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Many thanks to all who took the trouble to complete the Questionnaire, and for the                   comments and suggestions made. The following is a distillation of those                                             comments/ suggestions.

Several asked if a tape, even a video could be produced to give those who have, maybe, limited contact with the bellows-blowing world, some idea of the scope, possibilities and techniques suitable to the smallpipes (if the tape had a “slow” side and an “up to speed” side, for instance, that would be even better). Examples were quoted where this has been successfully done with Uilleann pipes and Northumbrian pipes; for instance a book combined with a cassette allows the tunes to be followed on the one, while the written music is displayed in the other.

Several commented favourably on the tutoring weekends being run by the LBPS and Hamish Moore. Of course time and distance and cost don’t always allow these weekends to be as widely available as some would like - hence the reason (partly) for the Questionnaire.

Listen to the music, sing the music, listen to it being played by a Scottish fiddler, listen to music for dancing - these and other observations suggested ways that music best suited to the smallpipes should be played - and highlighted the contrast to Highland pipe playing. On this theme, too, it was suggested that the gracings and doublings which those of us with a Highland Piping background (some 60%) instinctively feel must be included could (and should, when first learning a tune) be modified - or even sacrificed - in the interests of rhythm, musicality, and the abilities of the player.

“The most important aspect that I find has to be taught and grasped early is the bellows technique. Unless this is smooth and even and the air is controlled by the bag not the                       bellows early it’s much harder to acquire later, when the tunes and fingering are becoming more fluent. Also, even with adults a simple tune to play earlier is very rewarding rather than over emphasis on exercises....”

“As well as Gordon Mooney’s (Tutor for Cauld Wind Bagpipes) and Matt Seattle’s

(Border Bagpipe Book) texts, I have found ‘The Highland Bagpipe Tutor’ by Seumas McNeill and Tom Pearston enormously helpful (especially part 1) in picking up Gracing techniques.”

“When I started the biggest problem was the reeds, and getting into tune. As I already played other instrumentsI| simply transferred tunes and ignored grace notes.”

“On purchasing a new set of pipes or a set in a different key, I found a scrap piece of dowel drilled to the relevant spacing of the finger holes a great help. Kept in my work bag or jacket pocket it helped me adapt to a new instrument with greater ease."

“I found it useful to teach on a G (small) tin whistle adapted to approximately Scottish                 bagpipe fingering (adding “high A” and “low G” finger holes, in Scottish pipe scale terms). (High A fairly easy if you estimate place and size correctly. Low G requires partial blocking of open lower end of whistle to compensate for hole. I use a cylinder of cardboard or paper and glue).”

“Take individual bars or phrases and learn them out of context, then combine to form the tune. Practice initially at half to third speed - finger technique is essential and must be                     accomplished before speed is increased. Timing; always use a metronome to play the                       correct rhythm and get the beat on the proper notes............... Always use a tape recorder to listen to your playing. A very impartial judge.”

“When learning play slowly, deliberately, and lift the fingers high. One of the best aids is a tape (not a CD) of a series of tunes played by an excellent performer.”

“If you can’t play it well slowly you'll never play it well quickly. Be careful to play all parts of a tune at the same tempo - don’t slow down for the tricky parts. Spend more time on the tricky parts even though the other parts are more fun!”

“Learning by ear has definitely proved useful for me.”

“To help recall a particular tune, I mentally change the name of that tune to something similar, but using words that fit the rhythm of the opening bars e.g. Mary Scot’ to ‘Lovely Mary Scot’, then mentally say the new title at each playing of the first couple of bars. Another example; ‘Robin Shure in Hurst’ to 'Robin is Shure in Hurst’ etc.”

“Those of us more remote learners of the smallpipes interested in playing what I would call simple Scots tunes’ and later investigating Border music face two choices. Either we teach ourselves to play from scratch, or we take lessons from a Highland piper. ..... If you teach yourself, you can at least play the music you want to play, however a person to offer                        encouragement when you are dissatisfied with your playing would be nice. .... As for the second option, I have just commenced lessons with a Highland piper, which are going well at the moment. This may be due to my lending him my COMMON STOCK and Hamish Moore recording to bring him around too my viewpoint!”.

“The major problem is keeping the pipes in good playing order and airtight; playing techniques are secondary to that. I do not much like group lessons because the noise of other players makes it difficult to hear oneself...... Solo lessons are necessary to identify faults.”

“A lot of the wrong kind of practice .... leads to perfecting ones mistakes rather than getting it right!....rhythm and melody are first and second.”

“Play with feeling is more important than very good technique.”

“Let yourself go with that rhythm” and “Listen to the music and not the mistakes".


Just over 100 Questionnaires were completed and returned. That represents more than one third of the membership.

There were no great surprises. Those with a Highland Piping background formed 60%; and of the rest, a large number (although this was not one of the questions) claimed a musical background other than pipes.

About 30% learned both by ear and using written music - largely those with a Highland       piping background, some even indicating that written music had been used for Highland piping while learning the smallpipes by ear. Overall, the split between those who learned from written music against those who learned by ear was 70/30.

Self taught versus tuition stood at 53/47, although again there was a grey area where many had learned the Highland pipes under tuition, teaching themselves the smallpipes.

25% said that they gave tuition of some sort or another, 4% doing it professionally - though not full time. Of that 25% the split between those teaching with written music and those teaching by ear was 73/27 - although half of them taught both. Only two of those teaching by music used other than Highland pipe notation.

It comes as no surprise that all those who taught also had a Highland piping background - with, of course, the disciplines of Highland Gracings. In fact only 20% of all those who completed the Questionnaires said that they did not learn/were not taught Highland                 Gracings.


Hamish Moore.

  • If at all possible people in a group should be of a similar standard.
  • The pupils should all have the same key of pipes. “A” is the most popular and seems to have emerged as a standard key.
  • Teaching should be conducted with the drones closed off.
  • I have found it difficult to effectively teach groups of more than 10 in number.
  • Enormous advantage can be gained from teaching by ear. If this is done it is important to distribute written music when the class is finished to provide a future aide-memoire for the pupil.
  • I have always encouraged pupils to think about the interval rhythms of the tunes and to use gracings which most effectively enhance these rhythms. The ornaments should not               dictate how a tune is played.
  • Lastly and probably most importantly - we should never lose sight of the fact that music should be played for fun; the atmosphere in class should reflect this.

In addition to numerous weekend and day workshops, Hamish Moore has taught a total of 39 week-long courses in Scotland, U.S.A. and Canada between 1985 & 1995.


Regarding learning technique I think the bellows position and blowing technique should not be overlooked as a first step in converting from Highland pipes or starting from scratch. Unless this becomes a natural easy action the next stage in learning to relax while playing will not follow on easily. I use the analogy of relating the bellows action to the blowing from the lungs for the Highland pipes so that the bellows are only used on demand when the bag has deflated by a bellows-full. The equivalent to a lung-full of air to the Highland piper. This means that perhaps four bars or more of music is played between bellows strokes so that the piper has the chance to relax for that period except for the left arm which is maintaining the pressure on the bag.

The alternative to this is to share the pressure between the left and right arms by playing from the bellows. That is to slowly bring the bellows in as you are playing until you come to the bottom of the stroke and then bring the right arm out quickly to begin another long stroke. The left arm needs to press harder on the out stroke to keep the pressure steady of course but needs lighter pressure the rest of the time as it is shared between the bellows and bag. This technique requires a good capacity air-tight pair of bellows to make it work efficiently but has the advantage of less pressure needed on the bag.

I find myself using a mixture of the two techniques but I advise my pupils to master the first method before going over to the bellows control method. The main thing to achieve is to avoid the short shallow bellows strokes usually in rhythm to the music that beginners                   usually do and I think that this is where the first technique succeeds.

Dumping the Dots: Pipes and Other Instruments   Helen Ross

We were asked to give our views on learning the smallpipes, and in particular whether it is helpful to learn to play by ear as opposed to reading ‘the music’ (the dots). I think it is                     interesting to compare the pipes with other instruments, since some of the problems are the same and some are not.

In the folk tradition, the learner:

  • listens to the tune, analyses it into its component phrases, and memorises it as a tune ‘in the head’;
  • plays the instrument from the memory trace, having previously learned the relation                     between the fingering and the notes available on the instrument.

The first phase is much the same for any instrument (apart from variations in grace notes etc), and the difficulty varies with the complexity of the tune rather than the complexity of the instrument on which it was played. The second phase varies in difficulty with different instruments, depending on the layout of the notes and the difficulty in producing them.

In the classical tradition, the learner:

  • learns to understand or read a musical score;
  • learns the relation between the dots and the fingering for the instrument in question;
  • plays the tune from the score;
  • optionally, with much repetition, he may learn the tune by heart.

In this tradition the player may become adept at playing from the dots without ever memorising the tune or playing by ear. The eye-finger and the ear-finger routes through the brain are independent of each other, and no amount of sight-reading will assist playing by ear. As a child I was taught to play the piano. I was given conventional instruction with a repertoire of mainly classical music, and always with the music in front of me. I became a good sight-reader, but was unable to extemporise or play by ear.

At university in the late ’50s I took up the guitar, like everyone else. This was the start of the Folk Revival, though I did not know it at the time - I assumed that folk music was something that students had always done. I was largely self-taught from ‘tutors’ (manuals), but got some tips from friends. Later I went to guitar classes, where I learned a lot more technique - all by ear and by demonstration. All of the guitar playing was geared to accompanying songs, and I played by ear or read the chord symbols written over the words or under the melodies. This was a very useful phase of my musical education, as I learned about the basic chord sequences for accompaniment - something I had no inkling of when learning the piano (despite reaching Grade 7). I played by ear or from memory most of the time, and became used to playing with others at folk clubs. I never learned to play classical guitar and translate a score into individual notes. Later I decided that there were too many duff guitar players around, and tcok up the English concertina. Unlike the Anglo (which produces different notes on the push and the pull), the English concertina has two similar reeds for each of 48 buttons and thus sounds the same in both directions.

The fingering system for this instrument was scientifically devised by Sir Charles Wheatstone (of Wheatstone Bridge fame) in a totally logical manner, with the advantage that most three-note chords can be formed as a small triangle of buttons on either side of the box. Apart from that, the logic is fiendish: the scale is split between the two sides, and alternates between columns and between hands, with the sharps and flats on the outer columns. This arrangement is not user-friendly to the human brain, which prefers a linear arrangement with the lower notes at one end and the higher notes at the other; or one function for the left hand (such as chords), and another for the right (such as melody). Consequently it is difficult to play the instrument by ear, though I can usually manage to produce slow tunes in   familiar keys. Fast tunes are a different matter, and ‘knowing’ the tune is not enough: I have to learn to run it off as a motor programme. If the programme breaks down, I usually have to return to the beginning of the tune or section. I have managed to learn only a few tunes by ear, as a result of attending concertina courses or because the dots were unavailable. I can remember these tunes fairly well, probably because of the effort that went into learning them. After several years of trying, I have to conclude that the English concertina is a difficult instrument for memorising fast melodies, but relatively easy for producing accompanyments.

Eventually I got to the Smallpipes. These present an entirely different problem from the concertina. The concertina is fairly easy-to learn at the initial stages without personal tuition, since you just press the correct button, pull or push the bellows, and you get your note; tuition is useful later for getting ‘lift’, ‘flair’ etc. The pipes, on the other hand, present initial problems of technique in bellows control and in fingering, and most people need the advice and example of a personal teacher to get started. However, once the basics are mastered, it is fairly easy to play the pipes by ear and to memorise tunes. The scale is laid out in a linear manner, there are only 9 notes, and harmonies are restricted to the drones (for a solo player). In comparison to the 48 button split-arrangement of the English concertina, there are few ways of hitting a wrong note. The pipes player has no excuse for hanging on to the dots.

As an addendum, I have very recently started to play the Bandonion - a rare instrument played mainly in Germany and in South America. It is rather like a huge Anglo concertina, with 57 buttons, 26 on the left side and 31 on the right, and giving different notes on the push and the pull. The arrangement of notes is like an old brain (the Anglo concertina) with a new brain added around it. Various different notes are added in different models, just to make life exciting. There are, however, fragments of linearity within the system, and there is a division of labour between the hands: the left hand plays chords on lower notes and the right hand plays the melody on higher notes. Most melody notes can be played as either push or pull, but most chords only work in one direction. Thus the harmonic structure determines the push-pull changes and the buttons that are needed to play the melody. A normal score cannot be read without further annotation: push/pull signs and button numbers or symbols for melody and chords must be added. Such a system might seem impossible to learn. However, I find that I can memorise tunes as an apparently random motor programme without much difficulty. Perhaps the division of function betwen the two hands makes the instrument easier than the more logical English concertina. It remains to be seen whether it will be easy to work out new tunes by ear.

The moral of all this is: Once you have a tune in your head, throw away the dots, and ‘just play it’ without too much thought.

     ___________________________________________________________________ LEARNING CURVE         Alister Wilson

Serendipity indeed! I have been meaning to write to COMMON STOCK with my own thoughts on the difficulties of learning, soI| was pleased to see the article from John Roy in last month's edition; and to see that this edition will focus on teaching and learning. I decided to learn smallpipes a couple of years ago. I have no background in piping, but have played Scottish and Irish music (on the flute and bouzouki) in sessions for a number of years. The idea of learning some kind of bagpipe grew out of a discussion with a Highland piper friend (who saw no reason why I would want to learn anything other than the Highland bagpipe...). Having played a couple of times with a smallpiper, I knew and rather liked the sound of the smallpipes, but was undecided for some time about what kind of pipe to learn. The LBPS competition in 1994 clinched it for me, though - I came along for the afternoon and heard some excellent playing, joined the society on the spot and realised that the small pipes sound is the one I like the best.

Trying to get lessons has been a mixed experience. It never occurred to me to do anything other than get as strong a grounding as I could in Highland technique, so my first step was to get a practice chanter and Seumas MacNeill’s tutor (which, incidentally, I think is excellent as a ‘distance learning’ tutor. I only wish I'd got the tape to go with it at the same time...). After a few months, I had a couple of lessons with a friend and then took evening classes at the College of Piping.

The Callege was great for the first term as I was shown how to do gracings and taken slowly through the book. During the second term, however, I found that the 15-20 minute slot was just not sufficient to explore everything I wanted to - and that the regular weekly session sometimes came round just a little too frequently to ensure that I had done enough practice. I decided, therefore, to take some lessons on my own so that I could have more time per lesson and each lesson less frequently.

This decision corresponded with the arrival of my pipes from Ray Sloan; so, I set out to find someone who would give me some advice on bag and bellows technique (having started with Ann Sessoms’ excellent COMMON STOCK article). This was not straightforward - several LBPS members to whom I spoke for suggestions (or offers!) were coy or unable to make recommendations. It occurred to me, therefore, that it would be useful to include a ‘teachers register’ page in the membership directory where any members who have taught or are willing to teach could make it known. Lessons from a smallpiper are particularly                 important, I think, because of the question of style. I decided to learn Highland technique becauseI| thought it would introduce me to the discipline of the technique without meaning that I had to adopt Highland style - however, if you go to a Highland piper for technique what you also get, of course, is Highland style. I will certainly be seeking future lessons from a smallpiper for this reason as much as any other.

I found the competition a great stimulus for forcing me to practice regularly. The relaxed and friendly nature of the competition makes it quite easy for the novice to participate. For any novices thinking of entering next year - DO; but make sure you get to the hall in plenty of time to get your pipes out and play through your set to calm your nerves...

I notice from some back numbers of COMMON STOCK that in the past, the winner of the novice competition has sometimes received a bursary for tuition. This would be a great thing io re-instate if possible - and there would be a tremendous incentive to participate in the novice class if (say) the Piping Centre were willing to contribute a term's tuition for the winner. Alternatively, a cheque or voucher of some kind might create the kind of flexibility that would suit the novice who wants to learn at his own pace and on a one-to-one basis.

_________________________________________________________________________ PLAYING THE NORTHUMBRIAN SMALLPIPES - some thoughts on successful playing.                                                                                                           Richard Butler

Players of Scottish smallpipes can learn much from Northumbrian pipers Those not familiar with the instrument and its music should, when thinking Northumbrian to Scottish, transpose up one note; e.g. when Richard talks of ‘G’, then the Scottish equivalent would be ‘A’; ‘D’ is ‘E’, and so on.

BLOWING TECHNIQUE. First and foremost anybody who decides to take up the pipe must master the art of blowing. In the first instance this is achieved by maintaining a steady note either on the chanter or drones for as long as possible. And be critical. Any fluctuation represents a deviation from the desired outcome of an unwavering sound. As you become more proficient play the G drone (tonic) along with bottom G of the chanter. The two notes should be exactly in tune.

Now with the large G drone sounding, play up the scale. Each note produces its own characteristic harmonic interaction with the drone. Listen very carefully to each note. The essence of piping is this harmonic interaction. You will very quickly begin to realise some notes are more ‘in tune’ than others. In this respect, the Gs, Bs and Ds will harmonise very well. After all, they do form the notes of the G-major chord. Other notes also sound well together, namely the Cs and to a lesser extent, Es. On the other hand such notes as A and Fsharp [the Northumbrian chanter has a sharpened 7th - Ed] sound particularly ‘out of tune’. Only when you can bring out the harmonic interaction between chanter and drones can you begin to say you are a piper.

Practice playing the pipes in tune. Play long slow notes and listen intently to the harmonies. Even now after 35 years of playing. I still practice holding the pipes in tune to balance myself with the instrument.

Once you have mastered the art of playing the pipes in tune, you can then move on to some more advanced blowing techniques. When you begin to play your teacher will probably, and quite rightly, tell you to keep a constant pressure. With this I entirely agree. However, as you become more experienced there are times where changing the pressure is very effective. For example, every melody has a unique chord pattern and if you ever play along with an accompanying instrument your fellow musician will spend a few minutes working out which chords to fit to which bars. As the drones sound an unchanging combination of tonic and dominant, certain chords are, what I call, harmonising and others discordant. As a discordant section is being played by increasing the pressure the effect is accentuated and the subsequent return to a harmonising section is made more pleasing as the pressure is returned to normal. This technique is most effective in a number of instances e.g. when playing the last few notes of a slow air so that the resolution on the last note beautifully completes the melody. Another place you might like to try this technique is during faster tunes. Two or three bars of the discordant melody accentuated by an increased pressure can be very effective especially when the melody is resolved when the harmonising section is reached and the pressure returns to normal and the drones once more harmonise with the chanter.

Control of the bellows is very important and a steady rhythm is essential, But it does not have to be mechanical. In fact a very regular rhythm can be a disadvantage. As the subtleties of blowing become more and more evident you will begin to realise you must only use the bellows to fit the melody. Slow airs require long sustained notes and blowing in the middle of a note could provide an unwanted blip. So only use the bellows so that the initial surge of air into the bag only occurs at the junction between two notes, therefore reducing the effect of the sudden change in pressure as the valve opens.

One aspect of blowing technique that is frequently overlooked is that of producing a pleasing start and finish. Every time you play, begin by blowing up the bag to three quarters full. Then, by gently pressing the bag whilst at the same time blowing air into the bag by one full stroke of the bellows, will the drones start within half a second . Likewise, when you finish playing, empty the bag to under half-full and suddenly release the pressure and the drones will shut down thus making for a much more pleasing performance.

So next time you watch a piper, listen carefully and watch intently to determine whether or not they have mastered the most basic of techniques. Blowing.

(N.B. The basic scale of the Northumbrian Small Pipes is G to g with a drone                     combination of G, D and g or tonic, dominant and tonic.)


Probably the most effective contribution to the teaching of piping in the 20th Century has been the production of the College of Piping Tutor part 1 by Seumas MacNeill and Thomas Pearston in 1953. Testament to its effectiveness is not the fact that it is nearing one million copies sold world-wide, but that people who have had no teacher and no piping contact have followed its systematic graduated lessons to the point where they have become creditable players with good technique and musical understanding.

There are of course as many views on teaching piping as there as there are pipers, and I am not setting out to write an advert for the College system, it is simply one which appears to work reasonably well. A student's first instructor is probably the most important and influential person in the learning process, and it is a big responsibility to set someone off down the road to becoming a piper, since the first series of lessons is fairly crucial to everything that follows. The basis of all good piping as far as I am concerned, is a strong technical grounding gained on the practice chanter. This is built up by long hours of hard practice, repetition of boring exercises, finger strengthening and attention to detail. Anyone who attempts to circumvent this process will, in my opinion, never do themselves justice on the full instrument - be it Highland or Lowland.

As both teacher and learner I prefer to work in a group. A practical number is somewhere between two and five, depending on age and stage (the younger and lower the standard, the smaller the class should be). The teacher usually institutes a system of making the most competent in the group play first each time a tune or movement is attempted, allowing the weaker members to benefit from repetition before their turn comes. A group also creates a less intense atmosphere than one-to-one tuition and progress is spurred on by the natural competitiveness of the members. There is a natural progression, too, in what is taught - from the scale to single grace-notes, doublings, throws, taorluaths, crunluaths and so on.

Organisation (or at least the appearance of organisation) is important for the teacher, knowing what a class did the previous week, remembering and picking up on individual faults and checking of homework is essential. It may be that this necessitates a written record for both teacher and pupils. Bringing the correct music and spare copies for the inevitable forgetful student is a good idea along with hemp and spare reeds to remedy those little accidents during the week. That the teacher knows the tunes to be tackled intimately is essential and the ability to read music upside down is helpful for making points quickly. It may seem a simple thing, but there should be adequate provision of chairs and tables - it is amazing how many classes suffer from resting music on the floor or their knees instead of a proper surface.

Musical scores seem to be in more or less universal use as far as teaching children is concerned and a great deal of energy is wasted on exhorting pupils to memorise tunes. This is part and parcel of becoming a piper yet it seems to cause many people a great effort. Those who learn by ear memorise tunes much more quickly than those who are presented with a book, yet it is a skill which is not practised enough within Highland tuition these days, leaving players with a slow ear - slow to pick out melody, slow to recognise patterns and phrasing, and slow to hear the essential music. Being tied to a score also makes people unsure of experimenting with grace-noting, and unconfident with their own judgement in this area. Those who attended the Society's teaching weekend in Melrose will know what I mean!

It is also amazing how many people, particularly adults, who approach the learning process in completely the wrong spirit. They have rushed out and bought a bagpipe (we shall say nothing of the quality or otherwise) without taking any advice and then become angry and upset when they are told to put the instrument under the bed for the best part of a year until they have learned the fingering. “..but I don't want to learn all those grace-note things - I just want to play tunes” is usually the attitude. Yet there is no quicker way of spoiling a   potential piper than too quick a transference to the bagpipe itself.

Time is usually limited in a lesson, so it is good to have a plan of what you expect to get through, but this may have to be revised along the way, either up or down. If the pupil is paying for the privilege of a lesson then a social chat and story-telling, while entertaining, should probably be kept for the trip to the pub afterwards. All teachers have a different style - some go for the blood (literally) and thunder routine, while others prefer gentle cajoling and exude seemingly endless patience. I would say that brutal honesty has its place, but it is usually more effective to lift your pupils’ expectations of themselves by praise and encouragement - often the most effort is put in by the worst player in the group.

Before setting out to teach a class a teacher must be absolutely sure that he or she can give the commitment which is required - not just in terms of what happens during the lesson   itself, but in being able to turn up every week without fail on time and well prepared. The pupils inevitably look up to their teachers and must be able to rely on them. There is nothing which beats practical hands-on experience of teaching and no amount of theory prepares you for the difficulties which may be encountered. Not everyone is cut out for the job but you’ll never know until you try.


“AND YOU’VE ONLY GOT ONE ARM...?”                             David Taylor.

“What do I hope to get out of this course?... Well, a tune by the end of the week would be just fine - I really like that ‘Moving Cloud’.

‘No, I've never touched bellows pipes before.....Highland Pipes? Not them either...What's a chanter?

‘No.,..can't play a scale... Gee! What are grace-notes?

“Other musical instruments?... No, never touched any... teacher said I was a musical dunce..

‘But I really want to play Moving Cloud’...”.

[Stage Directions] Muttering something that sound's rather like ‘Oh Shit’, exit rapidly left for stiff dram - or exit right for high bridge

O.K. it’s never been quite that bad, but it has been close on a few occasions!                                      When I was asked to write an article on teaching small-pipes, I thought “Oh, God! How boring” (for you, the reader). It’s impossible to write constructively about how you teach without being very pedantic, and also very difficult without being able to demonstrate points on the pipes. So what follows are just a few thoughts on some of the differences I have experienced between teaching Highland pipes and small-pipes over the years, which may throw up some ideas about teaching. [Bored already? Exit left for that dram!]

The fundamental difference is that most of my Highland pipe learners have been children learning on a one-to-one basis with weekly lessons, while with small-pipes I mainly teach groups of adults attending occasional courses. While both cases are equally rewarding (and with adults there is the added bonus of the socialising) this simple difference does involve a whole new teaching strategy.

Teaching children is very straight forward. You start from the beginning when there are no bad habits, building up their skills at an appropriate speed, not allowing them to move on until the lesson has been mastered. They are at the optimum time for absorbing knowledge and skills. As teacher, you have the luxury of time - the end product will not be developed for a few years. At nine years old they don’t have pre-conceived notions and are happy to be guided as the teacher sees fit. [Off stage scream: “Do what I say, boy'!!] Not always so with adults.

Adults generally don’t have the luxury of time. The weekly lesson is just not possible in many cases, so occasional courses become the only way forward. Adults also have a desire to reach the target more quickly. They’ve heard good playing and good tunes and want to get there as quickly as possible. Their expectations are radically different from those of children, and are often unrealistic. However, they are paying a lot of money for courses and accommodation, and have a reasonable entitlement to their own personal agenda being satisfied. [Off stage, plaintive wail “But I want to learn Moving Cloud!!"]

The difficulty for the teacher is getting the balance between what you want to teach and what the adults on a course hope to get out of it. You obviously have to prepare for the course, choosing tunes, deciding on style, ornamentation etc. You can’t allow six different agendas to exist or no-one would learn anything. By the same token there is no point in trying to force someone to play tunes they don't like just because you happen to enjoy them. A working compromise is essential. The first session on a course is a frantic exercise of matching what everyone wants with what they are actually capable of, and trying to devise a strategy that will suit the whole group. Sometimes the group is just not compatible (e.g. four different keys of chanter) and you have to go for a more individual approach, dividing time as appropriate.

Should you teach by ear or off music? Some of the group may not be able to read music and I did once come across someone who played a ‘D’ when I was playing a ‘C’ and couldn't tell there was something wrong! So, you have to wait until you see what your group can manage!

Another problem of course is recognising saturation level. You want people to feel they have had value for money. You want them to have lots of new material to take away and work on. The problem lies in physical exhaustion, especially for beginners, and mental saturation - there comes a point when you just cannot learn any more. Teachers and organisers sometimes try to satisfy the customer by cramming in too much. In the long run, more could be achieved by having some time off, sight-seeing or even having a wee drink! [Off stage sounds of small-pipers gleefully hiccupping - “We're saturated already!!”]

When teaching adults your approach to technique also.has to change. Many adults taking up small-pipes are experienced pipers with a lifetime of playing behind them. The motivation may vary from those no longer fit to play big pipes, wanting something quieter for domestic reasons, perhaps experience the thrill of session-playing, to take up a new challenge for retirement, or even just to play for fun. [Off stage demons shrieking at heresy of pipers playing for fun...] Many already have excellent technique; others don’t. As teacher how far can (or should) you go in correcting crossing noises or faulty doublings? You can’t devote a whole week to finger exercises!

A similar problem comes from those experienced Folk or Classical musicians who already have excellent skills in their own discipline and want to take up pipes. They are usually fast learners with good manual dexterity. Learning grace-notes can be a source of irritation as they want to get stuck into tunes at the level they are playing on their other instruments. So, how much time should we devote to the skills of ornamentation? That, of course, leads to the key question of what techniques we should be teaching for small-pipes. Is it right to impose the formal grace-noting of Highland/military piping on those learning small-pipes? If you are playing with nice rhythm and sweet tone in your own sitting room or in a pub, and having a really good time, does it matter if you can’t play a proper taorluath? Indeed, is a taorluath appropriate at all?? [Offstage. creaking noises as traditional pipers start spinning rapidly in graves...]

This adjustment of expectations in fingering is one of the main difficulties in teaching small-pipes to adults. Highland pipers are not easily de-conditioned! Many are reluctant to go into the world of slides and vibrato, and there comes a point when the fingers just wont move in new ways. Even more difficult is getting experienced pipers to simplify ornamentation. Some just cannot change [“But I’ve always played a ‘throw’ on D there”!]

Perhaps there is a feeling that it is cheating, whereas in reality a tune may sound a great deal more musical with simpler grace-noting. Small-pipes are an instrument in their own right, not just a small set of Highland pipes! What sounds good on Highland pipes may not actually sound right on small-pipes.

Rhythm is perhaps the hardest, but probably the most important aspect of teaching. The mono-volume and continuous sound of pipes makes them an extremely difficult instrument on which to ‘swing’ music. In teaching it is often difficult to get this rhythm across because of the very nature of the instrument and the fact that many adults simply hear the tunes as they've always played them for the last 20 years. Often the best method of communication is the old piping style of singing where the human voice can express the subtleties much better. [Off stage chorus from class - "Oh no! Please don't sing to us again!!”]

Another strategy is to get classes to listen to as much good playing as possible - and not necessarily piping! There are some top competition pipers who play with as much expression as a block of wood. [More revving up of graves...] Focus instead on top quality Scottish and Cape Breton fiddlers or the older style Irish pipers like Liam O'Flynn - and really listen - then try to reproduce these rhythms, adapting ornamentation to suit the rhythm rather than vice versa. Sometimes in teaching it is necessary to grossly exaggerate rhythm to get the feel of the tune.

This article merely dabbles on the surface of a huge topic and inevitably raises questions rather than answers them. There is no right way to teach an instrument like this, because teachers must devise a strategy with which they are comfortable, and because the learners are so varied in background, experience, ability and expectations. At the end of the day it is important to remember the purpose in teaching small-pipes.

We are not trying to produce competition players, nor do we want to recreate the regimentation and discipline of the pipe band. Our aim surely is to help learners to enjoy the instrument and the music; to teach them to play as musically as possible within their own limits. To achieve this, our teaching needs to be flexible enough to satisfy the needs not only of the group but of each individual within the group, even though that can become increasingly difficult as the late nights and hangovers take effect! Speaking of hangovers... [exit stage left for that stiff dram, especially those of you who have been daft enough to read right through all of this...]

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[So you're still determined to play Moving Cloud?....Sorry, What was that you just said?..... You've only got one arm????]