who’d had pipes for a couple of years, to those who had literally had their pipes delivered the day before. Thinking about that now, it must be a challenge for the tutor to find some common ground to work on. I think there might have been a ‘tune’ in there somewhere (?) but my main ‘take home’ points were:
    It’s the left arm that does all the work;
    The bag doesn’t have to be as full as the GHB to play comfortably;
    It’s the left arm that does all the work;
    No need to use PTFE tape to tighten up the joints on a ‘cold wind’ pipe when cotton thread will do the job just as well and look a lot better;
    How to check the bellows valve for airtightness;
    A little bit more about ‘fettling’ small pipe reeds - drone and chanter;
    Try tuning to ‘D’ because it’s a steadier note with the bottom hand off the chanter;
    It’s the left arm that does all the work!We also touched on something else which was quite new to me - the notion of tunes being set in a particular scale. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect many Highland pipe players, particularly those playing in band context, will just learn the new tunes and medleys they’re given by the Pipe Major, without really thinking about them or asking any questions.
All in all, very good stuff. During this session it was suggested that I move up to one of the other groups, so after lunch I sat down with the much bigger ‘advanced’ group, in Duncan McGillvray’s care.
I’m afraid I didn’t last long here. Although I can make a reasonable fist of tunes I know on the small pipe, the task loading involved in playing a bellows pipe, and sight reading a new tune at speed, makes the whole thing grind to a halt. So, well outside my comfort-zone, I decided discretion was the better part of valour and went off to find the ‘middle’ group.
This was with Fin again, and once more ‘tunes’ were on the agenda, and a specific effort on Fin’s part to teach the music by ear - each part broken down into its component phrases. Although I learnt my first piobaireachd that way, I hadn’t done this for a while; it was different and just fun.
Another lesson reinforced here was the more ‘DIY’ nature of embellishments on the small pipe. I’m probably throwing in a lot of doublings and torluaths, almost instinctively. Maybe there’s a self-help group for this somewhere?: “Hello, my name is Donald, and it’s been four weeks since I played a torluath…”
Two new tunes then: The Shores of Loch Bee and a reel written by Fin’s brother. I’m sure they’re still in there somewhere, and wouldn’t take much to polish up and add to my repertoire.
Dinner on Saturday was an altogether more posh affair than I’d expected, but I definitely felt well-fed and watered, and amongst good company.
Three different styles in the brief recitals that followed: LBPS Chairman Hamish Moore getting the room to sing along; Gary West making me jealous of his fingering; and Duncan McGillvray adding a touch of variety and volume on the ‘pìob mhòr’. We also heard a prize-winning piobaireachd from one of the weekend’s participants, but unfortunately for me I missed most of that.
There then seemed to be a ‘session’ corner and a ‘chat’ corner until we were ushered out of the restaurant and back to the bar - what, again!?
Sunday morning, intermediate group - it must be Gary!
I was quite happy that discussion here provided a bit more depth on the question of tunes being set in a particular key. It’s a shame to admit it perhaps, but realising that tunes which end in ‘A’ were different from tunes which end in ‘D’, and that some tunes could be set in ‘G’ (I think?)  was quite a revelation. It struck me that a higher proportion than average had more formal, advanced musical knowledge than myself - I can learn and play tunes - but when the conversation moves to the major 7th, keys and dischord harmonics (or whatever!) then it’s over my head.
Two more new tunes: the first one escapes me at the time of writing; the second was Gary’s own composition - the Jedburgh Ba’ Game. I think the ‘runs’ in this tune will take a bit more work….
That more or less wound things up for me. Because I was facing a long “Train Journey North” I opted to miss the afternoon session and head for the station.
Overall I very much enjoyed the weekend. I think I’ve left with more of a focus to guide my practice over the next few months, as well as more of a conviction that this is really an instrument I’d like to develop. I enjoyed the mix of informative learning and ‘chat’ along with some tunes.
If I was pushed to find a less positive comment, it would probably be that a lot of the focus seemed to be on new tunes. Like most pipers probably, I have a list of tunes I’d like to learn or improve that’s “as lang’s my airm”. I also think my own learning style is quite slow and steady - working on tunes at my own pace. That said, I’m not sure what the alternative might be for an event like this, with the requirement to find a programme that suits so many folk, with a wide level of experience and ability. For me, if I see this as a ‘toe in the water’ for exploring the LBPS, then it was a very positive introduction, and I’m sure I’ll be back for more.

Duncan McIntyre