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Andrew's Tips: Lorne Cousin on Playing MSRs
This article with advice on how to play March, Strathspey and Reels better appeared in WUSPBA Words & Music newsletter in Spring 2009. Mr. Cousin has granted his permission for his article to appear here. Lorne Cousin, a native of Scotland, is a WUSPBA judge and resides in Los Angeles, California. He provides instruction to bands and solo players. Lorne is perhaps best known as the bagpiper who toured with the rock star Madonna. He can be contacted through his website www.LorneCousin.com.
Tips to improve March, Strathspey and Reel Playing
This article is written from the solo player’s perspective and is intended to assist the piper to bring out the musicality and enhance his or her technique when performing this most classic idiom of bagpipe music. Generally speaking, the points will be relevant to pipe band playing although it should be noted that bands play Marches, Strathspeys and Reels at a faster tempo. This is not a criticism, merely an observation.
2/4 Marches are in Simple time and have 2 quarter notes (or crotchets) to the bar. There are two beats to the bar (so the time signature is Simple Duple). Try to identify in the music on which note the beat falls and mark this with a pencil. Gracenotes are played on the beat as are the first gracenotes of a doubling.
Tempos for playing 2/4 Marches amongst the top competitors vary from 66 to 72 Beats per minute. Personally speaking I would aspire to 70 BPM. This allows the tune to flow naturally without being rushed.
When learning and indeed practicing a tune play very slowly at first and exaggerate all of the movements. My tutor’s favorite expression was “Go Back to the Basics.” Break each individual movement into its component parts, especially doublings. Practice the tune in this fashion as when you come to play the tune on the pipes the movements will tighten up markedly. Identify phrases in the tune which are repeated and practice these with particular focus.
The last two bars, for example, are generally the same throughout a 2/4 march and are therefore a critical part of the tune. Many end with a C or B doubling followed by a birl on low A. The C or B should be held as long as possible after the doubling.
Strong, Weak, Strong, Weak is perhaps the best way to describe the emphasis placed on each beat. A strong accent should be placed on the first beat but do not neglect the second beat completely as this will lead to cut or clipped playing. Another of my tutor’s favorite phrases (unwittingly perhaps inspiring Mike Meyers) was “Its no use unless you put the Gaelic into it.” One analogy he used was of a crofter (yes, everything in piping seems to lead back to crofting days) walking through the rows spreading grass seed from side to side with his arms. There should therefor be a rythmical swing to a 2/4 March. The importance of marching to a tune cannot be stressed too much. Try not to slow down and take too many steps when turning at the end of the platform as the tempo can get bogged down. I recall one prominent competitor and judge, now sadly departed, who used to march in a circle on the platform without stopping. His 2/4 marches were a joy to listen to.
You should also be aware of the “Dotted and Cut Notes.” Some tunes, reels for example, are played in a round fashion however 2/4 Marches should always be played in a dotted and cut, or “pointed,” fashion. Hold the dotted notes as long as possible and then cut the intervening cut notes. Do not overdo this however otherwise the tune will become stilted or clipped.
If you study a 2/4 it will become apparent that it is constructed from a series of two bar phrases. When practicing on the chanter play the first one then take a breath and then play the next one. You will note that it mirrors the first one often in a different key. The two phrases can therefore be compared to a “Question” and an “Answer”. By being aware of this and adhering to it will improve the musical expression of your tune markedly.
Ceolas Tune index describes the Strathspey as “A tune, generally in 4/4 with considerable melodic content and highly irregular timing. It is considered characteristic of the Strathspey that a cut note often precedes a dotted one.” “Additional interest can be added by accenting particular notes, either by lengthening them (particularly when playing the pipes) or by playing them more loudly. The dotted notes in a strathspey, particularly those falling on the first and third beats of a measure are lengthened more than the single dot would suggest. Such dotted notes should be considered as double dotted.”
In other words the Strathspey is unique to the Highland Bagpipe in the world of music in its rythym and expression. It is in Common or 4/4 time. There are 4 quarter notes (or crotchets) to the bar and four beats to the bar. The dotted noted should be held and the cut notes cut quite markedly giving a bright, bouncy rythym.
The tempo amongst competitors varies from 114 to 120 BPM.
To reiterate, the Strathspey is a dance tune and should be played as such. It is generally accepted that the accent should be “Strong, weak, medium, weak.” This however is very hard to produce in reality and the best course is perhaps to put the strongest emphasis on the first beat of each bar.
The bouncing ball analogy is often used and this is very accurate. A good method of improving your strathspey playing is to play for Highland dancers particularly experienced ones.
Special attention should be given to doublings in a strathspey particularly those preceding low A. Do not cut or snatch at these doublings too much and practice them by lifting the fingers higher for both G and D gracenotes in the doubling.
Reels are written in 2/2 time. There are two beats to each bar of 1/2 note (or minim) value. The accent should be expressed “Strong, weak, strong, weak.”
Another dance tune but perhaps this time with a warning. Do not play a reel the same way as you might play for an eightsome reel or other country dance where there is no expression or holding of notes. The competition pipe reel should be played with “drive” but “control.” It is too easy to “run away with it” and control is the key word here.
The tempo ranges between 76 and 86 BPM. I would aspire to the slower end of this range personally. Drive and control can still come across as interesting and musical as opposed to going for “pure speed.”
It has to be said that some reels are written to be played in a round or even manner, e.g., The Little Cascade, however most lend themselves to the pointed “dotted and cut” style of play. If a tune started for example with a G, D and E gracenote on A, e.g., The Smith of Chilliecassie, then in this case more emphasis would be put on the low A after the first G gracenote to give a more pointed, driving style of play.
One final point to note is that careful attention should be paid when selecting your March, Strathspey and Reel tunes. They should all be within your capability and they should all be balanced, for example, do not pair up a four-parted Strathspey with an eight-parted Reel. Try practicing the first of your Strathspeys with the first Reel, then with the Second then the third and so on. Then do the same for the second Strathspey and so on so that you have practiced all the tunes many times over and also the breaks for every possible combination of your chosen Strathspeys and Reels.
This is not by any means an exhaustive list of tips and you will come across other points of view however I have found them to be very useful in my experience and hope that you will too.
This page last updated Sunday, March 14, 2010