Strathspeys – a bagpiper’s point of view

Following on from the last blog post on Strathspey playing I have managed to get some great information from Richard Hawke, Pipe Major of Canterbury Caledonian Pipe Band and Gold Medallist.  He kindly passed on this information after discovering it some time ago – it was written by Lorne Cousin (Madonna’s Piper!) and Richard has re-worded it slightly to suit his style.

  • This article is written from the solo player’s perspective and is intended to assist the piper to bring out the musical and enhance his or her technique when performing this most classic idiom of bagpipe music. Generally speaking, the points will be relevant to pipe band playing although it should be noted that bands play Marches, Strathspeys and Reels at a faster tempo. This is not a criticism, merely an observation.

    Ceolas Tune index describes the Strathspey as “A tune, generally in 4/4 with considerable melodic content and highly irregular timing. It is considered characteristic of the Strathspey that a cut note often precedes a dotted one.” “Additional interest can be added by accenting particular notes, either by lengthening them (particularly when playing the pipes) or by playing them more loudly. The dotted notes in a strathspey, particularly those falling on the first and third beats of a measure are lengthened more than the single dot would suggest. Such dotted notes should be considered as double dotted.”

    In other words the Strathspey is unique to the Highland Bagpipe in the world of music in its rhythm and expression. It is in Common or 4/4 time. There are 4 quarter notes (or crotchets) to the bar and four beats to the bar. The dotted noted should be held and the cut notes cut quite markedly giving a bright, bouncy rhythm.

    The tempo amongst competitors varies from 114 to 120 BPM.

    To reiterate, the Strathspey is a dance tune and should be played as such. It is generally accepted that the accent should be “Strong, weak, medium, weak.” This however is very hard to produce in reality and the best course is perhaps to put the strongest emphasis on the first beat of each bar.

    The bouncing ball analogy is often used to highlight the lift or bounce that good strathspey rhythm should produce. A good method of improving your strathspey playing is to play for Highland dancers particularly experienced ones. A regular even beat is essential, and any expression should never compromise this.

    Special attention should be given to doublings in a strathspey particularly those preceding low A. Do not cut or snatch at these doublings too much and practice them by lifting the fingers higher for both G and D gracenotes in the doubling.”

    Some food for thought!!


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