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My First Piobaireachd—Why did I wait so long?

My First Piobaireachd—Why did I wait so long?


I have a confession to make, and this post will allow it to become public: I have finally played my very first piobaireachd in a solo competition.

Even though it was only the urlar and first variation, it was still a thrill. And I’d like to share some reasons that led to this foray into the unknown.

As an adult learner who started on a practice chanter at age 55 and with absolutely no musical background, I struggled at first just to begin to understand what melody notes were, how in the world does one play an E doubling, and “what do you mean, ‘tap my foot when I play’?” At first, I had my hands full just trying to stay afloat with piping. There was no room at the time for anything more complicated than the basics.

Of course, I had heard about piobaireachd, but knew nothing about it, other than it’s also called Ceol Mor, which means Big Music. Light music, on the other hand, includes marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, etc., and is called Ceol Beag—Little Music.

In 2004, I attended a Balmoral School outside of Chicago. I had been “on the pipes” only for a few months, and I was an absolute novice. One of the instructors for my class of three was John Wilson, who remains an active piper and international judge for major events. John introduced piobaireachd to us, explaining in detail the story behind the tune "Flame of Wrath for Patrick Coach". The story was interesting, of course, but what I will always remember is John’s playing parts of the tune on his practice chanter and saying, “you can hear the flames of the burning buildings in this variation”. Oh my goodness, was he correct! I could envision those flames, even getting a few goose bumps along the way. But I took no steps at the time to learn more.

Then, a year later, at my first Piping Hot Summer Drummer, I attended the piobaireachd classes put on by Donald Lindsay, an internationally recognized and phenomenally interesting expert on piobaireachd. Again, I was enthralled by the music and very much enjoyed listening to it, particularly the history behind each tune, but I was even further intimidated by how long a piobaireachd was, and how complex were the embellishments. I was busy enough, I told myself, trying to conquer technique and expression in light music so that I had no time to take on such a challenge as learning a piobaireachd. Furthermore, at PHSD, all pipers are tasked with learning to sing the canntaireachd for a piobaireachd, at least the urlar and one or two variations, and perform at the student ceilidh toward the end of the week. Canntaireachd (which means chanting) was the pipers' way of singing music for the pipes, and the different sounds and vocables reflect both the melody and the embellishments. Before the availability of written music in the Scottish Highlands, canntaireachd was used by pipers to pass music on from one person to another. Really? You expect this old guy to memorize what sounds like a foreign language that has sounds like “odro”, “him”, “hem”, “Oh”, “Ah”, “hidarin”, and “dili” (pronounced something akin to chilleee)? I was in over my head, that is until I realized that each note of the pipe scale is represented by a sound of a certain pitch; add a G gracenote and the sound changes slightly. And the vocalizations of the embellishments (lights going on here) sound like the actual movements on the pipes. Wow, that’s really cool, I thought, but I again doubted that I could learn something so complex.

Thus, I continued to love to listen to piobaireachd, and admire those who could play it so well, marveling at the sound of the crunluath variations, for example. How can their fingers move so quickly? How can one memorize a tune that may take 15 minutes or more to play? How is all of that possible? One of the most enjoyable parts for me at the annual Winter Storm in Kansas City, Missouri is the piobaireachd competition. Not only is it amazing to listen to, watching the pipers’ focus is just as exhilarating.

The years went by and each summer I would again experience the piobaireachd classes at PHSD with Donald Lindsay. But I was in a rut and slightly embarrassed by having never really attempting to learn this music, that is, until the spring of this year, 2016. It was then that I attended a short “Piping and Drumming Academy of South Florida”, put on by Robert Wallace, former principle of the College of Piping, along with Donald McBride and Barry Donaldson. In those few days, Robert introduced to a small group of us the relatively simple piobaireachd, "Duncan MacCrae of Pintail’s Lament". What a great melody it has. Plus, I discovered that I could actually play the embellishments contained in this tune! It was then and there that I chose to learn my very first piobaireachd. No, it’s not a complicated tune at all, but very melodic, like all piobaireachds seem to be. When I play it on my pipes, it puts me into a “zone” like nothing else I’ve experienced on the pipes. At the Kamloops Games a few weeks ago, I competed for the first time, and got lots of very encouraging comments about my phrasing and tuning. (Note to self: Next time, don’t forget to play the middle line of the first variation!)

What are the reasons that all pipers should have a go at playing piobaireachd? The first would be that piobaireachd (as does all pipe music) demands that your pipes be in peak condition from a maintenance point of view. Second, your tuning skills will take a giant leap forward as your ear becomes better and better trained to get your sound just right. Third, steady blowing at your chanter reed’s sweet spot is an absolute “must have” skill. Fourth, as you learn even a few embellishments for piobaireachd, those skills of better finger control will carry over to your light music. Lastly, learning a bit of piobaireachd, even from my novice and early experience so far, has helped me to appreciate the amazing past and glorious historical “spirit” of the Highland bagpipe. If you’ve not already taken the leap, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Don’t wait like I did.

Take Action

For more information, please check out the following classes at Dojo U.

Beginner Piobaireachd
Piobaireachd Classification
Introduction to Piobaireachd


John Holcombe John began piping at the ripe old age of 55 years. Always liking the sound of the bagpipes, John grew up in Oklahoma, where he never had a chance early on to experience firsthand this amazing instrument. But after moving to Indianapolis, he had the great fortune in 2004 to begin lessons with Craig Waugh, and Open Grade piper originally from Manitoba, Canada. Through that outstanding instruction, along with annual attendance at Jack Lee’s Piping Hot Summer Drummer and being a founding and continuing premium member of Dojo University, John has continued through hard work and determination to advance his knowledge and technical skills. As a retired research physician, John now enjoys immersing himself in piping, and he is proud to have won several first place medals in Grade 4 competitions in EUSPBA-sanctioned events. John’s current goal is to achieve the Grade 3 level of competence.