Besom in Bloom - Gracing and variation

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These are notes from Dave Rowland’s workshop given at the Blowout, June 2015.

The workshop is designed to take a simple tune and look at some specific gracing that may work on our pipes, and to look at how we can vary a tune during our playing of it. It is designed to accommodate Jon Swayne style Border pipes, and others, in the key of “D”. It is based on two statements by Breandon Breathnach, the Uilleann piper and collector of tunes.

Breandan Breathnach said “Irish folk music is….a solo art form, of which embellishments composing ornament, melodic and rhythmic variation is a prominent stylistic feature.” He also stated in regards tempo, that while traditional players have a given, nominal value for the speed of any given tune…” to play it quicker detracts from the melody; to play it slower can do no harm.” This idea is seeping into Irish Traditional Music and is known as putting the “Comfort” back into the music.

We learnt the tune, slowly making sure everyone had a grasp of all parts, then we touched briefly on gracing. We looked at strikes, cuts, rolls and how one could cran on our type of bagpipe. With strikes and cuts, where one would normally use a cut or strike, it can be doubled to good effect. A good approximation of a Cran is possible on low “C” “D” and “E”, by using, in order, the third finger of the left hand, then index and second finger of the right hand. Rolls are much like the standard Irish or Scots system, but ultimately, use what fits and is comfortable to do. See the accompanying table overleaf. Bending or slurring up to notes can also be considered.

We then looked at variation. This variation is not the apparently stylised variation of Northumbrian or Border playing, more working on the fly with a built up knowledge of the tune as a starting point. I gave some, but not all, of the examples I had found in this tune. The thrust of the idea behind this workshop being to keep the tune fresh in the listeners ears, by changing bars and phrases, without radically altering the tune.

Those playing pipes limited to one octave had a head start here, as they were much more used to looking at how to fit tunes on to a limited instrument, thereby creating a variation. There is only one bar in this tune that concerned them. Having learnt the tune, I asked them to split into groups and see if they could come up with some variation in about twenty minutes. We then regrouped, and went through what they had found. I then played through all the possibilities I had found in the tune.

Lastly I played one recording, showing how far we can take variation within a tune. This was by the fiddle played Martin Hayes, the tune My Love is in America, from the CD “Lonesome Touch”. This is a real exploration of a tune with virtually no repeated phrases.

The tune is given below, in the top line. All of the subsequent bars and phrases can be substituted to suit an individual’s playing, it is not set in stone. The point being not to repeat, if possible any phrases. There will be seen to be gaps in the second part. This is because these bars have been covered earlier. The arrows indicate slurring; the letter C indicates a Cran.

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