Galician and Border Fingering – Cross Fertalization

Often when we learn an instrument we learn ‘patterns’ for our fingers to use on the instrument, this is an aid to learning an instrument and memorizing tunes. We become accustomed to these patterns and form them into a ‘tradition’ which develops into a certain regional or national style. But, what is important is the ‘sound’ to play the melodies as they should sound and achieving the sound should be more important over technique.

Finger Chart for the Highland, Scottish Small-pipes, & Border Bagpipes

I have deviated from the normal ‘tradition’ on the Border pipes, I am adopting a different tradition of fingering the chanter. This mainly concerns the top A note which is fingered traditionally with the bottom hand oxxx and with the top hand xoo o (oxxx xoo o) this is a Highland bagpipe style, which in my opinion is a different style of music to the Lowland piping tradition. 

I have been playing Border/Northumbrian melodies using the traditional fingering for a number of years it suits it well, but there are characteristics of the Lowland music which make this fingering of the top A note cumbersome and problematic. There are many ‘jumps’ in Lowland music from a high A down to a lower register, and this can cause a lot of hand ‘waving’ on the chanter (The Highland bagpipe style uses a closed finger technique that lifts multiple fingers off and on the chanter) as the top hand opens so closes the lower hand. It can be messy, especially if the melody demands a quick run or semi-quaver ‘jumps’.

I have been learning the Galician bagpipe for 3 years and they use a different fingering for the high A note, (oxxx xxx o) all fingers closed and only the thumb hole open. It is this technique I have been adopting for the high A on the Border pipes.

At first it was to put the chanter in tune with itself as it was a bit sharp on the top A, so instead of taping or gluing the hole I changed finger technique. Another reason why I used this Galician fingering was I fitted a Galician Bb reed to my Border chanter. I scraped the reed so it was softer to play and could sound a top A in the traditional Lowland fingering, but I found it gave a good high A in the Galician style too.

There are a lot of quaver notes in the Lowland repertoire that ‘jump’ in quick succession e.g. AaAbAcAd. This could mean playing oxxx xoo o for the high A then playing ooxx xxx x for the low ‘b’. I have found it easier to play these notes by using the Galican style oxxx xxx o for the high A then ooxx xxx x for the low ‘b’. this makes life a lot easier.

If you know the fingering style of the Northumbrian Small Pipes then you will know that this style of playing uses a totally closed finger technique, one finger is lifted off then replaces before the other is lifted. So jumping from a high to a low note is not a problem. This Galician high A position is similar in style to the Northumbrian as only the thumb is removed while the rest of the fingers stay on the chanter.

Of course there is no evidence that this finger style was used in the tradition of Border piping….but there is no evidence to prove it was not used either. The music certainly allows for an easy way of playing these ‘jumps’. and the Galician high A is one solution. In practise, I tend to mix these 2 finger styles, depending on the melody, some runs require it others do not.

In the Border/Northumbrian tradition at least there has always been a healthy innovation, without it the Northumbrian Small Pipes would never have evolved. It is easy to imagine these innovations coming about by influences from outside of the Borders through the numerous ports, commerce and migrants/visitors/travellers, as well as closer to home though journeymen, after-all tunes travelled and it is said that the Northumbrian Small Pipes were influenced by the French musette. .

There are numerous bagpipes which use the ‘closed fingering’ style as the Border pipes, some more closed than others…but this style is not wholly a Scottish fingering technique. The Asturian Gaita uses a crossed/closed fingering not unlike the Border pipes. Both are conical bored chanters and a 2nd octave can be reached by the same technique of the Galician high A fingering position.

On Stage in Zamora (Spain)

It has been a number of years since I stood on stage alone playing solo. I remembered when I last did it back in the 90s on stage in Vilnius, Lithuania. I have played countless time since then but to stand on stage in front of about 400 people is still a nerve racking event. Playing with others is easier, you follow each other, timing is easier and just to be with another is more relaxing. I have played Border Pipes for years but hardly performed with them on stage and I choose to start the concert with them. My nerves showed for the first set of tunes, but after a while I got used to it and relaxed. When I played the Northumbrian Small Pipes I was back on familiar territory and played my set with out too much trouble.
I do not think it is the ‘standing on stage’ that is the problem with nerves it is the microphones, it can be in a room with friends or solo recording a CD, but whenever I stand in front of a microphone I grow tense, I do not play as I normal; I can not move or walk around. The microphone rivets me to a spot…curse it.

The melodies I played for the Border pipes (BP) were:
Frisky, 
Chevy Chase, 
I’m O’er Young to Marry Yet, 
Bonny Lad.

Except for Chevy Chase, which is a Border Ballad, the rest of the tunes can be found in the Peacock manuscript from the early 1800s.

The next tune I played was Bonny Pit Laddie, also from Peacock, and I played as many variations as I could remember (I think I missed one out). The style of the Northumbrian and (Scottish) Border repertoire is full of melodies with variations and to memorize them is quite a task; I fail each time but I must say I am also getting better at it too, as my playing time increases so is my memory for these variations.

Next, there was a quick change over of instruments from BP to Northumbrian Small Pipes (NSP). These are quicker to tune than the BP and less problematic to hold and to play. The melodies I played were:
Mallorca, 
Wards Brae, 
Gallowgate Lass.

The last two melodies I grouped together into one melody as they are very similar to each other.

The final group of tunes were:
Johnny Armstrong
Welcome to the Town Again,

the first being a Border Ballad melody and the last a dance tune from Peacocks.

The experience was an interesting one, enjoyable and I hope the start of many more to come in the future.
The video is of the first performance on NSP.

My Hybrid Bagpipes

If Organology is a study of musical instruments then musical archaeology is a piecing together of facts about a time and place of that instrument.

My newly made bagpipe would tell of many layers of musical history, and as it stands today, a history that travels continents.

If we start with the oldest first:

The Drones, then we will find out that they came from India, the Punjab. I bought a set of Highland pipes in a small town in 1995. They cost me 18 UK pounds, with it I got several drone reeds and chanter reeds, in fact I bought what there was in his shop. I suspected the chanter would not be in tune but the rest of the pipe I could use for other things. In fact teh reeds fit well in my Border pipe too.
The 3 drones were in a rubber bag, very small, easily inflated but leaked a lot.
The blow pipe had a metal mouth piece which fell off after several years.
With all its faults it did play, and I did use this set of pipes for experiments over the years.
The pipe is made from wood, the chanter is conically bored and not dissimilar to the bore of my Border pipe.
I used the Indian Bass drone in my Hybrid Bagpipe, it plays in ‘Bb’ as well as in ‘A’ and by changing the drones around (removing the middle section) I can also play in ‘D’ with the same reed.
I use the cane reeds I bought in India and they are very good and reliable after so many years.
I use all stocks from the Indian bagpipe too, as well as mouth piece. I have made a few mouth piece tips to replace the metal one I lost. The ‘crack value’ i have replaced recently to make it more air tight.

The Bag I bought in Spain in 2011 from a shop in Madrid, it is a synthetic bag which is in a ‘pear drop’ design, not my favourite to hold, I think in the future I would buy/make a bag in the Highland style.
The cover was made by myself and Leila with fabric bought in Madrid and Zamora.

The Chanter/s I play are a mixture of traditions. Originally I got it to play with my Sanabresa Chanter in Bb, I turned a stock for it and connected it to the bag.
I also made a stock for my Border pipes chanter and if I tuned the drones down to ‘A’ I could get a good sound with the same reed
I also turned a stock for my Galician chanter in D, I removed the middle section of the Drone and it played a D drone to go with it.

The beauty of mouth blown pipes over bellows blown is the less time to ‘pick up and play’; and less time in tuning the drones, also with these pipes I have been able to add a Galician reed in all of them, where as to obtain a Border reed or Sanabresa reed is quite difficult.
Another advantage with this system is that I have 3 chanters and 1 bag, which saves space when transporting them and costs a lot less to buy.

Gaita Pedrazales Chanter Reeds – Galician!

When I got my Gaita Pedrazales chanter 2 weeks ago it came with 2 reeds. The chanter is beautiful, made from Santo Palo wood with nice grain.

Plastic Reed: 
One reed was made from plastic, very small stable and blades, but I could not get it to sound a octave, the top register was very sharp.

Cane Reed
The cane reed was very good, it played well with not to much pressure, it looked nice.

Since I had a class that evening I did not alter it to fit the chanter, I thought to leave it to my teacher to get it fitted properly.
In the class the teacher found it to be too flat. The Pedrazales chanter plays in Bb, and it was below that, not by much but enough to make the group of gaitas sound like a swarm of bees! So, there was two options, either push the reed further into the chanter by opening the wooden hole more to accommodate the reed or to cut a bit off the reed tip. Out came the knife and off came the reed tip, scraping to reduce pressure resulted in a sharpened reed, but still not in Bb, out came the knife and off came the reed, scraping and a chanter that played in Bb. “All is well that ends well” so the saying goes…not so.

When I got home I took out the reed and left it over night to dry. The next day the reed had warped a little. Central heating was the problem, but worse than this when I came to adjust the reed the binding came away too, leaving the 2 cane blades in my hands. The thread had unraveled, I do not know if this was due to the central heating system, but the thread and metal are not effected by heat generally? I will never know. The 2 reeds came from the same maker, but they seemed well constructed when I got them. I wrapped thread around the blades to try and make it play again, it did but not good enough for the Pedrazales.

So, 2 days after I got the chanter and reeds I had no reeds left to play the chanter! What a beginning.

The only thing to do was to use Scottish Highland chanter reeds. These HBG reeds are from Pakistan, some would say useless, but they are not so bad if one is not into competitions. They play and are cheap enough to play around with in Border pipe chanters etc. They play in A/La, and luckily my chanter was Bb. So out came the knife and off went the reed tip, until I had a chanter in Bb in the bottom note, but the top was sharp, out came the tape and the top notes played in tune. The pressure was wrong, too much and the drone stopped and I could not get the notes, too little and the bottom notes were “double toning” when all fingers were closed. I added thin wire so I could adjust the reed and keep it in position.

I took a trip to Madrid to see if they had reeds that would fit. They had some Pedrazales reeds, made by a maker in Madrid, the bindings on these reeds were glued, so they would not unravel and they looked good. I tried 3 of them but all 3 were sharp in the top notes, nothing worked. Then I tried the Galician gaita reeds for a Bb chanter. I put it in and blew…Bb exactly. The reed worked first time and it was made so I could move the reed in and out so making it Bb sharp…or flat. The pressure was nice, and There was no “double toning” in the bass notes. I was a happy man again.

Why do Bb Galician chanter reeds work in a Pedrazales chanter? Why does a Pedrazales reeds not work in a Pedrazales chanter? what is going on?

"Gaitas…Gaitas"

In a hot and steamy basement loud music was playing, flashing lights and people dancing, but this was not a disco in the modern sense but a meeting of traditional musicians playing traditional music from Zamora. The music switched from dulzainas and gaita sanabresa, after a session of gaitas a man passed and said in a loud joking frustrating voice “gaitas! gaitas!”
i took him to mean the frustration of playing together and not being in tune with one another. Not that the dancers minded they were following the rhythms of the drums and castanets but melodies help and when it sounds out of tune it can be a bit hard on the ears! Dam Bach and Mozart…and all the others who have accustomed our ears to perfect harmonies. I think traditional music is one of the remaining forms what do not require perfect harmonic intervals…but it is changing and it is changing fast.

There was something primeval, organic and alive about this performance. Yes it was all out of tune with each other but after sometime the ears and the brain got accustomed to the it and melodies were still recognized. I remember during my M.A. an article about Bulgarian female singers who sang in a few isolated valleys sang with seconds…two notes sung as harmonies but not ‘harmonically in tune’ with each other eg. G and A.
The gaita players where playing the same notes but the pipes were micro-tonally out of tune with each other thus creating discordant pitches, as well as drones which where not in tune with the chanter nor the other drones. It was an amazing sound, loud, rhythmic, free-making. People were enjoying it, dancing to it and even I had a go…

I think the best instrument to annoy ‘harmonic music lovers’ is to play the Highland Bagpipes…they are very loud and can annoy listeners quite easy (as it did with my family relations), but there is something wonderful about it too.

As far as I can tell there is no fixed tuning or pitch with the gaita Sanabresa, it is an old instrument going back to Medieval time and possibly beyond, it has that feel about it. It does not have an equal-tempered scale. It plays in a minor scale but the 3rd flattened note is not exactly a 3rd, it is a little flat and so is the 6th note it is a little flat. It would be dificult to play with other modern instruments as they would be in tuned with an equal-tempered scale so they ‘fit’ harmonically and fixed to a certain pitch. But it makes sense when you play the drone as it would fit in perfectly with the harmonics of the drone.
Gaita Sanabresa can be found in a Bb, B, or C and perhaps other keys in between too!

This also complicates things when one tries to notate the music. As it is in a minor scale key signatures are used in the notation. C/Do minor has 3 flats, but the chanter has a sharpened 7th note, so the Bb would actually sound a B, but it is written without accidentals or a natural sign in the key signature.
The notation is only there for reference it seems not an accurate attempts to represent pitch of the music. There is some notation that is written with out any key signature at all thus making it a C major…but the chanter is the same as before it does not play in a different key with sharps and flats like the Galician (not that i can tell anyways). So the notation is only there as a reference.

On the internet I have tried to find a scale of the gaita Sanabresa written down but I was not able to find one.
So since I could not find a series of notes describing the scale I am going to attempt one now just to put something out there for people to see:
Starting from the bottom note with all fingers closed b, C, D, Eb (flattened), F, G, Ab (flattened), B, C

If any players can add to this I would be most grateful.

Casa de Zamora

Links and more links…all are connected so they say. Who would know it but last year a folklorist and music researcher I had met on Facebook called Alberto advised me to go to ‘Casa de Zamora’ in Madrid if I wanted to learn about bagpipes from the area of Zamora (Gaita Sanabresa) in north western Spain and to meet musicians in the Madrid area. Casa de Zamora is like a cultural centre for people from the Zamora district of Spain. Each region of Spain seems to have these cultural centers in Madrid and elsewhere, often music is practiced in these centers.

 It took me a few more months to finally get round to going and this was due to meeting Alberto in Zamora and listening to his music which finally made me go; I was thrilled by the music and the musical atmosphere in Zamora. The events itself that inspired me I will write about another time, but let me say it was a new experience and it excited me so much to try and learn the Gaita Sanabresa; the Casa de Zamora’s web site (casadezamora.com) listed a gaita class on Wednesdays and last night I went along.

I noted 12 musicians (10 pipers and 2 drummers) and 1 teacher. The gaitas were not all uniform like the gaitas from Asturius or Galicia they were a mixtures of colours, textures, thicknesses and designs. There were a few new surprises such as the wood used to make a couple of chanters, they were made from a heather plant, which for me was a surprise as I know heather in Scotland and it is a small thin plant, but apparently it grows very high here and strong enough to make chanters. I also noticed there were differences in construction. This is partly due to a lack of supply, one maker was mentioned who made good pipes in Cantabria had a waiting list of about 1 year, but he made other types of pipes besides Gaita Sanabresa. 

 If I wanted to learn to play I was advised to get a Galician chanter in Bb (Si bemol) and tape over a section of the 3rd hole making it a minor scale (the popular key of the class was Bb and this was good for singing). The tuning of the chanter was still unclear to me but generally the Sanabresa chanters have a flattened 3rd note and a flattened 6th note, but this was not always the case; and Aliste chanters (the region just south of Sanabresa) had the 3rd note flattened and the 6th note natural. There still needs some clarification in my mind about all of this. The Galician chanters in the class were thinner and slender than the Sanabresa, one boy had quite a thick Sanabresa chanter; their melodies were 1 octave and they used open fingering. The tone was not harsh and with 10 pipers in a small room it was OK on the ears, and time was spent tuning and making sure the pipes were playing in tune together.

 Another point of note was the bag construction, the people who had bought Galician gaitas (so they could learn quickly) had a Galician/Asturian style of bag – ‘pear shaped’ in style made from Gortex, with the bag cut so the drone stock sits naturally onto the shoulder. The Sanabresa gaita bags had the form of an animal and the drone stock was one of its legs (I do not think an animal skin was used, but the shape of the bag was constructed to look like one) and this ‘bent’ backwards so the drone went over the shoulder.  Some had tassel’s over the drones others with out. 

The drones were thick and differently designed made from different types of wood: ‘black wood’ and ‘red wood’, ‘knotted wood’ and ‘heather wood’ some of the drone sections had metal rings around the ends as did some of the chanters.
Men and women were learning to play all with different standards, they used notation sometimes but the people seemed to know the melodies from growing up in the Zamora region and were able to play from memory. There were 2 drummers and the rhythms were fast sometimes in 5/8 (aksak rhythm) and other times in more regular patterns, often the rhythm changed half way through a melody from 3/4 to 6/8; often the teacher took the drum when they played as a ensemble.
I was impressed by the whole evening, their friendliness and their music, which I liked a lot.
I will give it a try,…

On Stage in Zamora (Spain)

It has been a number of years since I stood on stage alone playing solo. I remembered when I last did it back in the 90s on stage in Vilnius, Lithuania. I have played countless time since then but to stand on stage in front of about 400 people is still a nerve racking event. Playing with others is easier, you follow each other, timing is easier and just to be with another is more relaxing. I have played Border Pipes for years but hardly performed with them on stage and I choose to start the concert with them. My nerves showed for the first set of tunes, but after a while I got used to it and relaxed. When I played the Northumbrian Small Pipes I was back on familiar territory and played my set with out too much trouble.

I do not think it is the ‘standing on stage’ that is the problem with nerves it is the microphones, it can be in a room with friends or solo recording a CD, but whenever I stand in front of a microphone I grow tense, I do not play as I normal; I can not move or walk around. The microphone rivets me to a spot…curse it.


The melodies I played for the Border pipes (BP) were:
Frisky, Chevy Chase, I’m O’er Young to Marry Yet, Bonny Lad.
Except for Chevy Chase, which is a Border Ballad, the rest of the tunes can be found in the Peacock manuscript from the early 1800s.
The next tune I played was Bonny Pit Laddie, also from Peacock, and I played as many variations as I could remember (I think I missed one out). The style of the Northumbrian and (Scottish) Border repertoire is full of melodies with variations and to memorize them is quite a task; I fail each time but I must say I am also getting better at it too, as my playing time increases so is my memory for these variations.

Next, there was a quick change over of instruments from BP to Northumbrian Small Pipes (NSP). These are quicker to tune than the BP and less problematic to hold and to play. The melodies I played were:
Mallorca, Wards Brae, Gallowgate Lass.
The last two melodies I grouped together into one melody as they are very similar to each other.
The final group of tunes were:
Johnny Armstrong and Welcome to the Town Again,
the first being a Border Ballad melody and the last a dance tune from Peacocks.

The experience was an interesting one, enjoyable and I hope the start of many more to come in the future.

The video is of the first performance on NSP.