January 03, 2009

Tuning folk

Speak with forked tongue.I haven’t read a full copy of the digest, the Piping Times, for at least a decade, but when there’s a (usually mean-spirited) bit pertaining to pipes|drums or (rarely) me personally, people are prone to alert me to it, even though I’m invariably not interested. I gather there was something pertinent recently, and a few folks took it upon themselves to make sure that I knew about it . . . many thanks . . . I guess.

Ironically, Rab Wallace, the current Editor of the monthly, in the early 1980s said to me, “If you haven’t been slagged by Seumas, you haven’t made it in piping.” He was talking about Seumas MacNeill, the co-founder of the College of Piping and editor for almost 50 years of the aforementioned digest-sized periodical. Rab didn’t come up with the axiom himself;  I remember him quoting someone else.

In 1987 I took great delight when Seumas, in his report of the Northern Meeting, wrote that I must have “the worst tuning-notes in the business.” To my relief, he didn’t comment on the tune that I played, since he was apt to save his worst slagging for that. So, I figured that I might have finally made it as a piper when the Famous Seumas simultaneously let me have it and let me off the hook. MacNeill had a sharp but always entertaining pen.

“Ouch!” one pipes|drums reader said in a message alerting me to the reprint of the 1987 comment, in what I hazard to guess was a new attempt at a taunt. In fact, it it served as a pleasant reminder of a time when everything was a new adventure. I also know that “making it” as a solo piper requires a lot more than a MacNeillian barb.

Anyway, it also reminded me that, while it should have sweet FA to do with the result, what’s played while tuning is part of the overall performance. In 1987, I didn’t put much thought into tuning phrases and the like, and simply wanted to get the instrument in tune, which more often than I’d have liked didn’t happen. When I’m on the other side of the table, it’s irritating when a piper comes up at the tail-end of a 20-plus-competitor piobaireachd event and screws at his/her drones with an eternity of gibberish notes and no apparent game-plan. It does indeed set the teeth on edge, as Seumas wrote 20 years ago, and more than a few times the performance that I remember first after an event is someone playing interminable airs and things and never actually tuning an instrument, that would probably never stay in tune anyway.   

I have learned, though, that there is usually a correlation between pleasant tuning and tuneful performances. Those who have put thought into their tune-up, almost always have put a lot more thought into their instrument and their music.


  1. I’ve experienced this in teaching, particularly with the lower grade students. I think that once you hear what tuning sounds like to the outside ear you start to find an appreciation for the fact that less is more. Plus picking a good note to tune from is always a must. I have been criticized for looking at these minor details with students, but I also believe that being a musician as well as a piper gives you the advantage of understanding that the tune up process isn’t something that the audience/judge is all to excited to hear…

  2. On one of my crit sheets for a piob event, I had “unusual slow airs not appreciated while tuning” written at the top. Take from this what you will, but I now try to avoid playing slow airs for that particular judge.

  3. For a competition, why is *anything* even considered before your tune actually starts? It would be like a dancing judge saying they didn’t like the way a dancer walked onto the stage. Granted, long tuning can be annoying but not liking “unusual slow airs”? Gimme a break.

  4. Presentation is a big part of competition in general, and pibroch contests in particular. I was always taught that you have to make the judge enjoy the time he spends watching you and listening to you. If you look like an ass, you’ll most likely play like an ass. Presenting yourself as an ass is no way to win a prize, impress a judge or pass yourself off as a competent piper.

  5. When I was at the College in PEI, I specifically remember Scott telling my tuning phrases were horrible. I thought he was dumb, because i thought them to be kind of nice, in a quick melodic way. I then noticed I only played D,G,B,A. left over half of the notes out. I since have built upon that, and have been complimented, once…..once. same time, I’m not shocked when people tune to D, but am shocked when they give no thought to other notes that in parallel to A, such as C…. what ever. ramble ramble.



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