Why does one piper sound dull and boring while another sounds so interesting and musical?

As pipers (and drummers) we are taught techniques of playing bagpipe music. “Hold that low A”.   “Your tune needs some more phrasing”. “That note’s a dotted quaver”.

These are good things to think about when you’re learning how a tune goes and getting comfortable with it.

But when it comes down to performing your tunes, your job is to use your music to create emotions in other people. You are taking then on an emotional journey, not just presenting them with a set of notes, timed to technical accuracy. The emotions could be a sense of joy, beauty, sadness or wanting to dance. These come from the feeling you put into the music.

Many pipers have heard computerised tools playing back music they have fed into them.   They never sound right; they just help you to learn how the tunes go. The thing that makes a musician different is the heart or feel that goes into the presentation of the tunes.

As an example, I am tutoring a band who is playing Lochanside in a street march contest soon. The third bar starts with a dotted high ‘A’ quaver. I am not asking them to play a dotted high ‘A’ quaver; I am asking for a “triumphant” high A. This is asking them to play the note longer than its theoretical value, but I don’t say that. They are doing this well now and it sounds great; it sounds musical; it sounds triumphant.

I recently said to a piper after the contest in Maclean to “Practise from the head and perform from the heart”. To me, that is what makes music and differentiates a musician from a piper who plays the notes correctly.

Dare to express the music, not just play the notes.  You’ll enjoy it more and so will your listeners.

Garry Barker
The Bagpipe Academy


4 thoughts on “Dare to play with expression

  1. There are many paths to a similar result … My description of musical expression goes thus: the melody you are about to play is a musical story that you are going to tell through your instrument. Just like any verbal presentation of a narrative, it is made up of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Anyone who tells a story in a monotone voice that has no sensitivity to pace, the rhythm of the language, using the occasional pause for effect and modulating their voice to express emotion will tell a less interesting story than someone who is able to master those various aspects. Much the same applies to musical expression. Within a melody exist passages within the phrases, and phrases within the measures, and so on. So, it helps to be able to recognize the passages that make up the phrases, and then to understand where the heavy and light accents should fall. This may seem mechanical at first, but it is systematic and allows for effective analysis of a tune and an understanding of the structure of the melody, and before long becomes intuitive. The best pipers deliver this effect, but very subtly, and likely unconsciously. Some food for thought.


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