Tutor Review: The Highland Bagpipe Tutor Book – National Piping Centre

Published originally in 2001 and issued along with a v2.0 CD from 2012, this book is the flagship instructional book of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow.  The copy I used for this review was reprinted in 2016 and I assume is the most recent available.

At 116 pages spiral-bound, this is a physically big glossy-page book that breaks its material into thirty lessons ranging from intro to the practice chanter to the “Shakey [sic] Fingers” hornpipe Retailing at $US55 and GBP 27, it is also one of the more expensive tutor books available.

From a design and usability perspective the NPC Tutor is somewhat wanting from my adult perspective.  While I assume that its heavy glossy pages, colorful layout and the allocation of multiple pages to non-value added cartoon illustrations was meant to make it appealing to 10-year-olds, the compromise is that both the text and music are too small for many middle-aged eyes.  While it has a larger physical page format that any of the College of Piping tutor books, the font and music are much smaller.

The NPC Tutor assumes no previous knowledge and takes the student through a reasonably well-thought out progression of music theory, chanter technique and practice tunes. at least in the first part of the book.  By the end , the student should be playing at the advanced beginner level.  There are also random pages spread through talking about various transition to the bagpipes topics as well.

A couple of strengths of the book are worth noting.  New embellishments are only introduced when there is a new tune in which to apply them.  By Lesson 7, the student is playing two simple tunes, The Day Thou Gavest and Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, albeit without gracenotes.  This is far preferable to learning all the embellishments before one gets to anything that sounds like a tune.  Additionally, the tutor makes good use of drills and etudes throughout the text and reproduces all of them together in an appendix.  Another appendix has a number of clapping rhythm drills that would useful for people learning to read music.

In writing any tutor book, there is an obvious tension between over-explaining every little thing and glossing over key ideas and concepts.  The NPC Tutor probably errs on the side of over-explanation giving a full page and half on how to do a strike and then explaining how one’s fingers move for every individual one.  By comparison, Seamus McNeil gives about four sentences and 2 1/2 inches to get the same point across.

In reviewing tutor books it is also interesting to find the things that should be in there but are not.  NPC Chapter 1 is a great example of forgetting to tell the new student several of the most important items.  NPC says nothing about holding the chanter but only suggests “…the sole of the chanter can be rested on a table”.  Nothing about relaxed hands and fingers, and avoiding the “chanter death grip”.  Seamus has it right in 1953 when he said “The chanter should be held firmly but not tightly.  Fingers should be moved with precision but should never be in a state of tension.  … the sole of the chanter should be rested on one knee so that the weight of the chanter is not born by the hands.”

Similarly the NPT Tutor admonishes the student “not to cause a popping or “crossing noise”: but neglects to explain what they are.  Two chapters are dedicated to gracenotes.  The typical beginner fault is to make little micro gracenotes but at no point does the NPT book say how to physically play them correctly with a big lift.

By 2001, I’m pretty sure that the metronome has also be invented but the NPT Tutor is silent (or rather clickless) on how to integrate that into one’s learning.

Up until Chapter 19, the NPT Tutor is fairly good by my estimation – quite detailed explanations and good tune progression.  As noted below the audio and video is quite lacking but at this stage, not necessarily mortal.

Unfortunately, that is where any accolades must cease.  The last third of the book is a trainwreck of items that are taught out of order or not given sufficient space for development.  It’s almost as if the project committee (since no one claims individual authorship or accountability) got tired and just winged the last part.

We go from Teribus in Chapter 18 straight to Corkhill in Chapter 19.  GDE gracenotes are probably one of the more difficult techniques for a beginning piper but that technique is stuck on the back of Chapter 10.  The regular birl is introduced in Chapter 21 and if that is not hard enough, it tackles the G gracenote birl for good measure and assigns Barren Rocks chockfull of G birls.  Grips are broken up into three lessons and taorluaths are taught before all of the grip lessons are over.

By Chapter 28, the NPT Tutor is on to strathspeys, and drills regular two-note tachums.  It then goes right into doubling tachums and darodos.  With virtually no explanation of the strathspey genre, the book assigns not one but three tunes.  The first strathspey, Lady MacKenzie of Gairloch notes that the 4-part version is often played in competition begging the question, why is the first strathspey assigned in a beginner’s book a competition tune?

Chapter 29 is two reels: Miss Girdle and Sandy Duff.  Chapter 30 teaches the shake and assigns Shakey Fingers, a tune by Roddy MacLeod who serendipitously was also Principal of the National Piping Centre at the time.

The CD is probably the weakest part of this tutor and seems to indicate a complete lack of thinking from the authors.  When the disk installs, it generates a 24-page e-book that reproduces Appendices A, B, and C of the Tutor as well as installing a copy of Piobmaster Pro Player.  Appendix A contains the rhythm drills that a beginning student would use to learn the durations of notes and so on.  Strangely, no video or audio is provided, so I assume the learner can just figure that out on their own.

Appendix B has all of the technique drills and there is a video of each the drill on the practice chanter aw well as a computer-generated audio files that plays a PiobMaster Pro file.  Probably OK, but why does all of the video effort go into this area?

Appendix C has the practice tunes, but no video is provided, only a Piobmaster Pro file.  One would think, it would be logical to make videos of the practice tunes, talk about the difficult movements and play them accurately and slowly on the practice chanter.  A great example is the lesson on strathspeys.  One would think that the Scotland premium piping institution would have at least provided a video or actual chanter audio for the strathspeys with some commentary about holding the dots, not overcutting the cuts, and playing the triplets with a hold, and so on.  What the student gets is a computer audio file that robotically plays the tune without any regard to musicality and no commentary.

My conclusion is the NPT Tutor is an expensive, slickly-presented but ultimately amateur effort. It is the least well-thought-out and most poorly executed of the common bagpipe tutor books available.  It cannot be used as a stand-alone book for those without an instructor. In my opinion any student of any age would be well advised to avoid it.  The videos and audios are poor and are not an integral part of the instruction.  NOT RECOMMENDED

Up Next: John Cairn’s Bagpipe Solutions, the most comprehensive of the tutors.

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