February 01, 2009


Pleased to meet me.If I had lots more time, along with analyzing products made in Pakistan (see recent blog) I’d love to do an assessment of pipers’ hands. Seriously. My theory is this: pipers with smaller hands are usually more accurate and faster players.

It sounds ridiculous, and for certain there are guys with big hands who can really play. I tend to shake hands with a lot of pipers, and it seems like several times a year I’ll greet a really excellent player and notice to myself how small his or her hands are. Could there be a correlation?

Great, less-tall pipers certainly prop up the theory: Donald MacLeod, Gordon Walker, G.S. McLennan, Bill Livingstone, Donald MacPherson, Angus MacColl, Iain Morrison, Jim McGillivray . . . these hands have moved the piping world. There are also many taller great pipers with surprisingly small hands. When I see the nimble digits of, say, Bruce Gandy, there’s just a distinct quality and accuracy to the embellishments.

I remember Murray Henderson, certainly one of the greatest pipers of the last 100 years, saying at a summer school that he had to practice extra-long because of his unusually big hands. He said something about how it takes a lot of work to move his long fingers. So, as someone who could palm a basketball at age 13, maybe Murray’s joke gave me a subconscious complex as a piper. (Goddam genetics stacked against me; all my freakishly large-handed dad’s fault!)

So, perhaps one day I’ll get to this study of pipers’ hands. In the meantime, I’ll try to control the wringing.


  1. There are two other factors to consider: Differing relative finger lengths and relative hand size.
    In 98-99% of humans surveyed, the male ring finger is longer than the index finger, but the reverse is true for females! Take careful note of that fact as it can come in “handy” for a different subject area which we will not get into here (Bet Danny Patridge wished he’d known that a few years ago).
    In addition, generally the male hand is larger and thicker than the female hand for individuals of similar stature.
    Note that these are not absolute rules They are general guidelines and there are exceptions, but one would think that these factors may affect a person’s playing potential.
    On the other hand (no pun intended), let’s not forget the late John Wilson and his disfigured left hand (caused during a childhood accident?). He was able to overcome this handicap and become a successful professional piper.

  2. If I wasn’t so busy cleaning all the rosewood slivers out of my new set of band chanters, I’d use the excellent close-up footage from the Worlds DVD to start that research, and you might stop after the first two bands: Terry Lee, the twin-tower-like Smith brothers, Donald MacPhee, long-fingered Richard Parkes…and others, oh and then there’s Ronnie Lawrie, Angus J. MacLellan, John Wilson, Iain McLeod. Maybe the small-handed team has more players, but I bet the big guys get their pints first in the beer tent.

  3. Maybe we should start making plaster moulds of great pipers hands to go on display at the College of Piping or the Piping Centre’s museum. Thanks Andrew…i now have a complex with my baseball-mitten sized-haunds!

  4. I was thinking about this last summer when I noticed that a man on a summer school had a huge amount of finger, between the part touching the hole on the chanter, and the end of the finger where it met his hand. When he was playing the chanter, it looked as if all the excess finger, didn’t have enough room to either lie down and relax, or be used in some way. But then I pondered -‘ if the movement to power the bit of finger that’s being used in chanter playing, originates at the hand-end of the finger, or even the wrist, presumably if the unused bit of finger does anything other than act as a sleeve transporterr of movement, then potentially it could be interfering with what’s happening nearer the hole-contact bit of the finger. For instance, if the long bit of finger not in touch with the chanter, were to be too active (instead of merely allowing movement to pass through it) presumably this would interfere with or take away from, what could be being put to maximum use where it matters most.

    Whereas people with the smaller hands, and likely shorter fingers, have less to fit in to the space between end -of-hand and contact point with the hole on the chanter. The man I observed (with the long hands) dealt with the excess length by raising his knuckle, whereas I see that other people keep the hand from finger tip to start of hand absolutely flat. If kept flat, that seems better, but if the knuckle is raised it means I guess, that the movement is having to travel through the hand, uphill and through the knuckle, then down through the finger to the point of contact with the hole. That , it seems would take longer. But there are all different views about where the movement originates, so that will have an influence too. Some say it starts from the knuckle, others from the wrist and so on.
    Having small hands, I used to avoid Brahms, Beethoven and others when choosing piano pieces for exams, because it meant arpeggiating all the impossible stretches. So its good news for me and fellow small-handers that that isn’t a problem with pipes.

  5. I wonder the size of that Cleveland Drum Major’s hands? I’ve heard this one before – same as similar speculation (and in some cases, actual research) about the “ideal” runner’s foot shape, or football player’s legs, or tennis player’s height, etc. etc. All the research in the world will find that there’s some distribution (probably approximating “normal”), and various theories about “ideal” or “better” will be countered by the invariable exception to the rule, of which there will be many.
    But it will make for ENDLESS discussion, ergo, perfect for pipes|drums. Cause we eat this stuff up.
    AB, you are the MASTER marketer 🙂

  6. I suffer from small hands, but I take one pill to make them larger and aother pill to make their performance last longer. The size of the finger matters not, but sometimes the reflex of the muscle is too quick!

    It’s all about reflexes, not size, age or how much you practice!

  7. Remember the axiom ‘correlation does not imply causation.’

    As with most things dedication, hard work and good instruction trump any perceived advantage.

  8. Me … small hands …. playing just about acceptable.
    Best friend … small brain, very large hands … exquisite player.
    2nd best friend … mad as a box of frogs … best piobaireachd player i’ve heard outside of the pro ranks.

    Have no idea what this proves except I have some interesting friends.

  9. Gentlemen, I do believe that this conversation is getting out of hand…..It seems that the left hand doesn’t know knows what the right hand is doing………Perhaps you should get back in line and rejoin the flock…….We don’t need any more sheepish remarks……..After all, you don’t want to become a lamb being led to the slaughter…..groan!

  10. Sleight, actually, but, no. There are no arguments won or lost here, just constructive discussions. Humour is constructive, too.

    But I wonder how many pipers are comparing hand-sizes in the washrooms of practice halls this week.

  11. Agreed Andrew, open discussion in any form is all good!

    On topic, actually teaching introduces you to all kinds of contorted hand positions that people use to hold the chanter and it creates problems. I’ve concluded It’s not the size of their hands, but a ratio of finger lengths in relation to thumb position.

    If they can’t naturally lay their fingers flat on the chanter, then their technique will suffer and often sound clumbsy. Fingering movement is just a slight wiggle, should’t have to work hard at it. Age does not slow this down either!



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