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Making embellishments crisper

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  • Making embellishments crisper

    I’ve been doing a lot of chanter work to clean up my playing, and one thing I can’t quite get is the crispness of grace notes. When I listen to professionals, their embellishments aren’t any faster than mine—I’ve actually had to slow mine down, at the behest of my instructor. They just don’t sound as...crisp. I don’t really know how else to put it. They just sound a bit more rounded. Any tips for why they sound that way and exercises to fix it?

  • #2
    Without hearing a recording of what you're doing, and a recording giving an example of the professionals to hear what they're doing, I'm not sure what you mean.

    In my experience "crispness" comes from four things

    1) lifting the gracenote finger high enough to sound a clear gracenote.

    2) lifting the finger, and replacing the finger, with extremely quick action. Here I mean the lifting and replacing action only, not the duration of the gracenote, which is a different matter.

    3) having the duration of the gracenote be very short.

    4) playing the entire ornament (doubling, grip, etc) with absolute precision.

    About #1, sometimes beginners attempt to gain speed by barely lifting the finger, even keeping the finger in contact with the chanter and only partially cracking open the hole, which results in a muffled gracenote. To get the gracenote to "pop" the finger must come off enough so that a full-volume clear note is heard. Clear, but very short in duration.

    Without hearing you, my guess is that your instructor is telling you to slow your gracenotes down not because they're too quick, but because they're not clear. If you were playing them quickly and with perfect clarity your instructor would be saying "that's perfect, keep doing them just like that".

    It's when a student's single gracenotes are unclear or their doublings are sloppy/indistinct that the instructor says "let's slow that down so we can get it right; after it's right we can speed it up".
    proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; Son of the Revolution and Civil War; first European settlers on the Guyandotte

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    • #3
      Davidck, I concur with Richard's advice. To maybe get into more detail/specifics, per #4, would be to make sure that the entire embellishment has a consistent "inner beat"/tempo in that all the grace notes that compose it are consistent: same sound, but different note. Meaning you raise and lower the each finger for each grace note so they are the same length. Some pipers may play their E grace note differently than their D grace note, for instance . . . be it a higher finger raise, or different speed, or something else.

      Richard, can you go into more explanation of #2 versus #3? You could have the same duration grace note with a slower but lower lifting finger versus a faster but higher lifting finger. Is that what you are talking about?

      Andrew
      Andrew T. Lenz, Jr. • BDF Moderator
      BagpipeJourney.com - Reference for Bagpipers

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      • #4
        I'd like to hear you play before offering definitive advice, but one thing I would say is that practically all pipers could do with is (a) better understanding the mechanics of individual gracenotes and (b) the rhythmic pattern and beat placement of each individual embellishment.

        On (a), a gracenote has three steps and two transitions. Step 1 is the before note, step 2 is the gracenote, step 3 is the final note. Transition one is all the fingers coming off the chanter needed for the final note (fingers only moving off the chanter), plus the gracenote finger, transition 2 is the fingers returning to the chanter to sound the final note. For example, C to E with a G gracenote: x xxx xoox / x oxo xooo / x xxo xxxo. Note how awkward that middle stage can appear. A good sign that your gracenotes don't follow this pattern is struggling with that intermediate step.
        http://www.callingthetune.co.uk
        -- Formerly known as CalumII

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        • #5
          By popular demand, here is a video of me playing The Rowan Tree. I know my birl in particular needs work, but I’m working on that.

          https://youtu.be/LcE6xIaWyvc

          And here is what I would very much like to sound like. I know this guy has probably been playing a long time, whereas I’ve been playing about a year, so I’m willing to be patient. I’m just trying to understand what the difference is that makes my embellishments not sound like his.

          https://youtu.be/dlHze-DLQY8

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          • #6
            Great, that's really helpful! So, actually, my take is that for the most part your gracenotes and most embellishments are fine. The two things that are damaging your performance in this video is (1) timing of melody and (2) steadiness of blowing.

            On (2), you could probably do with some hands on assessment to see if it's the instrument, stamina, technique, etc. However, a good book on maintenance or Jim MacGillivray's DVDs are an excellent purchase. However, a good starting point is to simply never let the bag get more than, say, 98% full, which will cause your arm to support the pressure throughout. Do you hear at about 0:08 seconds, your E dips just before your gracenote? That's the bag losing pressure as you transition between blow and squeeze. You can hear other similar scoops and dips in pitch throughout.

            On (2), what is happening is that although you have a fairly regular beat going, things aren't happening at exactly the time they should, and I think your playing is a good example of how a metronome can at times be counter-productive. A metronome is there to check that you have it right, not as a tool for making it right. What I would do is slow down a little, and think about making things sound exactly on the beat, or on the offbeat. When you're playing correctly, it will feel almost over-exaggerated, I think.

            One specific thing to think about is your grip. First of all, the grip has three distinct pulses - in this case, low G, D gracenote, C. Think of an even 1-2-3. The D gracenote finishes on the pulse. Once you have that grip working evenly, then you need to place it correctly. The grip *finishes* on the note that follows it - in this case, on the C. You're trying to start it on the beat; in fact the C that the melody has that grip on should be half-way through the beat (assuming your music has not been altered), and the grip should therefore start before that - and so your grip sounds very awkward because it's now very out of place.

            http://www.callingthetune.co.uk
            -- Formerly known as CalumII

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            • #7
              Thanks for the advice Calum, it’s good to hear that you think the embellishments sounds fine. Maybe I’m just being too self-critical.

              Timing continues to be an issue for me, and always has been on any musical instrument I play, because I have no innate sense of rhythm (just ask my wife about my dancing). I tend to play way too fast, which is why I turned the metronome on for this video but, as you note, that tends to mess me up and just make my rhythm unsteady. When I don’t have it on, I play at a consistent rhythm—just too fast.

              Regarding my blowing technique, I usually practice with my pressure gauge to help me keep it steadier, and have made progress. I wasn’t using it in the video because I wanted to look at the sheet music since I don’t have this tune fully committed to memory. This is also a new reed that I’m still feeling out...I don’t usually lose pressure to the point that the reed cuts out.

              Other than the birl, the grip is definitely the embellishment that give me the most grief. I have a Skype lesson later today and was planning to focus specifically on those two embellishments.

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              • #8
                David, Callum is spot on. The grip is the most glaring issue, aside from tuning ("wah-wah-wah" is not good) and tempo. But there are strong fundamentals there. I almost never play with a metronome—perhaps to my detriment—but playing with one could help when working out the timing of a tune and also help get you ready for adjusting to an external tempo should you wish to join a band at some point. Just keep at it, skill will come with time.

                And I will say that I'm relieved and delighted to hear that you are having lessons with an instructor. They are worth their weight in gold.

                Andrew
                Andrew T. Lenz, Jr. • BDF Moderator
                BagpipeJourney.com - Reference for Bagpipers

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                • #9
                  Thanks for posting this...always good to know I am not the only one struggling with grips and such. Just might use some of the advice for myself :-)

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Andrew Lenz View Post

                    Richard, can you go into more explanation of #2 versus #3?
                    It's arcane perhaps, but let's say you choose to play a gracenote with a slightly longer duration. That wouldn't mean lifting the finger off the hole gradually, or replacing it gradually, like taking high-speed film of a piper playing a gracenote and slowing the film down so the whole thing is in slow motion.

                    Rather, no matter what the duration of the gracenote is chosen to be the finger is lifted off just as crisply and replaced just as crisply.

                    It's something I'm aware of from many years of playing uilleann pipes, and starting out experienced Highland pipers on their first steps on that instrument.

                    One problem Highland pipers have is that they always lift their fingers off as instantaneously as possible, regardless of the duration of the note. It's expected in Highland piping of course! But it prevents the would-be uilleann piper from sounding like an uilleann piper. Because uilleann pipers have a gentle way of lifting their fingers to give a melody note a more refined attack.

                    proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; Son of the Revolution and Civil War; first European settlers on the Guyandotte

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                    • #11
                      Interesting insight, thanks, Richard.

                      Andrew
                      Andrew T. Lenz, Jr. • BDF Moderator
                      BagpipeJourney.com - Reference for Bagpipers

                      Comment

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