Re-thinking Bellows

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

French Musette Bellow
Form of a French Musette Bellow

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

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

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

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

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

Underside of my bellows
Underside of my bellows

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

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

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

Topside of new bellow
Topside of my bellow

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

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

Here my bellows experiments until now:Jpeg

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Newcastleton Folk Festival 2018

It was another good weekend in the Borders, due to the good weather and it being hot, very hot. Like with heavy rain the hot weather kept punters away, and who came were more into playing music and talking about music. The pubs were quieter, less drinking and trouble in the evenings (which is a common hazard with the Border towns) and people got round to singing, playing and meeting old friends they had not seen for 30 years.

This year there was a different type of organization at the festival and some thought had been given to who and where people meet, it was less “organic” when it came to singarounds, although the musicians still congregated where they wished. A room/s had been set aside for singers to meet and some well known names had been invited down to sing and to organize singing sessions throughout the day (and night). Singing sessions started at 12noon and finished at 2.30am

I am a newbie when it comes to singarounds, I was brought up with sessions where you “got stuck in” and joined in if and when you could. Singarounds are different, the singers sit around the room and each take it in turn to sing their song, when finished it goes to the next person sitting next to you (often clock-wise!!) and each person gets a chance to sing. This can be quite strange at first especially to one who is not into anything “formal” and if there is a large group in a large room, you can sit and wait a long time, but I can see its purpose as everyone get a chance to have a go, and is not crowded out by groups of people who dominate the session.

In the instrumental sessions, you can sit for hours without getting a chance to play or you end up walking from bar to bar looking for equally lost (musical) souls to play with. This dominance by certain musical styles or groups of musicians is getting bad; I have seen ongoing sessions broken up by a hoard of musicians just marching into a room where a session is going on, planting themselves down in an opposite corner and playing jigs and reels ignoring the people around them. These sorts of mafia tactics are becoming more noticeable and are boring, only interesting to people who know nothing about folk music (the drunks) or the egotists themselves who are doing it.

This year I frequented the singarounds more than the sessions. Trying to understand its “unwritten rules” and differences; I got the feeling that in some singarounds musical instruments are not welcome at all. “I thought it was strictly a singing session” one of the compares said. I was pleased to hear that “no, instruments are welcome; it is the noisy musicians which are not encouraged”. So if this attitude was adopted more openly then solo musicians as well as singers can get an equal chance to play and be heard.

The wealth of songs that were sung that weekend was amazing. General themes of the songs were: drink/drinking/beer and relationships: failed love/marriage/anti marriage, some local songs from the Borders as well as Cumbria (hurray) and some Border ballads; some self-penned songs and modern songs unaccompanied. Death and supernatural themes, war, anti war, and sex were also being sung about…what does that say about the society we live in?

I played mostly Northumbrian Small pipes, playing the 1 octave melodies that people are forgetting to play, and this fitted in nicely I felt, with the whole singaround atmosphere. This “strictly no instrument policy” if adopted in singarounds is just as mafia as the ignorant group of musicians who dominate sessions. Control the session by all means, but not exclude people who are serious about their music and are left out in the cold (literally in this part of the world) and who have come from all over the country to share their music. Let’s make festivals/sessions inclusive not exclusive.

The Small pipe workshop I gave on Sunday was a success also, the people who came were genuinely interested and I believe they left with a greater appreciation of the Small pipes. There was enough sets to go around and one boy who came with his father (he had heard me play in the concert on Friday evening and had asked his dad to stay at the festival until the Sunday so he could try them out) had never heard them before, let’s hope he continues with it.

The Festival committee had also tried to include local and not so local school kids to play in the concert and workshops. This added to the atmosphere and it was nice to see young musicians walking around and joining in. I think in general the new ideas that the Festival committee had introduced this year changed the feel of the festival to a more song based festival and more open to a “family festival” than a drunken-session-style Border event that I knew as a teenager.

For these type of festivals to succeed there needs to be more younger people getting involved, and I know families are discouraged if there are drunks drowning the performer out, or no sessions to go to as it is dominated by mafia musicians/singers who only care about how fast they can play or how “traditional it is”! Because let’s face it “folkies” are a minority, we do not need to exclude people for the sake of our fixed beliefs, let’s keep it open and keep it fluent. There is a difference between having rules and people who dominate and control; and rules that make it easier for to express ones musical talents.

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!).

Newcastleton Folk Festival

We spent another good night at the Folk Club in Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders. The Folk club is on the last Tuesday of each month and is partly a singers night as well as musicians. There were interesting songs from all centuries some unaccompanied others with guitars. Mandolin and button accordion, recorder, Anglo Smallpipes, and Galician Gaita were the instruments used for the instrumentals.

We had spent the day with Liz and Dave (organizers of the folk club, as well as being on the committee of the Newcastleton Folk Festival) and we learned about the structure of the Festival for 2016 which is held this year on the 1st weekend of July, a 3 day even from Friday until Sunday (check out this blog for last years description)

My Smallpipe workshop will be on the sunday morning at 11am until 1pm. Where I will be giving basic instruction on the bellows blown bagpipes, covering technique to get you started. I will not be playing any melodies, it will be a workshop on bellows technique, bag pressure, and combining all this with chanter and drones. It may not seem a lot but it is when you consider it needs to be crammed into 2 hours!

I will be providing some sets of smallpipes for those who do not bring their own, but these will be of limited number so get your name down at the Festival Office, or contact Liz via her “Newcastleton Folk Club” web site; or contact me below this blog.

I will also be taking part in the concert on Friday night, for those of you who come for the weekend camping.

Removable Drone Stocks

I completed 2 drone stocks for my “workshop pipes” (2 drone holes are drilled at the top of the stock).

If you need to take the drones out of the stock the top part of the stock is removable, the drones stay still and the drone reeds are protected, the bottom stock is fixed snug into the bag via the grove.
The drone stock (lying down) has a smaller hole drilled into its bottom end for air to pass through, this reduces the size of the air hole to stop any drone reeds falling out of the drone seat into the bag; if this happens the top part is removed and the reeds retrieved.

The bellows are finally taking shape to what I imagined. They have studs around the edges for cosmetic purposes, the bellow’s fabric matches the fabric of the bag (different fabric can be sort to the buyers choice).
The shape of the bellows were sourced from a Musette’s bellow I had seen in the National School of Piping’s museum in Glasgow, I thought the design was unusual yet attractive.
The straps have a quick release and adjustable clasp. The bellows have a hinge attachment inside of the cheeks this gives a solid connection. The bellows are completely airtight, they are large enough for NSP and SSP as well as Border Pipes, as they are large less action is needed to inflate the bag.

Although the chanter and drones are still under design, the bag and bellows are beginning to be finalized.


Small Pipe Workshop in Hexham

The Small pipe workshop went really well last Saturday in Hexham (Northumbria). The students engaged with the exercises very well and I think got a lot out of it…well I know they did. I got good feedback from them and the boss of Core Music, who ran the event. I would like to do more events there, and do a follow up workshop for the Small pipes, as I feel the students wanted to go further with their playing. They managed to get a regular bellow technique; they got 2 drones in harmony and the beginnings of a steady chanter note, not bad for 3 hours. Northumbrian/closed fingering was popular; I guess Scottish Small pipe fingering is more popular over the border. If lessons could be held regular then I feel they could advance quickly.

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 Society Blowout, 2015

It was my first time at the ‘blowout’ (Polesworth, Tamworth, England) in a beautiful surrounding of the Abbey. Each piping culture has its traditions and this was a new tradition for me. Here there was a different style and feeling about the music, pipes, people and events, perhaps a more European style or perhaps an ‘English” style. I say English as it is a reinvention of a tradition that died out. And the reintroduction of the tradition has established a very firm and loyal group of people to their type of music.

I was expecting a heavy influence of French music, but I was surprised to see a good mix of styles in the form of workshops and concerts: Northumbrian/Borders; Occitan from the French Pyrenees; Hungarian; Irish; Welsh… these music’s were played on a type of bagpipe that I have a problem in naming.

They call it a “Border pipe” but I cannot see where their border is exactly? The majority played a type of pipe similar to the French/Belgium bagpipe: mouth blown or bellows blown, conical bored chanter, 2 drones, over-blown into a 2nd octave. Not so loud, plastic reeds, no African Blackwood in sight (made a nice change too) therefore the sound was mellow, perhaps they could call it a “French-Anglo Pipe” as the makers are English and the pipe is modeled on the French/Belgium style.

The makers present (selling their pipes) were in the main hall alongside a Society stall, a flute maker, an Occitan maker. Zampogna maker. There was a 2nd hand section of music books, CDs, cassettes…

One of the workshops I attended was a ‘beginner’s workshop’ to sort out teething problems players were having. This was very informative as it gave me a chance to see how the workshop was structured (with relation to my own workshop); I was also looking for some advice about my Spanish gaita as it was sharp in the bottom notes.  It came apparent that the information was only for a select type of pipes from a select few pipe makers. A general knowledge was not there of conical bored pipes.  The Society was open to all pipes but in reality (at this blowout in particular) only certain types of pipes were represented. Sometimes it felt like if you did not have a bagpipe from a certain type of maker then you were excluded from activities and advice, there was no advice about the Gaita. Also it presumed that because I had “asked the question” that I did not know anything about pipes or conical bored pipes, and I was told to go and “ask (someone) and you will find that the pipes are fine” (meaning “it is you who is wrong” well it seems I know as much as the person who is giving the advice, as he did not know either, a little condescending I thought).

The only sessions available were in D or G, G being the more popular of the 2. G pipes are common in French music, a large bass G. Which is fine, they sounded beautiful. But there are other pipes and I would have liked to have seen a session where any type of pipe could have been played… a few people had brought their sackpipa (key on A minor), , Spanish gaita (C),  , I had with me bagpipes in A minor, C, A major, D, F, and C minor… but no G. I did attend the Irish workshop which was in D, but others I could not. This did not lesson my interest. Other pipes present were a Welsh Pibgorn (D), Leistershire Small pipe (D), Italian Zampogna and there was a Dudy from the Czech/Slovak regions.

The D session on the Saturday was titled “English Session” this apparently is a new occurrence as only English melodies are played (I did not know this at the time and I played a Catalan melody which was met with a silence). After I realized my “mistake” I tried to play along with the English melodies, which there was a lot of. This was the biggest surprise of the weekend, a firm selection of English tunes were being played by all. The Northumbrian tunes came at the end of the night when they had played out all the English tunes. This is great as it establishes a firm melody base of for an English tradition, and leaves the Northumbrian tradition a little apart (which I feel is more accurate as it is more akin to the Scottish/English Border tradition).

Another surprise for me was the Occitan music and bagpipes. 2 makers from the French side of the Pyrenees were offering their instruments for sale, CDs, workshops and concerts. It was a music I only knew a little about (and only recently). They seemed to have a cross-over from the Catalan and Aragon side of the Pyrenees with the Sac de Gemecs (made from a fruit wood, a type of apple) and the Gaita de Boto (complete with snakeskin and girls dress). But also they had their own type of pipes a very large bagpipe in F with a large drone with a knitted “flecco” (decoration). A shepherd’s bagpipe without a drone, deep sound, sad sound, lovely (I had heard this on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees). And the Boha bagpipe with the drone apart of the chanter which can play 2 notes… (Therefore is it really a drone?). Also there was a variant of this having 2 melody pipes and 1 ‘drone’ built into the chanter, single reeds, polyphonic sound.

In the sessions I heard the Welsh Pibgorn, a dingle reeded instrument, 1 octave mouth blown with a distinctive sound, a beautiful decorated horn cut away at the bottom of the chanter, with cylindrical bored chanter.  Their melodies were not dissimilar to a Breton tune, in a minor mode.

The Hungarian duo (pipes and hurdy gurdy) were fantastic players, (I had seen them at the Piping Live Festival in Glasgow a few years previous) tight in their music and ‘tuning’ (an important lesson for us all). Played beautifully with traditional and composed pieces, improvisations and structured parts. The pipes were not so dissimilar to the Occitan Boha. With the Hungarian ’suggesting’ that the Boha was taken from their pipes. They look similar… but who’s came first is a question too far…

My final observation of the weekend was that there is a danger of the “small pipes” becoming obsolete in time due to their quiet nature. Those who had them were drowned out by the conical chanters. This is a reflection of what is happening in sessions too all over the country. If you are “not heard”, why play them? The highland pipe makers are increasing the volume of the “session small pipes” but not so with pipe makers (although there are exceptions). Perhaps the small-pipes need to become more assertive, and insist the venues, meetings, and festivals are predominantly ‘small-pipe sessions’ the same way the ‘English Session’ has become?

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.

Sackpipa Practice Chanter

I made a “sackpipa practice chanter” by putting my original chanter into a highland bagpipe practice chanter mouth piece. This gives me an opportunity to learn the melodies before applying them to the bag.

Many years ago when I began researching the sackpipa I made a PowerPoint slide show of the melodies I had collected from the internet (mainly from the early version of Olle’s page), I found the mp3 recordings and added them to the slide show. I had intended to learn these melodies one day using the slide show… now is that day. On screen comes the notation and the music automatically plays; as it plays I follow using fingering patterns only, and then I play the melody myself.

The tunes I have been working on so far with any regularity are:

Jag blaste I min pipa (which I have memorized)
Ljugaren (I have memorized)
Sackpipslat efter Jont Lars Olsson (memorized)
Krigsvisa om danskarna (struggling with this one, to remember the melody, it feels a different style in some way).
Steklat fran Sarna (memorized, but the 2nd half creates some mix ups with the finger order)
Vals fran Enviken (memorized)
Visa fran Venjan (I have been playing this one with the C natural just for easiness; the tune requires a C sharp).
Langdans fran Solleron (memorized)
Bjorskottens polska (memorized)
Polska efter Troskari Erik (struggling, due to the polska rhythm)
Gardsbygubbarnas polska (struggling, 2nd half looses me, the polska rhythm and the duplicate notes)
Miller of Dee (memorized)

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.

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.

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.

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

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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.