Celtic Connection column
This Saturday the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada is hosting the Atlantic Canada Piobaireachd Challenge. This contest has been in existence for 25 years and many prominent pipers from not only the Maritimes have won this prestigious event.
This is the second year that the college has hosted the challenge as past years it was held in Antigonish, N.S., in conjunction with their indoor competition. Hopefully the college will continue to host this contest in the coming years.
By now you’re probably scratching your heads and wondering what the heck piobaireachd actually is. Piobaireachd (pronounced pee-broch) is unique to our instrument and is most often compared to our version of classical music.
A tune can last anywhere from five to 25 minutes. As the Piobaireachd Society website explains, “The music is built on a theme (ground) and variations on this theme. The theme can express joy, sadness or sometimes in the ‘gathering’ tunes, a peremptory warning or call to arms. The theme is developed in a series of variations, which usually progress to the ‘crunluath’ variation, where the piper’s fingers give a dazzling technical display of embellishment or gracenotes.”
The Piobaireachd Society has been in existence since 1901 and their mandate is to encourage the playing, teaching and study of this music.
You see piobaireachd has some stiff competition from our other types of tunes that we play. It’s hard to compete with the flashy fingering of some of the more contemporary tunes that we can play today. It’s not the toe-tapping music like a reel or jig.
In fact piobaireachd doesn’t have a beat per se, but later variations do have a pulsing. Piobaireachd has been described by some of my students as boring and too slow. Some people are driven batty by the not-so-recognizable melody or the seemingly random notes of it. People either seem to love it or hate it. There doesn’t tend to be a middle ground.
My favourite piobaireachd story was told to me by another piper. In Scotland the Lonach Highland Games are known as the games that Billy Connelly attends and even supports the trophy for the overall piper of the day (known as the Billy Connelly Cup). Connelly tends to invite his Hollywood friends to the games and he wears his finest Scottish attire. The last time we attended Sean Connery was rumoured to be there and Eric Idle put on a humorous display at the embroidery vendor, but this is a story from a previous year. Billy plunked down in front of the piobaireachd platform with Steve Martin and Robin Williams to educate them on our unique music. He started to explain the nuances of what the piper was doing. Robin and Steve apparently nodded along agreeing and started to make their own observations. What they didn’t know was that Billy was tricking them. The piper was still tuning (another seemingly long and endless task that we sometimes do). I don’t think he ever let them in on the secret.
Whether you love it or hate it, piobaireachd is a mental and physical exercise for any piper and the same might be argued for the listener as well. If you’re curious about our ancient music, why not swing by the college on Saturday and make your own assessment. Who knows, you might even want to pull a Billy Connelly and do the same prank to the listener next to you.
Kylie MacHattie is a bagpipe instructor at the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada in Summerside.