OT: 24 September 1927 – A. MacDonald “Chanter Notes and Fingering”



The Oban Times, 24 September, 1927

Chanter Notes and Fingering

Glencona, Inverness, 12 September, 1927

Sir,–With reference to the letter in your issue of 10th  inst. While there is not much in this letter to call for serious attention, it may serve a good purpose to reply to it briefly. At the outset, however, I wish it to be understood that I am not be dragged into the lengthy correspondence over chanter technicalities, as I do not pretend to be an authority on the many intricacies involved in that subject.

In the first place, it should be noted that the scale given at page 3 of the “Theory” is exactly the same as that taught to-day by the best masters of the art of bagpipe playing. As to Joseph MacDonald’s fingering for high G and A it has to be remembered that in sounding the high A at least one finger of the upper hand is required to remain “on,” to steady the hand, and this finger should surely be the one which remains “on” when sounding high G. It must here be clearly noted that we are dealing with real pipe music, i.e., piobaireachd, and the fingering of the high G should be that easiest and most natural when playing piobaireachd beats based on that note. We have the throw from E to high G, leaving the middle finger “on” when the throw is completed and G in sounding. We have also the beat on high G, which is easily and naturally performed by being the first finger of the upper hand upon its hole twice, the middle finger being already “on,” thus sounding the two r’s in the simplest manner. Points such as these bring out the wonderful genius of the old masters, for it is clear that the complicated beats used in piobaireachd are most naturally performed by certain fingers being “on” when sounding certain notes. It is thus easily understood that the little finger of the lower hand might also be “on” when sounding high G for instance, as in the barludh beat, as described by Joseph MacDonald, which is simply a throw to high G from the lower notes of the chanter through E G F G grace notes.

The C. Note

As regards the C notes, it would seem that the natural method of fingering it would be with the little finger “on,” seeing that the doubling of the C is so easily performed from that position (the G D G grip). For similar reasons the three fingers of the lower hand remain “on” when sounding E, the lower hand being in ready position for so many complicated beats. There is little doubt, in my opinion, that chanters should be tuned that C is correct when the little finger is “on,” and high G correct when the middle finger of the upper hand is “on.”

In playing Marches, Reels, etc., somewhat different fingering may be permissible, but within recent years it has been noticeable, I am informed on good authority, that in competitions some good players are getting into the practice of false fingering. As to the matter of the open scale referred to, an instrument such as the oboe has no bearing on the question at all. I would here emphatically state that in my opinion the chanter should be “bored” and “holed” on the principle of bagpipe fingering first and foremost; that is to say, from the point of view of pibroch playing, and should not on any condition the varied to suit special  fingering for marches, reels, etc.

The Chanter Makers

It has been said, I suppose, that chanter makers are not sufficiently scientific in their work, but whether this be so or not it is clear that every chanter maker should test his work by the instrument used to show the number of vibrations per second given by each note, and correct the pitch till each note is really true. When the chanter is correctly made to the true key of D its notes should chord best with the A of the drones (vide Appendix, page 374 of Manson’s Book), because having every note true to the scale of D it would also have six notes of the scale of A true (the low and high G’s, also the B being sharp), and in the scale of G seven notes would be true (C and E being flat). It is possible that the best and truest chanters heard to-day, if scientifically tested, would be found to be in the true scale of D (the C thereof being C sharp and the F F sharp). Those chanters that are faulty are usually so on the C and F. with modern scientific methods, however, makers should have little difficulty in turning out chanters far more correct in the pitch of each note than was possible in the old days.

But, as I have already indicated, these are points better dealt with by scientific musicians than by me, for it does not necessarily follow that because I have published a Reprint of Joseph MacDonald’s  “Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe” I and a scientific musical expert! Careful study of Joseph MacDonald’s work makes it increasingly apparent that there is much more in it than might at first sight appear–I am, etc.,

A. MacDonald 

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