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.

Spanish Northumbrian Small Pipe Web Site

It is nice to see that the Northumbrian Small Pipes are being publicized further that the English Speaking nations. In my experience of visiting Spain for many years there is little knowledge of them.

Here is a web site in Spanish which will hopefully reach all over the Spanish speaking peoples and inform them of the smallpipes, it is also nice to see the web site creator has used some of my videos. Good luck with the project. click on link to see the page:

INSTRUMUNDO Instrumentos Musicales

 

Wives and Daughters – Gaskell’s Music

I am re-reading “Wives and Daughters” by Elizabeth Gaskell, and this time around I am struck by her references to music. First published as a serial in 1864 in Cornhill Magazine until 1866 (Although Gaskell died in 1865); the book is describing events in an English town in the 1830s.

I am about half way through it and there have been multiple references to playing the piano; and until now I always thought it to be the harpsichord, but this is the wrong century; then I thought it to be the pianoforte, but I guess this is the wrong class. The pianoforte is the right century but it is a large instrument what probably would not have fitted into most middle class homes in a small English town. What Gaskell refers to was the new and transitional instrument of the piano; “She rarely touched the piano on which Molly practised with daily conscientiousness” (p.217).

I think the piano came in all shapes and sizes and were mainly produced on mainland Europe (Austria being the centre), but a smaller version was being reproduced and was able to fit into the parlour of most pre-Victorian homes. The “Cottage Organ” or the “Cottage Grand” are such terms, aptly describing its environment, small enough to be transported from town to town and to sit in a cottage or a house. There were a few types of “uprights” available as the picture below shows:

         Piccolo                          Semi-Cottage              Cottage                      Cabinetpianos

It would have been  affordable for most middle range income families, such as a doctor as in the book.

grand pianoWhen Molly Gibson stayed at the Squire’s house a different type of piano was mentioned, “She used to try to practise an hour daily on the old grand piano in the solitary
drawing-room” (p.81), this reference shows a change of class, social status resulting in a different instrument being owned, “the old grand piano”. Gone is the simple Cottage Organ, the upright piano that fitted into a small room, now there was space for a larger instrument.

Another reference to music was at the Charity Ball, where reference was given to “the band consisting of two violins, a harp and an occasional clarinet” (p.79). For me it is a strange combination, harp and violin not so strange, but to use a clarinet does not bring to mind a country dance band that we have today.

The world “violin” is mentioned and not the world “fiddle” and a clarinet speaks of a semi-classical influence that was popular within Baroque music of the 18th century. For me the text paints a picture of musical “Classes”, musical cultures crossing over into modernity (of the 1830s) and a reference to the past. Also, having 4 instruments makes up a band, and not a very loud one at that, as the harp is not know for it raucous nature; with the stomping and chatter of a country dance I wonder the instruments were heard at all…something never changes!

Finally, there is a reference to a piece of music called “Monymusk”, the sentence goes “and when monymusk struck up again, not half of the former set of people stood up to finish the dance” (p.285). I have Monymusk in Peacocks Northumbrian Small Pipe notation book of 1800, so it was (and is) a popular tune for dancing too. Also it seems there was (and possibly is) a set dance to this tune? An example of Monymusk is as follows

monymusk

I have found Gaskell’s book a far more descriptive narrative when it comes to music, compared to Austin’s or the Bronte’s books. References are given to balls and music but not in as much detail as Gaskell’s; also her writings have painted not only a instrumental picture but also an environment of an ever changing social order, in which they were played in.

English concertina tune List (2)

My final list of tunes that I found in my notation folder is a collection of melodies that I played before one of my notes stopped working on my concertina. The note that failed is the top F# note which is important if playing in the keys of G and D; basically all of the session tunes, it is a very popular note.

By losing it I had to think of what to do and what to play. I could have opened up the concertina and tried to fix the problem, with the danger in re-sealing the case, that the reeds were in, not being air tight again and destroying the whole concertina; or that I salvage the melodies what I could and transpose them to another key. I did the latter.

The list of tunes is an example of the melodies I played before the note stopped playing. They are common tunes you would find in a Northumbrian Session, most are taken from the Small pipe’s repertoire and tune books. There are a few Spanish melodies, as I play Spanish pipes and I really liked the melodies. It is a reflection of what music I was involved in at that time. I may have got some of the tunes in the wrong groupings, but who cares!

Spanish Tunes
Bolero de Santa Maria (Mallorca)
Danza Daz Burgos (Galician)
Catalan Waltz
St. Joan (Catalan)
Arrastar de Banabarre (Catalan)
Ball Pla del Pallars (Catalan)

Border Bagpipe Tunes
Gallowa Tam
Wedding O’Blyth
Lindesfarne

Swedish Tunes
Schottish (Swedish tune)
Vals and Englska (Swedish tunes)

Northumbrian tunes
Jimmy Alan/ Salmon Tails up the Water (Northumbrian)
Wild Hills O’Wannies (Northumbrian)
Biddy the Bold Wife
Happy Farmer
Jane’s Fancy
Fare Well
Butter’s Peas
Proudlock’s Hornpipe
Lamb Skinnet
Peacock Followed the Hen
8 o’clock in the morning
Peacocks Fancy

Irish Tunes
Saddle the Pony (Irish)
Blackthorn Stick
Nancy
Mrs Thompson’s Hornpipe
Spanish Cloak
2 O’Carolan tunes
Autumn child
Dingle Regatta

Highland Scottish
Inner seer
Crooked Bawbee (Scots)
Dark Island
Margret’s Waltz

French Tunes
French Buree
Crested Hens
La Sassonette

Cumbrian Tune
Ulverston volunteers

There is a few Border melodies in the list, this must reflect the notation book “Over the Hills and Far Away” complied by Matt Seattle; whom I had done a workshop with on the border Pipes and these melodies crept into the concertina repertoire.

The Swedish tunes reflect my long standing interest in Swedish Sackpipa and Nickelharpa music, I used to visit Sweden for many years and I learn a few tunes from the people I had met there.

The French, Galician, Catalan and Mallorcan tunes show the influence living in Spain had on me, as they were played at a folk music bar “Taberna Elisa” we went to a lot. They are tunes written in the key of C but I would have played then in the key of G; the Galician tune was written in the key of D and I would have played it in that key (and still do).

Today I do not play a lot of these tunes due to the missing F# note, but I have transposed a lot of them in to the key of C and they work fine, the ones I have left out is due to the technicalities of playing in C and some tunes do not transpose well. The Spanish tunes are in their original key, the French tunes I dropped due to the key change.

English Concertina Tune List

Another list of tunes I found is for the English concertina. This is a catalogue of tunes I play and also a “to do” list. The first grouping of tunes have a “tick” next to them, I have no idea why I did this as some tunes I know and some I do not know.

Marquis of Lorne
Flowers of Edinburgh
Circassia Circle
Peacemakers Hornpipe
Steamboat
Navvies on the Line
Soldiers Joy
Come over the Stream Charlie
Jimmy Alan
Saddle the Pony
Sir Sidney Smith’s March
Nancy
3 Swedish tunes
1 Spanish tune
2 Belgium tunes
Butter’d Peas
When the king Comes O’er the Water
1 French tune
Random
Saltarello (medieval)

These tunes have no “tick” next to them; some tunes I know and others I do not:

Corn Riggs
Staten Island
Keel Row
Wild Hills O’Wannies
Irish Washerwoman
Fenwick O’Bywell
Jackey Layton,
Felton Lonning
Lochan Side
Banks of Alan Water
Loch Ruan
Rabs Wedding
Hills of Glentruin
Gelendarel Highlanders
Water of Tyne
I’ll Gang Nae Mair to Yon Toun
Proudlocks hornpipe
Biddle the Bold Wife
Stockton hornpipe
Minstrels Fancy
Lads of the North Tyne
Friendly Visit
Peacocks Tunes
High Level Bridge Hornpipe
New High Level
Bonny Craigside
Manchester Hornpipe
Nae Good Luck Around the House
Burn’s Tune
Bouree Tournante
Danza das Burgaz (Spanish)
Hazelwood (3/4 time)
Gentle Maiden
Harvest Home
Father O’Flynn
Dingle Regatta
Milltown jig
South Wind

On the other side of the page is a list of Cumbrian tunes I intended to play:

Lonsdale hornpipe
Cumberland Nelly
Northern Nanny
Cumberland Waltz
Kendal Waltz
Kendal hornpipe
Kendal Reel
Keswick Bonny Lasses
Ulverston Volenteers
Gilsland Hornpipe
Brampton Reel
Calgarth Hornpipe
Windermere Regatta
Dalston Forge
Latrigg Side
Raughton Head
Briggham hornpipe
Elterwater Hornpipe
Elterwater Quickstep
Cumberland Reel
Annan Polka

Next to these tunes, but written in pencil, is a list of mainly Irish melodies I intended to play:

Drink of Water
Morning Star
Madame Bonapart
Shaskeen
Hardiman the Fiddler
Coileach na lae (slide)
Colemans No 2
Ar eireann ni eanfainn cehi
Scot Mary
Memories
Gypsy Lullaby
South Wind (O’Carolan)

This list must have been an early collection of tunes I played and intended to play. Perhaps I was forming a repertoire to perform in the future; with a mixture of Scottish Highland melodies, Irish and Northumbrian melodies. Some tunes are from fiddle books, and piping books and scraps of notation I had collected along the way. The mainland European tunes I had collected while living and visiting these countries, collected from libraries and from people.

This list was never performed, I have learned many of the tunes since then, but I did not learn many of the Cumbrian melodies nor the Irish melodies. The Highland bagpipe melodies I learned some of them, but now I play other melodies that not on this list too. It seems my intention was diverted onto other tunes and styles.

Today I play a lot more Northumbrian and Scottish Border Bagpipe tunes on my English Concertina, mainly in the key of C and D and only playing a few melodies in the Key of G. this is due to one of my notes failing to sound, therefore I had to change my repertoire to play melodies that omitted this note. Before the loss of the note, I was playing a lot of session melodies in G, D and A keys; as this was the reason why I bought the concertina, the list goes someway to represent a session tune list for this area; but there are also tunes that do not, especially the Cumbrian tunes.

Border Bagpipe List

Rummaging through my music files trying to find a piece of music, I came across several lists of tunes that I used to play a few years or perhaps a decade ago. I find lists of tunes interesting as they tell of what a musician was interested in at that time; if one compared those melodies with what one is playing today then one can see a shift in musical style, taste and interests.

I will list the tunes on the piece of paper, they are tunes for the Border Pipes; all in a 1 octave range. Some of the tunes I still played today and will be continued to be played as I love them, some date back earlier to when I first started playing Northumbrian Small Pipes in 1987. They are old friends…and still remain so.

The tunes come from various musical manuscripts/books; with a guess it is a list from about 2012. I also think the list contains melodies that I was playing with the “Half-Long” bagpipe repertoire in mind, its repertoire represented by the Cock’s Bagpipe Book, that I had bought in the 1980s.

My Border pipe has a upper sharpened 7th note making in more a Half-Long chanter than a Border chanter (which has a flattened 7th). The list was written at a time when I decided to call my Border pipe, a Half Long pipe; which is a term not often used today in piping circles.

I do not play some of these melodies today, perhaps it is a list that reflects my intentions… a “to do list”, the majority of these tunes I have memorized. I seem to remember I was rehearsing for gigs in Spain during that time; and perhaps this is why I have included Spanish tunes as well as Belgian tunes?

Perhaps I was looking for a repertoire to play at the concert on my Half-Long pipes that give a balanced repertoire from both sides of the English and Scottish Borders; as well as including a European connection, the list would suggest this.

The Half-Long Pipes List:

Peacock Manuscript (Northumbrian Small Pipe repertoire of 1800) tunes commonly played:

Bonny Pit Laddie
Millar’s Daughter
Butter’d Peas
O’er the Dyke
Highland Laddie (both versions)
Newmarket Races
Jackey Layton
Frisky
A Mile to Ride
Welcome to the Town Again
Bonny Lad
Fare Well
I’m O’er Young to Marry Yet
Sr. Charles Rant
General Toast
Oyster Wife’s Rant
Holmes Fancy
Wylam Away
Tolloch Goram

(Peacock tunes that I play occasionally, not fully memorized):

The Bonnie Mare and I
All Night I Lay with Jockey
O’er the Border
My Dear Sits O’er Late Up
I Saw My Love Come Passing by Me
Parks of Yester
Holey Ha’penny
Fenwick O’Bywell

Cock’s Half-Long Bagpipe Book (1950s)

Fair Main of Whickham
Sandhill Corner
Till the Tide Comes In
Noble Squire Dacre
Sunderland Lasses /Lads of Alnwick
Chevy Chase
Peacock’s March
Brave Willie Forster
Follow Her over the Border
Felton Lonning
Christmas Day in the Morning
The Lass and the money is All My Own
Peacock’s Tune
The Piper’s Maggot
Blackett O’Wylam

Matt Seattle’s Workshop Notation:
O’Stumpie
Sky Crofters

Highland Bagpipe Tune
The Battle’s o’er

Over the Hills and Far Away (Border Bagpipe Book Collection of Tunes)
I’ll gang nae mare tae yon toun

Galician tunes:
Muineira Des Hio
Rumba Des Cortes

4 Belgian Tunes

“Blessed are the Children…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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”?

The Battle of the Somme

When I got into town to busk on Saturday I noticed a lot of soldiers collecting money for “Remembrance Sunday/Poppy Day” this year it seems a bigger event than normal; more soldiers, more news items about the human sacrifice, more programmes about the Wars and especially World War 1… more reminders about war and death.

I made my way to my busking area passing homeless people on the streets; one was a young lad who was hugging his sleeping bag with a cup of coffee someone had given him. He was not asking for money he looked too tired.

The weather had gotten colder, the mild air being replaced by a stillness that had a cold edge to the climate. When I got to my place, where I normally busk there was a women packing up her clothes into bags, she was moving somewhere else. I wrapped up warm as I played my concertina, jumpers, hats, fingerless gloves.

With all the army lads and lasses around collecting for the Poppy fund I did not make much money that Saturday. I live off what I earn, it is my job… but it is not a very stable job, my ‘office’ is draughty, and my security is non-existent. I do not think the homeless person was making any money too, but I think the army made lots.

I played a tune called “The Lark in the Clear Air” it is a beautiful Irish melody I heard in the 80s, it is a song melody played on a mouth-organ and I heard it being played on a LP with the same title. I followed that melody with a Highland bagpipe melody called “The Battle of the Somme” a 9/8 melody which was written about the Battle of the Somme in WW1; the melody is a bit tricky on the concertina (especially in a cold wind), but I think that melody was a good one for a day like that Saturday; with the Poppy Day Remembrance Sunday approaching and the presence of the military and remembering what the wars were supposed to be for…

When I finished busking I packed my things away and I noticed my body temperature dropping very fast. I began to shiver and shake, my muscles tensed up and I could not control my teeth chattering. I was ok while I was busking, but when I stopped I began to lose feeling, my hands turned purple and I could not walk straight.

As I walked, trying to warm up I noticed the boy in his sleeping bag, fast asleep on the pavement, his feet nearly blocking the march of the people as they passed by him. I kept walking and shaking, not warming up at all. In town I noticed the army were still collecting money and having a good laugh with their friends. Also lads and lasses wearing t-shirts and tank-tops in temperatures quickly dropping as the winter’s sun had set, getting ready for a night out.

I went to the public toilets and put my purple hands under hot water for a few minutes, then went to have a cup of coffee and I tried to remember what the wars were about…

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.

A Minority of a Minority

While I was busking with the English Concertina last Saturday, in the distance I heard a sound; this sound got nearer and then I saw the reason for it. A large group of Morris Dancers were passing by, they had been performing in the town centre and now they were heading back to their cars. They still wore their bright coloured costumes, decorated hats, and ribbons hanging from their clothes; the women wore colourful dresses; “Middle England” with bells on their shoes.

As the concertina is a popular instrument amongst the Morris dancers of England I gave them a smile. But nothing, no response! No interest in the music I was playing (a Northumbrian tune called “Lindesfarne”) no interest showed on their faces. They were quiet, they looked ahead, and they were passive. After a few had passed I resumed my stance of looking down and concentrating on the melody. I ignored them as they ignored me.

I was not asking for anything, except a smile. Let’s face it folk music is not that popular, whenever I am playing I often get a smile or some sort of facial recognition from people who like folk music, but I think generally it is a minority who actually listen to it and even fewer who play it. I would have thought like-minded people would acknowledge one another, not everyone but at least some, and there was many of them. They kept on coming; there must have been many groups in the town that morning.

Morris dancers and musicians are a minority of a minority in the British folk world, their dances are quite strenuous and need to be taught to new people, it is not the waltz or polka type of dances that you spin your partner round and round. It is not something that people do without training; the general public “watch them” do their performance, but do not join in, it is not that type of dancing.

I think the general public considered them a joke; they are often depicted in comedies on TV. People who dress up in costumes, with sticks, bells and dance around with ribbons hanging from their clothes is not “normal” behaviour for an Englishman to do, whatever is odd is laughed at.

It is not an opinion I hold, in the past I went to a rehearsal of Morris dancers in Carlisle. I wanted to play my pipes to their dances, but they were not interested in that. Instead, they got me to dance one of their dances; it was hard work, I was knackered after the first dance; it is not easy and you need to be fit.

I have a friend who likes Morris Men as they like drinking and so does he, they seem to travel a lot and enjoy themselves with other Morris teams; they dance, play music, drink have a laugh; well some do but not this lot, none of them seemed happy at all.

Another friend of mine gets very abusive when it comes to Morris Dancers, he gets very “hot under the collar” let’s say; and says “it has no place in English culture”. I would not say that, but I think it is an “acquired taste” by its very nature and those who perform it do not pretend to be non-elitist, at least these Morris groups did not try to be friendly to me.

Another man I know, who plays English concertina, went to another local Morris team only to come away feeling “unwelcome” and he would not go back. It is a pity as they do have a reputation of being a “good laugh”.

These Morris people were not the laughing type! It was a serious hobby for them; they did not want to associate with buskers, even though they played the same music as me, had the same instruments and were from the same cultural tradition. But I was not them.

For me, folk music is not a hobby; and I do not dress up in colourful costumes, in fact I dislike dressing up when it comes to playing or dancing to traditional music. For me folk music is about “now” not rein-acting a history long gone. Folk music or traditional melodies are much of today as they were from the past and I do not need bright new colourful clothes to play it.

They passed by and I played on, and I am pleased to say that the general people on that day found what I played interesting, even if the “minority of a minority” did not.

Playford Dance Melodies

For several weeks now I have been playing for a dance group in a village hall near to Penrith. I play English Concertina with an accordionist and baritone English concertina. We play Playford melodies and the dancers form lines and swing their partners, a bit like a dance in a Jane Austin novel.

The format consists of 1 melody per dance and as the dances can go on, sometime for 15 minutes, it can be quite hypnotic, monotonous, entertaining, beautiful and taxing. Let’s say you get to know the melody well, it repeats and repeats. This is different to dances in Cumbria and the Borders as we often join a few melodies together to keep the dancer and the musician from getting bored. The melodies are different to the folk music I am used to playing, but I like it, different keys and finger patterns keep me learning new things about the concertina.

I have only known Playford melodies by playing a few pipe tunes, but Playford uses a range which is well beyond a 9 note chanter, so a concertina is ideal as often different keys are played and although they do not lend themselves easily to the finger patterns of the concertina, one can easily get used to them.

They are old melodies, mainly from England, roughly around the period of the 18th century. I had not played many of them as my version of the manuscript has been in “ABC” format and I am not comfortable with that, but there are a wide range of notated books that I follow.

The dancers are elderly; they belong to an organization that offers a wide range of activities, a dance group being just one of the activities. It is a small group, but there are larger ones and I think in the south of England they can be quite popular, with young people joining in.

For me it has been a new and interesting experience. It has led me to other activities connected with dancing and the experience of playing for dancing is quite different compared to solo playing or playing in a session. I am learning about tempo and group dynamics, which has added to my understanding of these old melodies and dance culture.

New English Concertina CD

I have started a new English Concertina CD, and I have been making some recordings this week and trying out my new microphones. I bought a new microphone for my concertina that has dual heads, 2 mics leading to one volume control. I can attach 2 mics to both ends of the concertina to get a balanced sound. The sound is excellent, not trebly or hissy. I can set a good level on the DAW.

I am playing tunes that I busk with, so they are well rehearsed and it does not take me long to record. The last CD was with a lot of new tunes and the whole process took me a long time to complete. I like the old CD, but perhaps it is not a representative of how I am playing and what I am playing while busking. The old CD was a mixture of Lowland Scots, Northern Spanish and Northumbrian melodies but with this one I am including some Irish into the mix as well.

I will be including other instruments too; the mandolin will be used to add extra rhythm to the melodies, and a bodhran on certain tracks for percussion. I also want to include a track with all instruments together including small pipes. The dominant instruments will be the concertina and mandolin, and the other instruments will be added for texture.

New Small Pipe Bag

I am making some progress with my small pipe bags. The success is down to finding some light weight material which is airtight; believe me it has taken me ages to find such material. I have been working also with a rubber solution to make the seams airtight yet flexible after gluing and sewing.

I made a bag with a “round” design, these bags are quite popular for small pipes and for gaita, the idea is that there is no bag protruding out from underneath the back of your armpit, so you can sit comfortable on a chair for example. But when I added the stocks for a bellow, I found it very uncomfortable to hold, I feel the “long bag” is ideal for bellows use.

Today I converted the bag into a mouth blown system by using some connecting stocks so I could fit a mouth piece. The original drone stock became the mouth piece stock; and the original blow pipe stock became the drone stock.

The design worked quite well, and I think I will keep it in the future and the new stocks line-up the mouth piece with the mouth very comfortably, without the need for cord to keep it in place.

I made a new stock for the bag to fit the Galician chanter in D, and played it without a drone. It worked very well; it uses little pressure and a good feel to it underneath my arm. I closed the chanter reed to make it play 2 notes above the octave (d’-e’- f#’). This is for the new tune book I recently bought by Matt Seattle, it is the repertoire of the 18th century piper Geordie Sims. These melodies have a lot of high notes, and it is common that e’ and f#’ will be used.

The next thing to do is to make the drones. I am thinking to make a drone stock so I can add 3 small pipe drones to the bag. So the Galician chanter will have a small pipe drone configuration D-d- d’. I hope to post some photos when I am finished.

Village Hall Ceilidh

The Solway Band, did a Ceilidh at Beaumont Village Hall, the band consisted of: 1 baritone English concertina; 2 treble English concertinas, a mandolin, a bodhran, whistles, a bouzouki, 2 guitars, 1 fiddle and 3 vocalists…in total 13 instruments, played by 5 people (I played one of the English treble concertinas and mandolin).

The “calling” for the dances was really clear and instructive and the people enjoyed themselves, some had never done these dances before and it was encouraging to see some young people attend the ceilidh. I was beginning to wonder if the local village dances were beginning to die out as the older generation gets too old to attend, but the young couples who attended enjoyed themselves and hopefully they will return.

I grew up with these villages dances, I did not attend that much because as a teenager I thought it “un-cool”, but my parents went and they were a familiar social event in our area. I am not confident with the dances (we never had a caller) so it was left to us to work it out ourselves, which is difficult to do; and another reason why I never went to these dances is that I never had a girl my age to dance with, they were not interested either. The young men who attended last night did have a girl to dance with and they had a go at all the set dances including the waltzes.

If you have never been to a village dance in the north of England then you might think it is a bit strange. The village halls are often in their original condition, some are old, over 100 years sometimes, made of stone but often they are wooden from about World War 2; I guess they were used to re-unite communities after the war. They were the centre of social events in those days with them being used for fairs and country dancing, bingo and dominoes and “tea and cake” social events, and later on discos and band rehearsal space…everything under the sun; our local one is still being used but not as much as it once was.

As a teenager I booked the hall to practice punk music with my band, and I went to a few New Years Eve celebrations, but the hall always felt “old fashioned” for me, not of my generation. If I was a teenager then, the people who attended regular must have been in their 40s, now they are not dancing and a lot of these halls are being used for other things, less strenuous exercises. I play sometimes for a Playford Dance group near to Penrith, and that hall is used for a variety of other events and people travel from miles around to come and take part, so it does not represent the village community any more.

I joke about it being like a scene from “Miss Marple” and I am just waiting for the murder to happen, but it is like that in a way, the tables are covered in flowered patterned table cloth, the event has a raffle mid-way through, and everyone “mucks in”… they get involved, it is a D.I.Y social event, less to do with technology and more about “holding your partner and having a pre-techno tête-à-tête”. It works for some and I guess it would work for a lot more if it was “cool” to do so.

To be fare the village hall is having a face-lift, the old ones are being knocked down and replaced by an architect’s vision of how a village should look like. This happened to the village close to us, the new structure cost millions and it reflects the changing face of village life… that village no longer has a post office or a village shop but they have a 21st century space-age designed village hall.

The ceilidh we played at was to raise funds for a new building, an architect will come and survey the area, then other businesses will be called to take the planning further, and this will lead to other fund raising events to pay for it all, all so they can build a new hall over the old hall. I guess the locals are hoping for the village social life to continue for many decades to come, but I wonder that in 20 years time when the older generation has passed on, will the young be there to continue the tradition? Or will these halls become a “glint in an estate agent’s eye?” we will have to see…

Scottish Small Piper’s Barbecue

Scottish Small Piper’s Barbecue is held on the Sunday after Piping Live. This was the 2nd time it has been run and it seems to be getting stronger. The Glasgow small pipers meet every Tuesday at the Piping College and work on tunes. Once or twice a year they have a big meeting where they all come together to play tunes and to have a barbecue in the Park not too far from Central Glasgow.

It was a relaxed atmosphere, with a mixed group of small pipers from a Highland/Lowland bagpipe backgrounds to total beginners. It was a mixed group of musicians also, with guitars, flutes, whistles, saxophone, and a Cajon. I was the only Border piper there but it gave the music a ‘top edge’ to the overall sound.

The LBPS book repertoire was on show, which was a good idea; I ended up buying Mat Seattle’s new manuscript of the possible repertoire of Geordie Symes, which looks a good read and some excellent tunes.

We had been sent several tunes to learn and we all played them together on the day. It went quite well considering we were all from different musical backgrounds. There were lowland tunes as well as Highland and even Spanish tunes.

A choir came along and sang a few popular melodies, and also individuals led a session, then it was back to the small piper’s to run through the set once more.
We are pleased we went and we will go next year, and I will try to go along to the Tuesday nights session also.

I came away feeling that small pipers and Border pipers should meet more often in localized sessions, and then to have a bigger meeting throughout the year. we meet too seldom and we rely too much on the internet to communicate our music.

Piping Live 2017

This year at Piping Live we saw good performances from such diverse countries and regions as Italy, Sardinia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Brittany, Northern Ireland and of course Scotland and northern England (Northumbria).
In the morning I went to the Clasp competitions and listened to the hypnotic melodies of the pibroch, not everyone’s cup of tea first thing in the morning, but it appears to be mine.

At noon the Street Cafe concerts start and this is where we let the different acts wash over us. I like the way the Scottish highland performances are followed by the international acts. I guess some would be happy with wall to wall highland piping but I prefer a variety.

I recorded all of the performances with the intention of archiving them for 5 or 6 years, then to put them online. My reason for this is to let time pass. To let the performers change their style, progress with their music, or even let the band’s break up, reform etc. Very often band’s do not think to record themselves to keep an audio archive, but this can be quite beneficial especially if you think of it like a CV. So by letting time pass you can see a band’s or a musicians progress. I have been coming to this festival for over 5 years now so I will be putting the recordings online soon.

I did not go to the World’s pipe band’s championships this year, due to the high ticket prices, I fall into a pricing category of concessions but i could not prove it, so i would have to pay full price. a few people i spoke to commented on the high prices and it would work out a lot of money for a family, and for me who came via Spain and spent a week in Glasgow I have reached my budget by the end of the week. It would have been better to have a cheaper price so all could go and if it is cheaper than more would go.

The week is not over yet on Sunday there is a Small pipe and Border pipe meeting in Glasgow I will be playing in that.

To see a listing of the acts and events that were at Piping Live 2017 have a look at the programme at this link
https://pipinglive.co.uk/events/

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.

Rehearsals in Retiro Park

Sun, nature, music and good company…for me, you can not beat that. Alba and I decided to rehearse for the first time together with the fiddle and the Galician chanter. We met in Retiro Park, inside of Madrid, on a saturday morning and with our little red book containing our set list – a collection of Northern Spanish and Northumbrian tunes – we began rehearsing the melodies to who ever passed by.Fiddle and Gaita

The bagpipe is a “hybrid” a combination of using a Galician chanter (in the key of D) and drones, which I made, based on the Border pipes, using a Northumbrian tuning (D and A). Alba simply tuned her fiddle into my chanter… and away we went.

Some people decided to sit on the benches and listen, take videos… old, young and a group of Hip-hop teenagers! The weather was great.

here are some of the videos from the rehearsal.

The Millar’s Daughter, is a Northumbrian Smallpipe tune found in Peacock Manuscript.

Frisky, is a Northumbrian Smallpipe tune found in the Peacock Manuscript.

Danse La Pirineo is a Aragon, Spain.

Muiñeiras De Rengos, a Asturian tune, here is just an extract.

Kelso Lasses, is a tune from the Scottish/English Borders, a 9/8 tune.

L’Arrastrat’ is a tune from Catalonia, and the following tune is from Mallorca, Bollero de Santa Maria

Ribeirana de Redondela is a melody from Galicia.

I’m Over Young to Marry Yet, and the Highland Laddie, are Northumbrian tunes, both from the Peacock Manuscript.

A melody from Zamora, Spain.

Another version of the Northumbrian melody “Frisky”

Xeremies’s “Ancient” Scale

We went to visit Juan Morley, in the town of San Joan. He is a researcher, musician and maker of the Mallorcan bagpipe “The Xeremies”.

He told us about the old scale used by the Xeremier players in the 60s. He said they used a different scale than today. A scale that is not based on harmony, or harmonizing with the drone, or perfect 5ths.

he explained: “you tune your drone (C) to your root note on the chanter (C) making sure the top octave (C’) is also in tune with the drone. Top and bottom of the chanter is in tune with the drone.

The 4th note (F) and 5th note (G) are also in tune with the drone using the harmonic series. So far it is normal to other modern bagpipes.

Here is where the differences occur. The tuning of the rest of the scale is different. It does not use semitones (or half tones) but quarter tones (1/4)…approximately!

Normally the 2nd would be a D (440cents), but with this old Xeremeis scale it is flat of of D, of about a 1/4 tone. Normally the 2nd note clashes with the drone anyways but this would make it more so.

the 3rd note should be an E at 440cents, and therefore harmonizing as a 3rd in the harmonic series… it would be a nice harmony, either using a major 3rd (an E) or a minor 3rd (Eb), but this old scale uses neither, it plays a 1/4 note flat of E.

the 6th note is a A (440cents) but again this is not concert pitch, it is a 1/4 note flat of A, again not harmonizing with other instruments, not with the drone.

the 7th note is flat also roughly a 1/4 tone, not a semitone.

Here, Juan Morley plays the “ancient” scale on the Xeremier.

I have only seen one other example of this tuning in Spain and this was with the Sanabresa Gaita, which also uses 1/4 notes in its scale.

Xeremiers in Sant Llorenç

We met the Xeremiers des Puig de Sa Font the next day in Sant Llorenç (Mallorca) for the Christmas parade in the town. They played at different venues as the main square was full of children’s activities. We had spent the previous day hearing them rehearse in the theatre.

They play a mixture of traditional Xeremies melodies from Mallorca, medieval melodies and new compositions by the director of the group, Antoni Genovart.

The Xeremies is a traditional bagpipe from Mallorca, with an unbroken line of musicians. I have been a fan of them for many years but I finally got a chance to hear them and to try them out during our time there. They have 3 drones out in front of the bag, 1 chanter with 9 holes, and are mouth blown. The other instruments are :

La Tarota – an oboe type instrument
Flabiol – (5 hole flute) and Tamborí (small drum)
Trombone
Tamborine

The Millers (Galician) Daughter!

Here is a recording of a Northumbrian Small Pipe melody called “The Millers Daughter” from the Peacock manuscript from 1800. It is a melody I have played a lot on Small Pipes and Border Pipes over the years.

I am experimenting a lot these days, by playing various Small Pipe melodies on the Galician chanter. The reason why I am playing these tunes on a Spanish bagpipe is not for this blog right now, but there are certain Northumbrian tunes that go well with the Gaita (bagpipe) and certain tunes that do not feel ‘right’.

I bought this chanter, which is in the key of D. A high pitch sounding instrument, that is not that common in Spanish music. Normally you would hear a chanter in C or Bb. I chose D as I wanted it compatible with a lot of Northumbrian/Irish session instruments.

The pitch is a little high, so I made a bass drone in D and a tenor drone in A, but this did not sound right either, it did not suit the melodies too well, so I made another bass drone in D. 2 bass drones in D, give a deeper harmonic in relationship to the high-pitched D chanter (although this recording does not show it too well, this was only a demo).

 

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)

Melody: Si Vas A La Romeria

This is a recording of a melody I did in 2015, in the UK. I was practicing an Asturian melody on the Galician chanter. The melody is called “Si Vas A La Romeria”; I learned it at Casa de Asturias, in Alcala de Henares, Spain. It is my own interpretation of the tune, and I guess I am putting a British “accent” on it… but I hope it is recognizable to the original!

“What is that?”

If you are reading this from outside of the UK you might not get the full weight of the statement when I say “it was sunny today”! A little bit of sun can make all difference, especially when one is busking with the gaita.

In the center of Carlisle this weekend there was an European Market, stalls mostly selling different foods from various countries/regions of Europe. Sadly, the music coming out of the stalls was of the nondescript type… so I took myself away from the center and down a back street. I took out the gaita and played…

Since I play mainly Asturian melodies these days I was scratching my head when I had exhausted my repertoire, but it is amazing how melodies that have not been played for several years come back quite effortlessly. I often remember another tune when I am half way through playing a melody, which makes me to quickly continue onto the next melody. In this way I can play one tune after another, with little break between melodies, with only a quick tune-up and off I go again.

Melodies popped into my head from Catalonia, Sanabria and Galicia, and I have been learning several Northumbrian melodies from the Peacock Collection that go well with the Galician chanter. Sometimes people stopped me and asked “what instrument is that? It is better than the bagpipe!” well there is a bag, and there is a pipe/chanter so how can it not be a bagpipe? but they mean the GHB anything else is not a bagpipe in their eyes. I have had this for years, when I started playing my NSP they used to ask the same questions, but today they know what the NSP is all about (a sign of progress I guess) but the definition of what is a bagpipe still needs some work!

I started playing at 12.15 and I stopped playing at 15.45, I did not repeat many melodies with in my set, but I began to get tired and I thought it was time to go home when I saw a big black cloud coming straight for me. It had rained once or twice while I was busking, but I continued playing through it and it quickly dried up. This one looked more substantial.

A nice way to spend a Bank Holiday, I hope I can do more like it…

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.

Colin Butterworth – Bodhran

Last Sunday I had a run through to Bowness-on-Solway Folk Session. Colin Butterworth came and gave me a lift. I have been playing with Colin the past week at various session in Kendal (South Cumbria) and Bowness was a local one he came to. Colin is a well-known Bodhran player in Cumbria (and beyond). In fact when I first started going to folk meetings by myself (age of 14) I noticed Colin at the session at the Newcastleton Folk Festival.

In those days there was not too many Bodhran players around, he was more noticeable by his red beard and hair. He makes Bodhrans and his style of bodhran is quite different to the normal bodhrans you see today  with an open back. Often his bodhrans are closed on both sides, or the animal skin is stretched partly over one side, making if difficult to insert ones hand in. As I have gotten to know Colin over the years I also notice his playing style is different too (difficult to describe in words). He generally goes to the Irish music sessions, but has an interest in all good folk music.

I started playing bodhran a few years ago and Colin has kindly given me encouragement along the way. I had my mother’s bodhran (bought in Ireland from a tourist shop), it was ok but it did not have a bass tone. Colin exchanged it with one of his own and the sound is much better. It was made by himself and I like its feel. I have tried to make him some beaters but I could not make them to his satisfaction, but he has given me one which is slim and works very well with my technique. At the session last week in Kendal I sat beside him and tried to play a long in his style, it was difficult, especially with the 6/8 tunes.

Colin has an old collection of cassettes, he has recorded over the years from good Irish musicians, from private gatherings to festivals and sessions. These are really interesting to listen too.

Lakeland Fiddlers

I have just returned from a session at Staverly, Lake District where there was a fiddlers Session run by Carolyn Francis. A nice evening with a lot of different sorts of tunes and rhythms: 3/2 hornpipes, jigs reels, waltzes, slow airs, and a bit of Country and Western! It is the type of session where any contribution is welcome. The session was mainly fiddles, but also a piccolo, 1 bodhran, tamborines, guitarist, mouth blown Border pipe, flutes, recorders, and a melodian. I played my Northumbrian Smallpipes, Scottish Smallpipes, Border Pipes (all bellows blown) and Gaita.

I played a slow air on my NSP and a a man said he had not heard that melody since 40 years ago! He had heard it once played by the Battlefield Band when he had moved up to Cumbria and liked it, but did not know the title of it. It was called Johnny Armstrong, a Border Ballad melody.

I also met 2 people who play the gaita in the Cumbrian Gaita Band, which are now meeting once a month in Kendal/Cumbria.

I also learned that there is an monthly meeting of Northumbrian Smallpipers near to Carnforth, I think it was the 3rd Friday of the month.

Gaita Sanabresa Improvisation

Last year I was trying out some new reeds for my Gaita Sanabresa in Bb. I recorded some of these trials. The recording was made in one of the rooms from Casa Asturias in Alcala De Henares, with a nice echo! The first recording is a an improvisation

and the 2nd recording is trying out a melody with different fingering.

Scottish Small Pipes & Reeds

Here is a selection of recordings played on the Scottish Small Pipes, they are old recordings perhaps done a few years ago. I had a lot of trouble when I first got this chanter from Shepherd’s Bagpipes, There was nothing wrong with the chanter or the reed, but I just could not get an octave, it was very flat at the top. So I made my own reed for it, and I had a lot of experimentation finding the right reed.

These recordings are part of that selection. I am trying the reed out… not trying out the melodies! I think I did not keep the reed in these recordings, although some of the recordings sound better than others.

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

“The Twa Corbies” & a New Audio Site

I desided to begin a new section for the blog to include mp3s of my demo recordings. These recordings are “work-in-progress”, where I am trying out different melodies on different instruments.

I have often made these recordings in the winter time, or when I have bought a new manuscript or a new instrument…

Sometimes these recordings were done when it was too cold/wet to go out busking and I have had to stay indoors for weeks. It was so cold one winter I had to do the recording in our kitchen by the stove… these recordings I called “Kitchen Recordings”…

I hope to edit and include a variety of recordings I have kept over the years, just to let them be heard. They are not perfect, and they are with some mistakes, but it gives you a chance to listen to the many menlodies I have attempted and tried out.

I am using the website “Audiomack” which is not a folk/traditional music site, but it has a connection with wordpress, and this enables me to include audio-lists instead of the url links. It means you can click on the list to hear the mp3 without being directed to the main site.

The first mp3 is a ballad mellody called, “The Twa Corbies” a sinister ballad with a sinister, yet beautiful melody. If you have the time you can search the title in Wiki and it will give you a good explanation of the ballad. (Here is a link to the Wiki description )

I first heard The Twa Corbies melody being played on a Border Pipe cassette by Gordon Mooney (or was it Hamish Moore?).. i forget, but but it stayed with me and I finally got to learn it one day as I was sitting in the garden as Summer was just coming, in 2015. I had been to a bagpipe festival called “The Blowout” in southern England and I had bought a piping manuscript with this tune in. I played it as the bees were around my feet and the flowers were in bloom.

Fun Raising Concert for the Newcastleton Folk Weekend

I got a mail of Liz, who runs the website and Folk Club at Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders. She tells of a dance/fun raising event for the Newcastleton Festival this year. Get along and have a “knees up”!!! You can contact Liz via the email address below. Her web blog for the Folk Club is at newcastletonfolkclub.blogspot.com

“Newcastleton Traditional Music Festival 2016 July 1st, 2nd, 3rd
There will be a Festival Fund-raising Dance 19th March at Hermitage Hall (just £5). Details:
‘The Border Reivers’ ceilidh band
A trio of local talent with a dynamic and traditional playing style that makes any event a night to remember!
and Norman Stewart,
highland traditional singing and playing
at Hermitage Hall, near Newcastleton,
19th March 2016 at 7.30pm
Tickets £5 on door, Bar, Raffle
Further info/ advance tickets: elizamood@btinternet.com
Hermitage Hall is four miles North of Newcastleton (towards Hawick). Drive North through Newcastleton on the B6357. Go over the bridge. Turn left towards Hawick (B6399). Hermitage Hall (the village hall) is at the next left junction for Hermitage Castle, just before another bridge. Turn in left at the junction and the hall is on your left. See you there.”

Guadalajara – Irish Session

Does it seem odd to have an Irish Session in Guadalajara/Spain? Not really, as they are often called Celtic Sessions due to the mixture of music that is played from the different “Celtic nations” (Brittany, Wales, Ireland, Galicia, Scotland) but what is interesting about this sessions is that it is a session just forming.

I am not one of the original members, but I have been going off an on and I see it changing. The session also meets in a villages outside of Guadalajara on a Friday evening, but I can not get to that one.

The musicians are from different musical backgrounds and from different nationalities (Spanish, USA, Irish, Iranian, UK, Italian). We sit in a corner of a pub, we wait for the TV and loud rock music to be switched off the CD player in our corner of the bar (we request it) and we come together, often chatting for half an hour before anyone plays anything. Since I have to go early to catch the train back to Alcala de Henares I try and play something to get it started.

The seating arrangements of the musicians is interesting at at one end of the group there are the instrumentalists: flutes, whistles, violins, Irish pipes, concertina, gaita. next to these are the bodhran players (often 2-3 players) a Cajon player, someone playing sticks, someone playing bones, next to the rhythm section of this folk orchestra is the stringed instruments (3-4 guitars). I have been playing my English concertina since I have been attending, but recently I have been playing Spanish music on the Galician chanter which has been nice.

The type of music is a mixture of Irish traditional music (which dominates the session), a few Spanish melodies, a few melodies from George Formby, an Israeli melody, and a few hornpipes which are common to all sessions perhaps. There is no singing yet although one woman has a great voice for trad. music.

They communicate with each other via “Whats-Up” passing videos and notation, suggestions for melodies to play, as well as jokes and comments. It is an active site. Recently there is a discussion about splitting the Whats-Up into two forms, one for serious tune discussion and the other for chatting, notation often gets lost in the amount of chat there is.

It is a community, it is growing and evolving, changing and as an ethnomusicologist it it interesting to see the development.

Folk Session: Shap and Etiquette

A couple of nights ago I was invited to a folk session in someone’s house. The guests were invited and most of them were from south Cumbria, but the musicians were excellent, mainly irish music was played, with me adding a couple on the Northumbrian Smallpipes and English concertina. A harpist was there and flute players, a tenor banjo and mandolin player, bodhran, another concertina player and the rest were fiddles.
The house was tucked away nearly out of the village and it was an old house filled with old cooking antiques. The atmosphere was congenial and the food that was made was lovely.
The type of irish music was traditional, not celtic.
the tempo was steady, there was a mixture of jigs, reels, slow airs, hornpipes, Gaelic singing, and some Northumbrian music as well as a German song.
A celtic session would be jigs and reels and very little else.
also the etiquette of the session was respectful, if you talked (and not many did) while someone was playing it was in whispers so not in block out the music. there were gaps between melodies, or if a set was played there was a gap after a set. people listened, people danced, please did not talk over the music. there was a respect…

it has been a long time I felt at home in a session. I have become very frustrated, angry and negative about the “Irish folk sessions” I prefer to go to other session and avoid the irish/celtic style, in spain and UK. I ended up avoiding them all together, but I felt at home there, I felt I was not the only one who felt this way too.

I could finally hear myself play, something I have not done in a session for years.

Folk Sessions: Monkhill, Tebay, Newcastleton

I have been attending a few sessions before Christmas. They happened on the Sunday the 20th, Monday the 21st and Tuesday the 22nd of December, last week.

Monkhill Session
The first was a session at Monkhill, just outside of Carlisle. Besides the normal session it was well attended with holiday makers and also because there was a charity event to get some cash together for the flood victims in Carlisle. We had a list of tunes (I never knew we had so many!!) and people could ask for a tune to be played and they would donate some money towards the flood victims. There was a good atmosphere and we played an assortment of melodies and songs. The instruments were: a guitar/vocals, fiddle/vocal, 2 English concertinas, bodhran, guitar/vocals, and ukulele.
Afterwards I cycled to the boat at 12 midnight to check on her and bail any water out. I got home about 2.30am. There had been a lot of rain and some of the back roads were underwater I had to get off my bike and walk around it. It is difficult to see in the dark without a moon, the light of the bike lamp makes seeing worse, it is best to knock off the lights.

Tebay Session
The next session was just outside of Tebay near to Kendal. It was a birthday party in a village hall. Lots of musicians were there playing violins, cellos, accordions, etc. they were part of the Lakeland Fiddlers, a group of musicians who meet in the Brewery, in Staton. There was a nice mix of folk songs, carols, instrumentals, and nice food.

Newcastleton Session
The final session was at Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders. It had been a while since I was there and they have moved upstairs in The Grapes Hotel for the session. Attended by singers, an accordion, 2 guitarists and singers, bodhran, English concertina and Spanish gaita. This session happens on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.

Bowness-on-Solway Folk Session – and Full Bilges !

It was a wet night that I went down to the folk session at Bowness-on-Solway. I packed my concertina into a big black bag and cycled the 12 miles along waterlogged country roads. The weather in Cumbria has been particular wet these day (if oyu have been keeping an eye on the news you will have seen the flooding). I expected a bit of flooding on the roads so I was prepared to slow down and judge the situation, but as there was no moon and it was very dark I could not see the pieces of road that was underwater…the section of road which I was not prepared for.

Getting to the session I was a little late as I had to make a call in to see Sadaf. She has been sitting on her keels for 7 weeks and had been checked only a few times. She was ok, and has been ok amazingly over the weeks with all the flooding and rain. She leaks water above the sea-line from an unknown spot, it is rainwater and generally there is a trickle in the bilges, but because of the amount of rain we have had she has been full.

When i got there she was full too. I was surprised to see how much water had gotten into the bilges. It was not up to the cushions, but up to the floorboards. The only difference I could see that could account for the increase in water, was the front cover/plastic had blown off and rain was getting in from the fore section…I do not know from where?

Bailing her out took some time, each section had about 2 big buckets of rainwater to sponge out, and there was 5 sections. The area underneath the cockpit was dry! So I am thinking the leak is towards the front of the cabin. I will have to make some checks.

The Bowness folk session begins at 8.30pm and I just got there in time, the musicians were there and the pub was nice and warm to dry my coat. It is nice and relaxed, playing a mixture of southern English, Northumbrian, Scottish and locally penned songs/tunes. The songs are dominant and the guy who writes them was getting good responses to his humor. Besides the local musicians a guy called Steve came with his guitar to sing: and some tunes were played from the Playford’s manuscript.

The session ends roughly when they sing the “Haaf Netters Song” with audience participation, is has become a bit of a ritual there.

The session ended about 11pm.

Then the long cycle home, with the rain in my eyes, somewhere along the route I got a puncture, but the tired stayed up enough to get me home. I could hear the roar from the sea as it raced into the estuary.

Re-Sealing Bagpipe Bags

I have had a leaking gaita bag for some time, I could still play it but it was not holding the pressure after sometime. Perhaps the stitch was being stretched and the air was escaping through the stitching (the bag material was airtight). It was an old bag I made, and I have changed my technique since then for making.

Today I undid the stitching of my bag, took off the strip of tape that I had around the edge which was used for decoration, and cleaned up the loose threads. I then started the process of sealing the bag with a waterproof/gutter sealant. I did this to both sections of the bag, leaving an unsealed section/trip around the edge of the bag. I put extra sealant around the drone stock holes. Once I had sealed all the bag I went and covered the edge of the bag using a thicker film of sealant, then I left it to dry over night.

Tomorrow I will silicone the edges of the bag again with the same sealant and press them together, then leave to dry.

Once dry I will sew the edges with thread.

I will then glue one side of the bag/edge and reconnect the tape that I removed earlier. This gluing is only to seal the stitching/holes. When that is dry, I will do the same to the other side. Once dry I will tie in the stocks.

New Design for Drone

I have been playing my C gaita recently and I decided to make a small drone to go with it. I did not want to make the large C drone that normal go with a C gaita, but something I can carry around and make drone while I practice. I drilled though a piece of Bubinga wood and made 2 half from the one piece, 50cm each length. internal bore was 6mm. then I began designing the top sliding part. the internal diameter was 12mm. and I played around with the design.

The bottom standing part has an outside diameter of 12mm. the overall outside diameter of both pieces was 15mm.
The design for the bottom standing part was an idea I have been had for sometime and I wanted to try it out. if it did not work it could always be used for a chair leg!!

When I make the reed I will cover it in a removable stock and this will be inserted into a drone stock in the bag. It plays in C and I will make different sections for the top/movable part so I can play in D and Bb. I was gonna drill holes further up the drone but I decided to make new sections. This will add to the tembre of the sound.

I also intend to make a middle section to this C drone until I have a bass C playing alongside this tenor C. with 2 drones going it will be nicer for the gaita chanter which can be quite shrill. I have been thinning down the reed and now it plays a lot quieter than normal, this is for use indoors (pub setting).

Archive for Recorded Music

I have spent the last few days trying to find a web site to host the recordings for the blog. I have heard Soundcloud has recently sold itself to the multinationals and it will be hosting lots of advertisements on its site so while you are listening to a song you will be viewing all sorts of trash. I had to look for an alternative site. It is mind-boggling how much is out there and I had signed up for many sites only to find the same advertising or some other feature which is unacceptable. In the end I went with Myspace, I can upload the music and it can be an alternative site to the blog too. I do not mind people copying this music but I would like it to be listened too most of all. There is a lot of people in these bands and it is impossible to contact them individually and “ask permission from them” and I do not think I want to go through all of that anyway. The music is only uploaded as a reference not as a commercial project.

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.

The Summer is Over…Long live the Autumn

One could say the “summer is over” all activities seem to have stopped and I find myself being “back at work” which for me is making small-pipes and busking. But I can still write about the various activities I have done over a month or so, some of which were a welcome change: a travel to Orkney (a birthday present to myself); sailing once more after a period of 3 years; going to Piping Live 2015 in Glasgow; and a trip to the Isle of Arran (my last visit was when I was 21, a few moons ago!), and where my small laptop got a wash in seawater and decided not to work again (the laptop I had used on many of my previous blog entries R.I.P.)

There was a new insight into my electric bike which I will add to the review blog. I will be reworking my Dinghy Cruising Association articles for the blog, as I think they could be of some use to those who wish to cruise the Solway Estuary.

Over the next few days/weeks I will be writing several blogs on these topics and others too, such as: folk sessions; a new Small-pipe workshop which will be in October; and unintentionally learning an old instrument, the recorder! An instrument I hated when I was at school, but I find myself starting again.

So the summer might be over but let’s look forward to the autumn!

Cummersdale Folk Session

It was the Cummersdale Folk Session last night, a slow start due to the lack of instrumentalists, but it livened up later on with nice sets played on the whistle. I played more concertina this week, some tunes with the other players: Jimmy Allan, Salmon Tails, Saddle the Pony, Miss Thompsons Hornpipe, Bollavogue, Boys of the Blue Hill, the tune to Captain Pugwash! But I mainly played the bodhran which I am enjoying a lot.

Instruments present were: guitar, whistles, wooden flute, banjo, metal flute, 2 English concertinas, and bodhran.

I am practicing other tunes: the Hawk, Minstrels Fancy, Random, Sheffield Hornpipe, Humours of Tulleycrine, Redesdale Hornpipe, Whinsheilds Hornpipe, and Whinham’s Reel.