The 'Bubble' Concept of Knowledge

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If you visualise all your knowledge as being inside a bubble (a small one in my case), then everything you don’t know is outside that bubble. As you learn more things, your bubble gets bigger and so the surface of the bubble, the interface between what you know and what you don’t know gets bigger as well. This means that your confusion and apparent ignorance increases each time you learn something new!

This was brought home to me recently when I had to consider what fingering system I wanted for my new pipes. When I started my piping interest (before I came across the Bagpipe Society), virtually all the information on the internet related to the GHB. I was left with the impression that the “only” fingering system that existed, apart from the Northumbrian pipes, was the Half-Open system. I soon appreciated how it helped gracing and the “rappel” to the tonic to simulate a rest by playing the drone note.

Having been asked what fingering I wanted for my new pipes, I thought I had better look into it…….oh dear!

Leaving the actual fingering aside for a moment, firstly we have the problem of nomenclature. For example, is there a difference between Closed and Covered fingering? Is Half-Open different to Half-Covered or is it just down to whether you are an optimist or a pessimist (like whether your glass is half-full or half-empty)?

I understand some terms as follows (apologies if this upsets anybody’s sensitivities):-

1. Open.

The fingers are progressively lifted, starting with the RH “pinkie” and once lifted are not replaced. This is similar to penny whistle fingering.

ooo oooo
xoo oooo
xxo oooo
xxx oooo
xxx xooo
xxx xxoo
xxx xxxo
xxx xxxx

2. Covered.

All fingers except the one for the required note are down, except the RH pinkie which is only down for the bottom leading note.

oxx xxxo
xox xxxo
xxo xxxo
xxx oxxo 
xxx xoxo
xxx xxoo
xxx xxxo
xxx xxxx

3. Half-Open

There are several variations to this system, but basically the RH plays an open pattern with the LH fingers down and vice versa.

ooo xxxo
xoo xxxo
xxo xxxo
xxx oooo
xxx xooo
xxx xxoo
xxx xxxo
xxx xxxx

I see Julian Goodacre uses the term “Closed” fingering to refer to Covered fingering for a stopped chanter such as the Northumbrian pipes. So far so good! …….but what about Half-Covered / Half-Closed, French fingering, Scottish fingering and how do thumb holes (one or two) fit in the picture? How common is cross fingering in “our” pipes and do conical and straight bore chanters tend to have different fingering patterns?

Looking on several bagpipe forums, I got the following opinions:-

“…the most crucial factor in determining how the chanter is played is the nature of its bore; conical chanters traditionally tend towards ‘open’ systems, whereas cylindrical bored chanters tend towards ’covered’ systems. There are, of course, exceptions; the Asturian chanter is conical but the fingering is ‘covered’ and many players of smallpipes who have been trained in the Highland tradition use highland fingering on their smallpipes…”

“…Half-Closed fingering is usually referred to, when talking about modern French-style bagpipes… …where there is a second thumbhole for the lower hand to play semitones… …since some borderpipe makers (e.g. Jon Swayne, I think) also offer chanters with this kind of Half-Closed fingering, better known as French fingering… …Half-Open fingering is the same, but usually applied to pipes without a 2nd thumbhole. It is also known as Scottish fingering…”

So at this stage I thought that my bagpipe maker would probably recommend a fingering appropriate for the tradition associated with those particular pipes, although for a lot of pipes in the UK, there is no “tradition” as the pipes are often reconstructs based on literature, drawings and carvings. Having become more relaxed about the fingering, I unfortunately came across another comment on a forum which slightly enlarged my knowledge bubble and exposed another huge area of ignorance!

“…such passages as Tune 2 strains 4 & 8, Tune 5 strain 5, and so on. For me these passages were the biggest mystery of Dixon’s style, unlike anything I’d come across, and very hard to play too, but I persevered with them… …It did occur to me that these ‘crunchy’ passages might be a pointer to a fingering other than the one I had to use to play them in tune on a modern Border chanter… …whereas if you play them on smallpipes with covered fingering they are as straightfoward to play as anything you might come across…”

So in my current state of confusion, I think:-

  1. Decide what music you want to play and from which musical tradition.
  2. Look at the fingering of most of the pipes for that tradition and “go with the flow”
  3. Or….ask for help in “The Chanter”.

Editor’s Note: If anyone would like to help Ray out, then please send me your views.

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