From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Anyone ever tried to learn Scottish trad and the Scottish pipes coming from the tin whistle and an Irish music background? Although Irish trad and whistle has always been my thing, there’s something that’s always fascinated me about Scottish music. I don’t know if it’s the fact that (normally) only one octave is used or what, but I often find the melodies to be quite genius. I don’t know, to me it kind of sounds like what Irish music might’ve sounded like in ancient times. In short, I like both Irish and Scottish music, and although I can’t say I’ve "mastered" Irish music (I never will, but that’s okay), learning Scottish music is my "unresolved matter".

Now, I don’t expect to ever own a set of Great Highland Pipes. It’s simply too loud. But I’ve always loved the sound of Smallpipes, and they’re quieter so who knows if I could get one someday. For now, I got myself an electronic chanter (Technopipes) which I’m currently in love with.

I haven’t started to learn the proper Scottish pipe fingering yet, but I already have issues/questions: do Scottish pipers really always use that complicated fingering? Even in fast tunes? Basically I mean keeping your right hand’s pinky down for C and D, and keeping your right hand’s index, middle and ring fingers down for E, F, high G and high A. How could a tin whistle player do this without going mad?

I had to say letters in my mind while counting fingers for the previous paragraph. To me, six fingers down will always be D. The idea of having to memorize new names for the finger notes that I’ve known my whole life (recorder and sax, which I played as a kid, also call notes the same names as the tin whistle) sounds a bit nightmarish. Have you managed to do this?

Are Scottish pipe ornaments very different from whistle ornaments? Cuts, taps, rolls and short rolls? Do these exist with other names? The ornaments that are different, are they easy to learn for a whistle player?

Do Scottish pipes improvise a bit, like it happens in Irish trad, when playing? I mean basically which ornaments to use and where. To me it doesn’t seem like they do. To me Scottish pipe music seems more rigid than Irish trad, more like a brass band where each musician has to follow the sheet music exactly, each and every note and thing. More institutionalized, if you know what I mean. With a "proper" or "official" technique. Are any of these suppositions true?

BTW, these electronic pipes allow me to use tin whistle fingering and it sounds perfect. So, the good thing is I can play them already. The bad thing is this won’t force me to learn the proper Scottish fingering.

Anyway, besides all these questions: any recommended resources? Thanks.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

I think it’s possible to get hold of just the chanter of a set of Scottish bagpipes - and play simply the chanter. Obviously less sound…

I really like the mighty sound of Scottish bagpipes played in the open air. I recall hearing a piper outside Balnain House in Inverness (once home of highland music + a museum). The man was playing extremely well and it remains a vivid memory for me - I can imagine a regiment being inspired by its piper in the past.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

I can remember hearing Leo Rowsome live for the first, from that I was hooked on Irish music.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Yes, we really do use those fingerings, even on fast tunes. You will likely not get up to speed on jigs and reels, unless you are under 21 years of age. Get a copy of the College of Piping Green Book, or the new book (forget the title). Yes, the ornaments are a bit different (grips, birls, doublings, cuts, taorluaths,etc.) Also get McGillivray’s "Rhythmic Fingerwork". The great pipes are pitched way sharp these days, but Scottish smallpipes are usually at "concert" pitch. Beware, there are some sets that are pitched sharp, and it is very difficult to tune them down to A-440. Also check out Fred Morrison’s "reelpipes" which are somewhat different. Have fun!

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

One more thing—some older pipers used "false fingering" on C and D for reels, but it doesn’t go well on modern chanters. You need the fingering or the notes sound "off".

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

I also enjoyed Willy Clancy playing and Líam O Flynn.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Hello Pj,

I started with the low whistle 6 years ago (after having watched one of your video btw. It seems to be the good moment for me to thank you!)
Now I have many whistles and play the wooden flute too.

I wanted to move to bagpipe like you but didn’t want to learn a new fingering so I asked a French maker (https://www.gabrieldesbiolles.com/?m=1) to build me a bagpipe with a whistle-like fingering for the chanter. I suppose it can be done with smallpipes as well? Now the biggest challenge coming from the flute is how to manage the pressure on the bag and yes I now realize that the ornements are quite different from what I used while playing the whistle. Actually I would really need a teacher for that.

When you say you want to learn Scottish music, are you talking about bagpipe’s repertoire only?
Otherwise, I played in some sessions in Edinburgh and jammed a few times with some Scottish friends and it seemed to me that their music wasn’t that far from Irish music (I mean compared to eg. Breton music).

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

What key is a flat set of Uileann Pipes tuned to.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Could be C#, C, B, B-, or Bb

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Thank you all for your answers.

Mackeagan, thanks. It does seem a bit crazy to me to have to do all that with your fingers at fast speed. I’m well over that age so, well, it’s okay, if I can’t learn it for fast tunes I’ll just stick to the Technopipes with my fake fingering. I’ll check out those books. By "false fingering" on C and D do you mean without the pinky down?

Damien Rogeau, that’s interesting, thanks. However, even though I have no idea, I have the suspicion that, in part, it’s the fingering what makes Scottish pipe music sound the way it sounds. And maybe it has even influenced the way the Scottish pipe ornaments are? And I mean bagpipe repertoire but also other instruments (I play the fiddle too and, although I’m self-taught and haven’t learned any proper technique, my playing is heavily influenced by Scottish fiddle). It’s not that far from Irish music, I agree, but it’s still different.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

I play Scottish tunes on the uilleann pipes. Saves the hassle of learning new fingerings. Sometimes, I play them on the Bb set, which is exactly like playing them on Highland pipes, right?

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

> For now, I got myself an electronic chanter (Technopipes) which I’m currently in love with.

I’d recommend a practice chanter - the simple reason being that playing exclusively on an electronic instrument leads to very sloppy fingering due to the way the instrument works. A practice chanter isn’t a massive expense, and less than an electronic one.

> do Scottish pipers really always use that complicated fingering?

Yes. We trade technical complexity now for expressive power down the road. Just don’t try and rush it, keep chopping things down till it makes sense, then play it repeatedly until it’s fluent over a period of days or weeks.

> To me, six fingers down will always be D.

You’ll get used to it pretty quickly. I had the same thing going from GHB to whistle and the Uilleann pipes. Your brain adapts pretty quickly.

> Are Scottish pipe ornaments very different from whistle ornaments?

Yes and no - you’ll recognise a lot of similarity but you should take some care to play piping ornaments "correctly".

> The ornaments that are different, are they easy to learn for a whistle player?

Mostly yes. On the whole I think Uilleann ornamentation is more difficult to learn well with the possible exception of the birl movement. But it rather depends what you personally struggle with.

>Do Scottish pipes improvise a bit, like it happens in Irish trad, when playing?

This is a complex topic. In mainstream traditional practice, there was a very strict emphasis on playing by the book and "one right way" (though in fact several "right ways" existed…). Today that is less so, especially outside the slightly rarified competition world, but Scottish music in general tends to hew closer to its sources and roots than Irish music. As a learner, I’d recommend spending a fair few years sticking to the book before thinking seriously about how to go off-piste, because when you do you want a good grasp of how to use your technique to make it work.

> BTW, these electronic pipes allow me to use tin whistle fingering and it sounds perfect.

Yes, that’s because they are programmed to respond to only the highest hole you have open. A practice chanter actually works similarly, but "real" chanters don’t, so it’s wise to follow the prescribed methods.

> Anyway, besides all these questions: any recommended resources? Thanks.

The books mentioned are a good start. The National Piping Centre also runs various types of class, including summer school-type things and in-person or Skype tuition. The BBC has two piping programmes, called Pipeline and Crunluath.

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Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Just wanted to compliment Calum on one of the best and most helpful posts I’ve seen on this board. Bravo.

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Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Anyone know what pitch was Tommy Recks pipes.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Tommy had a lovely Kenna set pitched at about B.

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Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Tommy was one of the greats. Lovely tone off his pipes.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Just a short aside on flat sets: remember most of these instruments were designed to be played solo and this was long before A=440 was a standard. We describe them nowadays as Bb, B, C etc as a convenience but often they aren’t designed exactly to these pitches.

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Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

gooseinthenettles said: "Tommy was one of the greats. Lovely tone off his pipes."

Yes indeed; one of the all-time greats in my opinion.

Flat sets have different tonal characteristics than concert-pitch sets. It’s not just the length of the chanter and the pitch; they also have narrower bores and much smaller tone holes. Tony McMahon has described it this way: "The music (of flat pipes) is quiet, gentle and smooth, for one person or two in a room. It’s a type of meditation.”

Modern concert-pitch pipes were made (generally credited to the Taylor brothers in Philadelphia, USA) to be loud enough to play in concert halls and auditoriums before the advent of electric amplification, and pitched to be easier to play with other instruments. But some of the tonal qualities of the older flat sets were lost by going to the larger bores and tone holes needed to accomplish that.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

What a great post, and what great questions, PJ!

It’s fascinating to me because I went the other way GHB > UP > Irish flute > whistle.

Over the years I’ve helped many other GHB players take their first steps into the Uilleann Pipes, but I’ve never taught anybody going from ITM to GHB.

In any case, as somebody who has played GHB and the various Irish woodwinds for many years I’ll try to address your questions one at a time.

PJ said:
"I’ve always loved the sound of Smallpipes…do Scottish pipers really always use that complicated fingering? Even in fast tunes? Basically I mean keeping your right hand’s pinky down for C and D, and keeping your right hand’s index, middle and ring fingers down for E, F, high G and high A. How could a tin whistle player do this without going mad?"

My response:
Yes anybody who has learned the standard GHB technique uses the standard GHB fingering system.

It wouldn’t be all that much different for a whistle player learning Uilleann pipes: you would have to learn different fingers to keep down for certain notes.

The "half-closed" fingering of the GHB actually makes many passages easier to play! Because the low hand is, in effect, fingering Low A when you’re playing any upper-hand notes, so going from Low A to E only involves moving one finger, going from Low A to F# only involves moving two fingers. You’re moving far more fingers going from Bottom D to A, or Bottom D to B, on the whistle.

But you’re in luck if you’re going to play Scottish Smallpipes (SSPs) instead of Border Pipes (BPs) or the GHBs, because SSPs are pretty much blind to what fingers are up or down below the notes you’re playing, so you can use whistle fingering with no ill effects.

For example on GHB and BP if you depart from the standard GHB fingering for E

x xxo xxxo

in any way E will be noticeably out of tune. But on SSP it doesn’t matter, no matter what fingering you use E will sound the same. So I highly recommend that you get SSPs, preferably in the key of A. You can get chanters in A and Bb and just re-tune the drones, if you want the Scottish Bb sound. But the standard key for SSP is A (A=440, that is, Highland pipe tunes sound the same pitch the sheet music is written in, in all the standard Highland pipe books.)

PJ said:
"To me, six fingers down will always be D. The idea of having to memorize new names for the finger notes that I’ve known my whole life sounds a bit nightmarish. Have you managed to do this?"

Yes I had to do it when going from GHB to UP/flute/whistle.

But it’s not too hard, and soon enough it will seem natural to you.

Being able to read D as either
xxx xxx
or
xxx ooo
is actually an advantage at times, because you can sight-transpose a surprising number of things.

At one time in my life I was playing GHB, UP, Irish flute, Bulgarian gaida, Bulgarian kaval, Bolivian kena, Boehm flute, NSP, and Spanish gaita all of which have different fingering systems and my brain somehow had no trouble keeping them all straight.

PJ said:
"Are Scottish pipe ornaments very different from whistle ornaments?"

My response:
Highland pipe ornamentation is entirely different. There’s very little overlap between Irish woodwinds and the GHB. However if I were you, I would get a set of SSPs and learn to play them using more-or-less Irish fingering and ornaments and start playing tunes right away, without worrying about GHB style.

There’s always time later to start picking up GHB ornaments as you go along.

To many GHB players this would seem like ridiculous/horrible advice, but we need to keep in mind that for centuries Highland piping and Lowland piping were quite distinct traditions, and Lowland piping didn’t use the piobaireachd-based ornamentation system of the Highland pipes, nor did Lowland piping use Highland fingerings.

For example Lowland pipes would have used
x xxo ooox
for E, leaving the lower fingers open.

Sadly the Lowland piping tradition more or less died out. Nowadays when you hear people playing "Border pipes" or Lowland pipes or Scottish smallpipes they’re generally using GHB fingerings and ornaments. 200 years ago it wouldn’t have been like that.

PJ wrote:
"Do Scottish pipes improvise a bit, like it happens in Irish trad, when playing? I mean basically which ornaments to use and where. To me it doesn’t seem like they do. To me Scottish pipe music seems more rigid than Irish trad…follow the sheet music exactly, each and every note and thing. More institutionalized, if you know what I mean. With a "proper" or "official" technique. Are any of these suppositions true?"

My response:
Yes, and no.

For sure there’s a standardised GHB pedagogy, and in Pipe Bands everybody has to play things exactly the same to get a clean sound.

However improvising used to be standard practice in Highland piping, and good players today don’t hesitate to change ornaments or change melodies to suit themselves.

It’s why you can hear a few different Pipe Bands play the same tune, each version slightly different, because each band’s Pipe Major has arranged the tune to suit their own band. And it’s why you can look up the same tune in 10 different GHB books and each version is different. There’s never been the concept of a "one and only correct version" of a tune. Even recently composed tunes are subject to being changed.

A great example of this is the playing of Gordon Walker, an ex-Army Highland piper, one of the best GHB players there is. I attended a solo concert he gave in Glasgow and he had made all sorts of subtle changes to EVERY tune he played, making even the most mundane/common/overplayed tunes sound fresh and musical.

About spontaneous improvisation, as I recall the well-known reel Dancing Feet was created when a piper was playing for dancers and forgot what tune he was going to play and improvised a reel out of necessity.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

"Highland pipe ornamentation is entirely different. There’s very little overlap between Irish woodwinds and the GHB. However if I were you, I would get a set of SSPs and learn to play them using more-or-less Irish fingering and ornaments and start playing tunes right away, without worrying about GHB style."

I’d like to give a somewhat different perspective. Unlike most players of SSP that first learn how to play via the GHB tradition, I came to SSP without any tuition on GHB, border pipes or in Highland pipe ornamentation. A few years later, when I decided to start playing GHB and border pipes, I found that my experience with SSP did not set me up particularly well for the required precision. I had to work that much harder to play GHB and border pipes with accuracy and confidence. So, I’d amend Richard’s advice a bit. If you know for certain that you only want to play SSP, then it’s true that you don’t have to concern yourself with technique nearly as much. But if you have a pretty good idea you want to, at some point, play GHB or border pipes, I would start with proper tuition on Highland technique right away. I feel like I lost about 5-6 years when I good have been getting a better head start on technique.

Also, if and when you do decide to tackle proper technique, get yourself to an experienced instructor immediately. It’s extremely important that you do it correctly from the beginning, otherwise you’ll be having to unlearn some really unfortunate technique.

On a separate point, I think this may have mentioned before, but Scottish traditional music is not limited to the Highland pipe scale except as to pipe tunes. Countless other Scottish trad. tunes are out there suitable for fiddle, mandolin, whistle, flute, etc. that go beyond the Highland pipe scale.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Yes Tervs is correct, if you plan on playing the GHB in the traditional/correct GHB style then you are best off getting under the tuition of a good GHB teacher.

My advice was aimed purely at your stated goal of playing SSP only.

There’s something about the physics of extremely narrow and parallel chanter bores, such as you have with SSPs and Highland Practice Chanters, which makes them mostly immune to changes in fingering.

Oddly, the newer Highland pipe chanters with wider bores, thinner walls, bigger fingerholes, and stronger ridge-cut reeds are also becoming more immune to changes in fingering.

The traditional Highland pipe chanters, made up to around 1980, with thick walls, smaller holes, and moulded reeds were more unstable/finicky about fingering, for example C#

x xxx xoox

if fingered

x xxx xooo

would be flat.

Most finicky was E

x xxo xxxo

because if fingered with any other lower-hand configuration such as

ooox
xoox
xxxx

etc would also be quite flat.

With some of the new chanter/reed combinations you can finger E in various ways with little change in pitch.

Even more unstable regarding fingering are the so-called "Border Pipe" chanters. (Beware that makers of both SSPs and BPs use a confusing number of names; you could have several different makes of SSPs sitting on a table, all similar instruments, and all called different things by their makers.)

The inherent instability of Border chanters is what gives them their amazing musical flexibility. By using various fingerings these chanters are fully chromatic from Low A to High A.

But they are VERY finicky and unforgiving about fingering exactitude, far more so than modern GHB chanters.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Very interesting, thanks. For now, I ordered the green book.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Don’t just rely on the book alone. Find a competent instructor. Can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get it right from the beginning.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

I learnt GHB, under very strict and good instruction, and you need to spend a lot of time practicing the ornamentation in ‘drills’ up and down the scale to get the muscle memory. As others said, don’t do this at home til you are sure you’re doing it right.
I switched to the whistle, picked it up by ear very quickly, and spent years unable to read whistle tunes because I was so programmed reading GHB music. Only beginning to crack it now decades later!

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Yes, the fingerings are needed. You’re dealing with an open chanter with a conical bore, so the fingerings were devised to keep the chanter in temperment from the low G to the high A. While it’s not impossible to learn on your own, it is more difficult to learn without a tutor/teacher, and it’s easier to pick up bad habits as well.
You’ve Great Highland Bagpipes, Parlor Pipes and Scottish Smallpipes to choose from, although I haven’t seen an advertisement for Parlor Pipes in a long time, and I’ve never seen a set in person (just pics and articles). Supposedly, Parlors are quieter than GHB’s but a wee bit louder than smallpipes. My smallpipes are bellows rather than mouth blown, and made by Walsh. His set has 4 drones out of the main stock, although only 3 are used at a time. The reason for the 4th drone, is because the set can be played in either "A" or "D". It comes with a chanter for each key. You stopper the drone not in use and tune the small D drone up to E by turning a lever that shortens the length. Quite ingenious really. Made out of Delrin, with bellows they cost me just under a grand 6 years ago. Because I live in Colorado, very dry and a wide temperature range, I prefer Delrin over Blackwood. My first Blackwood GHB set of D Naills were forever developing small cracks, so they’re retired. Dunbars in Delrin for my working set of GHB’s and I’ve no issues with them crack wise. The hardest thing with the move to Bellows blown was getting use to the need to pump my right arm to fill the bag. Other than that, the fingering is the same whether I’m in A or D, and it’s the same as a GHB (the D chanter is higher than the A, thus it’s smaller and takes a bit of adjustment as your fingers end up closer together).

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

Another vote for the John Walsh Delrin/polypenco Scottish Smallpipes. They’re the ideal for a beginner, I think.

About the nomenclature, it’s strange that everybody agrees on what to call the Great Highland pipes, but that nearly every maker of Scottish Smallpipes feels compelled to coin a new name for their product.

In 19th century price lists Scottish bagpipes are sold in at least three sizes, numbered and called by the makers as follows, and I quote:

1) Great Highland or Military Bagpipe
2) Half-Size or Reel Pipe
3) Miniature Highland Bagpipes

Number 3 are called a dazzling number of things today: smallpipes, chamber pipes, parlour pipes, session pipes, studio pipes, fireside pipes, practice pipes, and several others. Pretty much every maker calls them something else.

Number 2 aren’t far behind, being called a half-dozen different things by various current makers.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

The Technopipe chanter is not really suitable for beginners. Any competent GHB player will atest to that. Its fine to use once you already have a solid grasp of the scottish fingering system. The main reason for this is the intonation issues you would have when playing ‘Open’ C’s and other cross fingerings. You won’t hear this on a technochanter and most certainly you won’t feel it. The only use I would recommend for electronic chanters is for learning tunes and practice.

If you really want to learn the scottish fingering system with a view to playing Smallpipes my genuine recommendation to you is to purchase a mouth-blown practice chanter and learn the fundamentals of the system. You could also consider the Twist Trap practice pipes from RG Hardie which is a recent innovation which sounds just like smallpipes.

On the contrary to what another poster said…if you follow a structured path you will most certainly get to a point where you can play Jigs and Reels.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxds3KLNA6I


Hope this helps and best of luck.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

"You could also consider the Twist Trap practice pipes from RG Hardie which is a recent innovation which sounds just like smallpipes."

Sorry, but practice-chanters-in-a-bag do not sound "just like smallpipes". Some "smallpipes" perhaps. But the high end makers, e.g. Banton, Moore, produce bellows blown smallpipes that have tonal qualities that are far superior. It truly depends upon the instrument, and you need to do your homework. And, for the record, the practice-chanter-in-a-bag idea has been around for quite some time, at least a decade or more.

My advice is, if you don’t want to spend big dollars, then get the Walsh smallpipes. They are fine for the money, and have a pleasing sound. Avoid entirely the whole class of practice-chanters-in-a-bag configurations, unless you want to start with what is essentially a practice instrument. Have not heard one yet that didn’t sound like a toy.

Rant concluded.

Re: From Irish music and tin whistle to Scottish music and Scottish pipes

@tervs

I am not recommending practice chanter in a bag as a substitute for smallpipes. I am recommending it as a solution for a beginner. I have been playing and teaching GHB for over 40 years. I suggest it as a precursor to moving onto smallpipes. This particular solution also includes a drone setup.