Re-thinking Bellows

There is a joy to making, even the mistakes although frustrating, can be instructive. This summer I have been making bellows again. I have made quite a few over the years for my small pipe workshop and they have all been a bit different. The only constant thing about them is the form.

French Musette Bellow
Form of a French Musette Bellow

The bellows I am making are still in the shape of the old Musette bagpipes I saw in various bagpipe museums in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Gijon. The shape of the musette bellows intrigued me, and the designs and colours made it stand out as a work of art. It depicted the culture of the French court of the 18th century, the flamboyance, the intricacy, the colour.french bellow design

I thought to mimic it’s form but keep a Border/Northumbrian style of “austerity and plainness”; a protestant in stead of a catholic style! The shape (sosceles trapezoid) also allowed me to play around with the construction of the bellows, it is a deliberate move away from the traditional way of making NSP bellows.

The style of Northumbrian Small Pipe bellows are plain, with the natural wood being the only design and the leather as the only other material. The clack valve being either wood or ivory, and plastic with modern designs. The form of the NSP bellow has also a rounded back.

Besides the form I wanted to change the position of the clack valve; the NSP bellow has the clack valve in the front on top of the cheek, this is prone to obstructions from shirtsleeves, jumpers, arms etc. The closing of the air hole due to these obstructions made blowing problematic and it often gave a sound like a “whuppy cushion” which not the desired harmonic effect I am after!

The construction I have been playing around with this summer is to put the clack valve at the back of the bellow, out of the way of the arm and any clothing. Instead of 1 clack valve I made several clack valves in case if one got blocked others would still draw in air.

Underside of my bellows
Underside of my bellows

I had experimented with solutions to this problem before, by putting the clack valve in front next to the hinge. I have also experimented by drilling holes in the side of the clack valve so air could still be drawn into the bellow if it became blocked, but it was never enough air for it to be practicle.

A friend of mine, has a small pipe bellow from France, its form is not like the Musette, but it has its clack valve at the back of the bellow, it has only one valve and recently I had a conversation with a piper who said this design is prone to get blocked by cushions on seats etc. So I renewed my idea of having multiple clack valves. My first attempt had only 3 clack valves, but this did not allow enough air to come through; this summer I made 8 clack valves, but I think this is too many, I have a feeling 6 will be adequate, and it will be my next experiment with this system.

Another observation I have of bellows (after visiting Piping Live 2018) is that they look very heavy. I would say there are 3 types of bellows in my region: the NSP style of bellow – plain; Irish pipe style – padded, heavy and dripping in studs; and the 3rd type the French style which is mainly used in the South of UK. I am experimenting with the object of getting rid of the weight, it serves no purpose, in fact it is detriment to the playing technique. The weight of the bellows pushes the bellow down towards the hips (instead of the desired position of the lower chest), so the position of the bag will be off-kilt, the bellows dragging down the blowpipe; there is no reason for this. A lighter bellow will be kept at the desired height, by the belt and arm, blow pipe and bag; less weight pulling the bellows downward.

Topside of new bellow
Topside of my bellow

My final experiment is to play around with the decorative design on the bellows. Again, thinking of the original Musette bellow with its ornaments and colour I have been looking at decoupage techniques and thinking of ways to personalize the bellow cheeks. To move away from the plainness of the wood (however beautiful that may be) and to use images or designs to highlight the bellow’s surface. I used to cover it with fabric and it can work well especially when it matches the fabric of the bag, but why not be more creative with the design? Also, I am thinking to burn images onto the wooden bellow cheeks, to give it a added beauty.

I think once I made the decision to move away from the traditional making/design style of the Border/NSP bagpipe I feel there are possibilities for creativity. For those who feel tradition should be left alone, I say that without experimenting and breaking away from tradition we would not have the NSP pipes at all. I would argue that the NSPs are a result of breaking from tradition. Innovation is part of the tradition.

Here my bellows experiments until now:Jpeg

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“Blessed are the Children…”

It takes a lot of optimism (or lunacy) to get on my bike early morning and cycle 8 miles to go busking in -1c. The ice on the roads has not thawed in the early morning sun, and I always imagine my front tire being slip-out in front of me on black ice.

When I get to Carlisle I find my busking spot has been taken by a young lad who obviously has a shorter distance to travel than me. He is a singer/guitarist, and although good, he is loud, no amplifier for him! I turn by bike around and go to my other spot.

This 2nd spot is taken by a homeless boy who is asleep on the pavement. His arms and legs are sprawled out; even though he is in a sleeping bag he has managed to take up more than half the pavement. The people walk around him, leaving him to his sweet dreams!

This view reminds me of the war in Syria for some reason. When I see the bombed houses and people being pulled from the rubble I notice the way the public always rush with broken bodies in their arms to the ambulances. The scene of the homeless boy reminds me of this because “no one is lifting this boy to safety”. There are no ambulances to take him away, no place of rehabilitation. It reminds me of how war can make people come together, were as peace can divide us. I do not grudge him his sleep, I move on into the centre of town.

In the centre of town there is the Salvation Army Band playing Christmas carols. I can not play in the area “Humbug…humbug”. I don’t know why but each year I am reminded more of the books by Charles Dickens, Dickensian Britain I call it. It would not surprise me to see children begging next year, or Scrooge shuffling along disappearing down the back-streets with his I-phone in his hand.

That is where I am heading, down back alleys to find my final spot for busking; if that is taken then it has been a wasted journey. To my surprise it is empty. Normally another singer/guitarist stands there, he has been there for years and I have given up going there for that reason. He gets there early and stays there all day. There are only a few spots to play without amplification, and if they are taken there is no chance to play.

I set up, it is cold; I am not sitting in the sun, and my hands freeze first, so I put my fingerless-gloves on. I play on and I finally loose myself in the music, I do not notice the people or the surroundings. I warm up and the world stops spinning.

After a while I notice I am invisible, or it feels like that. People walk past me, oblivious to me or the music, I hear them but they do not hear me. There is no recognition I am there. Maybe it is all a dream and I am not playing in the freezing cold, maybe I am still in bed asleep? I think of the homeless boy and I wonder am I similar to him?

Then I see life, and I know it is life as someone acknowledges me, I am not an illusion. Life, (she) skips along the pavement, each skip in time with my melody’s rhythm. Later on I see 2 others skipping along too, I do exist, it is not a dream!

The skippers are children aged between 7 to 10 I would say, and they acknowledge things that their parents have forgotten. Again, I am reminded of Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. It is like I am looking at things past, unable to interact, just an observer.

Over the years children have been an excellent audience. They all have individual characters but they also have a “type”. First, there is the Shy Type, they stand back, they look scared, and they are shy to put their parent’s money in the box. When they approach me they freeze and go rigid, their parents have to come and take their hands and help them to approach me, and some children are so frightened they start to cry or hide their faces in their parent’s coat. Often the money stays in their hands and they have to be led away.

Another type is the Less Shy, they are given money by their parents and they come over and drop the money in the box, they smile or they look amazed at the instrument, they skip off, or show their love of music in some way. They are happy and they enjoy the moment. These are the majority of children, as I think the children love live music if it is not too loud. There has been one exception to this as I remember one child holding her ears and crying with fear on her face…she was in her own world then I think.

The third type of child is the Confident Child. They have a mental age of 30 in 10 year old body. They are totally independent. They have a will of their own and are financially savvy; they have sussed the world out already. I have seen them, walking behind their parents, until they are in front of me, they stop and open their purse and drop a coin in, they smile and walk off with an air of superiority. They do this as they know what they like and what they do not like. They do this because they can.

For all the “types” of children, they are in their own universe, sometimes it is a good universe sometimes it is a bad one, but they are a joy to observe. And it is nice to be observed too.