I’ve been noticing the improvement one of our younger pipers in the band has been making, and I’ve complimented him. He responded with a lovely smile. I said, “You must be practicing every day, and he nodded. “Are you taking lessons regularly,” I asked, and he responded affirmatively. It’s a definite fact that conscientious practice will result in improvement to the extent of one’s level of ambition.
This has caused me to reflect upon my own process of learning to play the bagpipes. My brother, Ken, and I, were fortunate to be taught by Hugh Fraser, pipe major of the Saskatoon Light Infantry. He was also a member of the police force in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. As we became competent pipers in the Saskatoon Light Infantry (SLI) Pipe Band, we would be participants in many parades and ceremonies. We learned a tune a week, and steadily improved. Our playing motivated Dad to take lessons too, and the three of us had a wonderful time piping for many engagements. Ken and I were not necessarily competitive with one another, but instead, we were just highly motivated, and so was our dad. We would show him certain exercises that would improve his technique, but he wasn’t particularly receptive to our suggestions, and he would say, “You guys are just trying to hold me back.” That wasn’t the case, and he knew it. I’m sure Dad was greatly pleased to see the two of us improving steadily.
Listening to well-practiced pipers such as Peter Henderson, in the SLI band was a motivator. Peter excelled in playing reels. “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” was one, and others were, “The Mason’s Apron” and “Mrs. Terence Eden’s Welcome to Cromlix.” His G, D, and E grace notes clicked in even cadence, and his music had a timing that was obviously designed for dancers. A person would want to play like that. I certainly did. His timing was impeccable. One can learn so much by listening to a good piper.
Hugh was a good teacher because he was appreciative of our conscientious attitude to learn. He was a band-piper however, and had techniques of his own that he passed along. An example was in how he played the burl. It was by sliding his little finger back and forth across the bottom hole. Later on, when we moved to Winnipeg Manitoba, and took a few lessons from proficient pipers, we learned there was a better way. Fred MacLeod and his dad, Donald, demonstrated the technique was to raise the little finger up to a position from which it could strike the bottom hole, then rise up to come down hard onto the hole once more, to really make that burl sound, while being supported by a well-tuned set of drones. Fred was a competition piper. His folks said he wore out the living room carpet by marching on it.
Apparently, that is how he, a competition piper improved upon his timing.
Bill Watt, and competition piper and a veteran of the Second World War, added to my learning by demonstrating how the ending on a competition two-four march should sound. He called it, “Harry Haw, Petraw.” By playing a nice clear C doubling, then a low A using an E grace note to emphasize the A, he would finalize the ending with that nice firm A burl. The pipes “spoke” as the phrase was completed. Bill Watt was not only a great teacher of the pipes, but he was also a composer. One of his fine marches was, “Tornaveen Cottage,” with which I won a first place medal in an open competition. Another technique Bill Watt taught me, was to finish off some 2/4 competition marches with a Bibero Harry Haw Petraw.
Lessons at Bill Watt’s home were memorable. We regularly practiced pipes in his little kitchen for a couple of hours or so. Mrs. Watt would go to the movie theatre. Lesson time would be completed when she got back, and she’d make us a nice evening snack. Bill could produce a marvelous sound from his pipes, and he was keen to pass along his techniques to a piper really wanting to learn. Bill’s son Chris, is a fine piper, and it’s great to see that his dad taught him.
Jack Reay, pipe major of The Manitoba Piper’s Association Pipe Band also taught his own son to play the pipes, and young Jack was an outstanding piper. It was in perfecting band competition sets that I spent time with Jack Sr. where he worked, in the Manitoba Telephone Exchange building. Our band won the Western Canadian Championship three times, and our members participated in The Rose Bowl Parade in Florida several times. Every week-end in the summer, we had engagements.
Later on, Dad, Ken and I became part of the ANAVETS Pipe Band. This was the Army & Navy Veterans Pipe Band. Doug Will, who taught dozens of pipers in the city, was an ardent member. He was enthusiastic about my desire to transcribe and arrange church music and he furnished me with a small collection of hymns as a starter. Since then, I published a number of hymnbooks and continued to transcribe for future publications, all of which are under the title, “The Church Piper.” Ian Conn from Scotland, joined our band. He had the keenest ear for setting pipes. Ian was an ex-member of the Schotts and Dykehead Pipe Band and was playing with them when the band was winning world championships. His technique verified it. I learned from Ian the need to open up my doublings; those F’s, E’s C’s and B’s and the others as well. It meant lifting the fingers more and coming down firmly on the notes. He required an extra consciousness for fine tuning. Our pipes were singing when Ian was in charge, and when he played harmony, it was ecstasy.
One other piper who was a help to me in learning to play well, was Colin Cameron. Colin played several instruments and he was also one of our judges. As I demonstrated to him my mastery over a certain tune, he took note of my D doublings and demonstrated how to improve upon them. I was to play a grip, then bridge the C and lift the fingers to form the D. That’s how I play the D now, to obtain more quality of sound, but of course, if there are two consecutive D’s, the second one would be a shake, while another D doubling might be played with the top hand.
It's grand to recall my various teachers and the times I simply listened to them play. Their encouragement gave me the confidence I needed to play for weddings, funerals, call to worship, banquets and official events. I do appreciate them. I also expect other pipers must feel the same way about their teachers of piping. eHHHH