Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Pipers Hand

The Pipers Hand:
 Finger Speed and Executionon for the Highland Bagpipe


Pipers are instructed from a young age to slow down, to break down individual groupings of notes, and focus on each individual finger movement. Only after this are they to slowly increase speed all the while keeping a keen eye upon developing their playing style. Thus the phrase ‘Lift, Lower, Release,” has become the mantra of modern piping. Lift a single finger, lower a single finger, release all tension, and through repetition ad infinitum, until perhaps nausea is induced, a superior playing ability is gained. While this may also be valuable approach to execution some ways, it has lead to many misconceptions and oversimplifications. A individual finger does not move in isolation. It is part of a complex system of muscles, tendons, bones, and all the other parts of the hand and forearm. Developing good set of hands is not done in isolation or by virtue of a single principle or heuristic. It is developed within a large system of principles and approaches. I will attempt to lay out some of these principles here. 

Throughout I will be referencing an article titled “The Anatomy and Mechanics of the Human Hand’ published by Craig L. Taylor, Ph.D. and Robert J Schwarz, M.D. Written in 1955 it is in essence a overview of the mechanical function of the hands directed at those attempting to recreate and understand its broad complexities. The Highland Bagpiper must also understand the hand in its whole mechanically, sensually, and physiologically in order to develop the tools and techniques to master its use musically. I will also at times reference James Mc Gillivray’s, Rhythmic Fingerwork, a manual of exercises for improving hand speed and eliminating crossing noises. It is a practice tool to developing a pipers playing style and the source of many useful approaches. 

It is worth noting here that I am not a competition piper. It is the focus and primary objective of the world of competition piping to produce a homogeneous mass of individuals who execute every note, every grace note, and every movement in exactly the same manner. I have little interest in, and have nothing to add to such a community. Nor does any individual musician. Instead it is my primary focus here to help develop the control and execution needed to make good music. Music that will be pleasing to musician and audience alike. If this means sacrificing some level of the mathematical and robotic levels of precision sought out by competition pipers, then so be it. 

This does not mean that crossing noises are allowed. Or that we should settle for sloppy playing. Only that our task from here on out is to create great musicians. Not mindless drones. So we must understand how the hand works, how to care for it and strengthen it. We must lay out a philosophy, or set of principles, by which to guide the work to be done. And finally use all this to make and perform good music.

The Egg Shell Rule 

How do you hold your chanter? Don’t pick up. Just picture it in your mind. Imagine your hand resting on low g, all of the holes closed. Someone walks by and attempts to gently lift a single finger. Does it come easily off the chanter? If it does, does it slowly fall back down? Most likely neither of these things will happen. Your grip on the chanter, even if it is resting on your knee or a table, will resist the pull. And even if it is lifted from the chanter it will not simply fall back down. Unless your lying on your back gravity will not work in such a manner as to return your finger back straight to the whole. No, your hand, and the muscles and nerves within it will react in a much different way. 
The idea is often proposed that you should hold your chanter as lightly as possible. Gripping it as lightly as possible, so as your fingers could be gently pulled off with little effort. To do so is fine, unless you actually want to hold on to the chanter or move your fingers to create different notes. This is because the muscles of your hand only function under tension, and some level of force will always be exerted by your hand. The griping of the chanter by the right and left hand illustrates an interesting point about how the hand functions on a larger scale. 

“..the whole neuromuscular system is so coordinated in the brain that motor response to stimuli is ordinarily subconscious and reflex. Thus an object slipping from the grasp is automatically gripped more firmly but not so firmly as to damage the hand itself.”  (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 26)
In the words your brain is constructed in such a manner as to prevent you from dropping your chanter when you remove one or more fingers to execute a movement. In this way the idea held by many pipers that one must eliminate all tension from the hands in order to execute a movement is impossible. To do so would mean dropping the chanter, as not only is some tension necessary to maintain a hold of it, but also to move the individual fingers in concert with the others. 

Sensory Vs. Mechanical Elements 

To illustrate this further consider the hands’ reaction to a hot surface. The hand will withdraw from any surface hot enough to cause potential damage. This is possible because of three large principle nerves and their sub branches contacting the muscles of the hands to the brain. Along with the “… large number of muscles and joints of the hand [that] provides the equipment for numerous and varied patterns of movement.” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 32) Equal in importance is the large areas of the cerebral cortex dedicated to motion and sensation in the hand. So large is this area of the “..motor cortex [that] the area devoted to the hands approximately equals the total area devoted to arms, trunk, and legs.” This makes possible stereognosis, or the ability to recognize an object by shape simply by grasping it in the hand. Therefore the brain automatically adjusts the grasp of the hand in any given situation. 

In the case of a solid object, such as a chanter which is unyielding in nature, it absorbs the forces created by grasping. “If the object is fragile, or the hand empty, the hand is maintained in any required prehensile posture by cocontractions of the opposing muscle groups.” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 33) In simpler terms when one finger moves the others contract so as to counter act the loss of force from the finger being removed. It is better then to imagine that the chanter is far more fragile then it is in reality. Imaging it as an egg shell is a good example. When holding an egg one would not image releasing all tension unless seeking to drop and break it. Instead it is a matter of maintaining the correct amount of tension to retain hold of the chanter and execute the desired finger movements. In this way it is not a matter eliminating all tension, but finding the correct balance of tension across both hands. If this explanation seems overly complex it is only because the hand is in itself a incredibly complex instrument. As pointed out in the aforementioned article:

“In movements ranging from slow to rapid, with control of direction, intensity, and rate, there is always some degree of cocontraction to ensure control and to permit changes in force and velocity. A net force in the muscles causes motion. In this category is a long list of activities, such as … pressing the keys of musical instruments. Included are most actions involving differential or integrated motions of the digits.” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 34)

It is in the net force of all the muscles of the hand and forearm that we are able to execute the complex movements performed on the Highland Bagpipe. Removing all tension and activity from the others is simply impossible and would not help us in anyway to achieving clean well executed movements. Furthermore:

“It is of interest to note that the full capacity for these motions is seldom developed by the average individual. With intensive practice, significant increases in the facility of manipulation, even with simple operations, may be achieved, although individuals differ markedly in the amount of training gain. The average individual has latent potential for development of skill, as shown by the feats of manipulation occasionally evidenced.” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 34)

For those concerned that they may be then limited somehow by the structure of there own particular hands or forearms it is important to also note that, “According to Tiffin (Joseph, Industrial psychology, Prentice-Hall, 1947), dexterity differences are correlated neither with mental ability nor with hand shape or dimensions.” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 34) Your ability to execute a movement then has nothing to do with the particulars of your hands or with your intellectual capacities.

“In any mechanism, animate or inanimate, functional capabilities relate both to structural characteristics and to the nature of the control system available for management of functions singly or in multiple combinations. Just so with the human hand.” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 22)

Isolating a Single Finger

Often times pipers will attempt or suggest that one should focus on isolating the movement of a single finger. Breaking it into separate parts such as lifting and lowering, in the case of the ‘Lift, Lower, and Release’ mantra. This creates the miss conception that a single finger or group of muscles in the hand can be isolated from all of the others. 

It is better to understand that all of the muscles, not only in the hand but also the wrist and forearm, must work together when moving even a single finger. “Most of the muscles of the hand and wrist lie in the forearm and, narrowing into tendons, traverse the wrist to reach insertions in the bony ligamentous components of the hand.” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 24) Take for example the execution of a single d grace note. When the piper raises his pointer finger and lowers, in order to execute the grace note, he should feel the muscles not only in his finger contract and release but muscles all the way up his forearm do the same. At the same time the rest of his fingers will ever so slightly increase their pressure on the chanter to maintain their grip. This is almost undetectable while holding the chanter. But if one removes the chanter and mimics the movement with it absent, then they should be able to feel a slight change in the other fingers of the hand. 

‘Miyagi Method’: Finding a New Mantra 

The idea of crushing a fly with a pair of chop sticks illustrates why the execution of a movement can not be easily simplified into individual finger movements. The martial arts guru does not crush a fly by focusing on his fingers alone. Instead he focuses on each individual movement in concert with his senses and his mind. He works with the goal of mindlessness, or of being of a single focus without having to focus on anyone particular. This may be a great deal closer to the correct conception of how to execute such a movement. Lets take for example the following explanation of a ballistic movement:

“Ballistic movements are rapid motions, usually repetitive, in which active muscular contractions begin the movement, giving momentum to the member, but cease or diminish their activity throughout the latter part of the motion… in repetitive work finger motions are more fatiguing, less accurate, and slower than are motions of the forearm. Consequently, in repetitive finger activities in which there is a ballistic element, such as piano-playing, typing, and operating a telegraph key, wrist and elbow motions predominate while the fingers merely position themselves to strike the proper key. ” (Taylor, Ph.D., 1955, pp. 34)

Several elements go into performing a single grace note as one ballistic movement. The arms most be extended away from the body. The wrists should be inline with the forearms as to allow for approved circulation. The chanter should be resting on the leg or table, as it would be supported by its placement in the pipe bag, mimicking the playing of the actual instrument. Above all else the tension applied to the chanter must be balanced. In the words of Miyagi, sage karate master from he film Karate Kid:

“First learn balance. Balance good, karate good, everything good.”

Or in our case, Balance Good, Piping Good. In order to learn balance when handling the chanter we must understand what tolerance is and how its understanding separates the master from the novice. In doing so we will develop a new mantra to replace the old one of ‘Lift, Lower, and Release.’ 

The Masters Hand

“Measure carefully. Have some tolerance. You know what tolerance is? If something fits tightly into something—that’s a close tolerance. If something fits loosely, that’s a loose tolerance. Knowing the difference between tight and loose tolerance is perhaps the most important measure of a craftsperson.” - Adam Savage 

Tolerance is the allowable amount of variance in a given thing. How much tension is good? At what point does increasing tension in the lower fingers of the right hand prevent the piper from moving a specific finger or fingers with ease? At what point is too little tension causing fingers to slip? These are questions that must be answered through experience. 

Think about the difference between your hand at rest and when you place it upon the chanter. Your resting hand position leaves the finger bent slightly at about 35 degrees as measured between the fingers and thumb. When the piper places his hand on the chanter his fingers straighten and the angle between the thumb and fingers tightens slightly. This automatically causes the hand to tense slightly. We can refer to this as the pipers ‘zero’ position. In this ‘zero’ position no more or less tension is applied then necessary. That tension is also spread or balanced across all of the fingers. 

When we play the first movement of the tune, lets say for example a d-throw, we must shift the balance of the bottom hand by transferring some amount of tension from one or more fingers to the other fingers of the hand. The better part of this happens automatically as our cerebral cortex works with our hands to prevent us from dropping the chanter when release some amount of tension. As a piper we must decide how much of this automatic reaction to override. Sometimes you can take a great deal of tension off of one finger and not worry much about it moving. At other times you need to increase the tension on another finger to keep it in place or return it more quickly to the chanter than another finger.

So what is the solution? How do we develop a balanced hand? Sadly mostly through practical application of exercises like those found in the McGivilarys, Rhythmic Fingerwork. But instead of focusing on a single finger movement or some strange attempt to do away with all the tension in our hands we need to focus on balance. Balance good, piping good. How do we find balance? Through patient mindful practice. Here are some other good principles to finding balance.
  • Work with an instructor who can suggest adjustments and exercises. 
  • Record your self playing to better detect crossing noises. 
  • Use a metronome as a guide. 
  • Drink plenty of water,  good hydration is key to maintaining flexibility.
  • Periodically remove your hand from the chanter allow your hand to relax. 
  • Stretch, but only as far as is need, over extending will strain your fingers.
  • Log your practice time each day. 


In the end we must return to where we began. Only in developing mindfulness can a piper begin to develop a understanding of the tolerances involved in controlling tension across the hand. The focus must not be upon limiting tension altogether, but upon maintaining balance between all of the fingers. Everything the piper does should be focused on developing mindfulness. The act of play a exercise or an tune should be almost meditative. Think buddhist monk, not angry scotsman.

Taylor, Ph.D., C., & Schwarz M.D., R. (1955). The Anatomy and Mechanics of the Human Hand. 2(2), 22-35. Retrieved November 22, 2014, from

Mc Gillivray, James. (2000). Rhythmic Fingerwork, Instruction in Technique for the Highland Bagpipe.