What should you do with the fingers you don’t use to cover the holes on your pipe chanter? The left pinkie and right thumb, unless you’ve switched from the standard top and bottom hands.
After dealing with focal dystonia of the left pinkie finger for over a decade, I have thought of what to do with that darn little finger more than I should. Real quick, focal dystonia is where the signals from your brain to your muscles get distributed in an unintended way resulting in unintended muscle movement. It generally affects those who do a very repetitive motion and often affects the pinkie and ring finger (especially pianists). For me, it meant every time I tried to play an E gracenote by lifting my left ring finger, my left pinkie would contract really hard thereby pinning my ring finger to the chanter.
This left pinkie problem led to all sorts of issues:
- Really bad timing and tempo as I wait for the left ring finger to play the E gracenote, which it often never did.
- Really bad steadiness issues as I become self-conscious about the E gracenote with a tendency to have the chanter cut out when I get to an E gracenote.
So what to do with that left pinkie has plagued me and my playing for quite some time.
- When I first learned, I kept the pinkie up high at all times. I broke the dystonia once by always forcing it up high but it returned a year or two later and hasn’t left since. Regardless, that turns out to be a poor solution because it keeps tension in that pinkie.
- I tried resting the pinkie on the chanter so that it at least could not contract down below the chanter. Problem is, the tension is still there so still no E gracenote. It also gets in the way of the index finger on your right hand trying to fit it between the D and E holes.
- I finally gave in and relaxed it in a slight curl below the chanter. This is where it goes when playing bottom hand notes. On top hand notes, it follows the E finger, nice and relaxed free to fall back down below the chanter when needed.
So, now what do you do with the right thumb? I bet you’re thinking, “how can you screw that up?” Well, it’s me you’re talking about so…
- Unlike the top hand thumb, the bottom hand thumb should land on the chanter behind your middle finger or so and maybe a little lower, nice and symmetrical. I started with it on the exact opposite side of the chanter from the front holes. Because the thumb is short, this led to curled bottom hand fingers having to accommodate the thumb’s short reach. It also led to a pronated right forearm (if you pronate all the way your palm would be face down) so that if you were to look down at my arm while I was playing you’d be able to see the top, flat side of my forearm instead of a completely side-on view of the radius bone (thumb side bone). This is bad because it translates to really tight D gracenotes as lifting the finger doesn’t do a whole lot when the knuckle joint is even with, or below, the body of the chanter! I have always struggled with bottom hand grips, e.g. B to C. Also, with the thumb on the exact opposite side of the chanter, you have maximum leverage to squeeze, which is totally unnecessary. Lastly, this was really messing with my birl as my B finger would slip on birls (sounds rather dystonic doesn’t it?) because my pinkie is having to attack the hole at some crazy angle which then pulls the ring finger off also.
- Recently I have worked on supinating my right arm (so if you supinated all the way your palm would be up, of course I stop half way so that my radius is pointing up). This helps give straight fingers which helps articulate the D gracenote. It’s a hard thing to think about while you’re playing though and I often relapsed because the short thumb keeps pulling on your arm so that it can stay in position directly behind the holes. However, I have recently started placing my thumb in a different spot which allows my bottom hand to relax and also naturally keeps my arm supinated correctly: I put the thumb off to the side so that contact with the chanter isn’t with the flat of the pad but more of the tip of my thumb that’s also not square to the chanter but more toward the corner of the nail. So if putting the thumb directly behind the holes is 180 degrees, I’m making contact more at 135 degrees around the chanter. See pictures below. By putting it there I’m acknowledging that my thumb is short and can’t reach all the way behind the holes. This 135 degree position prevents my thumb from trying to pull my arm back into a pronated position, naturally keeping my arm in a more supinated position which leads me to naturally keeping my fingers flat without having to force it. Additionally, now that the thumb is not directly opposite the holes I can’t squeeze so hard and that additional relaxation helps articulate the gracenotes even more!
- Edit 2021-01-31: One other manifestation of thumb position relates to the right elbow. Having a more pronated forearm manifested in an inwardly bent wrist and also a right elbow displaced from the body, sticking out = bad. Once I slide the thumb over, supinate the forearm which results in flatter fingers, the right elbow comes into the body in a more relaxed position which also straightens the wrist. The right elbow can then be used as a long-range metric to reveal whether the hand is in the correct position.
- Edit 2021-02-13: I have discovered playing with the chanter rotated with a slight bias toward the bottom hand conducive to better embellishments overall, especially the birl. I can’t help but think that a better birl results because the side-edge of the low A hole is minimized as the finger slides over it. One has to be more particular about the top hand gracenotes if you notice they become tight with this chanter rotation position. Edit 2021-02-26: so maybe not…jury is still out.
- Edit 2021-02-13: I have also discovered that it helps to consciously think about pulling the chanter in close to my body, not to an unnatural extreme, but just enough to counter any tension I might have that is pushing the chanter away from my body. This also helps keep the right elbow planted to my body.
The last thing that has really helped my fingering has been keeping a steady pressure BY USING MY LUNG POWER as much as possible (without hyperventilating). You’d be surprised how often you tense your fingers when you’ve tensed your arm because you’ve taken a big break in blowing and you’re having to squeeze like crazy to keep the pressure up. Mentally, my thought process is “oh I’m taking a breath, start blowing RIGHT NOW.” Taking a breath is like a surprise. OH NO! I’M NOT BLOWING! START BLOWING AGAIN RIGHT NOW! YES I KNOW YOU JUST STOPPED BLOWING TO BREATH BUT START BLOWING AGAIN NOW! It sounds kind of like hyperventilating but it’s not. Don’t blow all your breath out because you lose force toward the end as you lose volume. BLOW, quick breath, BLOW, quick breath, NO breaks. Breaks in blowing to “benefit” your lungs has to be compensated somewhere > your left arm which is now tense and then so are your fingers and oop, you missed that doubling. Let your lungs and abs keep the bagpipe going so your fingers can play relaxed. Hug the bag, but it should always be full from blowing. ALWAYS. Don’t go lax at the end of parts or phrases, BLOW through them. Always be blowing. Breathe in such a way that allows you to blow as much as possible and then blow as much as possible. Additionally, this will help overcome a problem some people have which is correlating their blowing frequency to the tune. They’ll take a “break” at the end of the part, low A goes flat, the birl went wonky, the tempo dropped several bpm. NO! Have confidence in your fingers and they will execute. Blow through the end of the part. BLOW. BLOW. BLOW. Yes it’s an ab workout. Excellent. Don’t let it be an arm workout!