Closed and Covered Fingering on Smallpipes

An article by Pete Stewart and me as an attempt to clarify the terminology.

The recently published ‘Out of the Flames; Studies on the William Dixon Bagpipe Manuscript (1733)’ contains an article by Rob MacKillop titled ‘Towards a Revival of the Old Scottish Smallpipe with Closed Fingering’. It is not our intention to enter here into the discussion of the relative merits of the various systems of smallpipe fingering, but to address a much more elementary issue, which has been the cause of much confusion; what exactly do we mean by ‘closed’ fingering?

The first use of a name for any British bagpipe fingering system occurs in George Skene’s diary description of a trip he made in 1729, during which he visited Penrith:
Here we got the famous piper James Bell who plays exceeding fine upon the smallpipe closs hand
However this is not the first description of a fingering system. In James Talbot’s manuscripts of the 1690’s there is a fingering chart for a smallpipe that plays only 8 notes. This chart shows one hole opened at a time for each note; this must therefore be a closed chanter, that is to say the chanter is closed at the end. For all notes other than the lowest one, the bottom hole is kept closed and when all seven holes are covered no sound is played.

We do not know whether the chanter that Skene was describing was closed or open at the end and so his description leaves us guessing as to what ‘closs hand’ actually means. We can however assume it to mean one of two things.
The first possibility is that he is describing the system used on Northumbrian smallpipes which is nowadays referred to as either ‘covered’ fingering or ‘closed’ fingering. The ‘modern’ Northumbrian pipe chanter, like that described by Talbot, is closed at the end, allowing the player to actually play silence when all the holes are covered. This is one of the most distinctive features of these pipes. Individual notes in the tune can ‘pop’ out and this ability to play staccato notes gives their playing and music a very distinctive flavour.
The second possibility is that Skene is describing a fingering system for a chanter which is open at the end- as is the modern Scottish smallpipe - played by opening one hole at a time, plus the bottom hole, which when closed will play the bottom leading note. In this system, the articulation is produced by returning briefly to the bottom 6-finger keynote at appropriate points in the tune. The 6-finger note is the same as the drone; it blends with the drone and gives the impression of ‘silence’ between the notes of the tune. This takes advantage of one of the acoustic features on a cylindrically bored chanter, which is that the bottom notes are naturally weak.
Such a system nowadays has no agreed name. We should therefore like to propose that this system be termed ‘covered’ fingering, leaving the term ‘closed fingering’ to describe the ‘Northumbrian’ system, used on the ‘closed’ chanter.
This proposal may not advance the argument about appropriate fingering for 18th century Scottish smallpipe music, but it should at least clear up the existing confusion over terminology.

Julian Goodacre & Pete Stewart July 2005


 
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