Any Questions? - for P/M Chris Armstrong
Chris is a full time instructor at the National Piping Centre and was appointed the Pipe Major of the Scottish Power Pipe Band in 2006. His past individual successes include winning the Bratach Gorm, J. B. Robertson Rose Bowl, the Overall Champion Piper at the Scottish Piping Society of London in 2007, 1st in the Former Winners MSR at the Argyllshire Gathering in 2001 and 2011, the A grade MSR at the Northern Meeting, 1st in the PM Donald MacLeod Memorial MSR, runner up at the Scottish Pipers Former Winners MSR, and twice placed 2nd in the Former Winners MSR at the Northern Meeting. He was the overall champion in 2002 and 2003 at the Cowal Highland Gathering and in 2003 he won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting.
Q. At what age did you start playing and who were/are your tutors?
A. I started learning when I was 6 years old at Torphichen and Bathgate Pipe Band. I was taught initially by Mark Bennett and some other people from the grade 2 band at the time then went on to get solo tuition from Pipe Major John Matheson BEM. When I was 16, I spent a short period taking light music lessons from Alasdair Gillies and more recently I received tuition from Andrew Wright for Piobaireachd and then John Wilson.
Q. What is the best piping advice you’ve had and who gave it to you?
A. The best advice that I received wasn’t specific to piping but it’s definitely applicable and that is “if you’re going to do a job, do it right”. I got that from my dad when I was young and it stuck with me ever since.
Q. What would you say has been your biggest piping difficulty?
A. I wouldn’t call it a difficulty but taking on and running a Grade 1 band produces it challenges. Mostly enjoyable challenges though!
Q. Which is the best piping book?
A. The best piping book I would have to say was Captain John MacLellan’s “Pipers Hand Book”. I had a copy of this book when I was younger and I learned a great deal of tips on how to maintain my instrument from that book and it was invaluable to me.
Q. Who is your favourite player and why - past or present?
A. I remember winning a copy of Roddy MacLeod’s Pipers of Distinction CD at a junior competition a while back. I think I wore the CD out from listening to it so much because of the sound of Roddy’s pipes. I based the sound that I look to achieve on this and so I would have to say that Roddy was a very influential player for me in that respect. I also listen a lot to Robert Mathieson’s “Gracenotes” and Gordon Duncan’s “Just for Seamus” albums when I was younger too and that opened my eyes to the fast and fancier style of piping and I think helped to influence my composing style at the time.
Q. Is there something in piping you wish you could have done but haven’t as yet?
A. There are many big prizes that I would like to win so I guess in a way I have a wish list that I’d like to accomplish before I retire from playing.
Q. What is your pet hate within piping?
A. I have a few but the worst one of the lot would have to be poorly maintained instruments! It’s inexcusable in my book!
Q. What has been your happiest piping moment?
A. I’d have to say all the big wins that I’ve had to date during my piping career. There’s no particular one that stands out.
Q. What is your most prized piping possession?
A. I don’t really have one as such but I kept the last solo reed I played and put it in a wee box. I had played the reed for almost 8 years and had even started calling it “my friend” because it just went every time I pulled the pipes out the box. I was sad to have to take it out eventually so I kept it and it sits on the shelf next to my gold medal!
Q. What do you do outwith piping that might surprise us?
A. I don’t really have much time outside of piping for many things but when I get the chance I like to do a bit of fly fishing to relax and unwind.
Chris - thank you so much!
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A Passing Thought
It was sad to see Ravi Shankar's passing - Indian sitar player of Beatles' fame just in case you don't know. You may wonder why I mention this, apart from the fact the sitar is just as hard to master as the pipes. Apparently, he would normally get a standing ovation as he tuned up and that brought me to thinking about pipe tuning - has the same thing ever occurred in our musical sphere? In piping, tuning should be the prelude to the tune and should set the overall tone for the occasion. In reality, pipers are not really tuning as the pipes should have been prepared for the competition or recital before the performer gets to the stage. So G. S. Maclennan's tune, The Piper's Prelude, is an apt tune to test your instrument. It's not that easy either so timing is crucial all the way through but the ending always seems to throw a spanner in works! The last 2 bars are quite different with lots of tricky gracenotes and a change of rhythm, so it's smooth and steady until right at the end.
Setting a mood is the object of the prelude and is not really about tuning. However, you would be hard pressed with many of today's pipers to realise this when you hear incoherent tuning phrases that seldom seem to provide an improved result. This issue also seems to be compounded when the performer is struggling with a poor bagpipe i.e. overly loud or too quiet, chanter and drones out of balance and so on. Rather than an ovation, a slow hand clap should be the order of the day!!
So, you get the gist. A few, like Angus MacDonald and Donald MacPherson, had the skill to keep audience interested in the tuning phase and they managed to build up an excitement and expectation for the main event itself. So, do we know if any pipers have had a Ravi Shankar type reception for their tuning or prelude? - I'm pretty sure it must have occurred and have I had one? Perhaps, or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part of a distant past suitably enhanced by thoughts of Ravi's mystic or more likely, the effects of our very own uisge beatha.
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