A weekend with Callum and Matthias

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On the last weekend of October, about a dozen or more bagpipers turned up to a new course at Halsway Manor, taught by not one, but two young piping wizards: Callum Armstrong and Matthias Branschke promised to help us use bagpipes in an ensemble situation.

On arrival, we were split into two groups depending on our choice of bagpipe: the group of G-pipes was the more numerous, with only 4-5 pipers selecting D border and Uillean pipes. Three old German dance tunes had been sent out in advance for the dot-dependent but were taught by ear on the first evening. In the end, the groups only worked on two of the tunes, which served primarily as vehicles for various methods of accompanying, varying and creating second lines.

Callum and Matthias complement each other superbly in their teaching styles - both are easy-going, encouraging and very entertaining; both have a profound knowledge and understanding of music in general and bagpipes in particular. Matthias tends to go for more traditional methods of creating harmonies and rhythmic underpinning, whereas Callum encourages a more adventurous and improvisational approach. Some participants found the improvisation rounds intimidating but as the atmosphere was generally friendly and supportive, confidence increased and no lives were lost as a result of wrong notes. In addition to ensemble-playing skills, we were given many little nuggets of piping wisdom, insights into musical theory, snippets of tune structures from other piping cultures, as well as some more tangential bits of information.

Callum in action. Photo by Stephen Kellett

Saturday night saw the usual tutors’ performance. I think the Branschke Armstrong Duo performed the contents of their entire CD with verve and precision, plus a beautiful solo from Matthias on the Swedish säckpipa. As we were sharing Halsway Manor with a melodeon-making course, the lovely Emmanuel Pariselle and his squeeze boxes also joined the two pipers for a song and a very energetic version of La Sansonette.

I very much hope that this course becomes a regular feature in the Halsway programme, and would recommend it for any piper with ambitions that go beyond just playing a tune, and a tune and another tune!

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