“We are too Rich”

In about 2008 I was busking with the Northumbrian Small Pipes when a man stopped to listen, he listened a lot longer than most people and I began to get suspicious. I cut the melody short to let him decide what to do, either he wanted to talk or he would move on, he came to talk. He was from the Czech Republic and his name was Mira, he was a musician also, and he loved traditional music, and he had never seen the Northumbrian small pipes before. We chatted for a long time, and later on I went round to his flat to have a tea and chat some more, we remained friends and we still keep in contact.

I told him that not many people had stopped to listen like he had done, people just walk by. He said “here in the UK, you are too rich; you do not appreciate what you have, in the Czech Republic this (busking) does not happen”. I know what he meant, as I have lived in many countries where busking does not take place.

Mira, was old enough to be brought up under the Soviet era in Czechoslovensko, they did not have buskers so seeing me was new for him, he liked the possibility that it could happen, and that people were allowed to do it. He saw it as a sign of the “West” of liberation and freedom.

But I think people of the UK do not appreciate what they have. I do not believe they know what they have got until they have lost it. I am not saying that all busking is good, but I am saying, not to see it on the streets is a sign of (British) cultural decay and lack of expression.

There are certain cities in the UK that do not allow street musicians, you need to do an audition or you need to apply for a permit; Carlisle is not one of those cities. Sometimes there is no place to play as there are so many people playing, not all of them are good, but a lot are, and over the years more girls are starting to busk, it is a good way to learn about performing.

In the summer of 2017 I nearly decided to stop busking, for several months I felt “invisible”. People just did not care about folk music, about what I was playing or showed any interest. Over the years, sometimes I have chatted with people more than I have played. There was always someone to talk too, or someone smiling at me, or saying “it sounds lovely” or a facial recognition that showed they liked the music, there was money in the box and I ended the day on a high. But for the past 2 years this has become virtually non-existent. I had finished playing each week and went home without any sort of “feedback” what so ever.

In my mind I have tied to find a reason why this was happening; perhaps it was my music? Perhaps people just could not relate to traditional music any more? Perhaps it was the political situation in the UK why people were down? Perhaps it was Brexit and the changes taking place within the UK were causing them to ingnore what was around them? Or was it the economic situation that made people depressed? Was it the War, bombings, terrorism… did it all have a factor in the mood of the people? The more I tried to find a solution the less I could understand it. I was in a “glass box” invisible and ignored, at the same time the verbal abuse by kids got more potent, the homelessness became more apparent, the atmosphere at Christmas 2016 was as depressive as nothing I had experienced, it was no longer pleasurable to play.

So in August 2017 when I decided to stop playing, I felt depressed; I mean I did not play anything, no pipes or concertina; I did not even practice or record. The mood on the streets had inflected me that I questioned why I was playing music at all, especially folk music. I felt it had no basis in modern society any more, so why do it.

There was 1 problem, I cannot stop playing! For me it is like stopping breathing. It does not happen. So I continued to go busking once a week or sometimes twice a week. I told myself I will just play for myself. I will forget the people, forget the money, and forget everything. I will just play as I like to do it, and I like the traditional melodies and I like to play these melodies and playing in front of people is the best feeling, and I did this week after week just for myself. At first the lack of attention was hard, even though I was playing for myself, but I kept doing it and after while I did not mind any more.

I think what Mira said is wrong, as we are fast becoming a cultural 3rd world, we are not (culturally) rich, we are a society that does not appreciate local live music unless it is packaged and controlled. If you think about how many people do we know who play a musical instrument for a living, there are not many? Music is all around us but it is not live, we are entertained by music but we are not “making music” ourselves and we are not sharing music together, and we not appreciating people who play it.

UK is fast becoming a musical mono-culture. It is getting less and less versatile, we are spoon fed. As long as we can download it or stream it, get it by paying for a ticket, or watching it on TV, it is fine; clinical and without mistakes. And this is where Mira was right, we have become “too rich”, we do not appreciate people enough to appreciate what they are trying to do musically. We ignore them. We walk by without listening. We do not talk and discus and communicate. Buskers are the current “wall paper” ignored and not thought of.

I guess it is the sign of the times; it is inevitable that busking will be a “past” culture. Only appreciated with the older generation and when they have gone it will be gone.

But recently I have began to notice a change, I have started to get recognition once again: a nod, a smile, a quick chat, a thumbs up etc. when someone puts some money in my concertina bag I say thank you, but instead of them walking on they replied, “No, thank YOU”. I have noticed foreigners appreciating the music more: Poles/Czechs, Indians/Pakistanis, Chinese, Africans, Spanish, Portuguese … are some of the people who have given some sort of “communication” of appreciation.

Perhaps because they have not see it on their streets in their countries, or perhaps they are seeing it for the first time also? Perhaps, like Mira, they see Britain as being “too rich”?

Advertisements

Violence and Busking

What do you do when about 10 boys come at you in a menacing way? That is what happened to me last Saturday while I was busking? I heard lots of shouting then as they turned the corner they all started chanting and singing and stamping. It reminded me of a Soweto tribal gathering. Slowing advancing towards me in unison, all I could do was put my head down and continue playing. When the noise got too much and when they had circled around me I stopped playing. One of the boys wanted money, he looked into my bag and demanded £1 for to buy a drink. I said I need the money for a coffee as I was cold; it had been a cold day.

Women say men are not very good at multiprocessing, but when it comes to getting your head kicked in we are not so bad really. I answered questions that were rapidly aimed at me:
“Is that your bike? Give me some money? Can I have a go? What is that? I am going to steal your bike?” etc.

You have to think fast. If you are aggressive or rude then you will have a pack onto you, with your face beaten and your instrument taken or broken. I was sitting down, so a kick to the head was easy to do. In fact I was consciously aware of that kick or punch that never came.

I have always been good at talking my way out of trouble and it was not the first time that a group had menaced me like this. One time a group of football hooligans came my way and I got hit on the head by a passing blow while I was playing my pipes. The funny thing was his friend said “don’t do that you idiot” and then gave me a few pounds, so I got paid for being hit.

That Saturday as I talked with this gang, who were on their way to the pub. I dodged their comments and eventually they got bored, then the magical words I longed to hear came “leave him alone” and the danger had passed. One boy aimed a kick at my bike and walked off. They hung around before going to the pub. I packed my things away and made my way into town. If I was still there when they came out of the pub I do not think they would be tolerant.

Group violence on the streets in becoming more of a problem these days; before it was individuals giving me a hard time, or a couple of boys, but now it is gangs and not only boys, but girls too. I remember one time a group of about 15 young adults came out of the Technical College at lunch time, came through the alley where I was playing pipes and started calling me names, then some dropped over the wall at the other side of me, and started to call me names too, I was boxed in. One boy threw some liquid over me. It was turning ugly. I always believe the best form of defence when verbal diplomacy has failed is to run; I could not so the final resort is to “attack” so I did. The cowards ran off, I got one and beat him over the head until he squealed. I packed up and went home.

I have been threatened a lot by homeless people who tend to think that a particular paving stone is “theirs”. They can have it is not precious to me. But they can get aggressive especially if they are mentally ill. I have been threatened with violence in the same way as a young police officer would threaten me “when I get back if you are not gone you will be in trouble”. For me there is no difference in character except for the clothes they wear. One homeless man called “Geordie” threatened me in such a way, I felt very strange about this man, as though there was something seriously wrong. I left the area, and then 2 weeks later I saw his picture in the local newspaper, he had murdered a homeless man in the nearby park.

The other people who bother me are junkies, they are harmless but they want money. I do not give them any; drunks are more forceful (it is the nature of the drug I guess) and they try to take it. But generally I keep my head down, play my music and do not look at anyone. And 99.9% of the time I am left alone.

Rothbury Folk Festival 2017

I have just returned from Rothbury Folk Festival (in Northumberland), a really good festival with a lot of different music going on. The session on the Friday in the Queen’s was good, a nice mixture of Northumbrian songs and instrumentals.

Saturday was a good day for me as it started with Northumbrian Pipe music at 10am and all through the day there were opportunities for NSP playing, with the session after the competitions and later that evening with a session in the Coquetvale Hotel.
Fewer pipers there this year, but Saturday was still the main day for piping.

The weather stopped the open air concerts but the music continued in the Mart and by all accounts it was really good there with concerts and dances until the early morning.

On the Sunday I went to my first Ceilidh and observed (I did not dance, to the relief of the others) what went on. I had never been to one before, although I have started to play for a Playford group.

In the afternoon there was more sessions and in the evening also in the Queen’s.
Monday we left and are looking forward to going to more Festivals this summer.

Concert: Newcastleton Folk Festival

I decided to have a theme for this year’s concert at Newcastle Folk Festival. Last year at the Friday night concert, I played a random set of tunes from the Peacock Manuscript. But this year I wanted to select different “variation” pieces of Northumbrian music played on the Northumbrian Small pipes.

These variation sets, are long pieces of music; similar to having 5 or 6 melodies added after each other. They are very characteristic of old Border Northumbrian melodies. There are suggestions why these variations came to be added after the main piece of music (the A and B sections of a melody). Some say they are for dancing, for the musician not to be bored; some say they are for listening, as in a concert environment and the player can express their virtuosity and skill.

Whatever the reason these variations can be simple or complex, often long in length sometimes having 25 sections; or as little as 2.

The old manuscripts have variation pieces in them: Dixon, Peacock, and Bewick are the manuscripts I chose to play from.

I started the concert with a reason why I chose to do the variation pieces. This was because 2 years ago I was sitting in a session listening to a friend of mine playing a variation piece on the Scottish Small pipes. As I was listening a man learned across to me and whispered in my ear “it goes on a bit”. He clearly did not like these long pieces of music. It is an expression I have heard before, especially from non-musicians. They do not understand why it is so long, or what the tune is trying to convey to the listener.

People have a short concentration span, 3 minutes on average, as long as a pop song; after that their mind goes onto other things. The variation piece needs concentration to listen and understand it properly; or the audience needs activity as in dancing. These melodies more makes sense when one is playing for a dance; it can get very boring to play the same melody over again, often 15 times while the dance is going on. It makes more sense to keep adding parts so the musician can keep an interest and therefore put some life into the playing.

The comment, made by the man in the session, kept in my mind for a while and I mused upon its reason and solution. “How could I make these traditional pieces of music more understandable and digestible for the listener?”.

In the concert at Newcastleton, I began with a very simple variation piece, Peacock’s “Highland Laddie”; mentioning that the 2nd part of the tune, is another melody called “Butter’d Peas” also from Peacock with the parts changed around. Instead of parts C and D, as in the Highland Laddie, they become parts A and B in Butter’d Peas.

With this example I began to mention my method for other variation pieces. I said “I began to chop up the variations into A and B parts, to make them more easily remembered, as well as giving them a life of their own, then when I had mastered the 2 parts, I joined them onto the variation piece once more”.

To demonstrate this I played Dixon’s “Highland Laddie” mentioning that I missed out the last 2 parts as I found it was “enough for me to play”. I wanted to say that musicians should play what feels comfortable to them, what they like and what they consider appropriate. There is no law that you must play all of the variations. Pick out the best parts and play those.

My next example was Bewick’s “Blackett O’Wylam” where I played all of the parts; followed by Peacock’s “Newmarket Races” where I only played the first 4 parts.
The next melody was Bewick’s “Sir John Fenwick’s” where I played all of the parts, and lastly I played Dixon’s “New Way to Bowden” where I played all the parts.

The concert was recorded and I will upload the recording at a later date.

Newcastleton Workshop 2017

It was my 3rd year running the Small pipe workshop at Newcastleton Folk Festival (always the 1st weekend in July). This year was different as a lot more people attended; in fact more people than sets of pipes. No way can I cater for everyone, I brought 5 sets of pipes and the group was good enough to double up during the workshop. I estimated 9 people came, as well as 3 others from the festival that had some role to play. 9 I thought was a nice size. I began by giving a talk about the construction, maintenance; and technique of blowing up the pipes; bag pressure; finger styles used with the small pipes, and bellows technique etc. and then a demonstration of what I hoped they would achieve from the workshop… to hold a note steady for 3 minutes.
Then I gave out the pipes for the students to try.

It is difficult to cater for the different age groups and sizes of the students. I made these pipes with my own body size in mind, but a young girl was there and she found them too big, and adults with a large waist was pulling the blowpipe out of its stock and due to the increase of girth. I am not sure how to cater for all the different sizes of people? It is a case of redesigning the pipes for workshops, something which might be difficult; and I guess, if they had more time, it would not be necessary, as they would master the correct position.

Another comment was that the bellow of a student was pinching into the student’s wrist, indicating that I should put padding around the edges of the bellows like the Irish piper’s bellows. I should have pointed out that the shape of the bellows is traditional and there was never any padding on the bellows cheek. What could be happening is that the posture of the student was not correct and this put the pressure on one side of the bellow, making the other side to rise and cut into the wrist. It is a case of the “beginner is always right and the instrument is wrong…” errrr no! If a student spent more time getting the basics right then they would see that the basic technique is important. They all seemed to be in a hurry to play…but without these techniques you cannot play.

To be fair on the student, what is required from them is nearly impossible, to master a technique that would normally take days to master. They have just over 1 hour. It is a tall order for anyone.

Another comment was that my pipes are quiet. Well small pipes are relatively quiet, I think what might be happening is that they hear pipes being played in a session, a Border pipe or a Scottish small pipe made by a highland maker (possibly the Reel pipes,) which are made for a Highland player, and these require more pressure and give out more volume, and they think all small pipes are the same, which they are not. My pipes are intended to give a quiet sound as I do not want 5 pipes playing loudly in a small room. They are meant for the student to listen too, but ideally not for the other students to hear them.

Another point I noticed was that the student wanted to play the chanter. So they ignored what I was saying in the introduction, that “if you can keep a steady pressure and play a steady note continually for 3 minutes, you have advanced a lot”. They immediately went for the chanter and seemed to think the pipes were at fault because they could not get a good sound. These things are natural of course, who would want to play 1 note for 3 minutes when more notes are there to try? But next time I might just start off with a chanter without holes, just a piece of tubing would have been more useful and if someone can get that right then give them a chanter to try. Most had difficulties in holding the chanter anyways, so it would be one less thing to worry about if the chanter was left to dangle and not to worry about covering the holes.

Over all I think the workshop went well. I improved my delivery to the students, and I learned more about how to present the small pipes as well as dealing with a bigger crowd.

Workshop: Newcastleton Folk Festival

This weekend, there will be a workshop (3rd year running) at Newcastleton Folk Festival in the Scottish Borders. It is for beginners, showing the basics of playing (bag pressure, holding a steady note etc.) how getting started on the small pipes. Some sets will be available for people who want to have a go, or bring your own if you want to start. More details will be given at the Festival Office, but the workshop will be on Sunday morning, about 10am and will officially last 2 hours (but in practice it continues!).

“Play Something English”

It’s all becoming a bit too much. Brexit and the media have released in people a bigotry that was hidden. A few occasions in the past 2 months I have gone busking to be faced with a mindless ignorance that comes from people who are prejudiced against foreigners.

These people seem to think the instruments I play (English concertina and the Border Pipes or the Northumbrian Small pipes) are foreign instruments and therefore I am foreign too.

The latest encounter happened yesterday. A young couple (who had a Lancashire accent) came up to me while I was busking with the English concertina. “Where are you from” he said. I replied I was from Carlisle. “O’ good as if you are a foreigner I would not give you any money”. As he said those words I pulled a face of disapproval, he noticed this and said “O’ I am not racist” he thought for a second and came back and put 1p into my box, he must have felt guilty!

Another occasion was when 4 kids, aged roughly 13-14, came past me while I was playing the Border pipes. One girl did not like the sound of the pipes and was shouting at me to stop, then screaming at me to stop, holding her hands over her ears and screaming, she kept on saying “play something English”. The 2 boys with her began to get annoyed so I decided to stop. I told them that with all their screaming they had no idea that this instrument was from this region and the tune I was playing was from Northumbria. They were actually de-crying their own culture. I told them they should get to know their own culture and music before they open their mouths.

Ok, they are young, bored teenagers, and as they hung around I learned that they had nowhere to go, and had no family as such; so they were looking for mischief. One other girl egged on the screamer to throw a pint glass of water over me, but she threw it on the ground instead in front of me.

Another experience was again when I was playing Border pipes and 2 young boys walked past and shouted “play something fucking English”, again I was playing a Northumbria melody on an instrument that was native to my area. These sorts of comments happen a lot.

A couple of years ago I was playing the Northumbria small pipes when 2 police men stopped me. One had a London accent the other was from Carlisle. The Londoner was obviously looking for a promotion, or to make his mark. He said derogatively “which country is that instrument from” I said “country or county? The Londoner looked confused, and that’s when the Cumbrian said to him “these are Northumbrian Small Pipes” the Londoner looked embarrassed and they both walked away.

When I sit and play the majority of people like my music. But when they approach me they always mouth the words “it is nice”, like I cannot understand them, some look at me as though they want to speak to me but feel I cannot understand English.

I can only draw from this that they see a busker and they see a foreigner. To tell you the truth I feel like a foreigner, as I do not recognize the prejudices that are on our streets these days.

Bandcamp: CDs

I have been re-looking at my Bandcamp site. It takes a lot of time to edit it.

I have re-mastered (as they say) the Border pipes CD “O’er the Dyke” and in doing so, it was like finding a lost manuscript, hidden in my archives. I had to re-understand what I was doing all those years ago while recording that CD, using the equipment I had back then. No such thing as DAWs as today, I used to record using a normal computer and its own sound programme. 2 computers to create 1 CD.

Technology moves so fast and now it is easier to record, edit and publish a CD using 1 computer and 1 programme. It takes a lot of time of course, days, weeks and months… but the actual recording can be done a lot quicker.

I have been working on 2 new CDs.

The 1st CD is of the Northumbrian Smallpipes: looking more closely at the Dixon manuscript, with their complex variations. And also I have been looking at various non-British melodies from Sweden, Spain, Belgium and France.

The reason for the mix of styles is a reflection of the countries that have influenced my music of the past 20 years. A CD has to be representative of what I am playing now, and what I am playing are melodies that are directly part of my life. Since I spend a lot of my time in Spain researching the bagpipe, I play a lot of Spanish bagpipe melodies, and since I visit Sweden I have collected 1 or 2 tunes from there… and so it goes on.

The 2nd CD is a concertina CD, with a doubling up of a mandolin on various tracks. The mandolin I started to play again after 30 years break. These tracks are a reflection of my busking activities in the UK and various duets I have been involved with in Spain. The style also covers a range of UK and Spanish melodies that work on the concertina (not all of them do work!). I had to learn a new repertoire on the concertina recently as one of the notes stopped working, so instead of transferring the existing melodies onto a new pitch, I learned a new repertoire in a different key.

These CDs I hope to have finished in December and January.

Northumbrian Smallpipes

This years Newcastleton Folk Festival (2016) was enjoyable for me, I played various pipes (Gaita, NSP, Border and Scottish Smallpipes) and played at a few concerts and gave my workshop on the Smallpipes.

I was asked to play at the opening concert in the Church, part of it was video’d. I played for about 30 minutes and I really enjoyed the atmosphere. The melodies are all traditional Northumbrian/Border mainly from the Peacock manuscript (1800)

Jinn & Tonik / The Flying Cats

I have been playing with Alba, a fiddle player from Madrid over the past few years. I put to gether a few mp3s connected with our rehearsals. We are called “Jinn & Tonik” and we are trying to mix Spanish and UK music with musical “accents”, how each of us look at each other’s music.
Jinn & Tonik

Another musical project was with a Alba and a singer called Isabel, we concentrated mainly on Scottish Songs, but with the phrasing and “accents” of Spain. We called ourselves “The Flying Cats” (the name was taken from Isabel’s cats who decided to jump from one side of the room to the other and land on our heads while we were reheasing).

The Flying Cats

Busking and Begging

When I finally emerged into the tunnel it was late morning. I had not intended to go playing at all, but I positioned myself underneath the arches, where there is a good echo, and played Northumbrian small pipes. I play to practice, to play melodies; I gave up doing it for money long ago when the money dried up. I keep my brain active by playing all the tunes I know. This is an ever changing format, new tunes come and go and I revise them all the time.

These days I am memorizing Peacocks tunes, I hammer them into my memory by playing them over and over again, busking helps to play them well, as it is a performance, and I have to get it right. It is good to play new tunes, it refreshes the set, and it puts new life into an old rehearsed format. I rework the notes, rhythms, and style. I play them fast, slow and everything between, a reel becomes a hornpipe, a slip jig a jig then becomes a waltz… a hornpipe a slow air… I am free to improvise.

As the morning wore on I noticed out the corner of my eye another busker with a guitar standing at the other end of the tunnel, I cannot hear him, but it is cheeky. Normally a busker would not be down here standing so close, there is not the space for 2 musicians. In fact I have never seen another busker there for many years. No one goes there, it is not a good place to make money and it is dirty and dark. But he was singing with his guitar, moving positions, and stopping a lot. Then he was gone.

After a break at 2pm I went back to play a little more. I get tired from standing, and I play until I cannot stand much longer. After a few minutes I notice a few meters away a man, it is like he is on his holidays with a carrying case and bags. It looks like he is arranging his case, but he sits on the floor and there he stays.
He is homeless, he is begging, he just sits there a few paces away.

What to think? This is not the first time a homeless person has sat in this tunnel while I am playing. On one occasion it was nasty, the person had once threatened to “stick a knife in me” if I came back, and a few days later he had knifed another homeless person in the park. Others have told me to “fuck off”, but only this one had sat. I played on. I noticed a couple of his friends hanging around; a man passed and whispered “careful of your case”. Things where turning serious. I played on. No abuse, no threatening movements only silence, only looking on … waiting. As time went on more lost people where hanging around. The park is well known for homeless people at night.

I was called a “beggar” in the early 80s while playing. Thankfully those days are gone; I think people realize playing music is not an easy thing to do on the streets. And I have only had abuse from drunks and drug addicts this then. I guess some people see me also as a “beggar” as a “homeless person” but I am neither.
In the end I moved off, I had played enough, this man was turning a dirty tunnel into something else… something where music is not welcome. I better quit while I still had pipes to play.

I packed up and passed him. I thought him a fool; he chose a place where he would make no money… I was making it. He could have gone to the other end, but he sat in the dirt and dog piss, where he would make nothing while I was there.  When I passed him he looked at me and I at him, he was the type who did not look after himself, a drunk and waist.er Let’s hope he gets lifted and put into a home… like so many others who had sat in his place. It is cruel to be kind as that is no life for anyone.

 I wandered into the center of town, a large merry-go-round was pumping out music… was this the reason why the other busker had come down to the tunnel, to escape the noise? I heard a brass band playing amongst the noise, then they stopped, a police man had stopped them and told them to move… recorded music is ok but live music is not. They were 5 people from Rumania; they looked confused and lost, wandering off down the street with nowhere to play, it was time to go home.

Rothbury Folk Festival 2015

The weekend started on the Thursday before the weekend by going through to Newcastleton, getting up early morning and going to Hexham and playing Northumbrian small pipes for 3 hours in the shopping precinct. Luckily there was not much disturbance and I played ok and got some good responses… always a bit uncertain as Northumbrian pipes in Northumbrian can be a bit like teaching English to the English! Before we left Hexham I visited a music shop (also music co-operative) where I knew they held workshops, I asked about holding my “Small pipe workshop” there, I had a positive response.

Then onto Rothbury Folk Festival, we got there about 5pm set up the tent and headed off for a session in the Queens Head pub. Due to a lot of background noise I opted for the Border pipes tunes.

Saturday was a quick listen to the town pipe band, then the Andy May Trio on the village stage, then off to the piper’s competition in the hall. It was full of people and a good turnout of performers. This year there was Border pipes competition. Listening to the Northumbrian pipers beginners and intermediate performers I noticed a lack of “drone tuning” therefore the pipes sounded horrible “TUNE YOUR DRONES TO THE CHANTER”  it is basic stuff, the judges need to be more strickt about this.

After the duets we headed off to a small room above the Newcastle pub and played a few sets. It was funny really as Border pipers sat in one end of the room and the northumbrian pipers sat in the other end… they did not mix… of course they were friends, but musically there was no common ground. Different tunings (A verses F) loud and soft… except for a few tunes in G (one G border pipe and some had G Northumbrian).

Then off to the Queen’s again for an evening session. This lasted until about 01.30am for me then I wandered off back to the tent. Then a strange thing happened about an hour later I had strong car headlights on my tent, voices calling out “are you in there”. One of my fears in a car/tented campsite is that I get run over by drunken drivers. This seemed to be happening with a car nearly on top of me. I stuck my head out of the tent and there was a police car. They kindly shone a strong beam of light deliberately into my face and asked me “I had seen Andy, who wears a green arm cast?” I replied to the negative. There had been a police helicopter above wakening everyone up and I guess the infrared camera had singled me out as I walked home.

The Sunday was a good small session in the Queen’s lots of varied music and a mixture of styles and instruments and song, I played Northumbrian small pipes more here due to the lack of background noise.
An excellent weekend.

Newcastleton Folk Festival 2015 (review)

I had a different, and in many ways a better festival this year. I did not attend the sessions like I normally do. I found last year a bit frustrating with all the noise (drunks not music) and a lack of places to play (for quieter instruments) all added to me walking aimlessly around. This year was different the organizers had added new venues to the places to play, one was a “quiet room” not in the main square (away from the pubs) but where you could have a tune. Also there were fewer drunks there this year and possibly less musicians (?) so I could find places to play.

I found the marquee empty on a Saturday morning so I played my Northumbrian small pipes, I played and played and slowly people began to sit down, after 2 hours of playing the tent was getting full, a few more musicians arrived and added more… then I left, found another piper and played on the grass (Border pipes and Scottish small pipes) and spoke to some people about the festival, piping and things in general. I met with a Northumbrian piper and had a few tunes together.

The after-hours sessions were great, songs and music, which went on until the early hours (got to bed 3am both nights) and on the Sunday night the “survivors session” we finally got out at 5.30am… and excellent sessions (I even sang while playing the pipes… a rare occasion).

The workshop went well, 10am to 12.30pm was useful to the students and myself (I even got a hug off one of them) what was apparent was the lack of contact the individual pipers had (isolation) and no advice or after care help; something they found the workshop was useful for. After the workshop we chatted and played until about 4pm!

I learn a lot too about my pipes and the adjustments I need to make, but the comments about the pipes were good and positive. I will make some mouth blown pipes too incase they will be needed. I will look for more festivals in the future and other venues to attract the students.

Completed Small Pipes for Newcastleton Folk Festival 2015

There are 7 completed Small pipes for the Newcastleton Folk Festival. I have covered most of the bellows with a fabric except for 2 of them.

Bubinga chanter, cherry and cedar drones. The bellows were donated by a friend this is the only item that I did not make.

Indian Red Wood chanter and drones, the deeper colour on the chanter is due to oiling. The bellows I made in 1994 in Lithuania

Bubinga chanter and drones, cedar wood decoration on drones

Cherry chanter and drones, walnut wood decorations on drones

Bubinga chanter, cherry drones with Indian red wood decorations

Indian red wood chanter and drones, cherry wood decorations on drones, cedar wood decoration on chanter

Cedar chanter and drones, this was the first bagpipe I made in Spain in 2014

Making Bagpipes: Workshop Leaflet

A leaflet will be given out at the workshop giving contact details and letting people know about other workshop ideas…

“The intension of the workshop is promote the Small pipe tradition to people who have an interest in learning the Northumbrian Small pipes, Scottish Small pipes, Leicestershire Small pipes and other types of bellow-blown pipes. The aim is to provide sets of pipes to develop the student’s playing techniques and offering 3 levels of classes:

The 1st level is the total beginner’s workshop to show the techniques for starting to play.
The 2nd level is a workshop to introduce tunes from the Scottish Borders.
The 3rd level is to teach more demanding tunes and build a varied repertoire.
Within the 3rd level there is the opportunity for the student to buy their small pipes and to continue the classes privately.

(The small pipes in the workshop are made by myself and are of different quality depending on the level of workshop).

To learn more about the musical activities, concerts, lessons and workshops visit my web page http://ethnopiper.blogspot.co.uk or email me at ethnopiper@gmail.com

Bagpipe Making: Small Drone Parts

I have been making ‘small drone parts’ over the past few days. The original plan was only to have bass drones for the workshop, but the small drone adds to the techniques and is an important part in learning how to play. It can be a little difficult tuning a 2nd drone easily and successfully, an out of tune drone is annoying as an out of tune chanter, so tuning ones ear to a harmony can be useful to know.

I am experimenting with woods, mixing them together, joining them together and playing with outer designs. I do like making the wooden parts.

I made another bellow, still trying different techniques out, experimenting with different glues and ways of assembling in a less messy manner.

If I get the time I will use it with the workshop, but at the moment I am finalizing 7 sets and if I can squeeze in an 8th all well and good.

Bagpipe Making: Tuning Chanters

The chanters are being tested to see if they are in the right key. My original idea was to have them all playing in the key of D (a common key for sessions) but after assembling them and testing them out I am finding they are quiet for sessions (due to wood type and reed limitations). So I am forgetting about unifying the chanters in the same key, I will make each of them in tune with the drones so each player can practice by alone (and not as a group).

Thinking more about it this makes more sense as anyone coming with their own small-pipe will be in a different tuning (possibly F, C, Bb, G, A) to my D set,  it only takes 1 key difference to make the group sound discordant. I cannot cater for this. It will be easier to ask the student to play alone, and I can see to them individually, and occasionally to get them together as a group for general discussion.

The workshop will not only be “hands on” practice, but informative with maintenance tips, buying guide, types of pipes etc.  a general introduction. It is catering for the “person who is intending to own a set of Small pipes in the future”. This workshop cannot give them hours of practice (which is what is needed) it can give them ideas on what to look out for and to suggest the steps to practice when they have their own sets.

Bagpipe Making: Help in Making, near Completion

What a difference a few days make when someone comes and helps with the making. Leila flew over from Spain to help with the sewing of the outer bags; she also helped with other aspects of making. By the end of the 3 days we completed all of the assembly, the finer tasks of clack valves, blow pipes, belts for bellows, decoration on the bellows, a new design for the bellows, and securing the wooden drone parts to the metal sliding section.

What is left to do is to drill and fine tune the chanters against the drones, and complete making the reeds. Last week I was wondering if I could complete everything in time but having someone help and encourage and just to bounce ideas helped get through the mountain of jobs that often overwhelmed me. Sometimes, I just froze due to the amount of jobs still to do.

1 bag had to be discarded due to leaking. It was an old bag, an experiment from Spain. It will be easier to make a new bag with the current method than to try and find the leaks.

The next jobs will be tuning of the chanters and making reeds for the drones. It is the last and trickiest task to do.

Bagpipe Making: Bellows (1)

I finished gluing the leather to the cheeks of the 1st bellow, and then I left it to dry over night. It was beginning to look like the finished bellow. Instead of screwing the leather to the cheeks, I inserted safety pins into the cheeks to hold the leather while the glue dried. This worked very well and took a lot quicker to do. I can simply pull the pins out and insert the screws later then the glue is dry.

I then started on the 2nd bellow (my own design). I connected the two ends of the leather by stitching and smearing silicone between the folds and over the stitching, and left it to dry over night.

The glued cheek covering (a green velvet) that was done the previous day had glued smooth and came out nice.

I took the stocks out of the bags, ready for dying them to give them some uniformity in design.

Bagpipe Making: Bellows

I had some success yesterday, I began by redrawing the plans for the new bellow cheeks, and I also standardized the plans for the leather, ignoring the Northumbrian style as well as the Irish bellow style. I thought why not experiment with my own style.

After drawing the plans, I cut the leather to the new plans.

I started on the Irish bellows, I glued the leather to the cheeks first instead of adding the screws to the cheeks, and then I loosely place the screws to keep the leather in place, and left it to dry for 24 hours.

I drilled the new holes in the new bellow cheeks and put a covering over the wood for decoration.

I then went to the lathe and finished off the bass drone, my best yet, a nice combination of woods (bubinga and cedar).

Bellow Trouble

Sometimes the work can go smoothly, other times like today it can be really slow and frustrating. The final bass drone is still yet to be completed due to the gluing of the ornamentation.

The fixing of the leather to the bellow cheeks had to be postponed due to the cheeks splitting/cracking. I had to cover the cheek with glue; hopefully this will seal and strengthen the sides making the wood stronger for the screws to go in without splitting the wood. I do not want to revert to the traditional Northumbrian method as I know this works; I want to try new things out. But it is a very slow process having to measure the leather around the cheeks, then sealing and sewing the two ends of the leather together (which I did today), then fixing the leather to the edges of the cheeks.

I do not want to abandon the process just yet, I want to see if I can do it, but it is a method I will not try in the future. Irish pipers have this method for making their bellows, it works fine for them, but for me I need a different system for making bellows.

My own system I will try, straight after I have completed the ‘Irish method’. I have started it already but it is taking time due it is my first try and I am working ‘blind’, after this one it should be smoother.

I dyed and varnished the stocks to make them seem uniform in the bags. This is not essential but from afar it will look presentable; they look like a dark oak colour now.

Cheeks for New Bellows

Today I glued the bass drone pieces together using bubinga and cedar woods, it looks attractive. I will shape it tomorrow then I will have the 7 bass drones made.

I made 7 bellows cheeks today, cut them and sanded them down ready to apply the material. I did away with the curved ends; I want my own design, something to make them a little different. The construction is my own idea, so I might as well make the design a little different too.

The glued fabric on the 2 bellows cheeks I did yesterday was a success, it is ready to apply the “leather” part now…. the tricky bit. 

Workshop Venue

Yesterday I completed shaping another bass drone this time with bubinga and cherry. After taking advice from the “Bagpipe Makers Exchange” forum, I began different tasks to rest the eyes and mind so not to make too many mistakes in the future.

I worked on the bellows by drilling the outlet holes and gluing fabric over the cheeks and letting them dry for 24 hours. Then I went back to the bass drone making, cutting the wood, long boring and shaping it down to 19mm. This will be my 7th and final bass drone for the workshop.

At Newcastleton, I looked around the venue space where the workshop will be held. There was a leather couch type seating around the wall which is good for spacing out the students so their pipes will not overlap each other too much.

The room also took me back to the 1980s Festivals where they used to hold the Northumbrian small pipe competitions, times change, next year it will no longer be a venue but flats.

Newcastleton Folk Club

Newcastleton Folk Club is on every 4th Tuesday of the month, just over the Scottish Border. I have been going for a few months and enjoying it a lot. There is a nice mix of singers and instrumentalists, with a mixture of ballads, modern songs, humorous songs and the odd poem.

The musicians always have an element of piping as one of the organizers (Dave) is a small piper, and has been introducing the larger French-Anglo pipe and the Swedish Sackpipa into the mix. I play my Northumbrian and Scottish Small pipes, and this time I was joined with a fiddler and guitarist. There are a few guitarists generally to accompany songs or to perform solo. Other times there have been Irish pipes, mandolins, mandolas, and a whistle.

There is a rotation of music, so everyone gets a chance to play/sing. This week I played 3 sets on the Scottish Small pipes, the first being composed of 2 Lowland Scots tunes “Now Westlin Winds” and the “The Gallowa Hills”; the second set was made up of 3 Northumbrian tunes “Neil Gow, Chevy Chase, and Frisky”.

The next set of tunes was on the Northumbrian Small pipes, I played 2 tunes called “Bonny at Morn” and “Fairly Shot on Her”

The last set was on the Scottish Small pipes, which was accompanied by a guitarist and violin player. The tunes were “The Rowan Tree” and the “When the Battle’s O’er”, 2 Highland pipe tunes.

Bass Drone and Bent Reamer

I finished off the bass drone from yesterday, it was gluing over night and today I turned it down and added decoration. There is a mixture of woods: European cedar and cherry, a white wood mixed with a light pink wood, it looks nice. That makes 5 bass drones in total completed.

An accident occurred yesterday as I was re-boring the drones to clean out some chaff. The reamer came out of the lathe and hit the tool rest; the reamer was bent and came out of the chuck. It happened so fast I could do nothing, luckily I have another. Was it tiredness which made me not fix it securely or just one of those things?

Today, I used the Visio programme and redesigned the measuring and cutting of the bubinga wood for another bass drone. I will mix the woods again, this time using the cherry as a contrast wood to the bubinga.

I long bored the bubinga and choose a piece of cherry to complete the length of the drone. I will try and join them now and glue them before I leave for a folk session at Monkhill tonight.

Drone Design with Computers

I spent too much time over a drone yesterday. The boring and rough turning was done the day before, so all was left to do was shape it, but this is where the time went, designing and turning all has to be done in my head then acted upon; and since it has been months since I had made a drone I was again remembering how to do it. I had altered the design since last time too by using new measurements and new forms; using my chisels instead of the tool post and cutters. It was a success, it looked ok, until the last piece was to be turned and here (again) tiredness took over and I glued the finishing piece and left it for the night. I should have left the gluing until today, as it was not long enough. Not to worry the beauty about wood is that you can redo it.

Later I decided to revisit the design of the drone, not in my head, but on the computer by using a “vsd” format. This allows quite detailed drawings to be experimented with, and a working blueprint to be achieved ‘on paper’. So I am hoping today I will have gained some time and drones will not take so much time.

I started working on my new idea for the bellows, I submerged the wood into a barrel of water to make it more supple, then I laid heavy weights on it to iron out any lumps and bumps, and then let it to dry.

Drone Configuration and Melody Types

An interesting talk with a young piper yesterday in Carlisle prompted me to write a little about drone tuning. Our conversation centered on the types of drones one should use and for which melodies. He was interested in using the drone configuration of A, d’, a’’ (Bass A, tenor D, alto A) with his ‘A’ Scottish small pipes. This drone configuration is not unusual in the European style but it is with Scottish small pipes. When I first heard about it I was skeptical, there would be a clash of sounds, but it was not as bad as what I thought as I listened to him play.

The problem is the amount of melodies he could play, not many would fit the harmonic arrangement. The Highland tunes would be more willing to blend in with the drones especially the one which were routed in the D note, but the Northumbrian and Border melodies that used the C# (3rd note of the A scale) a lot clashed with the D drone. He thought it sounded ok, but I begged to differ.

When I started to play the Northumbrian small pipes in G I looked for melodies that played with the A drones (a’, a’’) there was not many melodies either, the root note of the melody being the A note on the chanter. With the drone playing the root note it harmonized with the rest of the scale. Not a problem.

My young friend was interested in a small pipe that “fitted all situations”, I was too, many years ago and in some respects the addition of owning chanters reflect this still. But perhaps this has been tried before, in the past, and the best that was achieved by the tradition was a drone configuration of A, a’, a’; giving a strong root note for different types of modes/scales to be explored. For me it was interesting to see a “work in progress” but I wonder if it will be followed up in a few years time… I hope so.

Drones, Bellows and Reeds

I have not turned any drones for a couple of months so yesterday morning I had to spend most of my time trying to remember how to do it, or in what order I should do it. Also, within those months I have changed my making process and now I do things differently. What is the point (besides documentation) in writing anything down, to remember the process, when it is changing all the time?

With the new drill I bought the boring and drilling went very well, I did 2 sections of wood which will become a tenor drone.

Later that day I got given some wood which will become bellow cheeks. A change of design has been growing in my mind for several weeks now, to make the design of the bellows more airtight. My present system is an adaptation of the traditional method, but I have this idea and it will not go away! What I need to do is try it out, and this wood will be ideal for that. The process is not quicker but I believe it will be a cleaner and more secure/airtight that the traditional method.

I bought screws for the bellows cheeks, not the ones I was looking for, but they will do for the traditional bellows. This is the problem of making pipes in 2 countries (Spain and the UK), there is not the same product in both countries, not the same measurements and not the same price, and availability is not the same either. These screws will do for now until I can source better ones.

Later on that afternoon, I met a piper and we went to the park in Carlisle, the meeting was an interesting one but for the point of this blog I noticed that the reed I had made was not so bad. It was louder than what I had thought and the tone was sweeter. There were some problems with it (too sharp in the chanter) but from the point of view of making I was pleased.

Removable Chanter Stocks

Yesterday I made 5 removable chanter stocks; these stocks are made for each chanter so they protect the reed if removed from the bag.

In hindsight I could have made only the bag/chanter stock, but this is not only about the workshops, it is also about learning and creating a finish product I am pleased with. The bag/chanter stock would have been quicker but the chanter would have to fit each chanter stock exactly and I would not be able to interchange the chanters in different bags if there were any deviation in size. This might have been limiting if a student wants to try Northumbrian fingering and then they want to try Scottish small pipe fingering… they would have to change bags, bellows etc. which is all time consuming. With the removable option I can simple take one chanter out of the bag and add it to another without damaging the reed (most damage done to the reed is when it is removed from the bag).

As I was completing the 4th stock it suddenly jumped out of the chuck in the lathe and crushed itself against the tool post. Tiredness and lack of concentration can be dangerous. It is the first ruined piece of work so far… well there has been many failed experiments but this was my first broken experiment. It was a valuable lesson “take a break and rest”. Bad things happen very fast indeed!

Stocks and Newcastleton Folk Festival… it’s on !

At the end of the day I had 5 stocks completed, the drilling on the wood lathe went ok but the shaping and finalizing the stocks on the metal work lathe took the time. Also I had problems with the motor, it kept on speeding up then slowing down, I had to reduce the rpms to keep it stable, and so I was cutting slower. Anyways, it is progress and still on schedule.

Today I finalized the dates of the workshop at Newcastleton Folk Festival, so it is official, I will be giving a beginners workshop on the “Bellows blown Small-pipes”. The aim of the workshop is to introduce the student to the techniques of bellows blown piping, with ideas on bellows technique, bag pressure, holding a note, keeping the drones steady, and if there is time playing a scale… basically everything except learning melodies….that is for another workshop. With these techniques one can adapt to any of the bellows blown bagpipes (Irish, Border, Northumbrian, Scottish Small pipes, Pastoral, Dudy, Cornemuse, Mussette, etc.), as the basics are the same. If you are buying a set of bellows blown pipes with these techniques you can see if the pipes are in tune, working, playable… without the basic techniques this is impossible.

Stocks, Stocks and more Stocks

I realize I am starting late in documenting my attempts at making “small pipes” it is better to start now while I am still in the process of making, than to leave it and forget what I have done. The idea is to make at least 6 sets of small pipes to use in workshops at folk festivals. I think between 6 and 10 sets are a realistic number, 6 being the minimum to start with then increase it if I have the time. I get the chance to give my first workshop at the Newcastleton Folk Festival in July 2015.

There has been a lot of experimentation over the past year, but a few months ago when I was told I could do the workshop I had to get together the experiments (that worked) and start assembling them. I should also add that most of these experiments were done in Madrid, Spain. There I had tools and wood easily to hand, on returning to the UK I had to source all the materials again and things were harder to find here, and some things were not possible to get, so I had to begin again and experiment. Time was running out but today I thought to allocate time to each stage, for example last week and this week I dedicate my time to making stocks and by the end of the week I move onto the next stage eg. Drones. By this method I should complete at least some if not all of the small pipes in time, leaving enough time for tuning! So I began today by making stocks for each bag that did not have them, and I will work my way through the missing stocks systematically until all have them.

I have made 6 bags so far (I have made more, if I need them), I have inserted some of the chanter stocks, blow pipe stocks and drone stocks, but as I go along I notice I have to do little changes to them. For example, originally I had made the internal diameter of the blowpipe sock 16mm but I later noticed that it would have been better to make it 18mm so I have to enlarge it. Not big jobs but multiply it by 6 it can take a few hours. This is what I mean by “experiments”.

Today I made 4 bag stocks: 3 chanter stocks and 1 drone stock. The drone stock took most of the day due to slowly boring the stock then shaping the outside. I had an old bag which was precut, so I had to match the diameter of the hole in the bag, I did not have a large diameter piece of wood and when I found one it took some time to prepare it for drilling.

The 3 chanter stocks were not a problem; these can be tired into the bags when I get some better twine. This will complete what is required for the 6 sets.

This morning I placed the 6 bags on the floor and placed beside them the things I have made so far. I had made about 3 sets but something was wrong with all of them, so I will have to take the stocks out of the bags and redo them at a later date. It was a useful exercise as I could write down what is still needed to do, and what things I need to prioritize. The 3 bellows I have already are nearly complete I need to make one more here (as I have the cheeks cut already) and do the rest in Spain.

Small-Pipe Workshop Update at Newcastleton Folk Festival

The progress is slow but sure, I have 6 bellows at the moment, some have been donated (one by David, the organizer of the Newcastleton Folk Club, many thanks to him) and others I have made; so there will be at least 6 sets of pipes on the day for beginners to use.

I would also like people who already have a set of small-pipes but do not play them/cant play them, but wish to do so to come along also, it is all about getting you started, sorting out the beginners problems that we have all gone through. So if you know of someone who has given up trying to play or has a set in the box at home which have been put away in frustration ! encourage them to come to the workshop.

Players who have Northumbrian sets we will be using the big drone at first (the D/C drone) this will be compatible with the sets I am making in D. Scottish Small-pipers are generally in A or D so a harmony can be achieved… all this can be sorted out, the workshop is about bellows technique, bag pressure, keeping the instrument stable, getting all parts in harmony, and obtaining a scale in tune with the drones, and if there is time left a melody

if you wish to contact me regarding the workshop or anything to do with piping can do so at tilbsuk@yahoo.com

!

Small-Pipe Workshop

I will be offering this year at Newcastleton Folk Festival a beginner’s workshop in “Learning the Small-Pipes”. The workshop will be a basic introduction into small pipe techniques. 
Too often the beginner will not take enough time to learn the basic techniques of the bag, bellows, drones and chanter, and rush towards learning melodies and then finding out later that they have to restart learning, also most damage caused to a new instruments happens in the first few days of receiving their pipes. 
The workshop will go through the basics of bag pressure, bellows technique, tuning drone and fingering styles, and reeds. The workshop is designed for people who intend to start playing the small pipes not for people who already play them.
Buying a set of small pipes can be an expensive hobby, and often there can be a long wait to get a set of pipes. It is a commitment before you can start to play, and often it can be frustrating when you get your set, and often they are put aside as there are many things to do at once before getting a good sound from them.
If you are thinking of buying a set of small pipes, or waiting for your set to be made, or just wishing to try the instrument out… this workshop is for you.
It is also for people who have already their set of small pipes, perhaps the instrument has been put aside as it was found too complicated, bring them along and the workshop can help you to get started.
I can offer a limited number of small pipes for those who attend the workshop. These will be for those interested in Northumbrian Small pipes and Scottish Small pipe players, with open and closed fingering.
There maybe is also a chance to try mouth blown examples too…
Reservations is the best way of ensuring a place on the workshop, or just turn up on the day if there are sets available, those with their own sets bring them along too.
I am trying to ensure there will be 10 sets of small pipes available on the day. I will be posting updates to confirm the number of pipes available.  

A New Musical Project

I have been playing more these days, learning new tunes… sometimes I do not practice for weeks, but these days I am learning a new repertoire for concertina, Scottish small pipes, Northumbrian Small pipes and Spanish gaita. This increase in playing could be because of a new project I have started with a Spanish fiddler called Alba. She lives in Madrid and we have decided to play together and start performing in public. We have known each other now for a few years and have a repertoire already, so it is a case of finalizing it and practicing. 
We are playing familiar and unfamiliar tunes from Northern Spain and the Scottish and English Borders… some from Ireland too. But we hope we are “highlighting” our musical “accents” not copying a style but interpreting the music in our own way…  using our musical culture and nationality/s to change the melody… to add and take away something.

I am playing Spanish melodies in a Border/Northumbria style… (we are limiting ourselves to areas such as Galicia, Zamora, Asturias, Basque, Catalonia, Mallorca…) and Alba is playing Northumbrian/Scottish Border melodies in a Spanish style… so a jig is not really a jig and a jota is not really a jota… the Irish melodies are not played in an “Irish style”, but something “foreign” to both of us!
It is an interesting project, finding a name, exploring the music and trying to practicing while we are in our own countries and meeting when we can… but we hope by spring 2015 we will be ready and performing live.

We have a set list worked out and it is an interesting mix of music, this list will probably change as time progresses so it is interesting to record it for now:
Zontzico / Morfa Rhuddlan (Basque/Welsh)
Old Drops of Brandy (Borders)
O’Carolyn Set (Irish)
Alloa House / Romances (Scottish/Zamora)
Mr. Prestons Hornpipe (Borders)
Sir John Fenwicks (Northumbrian)
Newmarket Races (Northumbrian)
Jackey Layton (Northumbrian)
Ann Thou Were My Ain Thing (Borders)
Autumn Child / Rights of Man / Proudlock’s Hornpipe (Irish)

Morigana in Spain / Welcome to Vigo / The Spanish Cloak (Northumbrian/Scottish/Irish)
Redondela / Saddle the Pony (Galician/Irish)
Noble Squire Dacre / Go to Bewick Johnny (Northumbrian)
Basque melody / Roxburgh Castle / Hesleyside Reel (Basque/Northumbrian)
Bollero de St. Maria / Zamora Melody (Mallorca/Zamora)
Galician Melody / Frisky (Galicia/Northumbria)
Highland Laddie (Borders)
Loch Ryan / Bonny Millar (Scottish Highland/Borders)
This probably needs more Spanish melodies… or to take away a few UK melodies … early days yet !!
The instruments will vary also, Alba plays violin and a Baroque violin, this depends if I am playing concertina (440c) or Northumbrian Small pipes (415c)…

New Pipe/Concertina CD

It has been nearly 5 years since I made my last CD on the Bagpipes, but I have begun to make another one quite recently, not surprisingly it is made up from the environment I have been living in for the past 3 years…Spain and Sweden and of course the Scottish Borders. I became aware that a lot of the melodies I have been learning, listening too and practicing have not been melodies from my own region (I guess this is why I made a effort to learn new Border Pipe melodies – see “New Melodies for the Border Pipes” blog post below).

This new CD are mainly melodies from Northern Spain (Catalonia, Sanabria, Galicia) and these reflect the contacts I have had during my time there, they are not only notes or notation, but memories and people, places and times.

Another group of melodies are from Sweden, a country I like very much and have spent time kayaking and enjoying the nature, Their music fits very well into the Northumbrian Small Pipe fingering and scale range. Some of these melodies I learned from a harpist I play with in the UK, we play only ‘non-British’ melodies from France, Sweden and Spain and these will also be included on the CD mainly Scottisches and bourrées.

A few Belgium/Nederland tunes will be there too, I got these melodies when I lived in Amsterdam in the 1980s and I remember my time there through these tunes.
And of course there will be a few Northumbrian melodies with a 2nd voice/harmony to accompany the pipes. I will also include the English concertina  on some of the melodies either to accompany the leading melody or to add a 2nd harmony. Since the Northumbrian Small Pipes are ‘somewhere’ between a F and a F# I have to correct the pitch of the concertina!

The Cd is enjoyable to do but it takes many hours work, and this is only with the recordings…not to mention the mixing, production, CD design and printing…

Penrith Theatre Concert,19.12.11 (UK)

The Charity “Music Vision” was booked into Penrith’s Theatre for two nights. I was to play a selection of tunes on the Northmubiran Small Pipes in the 2ndhalf. The theatre went back to 1928 and possibly before due to the black and white photographs back stage. The acoustics were good and the stage had ample room compared to Cumwhitten Hall. 

“Music Vision” did their set and other performers came on stage too some local to Penrith, I came on 2nd to last and played the same set as Cumwhitten but with guitar accompaniment. I felt the tunes were beginning to be a little fast for my taste, and it was difficult to hold it back on stage. The tempo of the tunes were good for dancing: waltz tempo and reels etc, but I was after a different sound. The melodies are dance melodies but since no one was dancing why play them as such? I wanted to slow them down and bring out the lyrical quality, the slightly held notes and vibrato using the microphone’s reverb. This I could not to a dance rhythm as well. 

There was a different mood, the audience were a little ‘flat’ no energy and lethargic and I also felt the musicians were too, perhaps after the good response everyone had on Friday it was a little hard to follow. But I felt I played well and the audience clapped a long under reduced steam for my set. Every night is different when performing and I think every audience should not be taken for granted, also there was little alcohol and I think for Cumbrian audiences is a major factor!

Cumwhitton Concert 16.12.11 (UK)

I was invited to play a small village hall on the outskirts of Carlisle, (UK) called Cumwhitton. The hall reminded me of my early music days of practising on stage no bigger than a postage stamp, tripping over wires and microphone stands. Tables were lay out and the hall could take 90 people (in fact there was well over 100), as people arrived it was clear there would be a lot more and they brought their own drink it was going to be lively.

The concert was in aid of the local Charity “Music Vision” who encouraged people, mainly with disabilities to sing and perform, they did a wonderful thing, and some of the people were severely handicapped but performed with conviction and feeling. The performers were all local, age ranging from 13 to over 65, some suffered from nerves better than others. 

Three school girls opened the performances by playing in a group singing songs and one was playing drums. The other school children who had meant to perform backed out as the school and Health and Safety imposed a lot of rules and regulations, insurance and other stupid laws (shame on them) and I guess the parents did not let them come, how stupid and pathetic can they be? Other singers had good voices, one 15 year old girl sang wonderfully.
There was a poetry reading, songs, solo guitarist, bands, and a Compare who had a more of her body out of her dress than in it. Good audience participation, jokes, moving recitals, and I did my performance on the Northumbrian Small Pipes. The tunes were: Mallorca/Wards Brae; Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon/Believe me If All Those Endearing Young Charms/Bonny Lad; they were well recieved with the audience keeping time by banging on the tables.

Plastic Reeds

Yesterday I got tired of sitting in front of the computer and decided to give reed making a go. I had bought some tools from the local hardware store…files, sandpaper, pliers, etc. and I have had cane drying drying underneath the couch since last year. I thought to start making bagpipe reeds by using a book I had been given on how to make Northumbrian Small Pipe reeds by Colin Ross.  This book was given to me by a reed maker from Appleby in Cumbria, UK. not too far from where I live. I met Bill while I was busking one day in Carlisle and through this contact I later met him in his home where he showed me his workshop, give me some tools and materials and sent me away telling me to go and make reeds, as he was stopping making. I did not do anything for a year, but now I have the time I will try it.

For this experiment I would not use the cane underneath my couch, I would use plastic so if i make a mess I can easily start again. The plastic came from a yoghurt carton and after cutting it to the specified measurements and fixed it to the metal staple I blew into it. It works, it is not loud, I need to experiment a bit with it, add a bridle, scrap it, etc. but it sounds and seems to be the right shape.

There is now a tradition of making plastic reeds. I am in favor of them, as a musician you need that stability these days. The cane reeds are great if they work well but when using your breath to play the bagpipe the moisture can cause all sorts of problems. Plastic reeds last, and it is possible to get a nice sounding reed especially if you learn to make them yourself.

Of course cane reeds sound excellent and if you are into the tradition then they are the right reed for you, but I feel if you are trying to make a living by using cane reeds then you need a steady supply of good reeds and this is not always possible to get on demand from busy pipe makers.

Bellows blown pipes are less of a problem of course due to the dry air from the bellows, but humidity is a problem with the NSP and I have played countless times…or not played, due to the reed closing, changing, getting weak and altering pitch to such an extent that I had to stop playing. This can not be a factor if one is playing for ones living. On the streets it is wet and hot, cold and windy…I am tired of playing in the shadows all the time when it is warm.

So a stable reed is important and I am quite sure if the traditional pipers from centuries ago could have had a plastic reed I am sure they would have used it.

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.

Northumbrian Small Pipe 1st Tune Book

A friend recently gave me a copy of the Northumbrian Small Pipes 1st tune book. I had a copy already but this one was from a charity shop in Carlisle, Cumbria. He paid 20p for it, and it was in excellent condition. It is older than my new copy indicating that is has hardly been used/played, with a nice diagram on the back cover of the Northumbrian Small Pipe chanter and the notes it produces. The price is on ‘shillings’ and on the inside it is stated that it is produced in 1970, when I was 5 years old. Inside there are the same number of tunes listed.

Penrith Concert 20.12.11 Final Night

The Final night of the Penrith Concert was a lot better than the previous night. The audience were more livelier, laughing and participating with the performers, also the performers were in a better mood, livelier and more energetic, I do not know why and who was influencing who?
I changed my set that night, I included 2 different melodies to the first set of tunes: Chevy Chase (a Border Ballad tune)  /Mallorca / Hexham Races. These are tunes that I have played for years but they are also tunes I am sure of and are probably know to the audience. 
When I play I tend to do 18th century melodies which are not very popular but I thought tonight to ‘play to the audience’ and to get used to performing on stage once more, not to compete with myself as I normally do by playing new tunes to an audience who will not recognize them. When I play on the streets it is good to play new and obscure melodies as not many are listening and I can practise these melodies, but I am there on stage to entertain others not myself, so the classics are performed, melodies they can sing a long too and recognize.
On this last night also I felt more confident with the stage and performing. I was changing the melodies and I wanted to play solo, I wanted to ‘play with the microphones’ too, to change the rhythms a little make them more lyrical and expressive.

Penrith Theatre Concert,19.12.11

The Charity “Music Vision” was booked into Penrith’s Theatre for two nights. I was to play a selection of tunes on the Northmubiran Small Pipes in the 2ndhalf. The theatre went back to 1928 and possibly before due to the black and white photographs back stage. The acoustics were good and the stage had ample room compared to Cumwhitten Hall. 

“Music Vision” did their set and other performers came on stage too some local to Penrith, I came on 2nd to last and played the same set as Cumwhitten but with guitar accompaniment. I felt the tunes were beginning to be a little fast for my taste, and it was difficult to hold it back on stage. The tempo of the tunes were good for dancing: waltz tempo and reels etc, but I was after a different sound. The melodies are dance melodies but since no one was dancing why play them as such? I wanted to slow them down and bring out the lyrical quality, the slightly held notes and vibrato using the microphone’s reverb. This I could not to a dance rhythm as well. 

There was a different mood, the audience were a little ‘flat’ no energy and lethargic and I also felt the musicians were too, perhaps after the good response everyone had on Friday it was a little hard to follow. But I felt I played well and the audience clapped a long under reduced steam for my set. Every night is different when performing and I think every audience should not be taken for granted, also there was little alcohol and I think for Cumbrian audiences is a major factor!

Cumwhitton Concert 16.12.11

I was invited to play a small village hall on the outskirts of Carlisle, (UK) called Cumwhitton. The hall reminded me of my early music days of practising on stage no bigger than a postage stamp, tripping over wires and microphone stands. Tables were lay out and the hall could take 90 people (in fact there was well over 100), as people arrived it was clear there would be a lot more and they brought their own drink it was going to be lively.

The concert was in aid of the local Charity “Music Vision” who encouraged people, mainly with disabilities to sing and perform, they did a wonderful thing, and some of the people were severely handicapped but performed with conviction and feeling. The performers were all local, age ranging from 13 to over 65, some suffered from nerves better than others. 

Three school girls opened the performances by playing in a group singing songs and one was playing drums. The other school children who had meant to perform backed out as the school and Health and Safety imposed a lot of rules and regulations, insurance and other stupid laws (shame on them) and I guess the parents did not let them come, how stupid and pathetic can they be? Other singers had good voices, one 15 year old girl sang wonderfully.
There was a poetry reading, songs, solo guitarist, bands, and a Compare who had a more of her body out of her dress than in it. Good audience participation, jokes, moving recitals, and I did my performance on the Northumbrian Small Pipes. The tunes were: Mallorca/Wards Brae; Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon/Believe me If All Those Endearing Young Charms/Bonny Lad; they were well recieved with the audience keeping time by banging on the tables.

Plastic Reeds

Yesterday I got tired of sitting in front of the computer and decided to give reed making a go. I had bought some tools from the local hardware store…files, sandpaper, pliers, etc. and I have had cane drying drying underneath the couch since last year. I thought to start making bagpipe reeds by using a book I had been given on how to make Northumbrian Small Pipe reeds by Colin Ross.  This book was given to me by a reed maker from Appleby in Cumbria, UK. not too far from where I live. I met Bill while I was busking one day in Carlisle and through this contact I later met him in his home where he showed me his workshop, give me some tools and materials and sent me away telling me to go and make reeds, as he was stopping making. I did not do anything for a year, but now I have the time I will try it.

For this experiment I would not use the cane underneath my couch, I would use plastic so if i make a mess I can easily start again. The plastic came from a yoghurt carton and after cutting it to the specified measurements and fixed it to the metal staple I blew into it. It works, it is not loud, I need to experiment a bit with it, add a bridle, scrap it, etc. but it sounds and seems to be the right shape.

There is now a tradition of making plastic reeds. I am in favor of them, as a musician you need that stability these days. The cane reeds are great if they work well but when using your breath to play the bagpipe the moisture can cause all sorts of problems. Plastic reeds last, and it is possible to get a nice sounding reed especially if you learn to make them yourself.

Of course cane reeds sound excellent and if you are into the tradition then they are the right reed for you, but I feel if you are trying to make a living by using cane reeds then you need a steady supply of good reeds and this is not always possible to get on demand from busy pipe makers.

Bellows blown pipes are less of a problem of course due to the dry air from the bellows, but humidity is a problem with the NSP and I have played countless times…or not played, due to the reed closing, changing, getting weak and altering pitch to such an extent that I had to stop playing. This can not be a factor if one is playing for ones living. On the streets it is wet and hot, cold (check out my other blog http://kevnsp.blogspot.com/2010/12/frozen-money.html) and windy…I am tired of playing in the shadows all the time when it is warm.

So a stable reed is important and I am quite sure if the traditional pipers from centuries ago could have had a plastic reed I am sure they would have used it.

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.

D Drones and the Sackpipa

After coming home from Sweden, where I had attended the Sackpipa Festival (Swedish Bagpipes), I started busking. I have not busked for a few months, I have been too busy with the new rig on the boat. But on my birthday I felt like going out and busking just for enjoyment. When I was playing I had trouble with my G bass drone, it would not staying in tune but kept on going flat. Today it did the same thing and I knocked it off and set the bass D drone instead, so having 2 D drones playing D/d.. I got this idea of a few Cumbrian pipers who just so happen play with their D drones all the time whether in the key of G or D. The Swedish sackpipa players have a chanter which is A, but their drones are in E, which is a similar arangement. I played a lot of melodies today using the D drones and after first thinking it does not sound right…as I am so used to the G/d drone arangement, I started to think how compatable they are together. The D drone compliments the bass notes on the chanter, the F# and the A as well as being in tune with the G (root note) it is quiet and in the top octave the harmonies sound less complicated than with the G/d drones, and the D drone stays in tune!
Another influence from the Sackpipa Festival was the re-tuning of the Border pipes by using tape. I have always had problems with my Border pipes or should I say with the reeds. I could never get the whole chanter in tune with itself whilst being in A (440c) it was ok when it was flat, but in A I had problems. The Sackpipa players cover their holes with rubber bands to tune the chanter, so I covered the holes with tape to make a few notes flatter/sharper and now it is in tune, in concert pitch A and sounding quite nice, again with 2 drones (tenor and bass) tuned in A.

Radio Cumbria Interview

It took a while in getting but I finally got a copy of the interview I did at Radio Cumbria a few weeks back. I include it here. It went well I told the basics i think, about the Northumbrian Pipes, the Border piping tradition we have in the Scottish Borders and a little about the music that is played in those parts. Besides the interview there are 3 melodies and I added some pictures to the interview.

"Radio Radio…"

The recent interview at Radio Cumbria was a recording for annual Robert Burns’ night, which is taking place at the end of January. The interviewer asked me about the Northumbrian pipes the Border tradition of piping and the melody of one of Burn’s melodies “The Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon”. The event got me thinking of other radio sessions I have done. Besides this one, I have another Radio Cumbria interview that was done while busking in Carlisle. A radio presenter came across me busking and happened to have his DAT recorder with him and recorded an interview about the pipes and I played a few tunes, this recording I have put on the end of my 2 CDs.

Another radio interview about the pipes was done in Istanbul, Turkey in the late 90s. I had brought my pipes to Istanbul as I was involved with a few folk musicians and I was spending a lot of time there and needed the pipes to practise and to keep in contact with my north UK roots. I did not know what was happening but one day at the conservatoire a Turkish piper turned up and invited me to be interviewed on a radio programme. I was invited along to the Radio Istanbul studios, which was in a back street in Taksim, and there beside me was another piper. He was Turkish and he played the Tulum, a Turkish bagpipe from the north east of Turkey near Georgia, Azerbaijan and along the Black Sea. It is mouth blown and has no drone, only a bag and 2 melody pipes in one stock and a wooden ‘horn’ at the end of the chanters. The holes in the chanters are not the same so when played it has the effect of having 2 melodies played at once. The radio programme was about these 2 pipes, their comparisons; we both played a few tunes and chatted about construction etc.

Another radio interview was when I was playing in a band in Amsterdam. “The Lonesome Pump Attendants” were a 3 piece band whose members were once in the “Red Aligatorz” a rock-a-Billy group from Cumbria, UK. When the Aligatorz split, the singer and I moved to Amsterdam playing skiffle songs with guitar and t-chest bass. Later the double bass player from the Aligatorz came over and the 3 of us played in Amsterdam for about 6 months, touring all over Holland. The radio interview was recorded in a squat/pirate radio station. A New Zealand biker did the interview with his Dutch assistant. WE performed 3-4 songs and I remember the first song when the presenter asked us to play he did not know how loud we were, his recording nearly blew his speakers!

The last radio interview was with the Red Aligatorz in Carlisle, again Radio Cumbria in the early 80s, with the presenter asking about the band and the gigs etc. I remember it being a lot of fun…but not sounding so cleaver!

Festivals 2011

Busking has been a good way for making contacts, it has its limits of course when compared to the internet, but it has offered a few opportunities in the past to break away from the streets and perform in more varied surroundings. I have been offer weddings to play at, festivals, on the spot radio programmes and recordings have happened, and it has led to TV appearances and even the occasional music promoter offering to promote me! People have offered job suggestions and many have taken my card and details with promises of future work, and the opportunity to sell my CDs which is a good chance to promote my work and ideas. This year there has been interest too and if everything happens as it appears then I will be doing a radio programme this week for Radio Cumbria. In March there will be a project to preserve the Border pipes that I will be attending. In June I am invited to play at the International Folk Festival in Pilzen, Czech Republic; and in July I have been asked to play at the Cockermouth Festival, Cumbria. Let’s see what the future holds?

"You must be completely insane"

Another puncture yesterday (24.12.10) on the way to Carlisle, continued by bus into town; the city centre had the South Americans setting up their amplification, loud speakers and digital programming all for their pan pipes and drums. They had on American Indian costumes in sub-zero temperatures when they play they drown out everything in the centre of town, no one can perform there, the Christian Bible Basher has to pack up and go, all other buskers are blasted out. A fiddler who comes from Edinburgh retreated down a side street but I guess even the panpipes would reach him there, he has amplification too, a small amp with the bass turned full up and the treble down, it is a nice sound and he is a good player. The South Americans also have their amplification with an extra bass boost; it stops the terrible feedback that often accompanies outdoor amps, but I ask myself is all this technology needed for a few acoustic instruments that have worked very well for centuries in South America, a radio mic was attached to the singers cheek as he walked around the pavement singing to no one; his voice unheard and a deep booming voice from 1000 of pounds worth of equipment. I wonder if it pays them to do it. I slipped my way to my other haunt to find it occupied by the guitarist and his friend singing for beer money, I turned and went to the other edge of town to go into the bowls of Carlisle in the subway. It is a dirty and damp place but has a stream of shoppers coming to and from the centre. I played and was doing ok until a friend I knew stopped and we talked for 15 minutes after that I was cold then I became blue with cold. I spied a ray of sun at the other end and I sauntered over there to take advantage of the glimmer of sun. It helped for a while. A parade of school kids must have gotten out of some x-mass pantomime and for the next 10 minutes I could not hear myself play due to the screams and shouts as they took advantage of the subway’s acoustics. After that I played until I could not feel my fingers and I was jigging about so much I must have looked like a jack-in-the-box. I called it a day when a couple passing said “you must be completely insane”. I packed up and thawed out over a coffee, did some x-mass shopping then caught the bus back to my punctured bike and walked home. Merry X-mass one and all.