Friday, August 19, 2011

Framing the House/Building the Walls

Framing the house/Building the walls

How often have you said to yourself, while learning a new piece of music: “I need to hear the tune before I can learn it.”? While this statement may have a lot to do with your Sight Reading/Playing skills, it reveals the importance of “knowing how the song goes” to learning and understanding the melody line of a tune.

We previously discussed the importance of keeping a beat as the foundation to music. The next important layer is rhythm, which is akin to the roof. While the frame goes up before a roof, the roof ties the frame together. Likewise, the melodic line of a tune is a combination of pitch and rhythm and they can’t really be separated. In this third article on ‘Building a House” we will look at The Frame or melody.

Any melodic line is made up of a combination of phrases or motifs that are often repeated throughout a tune. A motif or phrase can be broken down into smaller components. Bob Shepherd describes the parts of music in his tutor book “Learn to Play the Bagpipes” as similar to the parts of spoken language: A single note=a syllable, a group of notes=a word, a musical phrase=a sentence phrase, musical cadences=punctuation marks, etc. The following part of “72nd Highlanders Farewell to Aberdeen” illustrates how a tune can be broken down into its smallest components. As you learn the tune, you take it ‘one word at a time’. This method is used by the RSPBA with MAP tunes

Understanding the basics theory behind melody still may not help you to “learn a tune without hearing it first” and that’s okay! Listen to the tune often. And listen to other tunes in our genre ---soloists, pipe bands, ceilidh bands, seisun bands----as much as you can stand. The more you are familiar with the musical form, the more easy it will be to learn new tunes that may not be as familiar.

The importance of listening can not be underestimated. We do not live in a culture where the music we play is broadcast on the radio. You do not have only piping or drumming music on your iPod. Seek out the music and acculturate yourself. Have you listened to a recording so many times that you “know how it goes” and what is coming next? I’ve listened to “Live in Ireland” by the 78th Fraser’s so many times that I wore out the cassette tape and then purchased a CD (actually more than one as I keep loaning it out and not getting it back). I have that recording completely memorized.

The next step is to “Sing your tunes”. The act of singing OUT LOUD internalizes a melody in the same way that tapping your foot ‘calibrates’ the beat. Don’t worry that you aren’t comfortable singing--If you were destined for American Idol or Vocal stardom you wouldn‘t be playing the pipes or drums!! Sing in the shower, in the car, while you are doing housework, when you’re out for a walk, etc. Observe whether are you singing on the beat? Are the rhythms accurate? Are you in tune? You may be off pitch but is it correct in your head? Do you know if you are off pitch? Are the embellishments rhythmically accurate? The more accurate you are singing a tune, the better you will be able to play the tune. And this will help with memorization!!! I know that when I’m out for a walk and sing through a tune if I can’t sing though a passage, it is invariably a section I am not playing well……..

Drummers--this applies to you as well! You are the rhythmic accompaniment. You need to understand how your score fit’s the melody and whether you are playing it accurately to the melody. A pipe band’s ensemble will suffer if the drummer can’t sing the melody.

Finally, listen to live piping and drumming. Recordings are great but live performances carry many more nuances that are never conveyed in a recording. . Make sure you Make a Point of listening to the best piping in your area each year whether it be a Recital, Competition, or Concert AND travel if you have to------you are already spending a lot of time and money on an activity that you are passionate about---don’t spare expense here. It will inspire and motivate as well as help you to understand what an excellent instrument sounds like and how the best play.

Listen and Sing!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rhythm's and the Roof

Have you ever read through a new piece of music and while playing you just ‘knew’ that it didn’t sound very good? May be you aren’t familiar with the tune. Maybe your Sight Playing/Reading skills aren’t that great. As you’re playing you struggle with the rhythms and embellishments and then say to yourself: “I’m just trying to get the notes right!” What exactly does it mean to “get the notes right” and why is this statement a major trap?

In the last issue of The Voice (Fall 2010) we explored building a good foundation by learning to keep the beat. The next layer is playing rhythms accurately and this equates to the Roof of a house. Wait a moment, don’t we have to build the build the Frame BEFORE we put on a roof? Absolutely and here lies the problem with “getting the notes right”.

Each “note” in a piece of music provides 2 pieces of information: Pitch and Duration. When we need to “get the notes right’ we are referring to Hand Position to sound the correct Pitch. If your Sight Reading/Playing skills are at a slow level you may get bogged down struggling with Pitch (Hand Position) as well as Embellishments. Rhythm is ALWAYS sacrificed. If you play a wrong pitch, in most cases, you will know immediately that an error has occurred. You will hear the wrong pitch or you will feel the wrong pitch. How often have you played rhythms inaccurately, known it, but blew it off? More often than we care to admit, which is why “getting the notes right” is a trap.

A roof serves two purposes: it provides protection AND it binds the frame together. Accurate Rhythm, laid over a steady beat, ties pitch together to create melody. Without rhythm there can’t be melody, which is the combination of pitch AND rhythm.


A more productive method would address rhythm FIRST. This can be done through a Monotone version of the tune. All rhythmic values are placed at one pitch and thus melody is not shown. Tap Out the rhythm of the tune. Count it out! Make sure the quarter notes are held their full value, that even eighth notes are in fact even, and that ‘dot/cuts’ are dotted and cut appropriately.

There are several methods for counting rhythm and it doesn’t matter which you use (numbers method (1 e + a), Kodaly (ti-ka-ti-ka), Gordon (du-ta-de-ta)). When you can tap the beat with your foot, tap the rhythms of the tune with a pencil, and say the rhythms out loud, then you will be well on your way to understanding the tune and will not need constant correction by a teacher! Check out the following web-site for help on counting subdivisions (and rhythms):

Drummers—this applies to you too! The notes on the page give you Sticking and Duration. When you can “sing” the score or count out the rhythms while tapping your foot, you will be able to understand how the score fits into the melody of the tune.


Andrew Douglas introduced this method to the Scotia-Glenville Pipe Band (Grade 5) two years ago. The pipers have solid understanding of rhythm because of this method and rarely alter rhythms to ‘fit it’ embellishments. Now, two years later it is making all the difference in their ability to play more complicated tunes.

IF you’ve done your homework on the Monotone version, this should be fairly simple—even with the 4 note groups. A Prelude setting has only G Gracenotes or less!!! Take the embellishments out of a tune and focus on the Rhythmic Figures. The Prelude setting is NOT a destination and I’ve learned that the more ‘ingrained’ you make it, the more difficult the next step will be. Use the Prelude Version to understand the dot/cut note values. Make sure that the beat notes are actually starting on the beat and that you can play AND tap your foot. Once you can play this, then you are ready for the Full version.

Full Tune

The Full Version has all the embellishments placed back into the score. Note where the D-throws are and make sure you are not adding a High G gracenote before the D-throw. As you play through the Full Version it is imperative that you NOT alter any rhythms to fit in embellishments. IF you’ve paid careful attention to the rhythm of the melody notes in the Prelude version you will hear if you make an alterations. This usually means extending a cut note (never ‘think’ on a cut note!)

What if you do alter a rhythm or extend a cut note because of an embellishment? This will be a “Hot Spot” and you will need to isolate the beginning of the embellishment. As you do this, pay attention to how simple it is to isolate and maintain rhythmic accuracy. For example: Measure 8 starts with a D-throw and is preceded by a cut C.

1. Play the 4-note group in measure 7 and STOP on the first Low G of the D-throw. Repeat this until you can play it 10x in a row accurately (The Power of Ten!!!)

2. Add the D-throw back in and alternate stopping on the first Low G and playing the full D-throw. Again to The Power of Ten

3. Play the full D-throw---to The Power of Ten.

4. Do this until you can’t play it wrong!! (This maybe result in many Powers of Ten)

You will find that the more focused attention you pay to rhythms before trying to play the tune, the more you will be able to maintain rhythmic accuracy throughout the tune and the less you will struggle with constantly trying ‘fix a problem’ or “Get the notes right”. Your Pipe Major and Teacher will thank you for your efforts!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Beat!!!

“We’ve got the Beat”

What is the beat? Why is it important? How do we play on the beat? Why can’t we just rely on the drummers to keep us on track? In the Basic Training series, we are going to explore a variety of fundamental music concepts and principles and relate them to piping and drumming. So, let’s start by building a house!

What is the first and most important part to building a house? A proper foundation. Whatever materials are used, concrete, blocks, rocks, or bricks, they must be made of quality materials and laid properly to last for a long time and prevent future problems with the rest of the structure. In Music, this is equivalent to the beat. The beat is that which everything else is built around.

The beat is the basic time unit in music and marks the passage of time. Each beat has a beginning and end. The beginning is marked by the first tap of your foot or click on the metronome or count/command by a music leader. (When a Pipe Major gives the command to start, they state the command on the beat). The end is marked by the next foot tap or metronome click, which incidentally is the start of the next beat. This is often referred to as the Big Beat or Macrobeat.

Take a look at the lines below and ask yourself how many beats are represented by these marks?

| | | | |

If you answered 4, you’re correct. Remember that each mark represents the beginning and the end of a beat simultaneously. In Music, we mark the first tap as the beginning of Beat 1 and the next as the end of Beat 1 and the Beginning of Beat 2. The next tap represents the end of Beat 2 and the Beginning of Beat 3 and so on until you start a new measure. Each of these points in time

As a piper or drummer you must be able to keep the beat by tapping your foot AND playing at the same time. By tapping your foot you internalize the beat. By internalizing the beat you are laying a foundation for being able to keep the beat, keep it steady and liberate yourself as a musician! I know there are many of you out there thinking the following:

--I’ve tried this and can’t

--My teacher didn’t make me

--I use a metronome to keep me steady

--The drummers will keep me on target

Allow me to address each of these concerns and explain how to get over each of these hurdles.

“I’ve tried to tap and play and can’t”

Yes you can! For some musicians it comes naturally. For those that don’t pick it up easily you will need to learn it “mechanically”. I’ve yet to meet a person who is so rhythmically challenged that I couldn’t teach them to tap and play and keep the beat.

Begin by just tapping your foot (It could be your heal and not your toes). It could be to nothing or to your favorite musician or band. Pay specific attention to when your foot is down and when your foot is up. Push your foot down and pull your foot up. As a playing exercise start with the scale and give yourself and preparatory command (while tapping your foot) such as: “Ready—Go”. On the NEXT tap you will start the scale and change to the next note as your foot taps. You are thus tapping and playing Quarter Notes. Try this with a very simple melody such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.

Drummers play Singles right to left hand while tapping one foot.

The next step involves subdividing the beat into smaller parts (Little Beats or Microbeats) and knowing where your foot is while this is happening. When we discuss subdividing we need to know “How” the beat will be subdivided. This is referred to as Meter. For our purposes the beat can be subdivided by 2 or by 3. In Simple Time (Duple Meter) the beat is subdivided by 2 and in Compound Time (Triple Meter) the beat is subdivided by 3. I will discuss Time Signatures at a later date.

Next try this to eighth notes in Simple Time/Duple Meter. You could use the scale or any exercise involving 1/8th notes only. Exercise #1 in Jim McGillvray’s Rhythmic Fingerwork is very good for this purpose. Make sure you give a preparatory command and start playing the first Low G with your foot UP as it is a pick-up note. Your foot is tapping DOWN on the Low A or other scale note and back to the Low G when your foot reaches it’s highest point. (g | a-g-a-g | b-g-b-g | c-g-c-g | d-g-d-g | e-g-e-g | f-g-f-g | g’-g-g’-g | a’-g-a’- | a-b-a-b, etc). Be patient if you don’t get this right the first time.

Drummers try to Doubles or Paradiddles while tapping one foot.

The next step is to tap your foot while playing an exercise in Compound Time/Triple Meter. Drummers you will play Triplets. For Pipers, Exercises #2 & #3 in Rhythmic Fingerwork are a good starting point. In Triple Meter you will focus on the ‘flow’ of your foot moving up and down.

Pipers, you are now ready to try a very simple tune such as “Robin Adair” or “The Marine Corps Hymn” or “Scots Wha Hae”. If the embellishments mess you up, take them out momentarily to focus on playing TO your foot. Play at a rate that you can totally focus on your foot moving continuously to the beat. Remember: Your foot is in charge and it will tap steadily if you PLAY TO YOUR FOOT. If you find yourself tapping the rhythm (i.e. the notes) stop and re-start. You may find this frustrating but keep at it—with patience it will come. If you’ve played these tunes for a long time it might take a while to get over the hurdle of NOT playing to the beat.

Drummers, your next step is to tap while playing rolls. After that you can add accents to Singles, Doubles, Triples, Paradiddles and then shift the accent. It will be challenging to shift the accent on triplets AND continue tapping beat 1. Be patient. The next step you would add dots & cuts. Finally work on other simple exercise patterns and then simple scores.

“My teacher didn’t make me”

Then you must learn to do this yourself.

Teachers—I used to wait until a student could play a few tunes and then worked on incorporating foot tapping into the tune. Those days are long gone!! I started introducing this concept earlier and earlier and am now at the point where I start a beginner tapping their foot on DAY 1. You will be amazed at how quickly most people pick this up. IF you have a slow developer–so be it. You (and the student) will be much happier in the long run when you don’t have to deal with their inability to play to a steady beat.

“I use a metronome to keep me steady”

Metronomes are great to verify that you are playing on the beat. If you haven’t fully internalized playing on the beat, you can learn to play precisely to a metronome—that’s why there are so many varieties of Metronome. Somewhere there is the perfect metronome to keep us on the beat. The problem is that you won’t be consistent without the metronome!!!!

Case in point—last year, pipers in the Oran Mor Pipe Band were drilled in playing on the beat. We were asked to ‘march’ to the 2/4 Marches and Reels and 6/8 Marches. We had to do this in coaching sessions with Andrew Douglas and at band rehearsals. If we were off the slightest bit we had to start over. Let’s just say that I doubt Andrew was ever really happy with what I was doing and he often said that I changed my foot to accommodate my playing (tapping rhythms not the beat—this is very bad).

One day in July I got out the metronome and played both the Oran Mor and Scotia-Glenville 2/4 Marches and Reels with the metronome blasting away. Guess what? You got it—I was ‘with’ the metronome while playing the Oran Mor material and had to MAKE myself be precisely on the beat with the Scotia-Glenville tunes. I had internalized the beat on Oran Mor tunes but not the Scotia-Glenville tunes. Use the metronome to verify what you already can do and check out the spots that are still giving you trouble.

“The drummers will keep me on target”

The same holds true here as using a metronome---an entity outside yourself is doing the work for you, for which you will always be dependent. Plus…… do you know the drummers are right? Even if your band has an awesome drum corps you (and/or the entire pipe section) will always be ‘reacting’ to the drummers and you won’t be together.

In piping and drumming, the root of our music serves a specific purpose of keeping the beat. If we can’t keep the beat, we aren’t doing our job. Historically, Strathspeys, Reels & Jigs are danced to, 6/8 Marches are played while soldiers are on a training hikes or danced to as a Quickstep, Retreat Marches while marching as the end of the military day is marked. Nowadays, most pipers and drummers are playing in bands or in solo contests or on their own. The beat is the foundation of any music and your ability to play to the beat and keep a steady beat will help with the next step in developing your playing: Understanding and producing accurate rhythms!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New Pipe Major and Recording Devises

I received an interesting question this morning:

In an effort to assimilate all that I feel necessary to learn to fulfill my responsibilities, I would like to acquire the capability to record both what you tell me and what I learn from the drummers. One choice suggested is a "small digital recorder." This is technology I have not worked with other than a telephone answering machine. What recommendations would you make on this?

I also considered simply using the Windows recorder program. Have you ever used this? It would seem to me that it has the advantage of being able to be put onto a CD which I could review while in the car.

Any type of recording devise is recommended. The small digital recorders available at Office Max/Staple's/Best Buy/Amazon are great and they are usually in the $50/range. If you haven't used this kind of technology before then don't spend a lot of money. It is a digital version of a micro-cassette recorder (the small cassette recorders of days of yore). You can listen through the built in speakers or use an ear-bud and listen OR you can download the files to your lap-top and then make a CD. Sony, RCA, Olympus, & Panasonic make a variety of models. Some have a built in USB for ease in transferring.

Using your laptops recording software is also excellent. It may be easier to then transfer to a CD. Personally--I find that if there's too many steps in dealing with technology I shut down and don't use anything.

In my next post I'll discuss how to use your recordings.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

You Tube Channel

I'm finally getting started on a You Tube Channel. I'll be posting videos of exercises, elements, work-outs, and lots of other 'stuff' Let me know if you have any suggestions or need help.

Check out the most recent upload---Edre Demonstration. This is a Piobaireachd movement that you will need for grounds, variations as well as the Crunluath movement itself

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Crossing Noises

Oye, they are a pain and they must be erradicated as early as possible! If you are a new beginner, your teacher will help you identify them. If you are more experienced you may need the help of a recording devise to identify them.

What are they?

A crossing noise is an intermediary sound between one note and another. Sometimes it's a "pop" and sometimes it sounds like a "ripple"

Why do they happen?

They are a by-product of rushing or not playing on the beat. One finger is getting ahead of the others. When you move from one note to another, one (or more) finger is covering a note hole that shouldn't be covered. When you move between 2 notes, you should only hear the note you've just played and the note you are moving to---nothing in between.

How to avoid or get rid of Crossing Noises


At any given time, the highest hole uncovered is the note that will sound. If there is any lifting to take place, LIFT the note finger FIRST, then drop. Example---D to E make sure you lift the E finger before any others drop.

If you are going down in pitch and no lifting is to take place (say High G to E) make sure G is the last finger down. NOTE FINGER LAST. In other words, don't drop the G finger, then the F finger or you will have a 'ripple' effect .

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


A A really good time!!!! I danced up a storm to DJ Matt Kelly on Saturday evening. Lots of new faces in the Oran Mor Pipe Band. Oran Mor played their new 2010 Medley as well as a couple of other selections. John Bradley and Duncan Bell played a few sets and of course the Joe McGonigal led Conga Line!!!!!