NOTE: I’m still catching up. This post was from a couple of weeks ago.
It has been a week full of music. There was Irish music Monday night, guitar and ukulele Wednesday night, more Celtic music Thursday night, a rehearsal with the Samish Island Singers Saturday morning, and finally a Scottish music session Sunday afternoon at Littlefield Celtic Center. This last session was loads of fun and I’m glad I headed on down to Mount Vernon to see what Scottish music is all about.
I was very curious how different the Scottish session would be from the Irish sessions I’d been attending. Turns out it was quite a bit different, not just the style of music but the format and instrumentation as well.
I was a bit hesitant to attend. I hadn’t done so well with the other sessions I’d attended. Plus, the list of rules for the Scottish session was a bit intimidating.
- Listen to some tunes first, and join in on the ones you know.
- Generally, the first 2 hours of our sessions are more wide-open, playing the “Tartan Top Twenty” material. This is not a “slow session” as plenty of jigs and reels are included, however the focus is on being more inclusive with slower tempos
- The second part of the session (from 5:00 on) is when more advanced tunes are played
- Folks are encouraged to select tunes/sets of tunes others know, especially in the first 2 hours
- Please be aware of some of the quirks of playing tunes with Scottish bagpipes:
- Modal A scale, 9 note range (C#, F# and G natural) (primarily – although “C” and “D” chanters are sometimes seen – they are the exception)
- Playing of notes requires airflow, meaning the instrument must be “struck in” (air from bag needs to flow across reeds) before the start of any tune
- Tuning of pipe drones is challenging, and players REALLY appreciate other instruments not tuning (including other pipes) at the same time
The pipers who regularly attend this session work hard at getting chanters pitched at A440, and having a nicely tuned set of drones
- We often pass the selection for the tunes, from one participant to the next around the circle. If you don’t have a tune, it’s certainly OK to pass. It’s great practice to lead a tune, starting by setting the tempo and calling it out “1, 2” etc. It’s also perfectly OK to ask someone else to lead the count off. Some quieter instruments (harps come to mind) can be easily overpowered by instruments with more volume (pipes) – sometimes it’s OK to not play along and simply listen.
- You’ll find the musicians who attend the Littlefield Celtic Center sessions to be fun, nice and approachable people–ask questions
- We welcome guests who just want to listen to the music and clap, stomp or holler as the spirit moves you
I put away any trepidation, loaded up my guitar and headed over to the center. When I arrived there were about a dozen musicians in a traditional circle. I was surprised to see so many pipes in the circle. With Scottish music I normally thing of bagpipes, but these looked more like Irish Uellin pipes, which seemed odd. However, these seemed to have a double set of bellows instead of the single normally found on Uellin pipes. Turns out that these were Scottish smallpipes, with which I had been unfamiliar. They have a similar sound to the larger Highland bagpipes, but are more suitable for smaller venues.
These were the most common at this session, making up over half of the instruments there. In addition Barry, the autoharp player from Honey Moon Mead was there, plus a couple of fiddles and one other guitarist. I had met the guitarist, Paul, previously at the Irish session here at the center.
In addition to the instrumentation, another striking difference was that this session allows music stands and music. I wish I’d known that going in. The rules above mention the “Tartan Top Twenty.” What I didn’t know is that this is an actual collection of tunes in PDF format. Many of the players had printed copies. Paul had it on his iPad and was kind enough to share with me. Having the music in front of me gave me much greater confidence.
As for the music itself there were some differences there, too. There is a quite a bit of cross-over between the reels, jigs, and whatnots in Celtic music, but the Scottish tunes often have a syncopated or dotted rhythm. Plus, the songs of Robert Burns figure heavily into the repertoire.
Here are several music clips from the session. The pipes seemed to drown out most of the other instruments. Through headphones you can hear the guitars, but most of the other instruments are covered. In this first one, Lord of the Isles, you can hear the distinctive dotted rhythm in the melody.
Here are three other clips from the session. These were sets with several tunes and I didn’t catch the names of all of the tunes.
I continued playing with the group until 5:00. At that point the music stands were put away and the session took on the the format of the Irish sessions. The music was faster and there was less pause between sets.
This was the day of the Mount Vernon Christmas Parade, which started at 6:30. Leaving at 5:00 would also give me time to miss the parade traffic.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used the words “different” and “difference” in this post. This session was quite a bit of fun and I certainly felt more confident. Having the music in front of me makes all the difference in the world.