Droning On: Facial Contorsions

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It is a well-known joke amongst pipers that many of our hurdy-gurdy-playing fellows are incapable of turning the handle without immediately breaking into a corresponding display of facial gymnastics. A twitch of the lip here. An unexpected pout or a grinding of the jaw there. I’m not going to name names. I’m sure you know exactly who I mean. Imagine my horror, then, when it was pointed out to me recently that I’m no serene Buddha-face myself. By comparison to most gurdy-grinders my affliction is mild, but it seems that in spite of my best efforts, I, too, have started to gurn.

Gurning is, of course, quite unconscious. Any attempt to bring

attentive awareness to the problem and I immediately find my fingers straying from their allotted task like a herd of badly trained animals let from the leash. I don’t seem to have the mental wherewithal to keep on the tune and relax my twitching face muscles at the same time.

Quite why instruments like the pipes or the gurdy should bring about such a front-of-house terpsichore remains a mystery. I can’t really think of any other instrument that exerts the same effect, perhaps with the exception of the tuba which seems to elicit comedy eyebrows with Pavlovian necessity. I have a friend, a fine bass player, who can’t play without singing at the same time, tunelessly and annoyingly, though that is something different again. No, I don’t know any other instruments that unleash the gurn. So what is it about the pipes? Thinking it through I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a connection to that other piper’s affliction: the impossibility of speaking and piping at the same time.

There are some clever people who can do it, of course. There even are a few players who can pipe and sing, or accompany themselves in harmony or beautiful counterpoint. Such talents are rare. Most of us struggle even to spit out a barked warning or one-syllable grunt to warn fellows of an impending tune-change. Piping somehow reduces our speaking ability to that of a dribbling infant.

This strange phenomenon is not without its comedy value. There were times, when I first started playing with Cliff Stapleton, that he’d lean over to suggest an unexpected change from the arrangement: that we play a part over again, say, or that one or other of us drop out for a turn. “Nnnnngggthhhhhnnnggthh” is what usually came out of his mouth. “Awwwnnthhhhnnngggg” is what I’d splutter by way of reply. Interpreting the correct meaning of this exchange was not altogether straightforward. It required guesswork, luck and courage and almost always ended in disaster. So instead we devised an intricate system of nods and winks, no less incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but far less accident prone than anything involving words.

What lies behind this mysterious effect? One possibility is that playing pipes (or gurdy) is so complicated, and occupies so much conscious attention, that there really is no processing power left for the brain to encompass anything so difficult as speech. Our CPUs are working at maximum power, as it were. There’s nothing left. There’s some merit in this argument as guitar players can happily accompany themselves, and, as we know, strumming through the chord progressions of most popular songs is undoubtedly a less demanding task than piping a fully ornamented tune at full tilt.

On the other hand there are singer-songwriters who excel at pyrotechnics (yes, Martin Simpson, I am thinking of you): they seem to have no problem singing as they play, so the argument seems unlikely. Perhaps then it is that the cost of failure, of managing to speak but at the risk of upsetting the tune, is much greater in an instrument like the pipes. A guitar player can cover a mistake simply by stopping the strings, but with the pipes any mistake is broadcast far and wide. Pipes are the most unforgiving instrument. Perhaps fear of failure encourages caution, holds us back from speaking and keeps us clinging to the safety line of the tune.

Possibly, but I’m not entirely convinced by this either. It makes no difference if I am playing in front of people or in the privacy of my own home. I still can’t speak and play. No, my hunch is that the reason why it is so hard to do both is that there is something about playing the pipes that requires the same parts of the brain that are used when speaking. Doing one would therefore necessarily preclude doing the other.

I’d be willing to wager that the reason why guitarists can sing and play with comparative ease is that playing the guitar and playing the pipes require different regions of the brain. The left hand of the guitar (the complicated bit, at least as far as your average guitarist is concerned) is more of a movement of the whole hand, whereas the pipes require a delicate movement of individual fingers and, most importantly, a delicate co-ordination between the fingers of the left and right hands. Or perhaps it is that with the guitar, left and right hands have to do rather different tasks whereas with the pipes the task is broadly the same: the point remains.

If there’s any merit in this idea then it might explain why we – sorry, I – gurn. For if, from the brain’s perspective, piping is a bit like speaking, then is it any wonder that the face wants to join in and mouth something, anything?

It’s a possibility and one that would only be resolved through by putting musicians into an MRI scanner. But if true, it raises fascinating questions about the relationship between language and music, how the one may have influenced the evolution of the other. Who knows what other secrets might be unravelled through an investigation of pipers’ curious ticks? Any such discoveries would offer a little consolation, at least, for looking mildly unhinged.

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