I’ve been intrigued by bagpipes since childhood family holidays in Scotland. These wonderful constructions of tubes and bag seemed to a six year old like living things as they wriggled in pipers’ hands while creating their unique sounds.
Bagpipes have been played for well over a thousand years in Europe, parts of Africa and western Asia. In the UK most folk will probably think of the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes (played, perhaps, by a piper in a kilt and sporran) if you ask them to imagine a set of bagpipes.
It was a privilege to speak and exchange emails with James Carnegie (50), a Cambridge-based highland bagpipe teacher who has played the bagpipes for nearly 40 years – albeit, like many musicians, with a break from and return to his instrument.
I hope you’ll enjoy this interview; it’s fascinating to learn how bagpipes used to be taught in Scottish Gaelic society and hear about James’ involvement in bagpipe competitions, how he returned to the instrument, his portfolio career and his approach to teaching.
James, thank-you for agreeing to an interview and taking the time to answer our questions. Could you introduce yourself?
Hi. I’m James Carnegie and I teach the highland bagpipes in Cambridge where I live with my wife, Emma, and three young children.
Although most people associate the pipes with Scotland, there is a rich history of piping outside of Scotland and the highland bagpipe happens, for historical, political, cultural and social reasons, to have ended up as the best-known variant. There continues – for example – to be a strong tradition of the local variants of the instrument in Bulgaria and Spain.
It’s quite rare to find bagpipe teachers in England. How is the instrument taught, traditionally?
By means of canntaireachd. Canntaireachd is the Scots Gaelic for ‘chanting’ and is pronounced KAN-tah-rek. It comprises a series of vocables (such as dre, hin, hiodin), each of which represents a note or movement on the pipes. In Scottish Gaelic society, before the pipes were appropriated by the British empire and its army, the music played on them was ceol mhor (literally ‘big music’). This is the sophisticated classical music of the bagpipes and comprises several movements, starting with the melody or ground.
The teacher would sing the tune and the student would thus learn to chant the Canntaireachd before replicating it on the pipes. Of course, the student would also need to learn the fingering movements – some of them extremely complex. My understanding is that this was done on a stick before the student moved onto the pipes.
In pre-modern Gaelic society the courts of the clan chieftains were the mainspring of piping. The chieftains would provide their piper with a rent-free croft in return for their role as clan piper. The Gaelic term oil-thaigh or ‘university’ has been recorded in relation to these dwellings and they therefore served as a college for the learning of the pipes.
There were a host of family dynasties, foremost being the MacCrimmons of Skye and Glenelg, who carried on this role of hereditary piper throughout the centuries. The clan system that nurtured this piping tradition collapsed following the Jacobite wars of the 18th Century and with it the traditional means of teaching the pipes.
Nowadays we teach using the practice chanter and staff notation. With these developments have come standardisation of the instrument and styles of playing, which were generated by the growth of Empire and its standing armies.
This shift also involved the growth of ‘ceol beag’, the light music (marches, strathspeys, reels and jigs) that most people associate with the pipes.
Whilst these changes resulted in the global growth and dominance of the Highland Bagpipe, they are associated with the demise of an established cultural tradition, in particular the use of Canntaireachd.
That said there are some attempts to re-engage with the oral tradition but the dominant approach to teaching is the modern one.
How long have you been playing bagpipes? How did you originally come to play and to love the bagpipes?
I have been playing the highland bagpipes since 1980, so for almost 40 years. However, there was a 25-year period when my involvement in piping was limited to playing at weddings and the odd funeral. Between the age of around 18 and my early forties I really didn’t develop my piping. I come across a lot of pipers (and indeed other musicians) who come back to their instrument in mid-life.
When I was a young boy I had three ambitions: to play rugby for Scotland, to explore and to play the pipes. I came nowhere near achieving the first, but managed to achieve the latter two, if rather modestly! I had a very strong sense of Scottish identity and in my rudimentary mind the pipes, along with Robert the Bruce and the Scottish rugby team seemed to me to be the epitome of the notion of Scotland. Of course, I had very little understanding of true complexity of Scottish identity and only had a notional understanding of the original roots of the highland bagpipes. But it was my nascent search for my own identity that I projected in some part onto the pipes.
It helped enormously that I had an uncle who played the pipes and who acted as a role model early on; and I was able to learn at school and eventually join the school pipe band.
Tell us about the world of bagpipe competitions and your own participation?
There were two factors which meant that the highland pipes gained their pre-eminence post Culloden. One was the patronage of the British army which I mentioned earlier; the other was improving clubs and societies. The Highland Society of London sponsored a piping competition at the Falkirk Cattle Tryst, starting in October 1781. This formed the basis of the competitions that continue to this day.
In Scotland there continues to be a thriving professional circuit which is based around the summer highland games as well as the great meetings at Oban, Inverness and London. There are similar circuits in the likes of Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand. When I say ‘professional’ most of the competitors at these competitions make their living in other ways, but they are top exponents of art of piping.
Most of my participation in competitions is through the amateur equivalent, the CLASP (Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers). The CLASP provides a great means by which those who want to compete at a level below the very top echelons can do so.
How long have you been teaching bagpipes? What led you to start teaching?
I mentored and helped up and coming pipers in the school pipe band. I then taught a little at an Australian school when I was on a Gap Year there in 1988.
However, it was only in 2018 that I really started teaching. After working for most of the last 25 years in a variety of business, government and academic roles I decided to make a change. As well as looking after our children, I now combine business consultancy with bagpipe teaching. I started teaching the pipes slightly by accident in that I was put in touch with a local boy who wanted to learn and decided to add this to my new portfolio career.
Who do you teach? Children, young people, adults? What’s the balance in your teaching practice between young and adult students?
It is mainly children. One of the things I am currently exploring is the possibility of creating slightly different packages, aimed at different segments of the market. One idea I have is that of a ‘return to piping’ package aimed specifically at those, as I did, who come back to their pipes in middle-age. I know of several pipers in the Cambridge area who fall into this category.
Do you have a specific approach to your music lessons?
I am still developing my approach to and philosophy of teaching. However, even at this relatively early stage I plan my lessons along the lines of the Madeleine Hunter Direct Instruction method. So I do have a clear and distinct approach to teaching. It is not a random process.
There is a relatively sparse literature on piping pedagogy, but I am working my way through it and developing my approach as a consequence. I also draw on my experience of managing and motivating teams and people in a business context which is very useful when trying to find a way of inspiring a young student to practice more!
Alongside teaching, do you continue to participate in bagpipe competitions, or to perform?
Yes, although I do less than I would like to. I guess I do around three to four gigs of some description each year and a similar number of competitions.
Is teaching the bagpipes likely to become your main source of income?
At present the income I make is trivial and my motivation for doing this is not financial. However, I am giving thought to how I can develop Cambridge Bagpipes into a more fully-fledged business. I have quite a few ideas about this. A year into this experiment I have demonstrated that it can work, but that the extent to which I pursue it is yet to be confirmed. The biggest challenge I have is that the market for bagpipe lessons in Cambridge is undeveloped; of course, that also presents an opportunity for me, but I am still working out how best to develop interest in the instrument locally.
Are there any teaching resources (such as books, games, or so on) you find yourself returning to again and again? If so, what?
As I mention above, resources for bagpipe teaching methodologies are thin on the ground. Two books have become central to my approach: On Teaching Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson and Practice Strategies that Cause Musical Improvement by Stephanie Burns.
What do you enjoy most about being a music teacher?
Being in flow. When I am teaching and everything comes together, say a student nails a scale or movement and I can see that I have helped them to achieve that it is a wonderful feeling.
What, if anything, frustrates you about being a music teacher?
Persuading students (particularly young ones) to practice enough so that they make progress from one lesson to another. If they are not doing so I ask them to record their practice in a diary. I provide all of my students with notes from each lesson and a practice schedule: they (and/or their parents) can access this online.
How do you relax away from running your teaching practice?
As I mentioned earlier I have two other main commitments: looking after our three children (aged 11, 9 and 9) and running the house; and being a part-time business consultant.
When I get the chance I have an abiding love of the outdoors and dabble in creative writing.
Which membership institutions and organisations are you a member of?
I am a member of the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society in Edinburgh.
How do you market your teaching practice to attract new students? What have you tried – and what’s worked best?
So far all I have done is to set up a website and email my contacts letting them know that the practice exists. I have done very little marketing beyond this and this is something that I am now giving a lot of thought to. I am just starting to identify different market segments and then to consider how best to reach them. I expect this to develop over the next year or so.
Are you a social media user? If so, what platforms? And does this support your marketing, or is it for professional development, connection with other music teachers, or all of these?
Not as yet bar a small presence on YouTube but it is something I am giving some thought to.
Have you delivered any lessons “virtually”, for example through Skype, Zoom, YouTube, etc? And if so, any advice? If not, do you anticipate doing so?
Not as yet, but I would expect that this will change if I start to develop more of an online presence.
Overall, are you worried or optimistic about the future of music education? Why?
Well if we put to one side very real existential threats such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity and geopolitical tensions then I am very optimistic!
If you look at a book like Lynda Gratton’s The Shift it is clear that the world of work is changing: micro-enterprises such as Cambridge Bagpipes are on the up and technology provides great opportunities to market such businesses. And people value interesting and creative experiences, as well as wanting to spend more time on them. Music education seems to me to be well placed to capitalise on these changes.
And how can people reach you to learn more about what you do?
Visit my website where you will also find my contact details – email and telephone.
Thank-you James for taking the time to answer our questions – it’s been fascinating to learn more about your approach and about the bagpipes.
- Check out James’ website, Cambridge Bagpipes.
- More interviews here on the YMTS website.
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