Published: August 31, 1999

Giving a false judging tradition the finger

[Originally published as an Editorial]

“False” fingering has always, as far as we know, been a quirk of the Highland bagpipe.

We have a scale of nine notes with unusual finger changes between at least four of them. Way back when, these finger changes were necessary to accommodate the pitch of the note. Keeping the pinky down on C slightly sharpens the pitch of the note. Hole placements also allowed pipers to anchor the chanter with their bottom hand while playing upper hand notes.

Of course, the debate rages when it comes to the “open” and “closed” C. When a piper plays the reel “The Sheepwife,” for instance, and doesn’t quite get the pinky down for all of those tachums, many judges are left in a quandary. Does he or she criticize the competitor, even though it didn’t really affect the sound?

It’s an interesting discussion, because many very fine performances for judges who are technical accuracy sticklers, are knocked down or left completely out of prize lists because of “false” fingering.

But when is “false” fingering really a problem? If you can’t hear it, does it really matter? If it’s inaudible, should a piper be criticized for unorthodox fingering? For that matter, is it really a concern if a piper in a band takes his hand off his chanter to scratch his nose if it can’t be heard?

We submit that false fingering should only be criticized when it audibly changes the pitch of the intended note and negatively impacts the performance.

Criticizing false fingering simply because it was seen and not heard, is tantamount to deducting points for a badly cut kilt, or a competitor’s posture. In the game of piping competition, what should only matter is music and tone.

We should stress that, just as we like to see a competitor well turned out in a well-cut kilt, we appreciate pipers who have impeccable fingerwork. After all, if you got it, you might as well flaunt it.

Perhaps piping judges should do their work blindfolded. “Blind” judging was common over a hundred years ago at many solo events. As recently as the 1960s, judges were shielded from bands at major SPBA events. Even Ontario used blind pipe band judging well into the 1970s. This was overturned when, among other things, there were complaints that the judges were not seeing “mistakes,” as if sight were relevant in our competitions.

With all due respect, a judge who puts a piper down for unorthodox fingering alone is taking the easy way out and adjudicates negatively. It’s a simple way to toss people out of consideration, and thus make the judging job easier. To us, it’s a real indicator that the person sitting on a bench is probably not up to the task, and is criticizing by sight not sound.

We’ve talked before about the rigidity of our music, and how we owe much of the sheltered subculture of piping, drumming, and pipe bands to the military. Blindly labelling “false” fingering as “incorrect” is another part of that regimented mindset that doesn’t have much of a place in modern piping.

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