Techniques for Improving 2/4 March Playing

Jori ChisholmArticles

Marches are an essential part of any piper’s repertoire.  In particular, 2/4 Marches make up some of the finest tunes composed for the bagpipe, and are central to competitive piping.  Whether you compete, perform, or simply play for your own enjoyment, your goal should be perfect execution of the technical requirements of the tune and reasonable expression of the music.  There are a few simple steps you can take to improve your 2/4 March playing.

Mark out the beats.  2/4 Marches have, by definition, two beats per bar (the “2”) with one quarter note taking one full beat (the “4”).  Grab a pencil and draw an arrow pointing to the exact note that is played on each beat.  Be precise.  Individual gracenotes are played on the beat, as is the first gracenote of each doubling and birl.  Grips are played ahead of the beat.  Taorluaths have their E gracenote played on the beat.  The low G of a D-throw can be played on the beat or slightly ahead of the beat.

With only two beats per bar, there can be a lot of notes between beats.  So, when approaching a new tune, try tapping your foot in double-time — four times per bar (instead of two).  This helps you subdivide each beat of the tune evenly by finding the offbeats, and helps maintain rhythmic consistency.

Identify the key phrases.  The typical 2/4 march has four two-bar phrases in each part.  The phrases are often arranged in the pattern:  A – B – A – C, where C is the closing phrase that recurs at the end of each part.  Most pipe tunes, especially 2/4 Marches, use repeating phrases.  Identifying the phrases reveals the structure of the tune, and helps in memorization (I like to mark the phrases with different colored highlighters).  The challenge of repeating phrases is that they must be played the same each time they appear.

Clap and sing.  After reading the music, marking the beats, and identifying the phrases, try to clap and/or sing the tune.  This can help uncover the melodic and rhythmic line of the tune – and helps get the tune in your head before you try it on the chanter.

Play slowly at first.  When learning a new tune, play slowly to maintain control.  Use a metronome to gradually increase your tempo.  Control first, then speed.  A tune played fast with sloppy execution is a dead-end.  To get that extra edge, build your tempo so you can practice your tune slightly faster than your desired performance tempo.  (Also, practicing with a metronome helps reveal the passages in the tune where you might be inclined to speed up or slow down.)

Maximize the dot and cut notes.  Hold the dotted notes and shorten the cut ones.  It’s so simple and obvious, yet commonly overlooked or underestimated.  While jigs and reels can be played in a dot and cut style (pointed) or in a more even style (round), all 2/4 marches are played dot and cut.  Brilliant march playing requires you to maximize the contrast between the dot and cut notes.  An otherwise perfectly executed tune but lacking in the contrast of the dot and cut notes sounds boring and sloppy.

Go beyond the written music.  Bagpipe music is not to be taken literally.  Of course all the notes and doublings should be played as written, but additional expression is required to make the tune interesting and enjoyable for the listener.  Phrasing is the emphasis of select notes to reveal the phrases within the musical line of the tune.  Unlike many other musical instruments, bagpipes have a continuous sound and constant volume.  As a result, pipers can’t use dynamics (loudness) and pauses (rests) as tools of musical expression.  We are left with duration.  To emphasize a particular note, hold it longer.  As a general rule, you will want to emphasize the first note of each two bar phrase – that means hold the note longer.  (If the first note of a phrase is a short note, emphasize the first long note of the phrase.)  Here’s your chance to put some passion into the music and let your own style show.  Hold the dotted notes, cut the cut notes, accentuate the two-bar phrases and you’re well on your way to a well-expressed 2/4 March performance.

The perfect tempo.  Above all, your tempo must be consistent.  Establish your tempo in the first bar of the tune and maintain it through the end of the tune.  Too slow and your performance will lack spark and excitement.  Too fast and you risk losing control and might end up hanging on for dear life by the end.  Professional pipers usually play 2/4’s around 70 beats per minute.  Amateurs should aim for 60-70 beats per minute.

The Big Doubling.  Many tunes end each part with the last bar consisting of a B or C doubling followed by a Low A and a birl.  The trick is the make the doubling bigger (i.e., separate the two gracenotes).  This emphasizes the note without actually holding it.  It can create a nice effect.  And, of course, don’t be early to the birl.

Choose the right tunes.  Pick a tune that you will be able to learn to play perfectly.  And don’t pick just one.  Select two or three marches each with different levels of difficulty.  Pick an easier tune that is well within your ability level, and pick another tune that is more of a long-term project.  More tunes under your belt gives you the option to pick your best one on competition day.  For possible tune ideas, listen to what other pipers at your ability level are playing.  Remember, a well-played simple tune beats a botched difficult tune every time.

The last detail.  Practice is a process of discovery.  Every tune has easier parts and more difficult parts.  If you stumble at the same difficult spot each time you play the tune, grab your pencil and circle the difficult spots.  Isolate the areas for more focused practice.  Don’t just play the tune over and over.  Make a list of your biggest weaknesses in the tune (e.g., birls from B and C, E doublings from short F’s) and create your own exercises to work on them.  A wise instructor told me:  You will never improve on something by avoiding it.

Yes, you have to march.  Marching is an important part of any well-presented 2/4 march performance.  Simply walk as you would normally, keeping time with your playing tempo.  Use longer steps when playing slower tempos; shorter steps for faster tempos. Walk with a normal gait.  Don’t stomp.

No perturbations.  Keep it controlled, steady, and smooth.  No chokes, no mistakes, no changes in tempo, no extreme variations in your style of expression.  If the judge falls asleep during your performance, there should be no moments where he or she is jarred awake.

Get a second opinion.  Get tough, honest feedback from the best instructor in your area.  If you are just starting out, you’ll need regular, probably weekly, lessons.  If you are an advanced player and unusually motivated, you might get by with monthly lessons or less.  Even top players can develop undesired habits that can only be detected by an outside observer.  Try recording yourself in both practice and performance sessions, you’ll be surprised at the strange things you’ll hear.

Listen to the great players.  Get some recordings of several of the world’s top pipers and listen hard.  Regardless of whom you think you like the most, pick several and compare and contrast the styles of execution and expression. Whether it’s the juggernaut-like drive of Alasdair Gillies’ march playing, the power and excitement of Jack Lee’s, the pomp and swagger of Gordon Walker’s, or the stability and refinement of Willie McCallum’s, you can learn a lot from the examples set by any of the great players.

Be prepared.  It’s not just the Scout motto — it’s the successful piper’s way of life.  Make a plan.  Start early.  Extraordinary performances require extraordinary preparation.  A well-developed 2/4 march performance can take weeks or months to develop, rarely days.  Don’t try to cram, it won’t work.  Don’t try to rise to the occasion, it rarely happens.  Only regular practice will lead you to gradually improve your consistency and control.  Consistency builds confidence.  Finally, know when to stop talking about piping and start piping.