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.

New (Old) Tunes to Learn

Coming back from Rothbury Folk Festival i set myself a task of learning new tunes. An interest of mine for many years now has been the old manuscripts of the Scottish Borders: Dixon, Peacock, and Bewick.

I have decided to learn these melodies, memorize them and perform them. They are not being played a lot at festivals, the NSP players are choosing other melodies…which are great, but there is anot a balance.
My task is to first lean the A and B parts to all the tunes, then when I have done that to revisit the manuscripts and learn the C and D parts. I know a lot of the tunes already and I know quite a few of the variations, but I have been concentrating too much on the variations and not on learning the basics of the other tunes.

The tunes I have been working on this week are from the Peacock manuscript, trying to source background information and other links connected with it, it has produced some results, mainly I found another manuscript from the borders that I did not know before.

The titles of the Peacock tunes which I am learning for the first time are:
Over the Border, Jockey Stays Long at the Fair, I Saw My Love Come Passing By Me
  .
Tunes which I knew but had forgotten, which I have been revisiting are:
Neil Gows Wife, Sr. Charles Rant, Bonny Mare and I,  and Tulloch Goram

Rothbury Folk Festival 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half-Long Pipes: Dixon Melodies

Since 1991 my Half-long pipes have never played correctly mainly due to excess of air needed to keep a pressure in the bag suitable for playing.

Recently I have done some modifications to the drone bore (narrowed it), chanter holes (made them smaller) , and used larger bellows; the result being a in tune chanter of 440c in the key of A, a bag pressure which is slight, and a bellow action that does not have me flapping around like a scared bird.

I have been concentrating on a few melodies to get me back into playing them in a public environment. The melodies are taken from the Dixon manuscript (1733), which is written for the Border pipes.

The titles are:
“Jack Lattin” playing the variations from 1-8;
“The New Way to Bowden” with variations 1-5;
“Mock the Soldier’s Lady” with variations 1-4;
“Dixon’s Highland Laddie” with variations 1-5;

The Border Bagpipe Practise

In view of a forthcoming concert in Catalonia in July I connected the Border pipe chanter into my mouth blown ‘hybrid’ bagpipe bag to practise some tunes; it sounded ok after adjustments to the Galician reed. The bottom notes sound strong and clear, but the top notes sound croaky and not distinct. I took the glue out of the 7th hole (which made it play a flattened 7th note) and practised cross-fingering the 7th to get the flattened note, this allowed me to obtain a sharpened 7th with open-fingering as some of the melodies I am learning require both notes. I played Border tunes mainly in 9/8 a few slow airs from the “Border Bagpipe Book”, then I finished the day with melodies from Bewick and Peacock. With the one bass drone (cane reed) sounding just over my shoulder the chanter and the drone blended beautifully together…a joy to play.

New Melodies for the Border Pipes

I am beginning to learn new melodies on the Border Pipes for the concert in Catalonia in July. I normally play a mixed bag of melodies from Peacock and Bewick with a few Highland tunes as well as the occasional European melody, but now I am concentrating on music from the Scottish and English Borders from the “O’er the Hills and Far Away” (ohfa) and the “Dixon Manuscript” tune books, these tunes have a very different feel to the Northumbrian as they have the flattened 7th note (a G natural, with my A pipes), and the use of notes fall easier to the fingers.
The melodies I am working upon now are:
“An thou were my ain thing” (Dixon)
“Green Bracken” (ohfa)
“The Lad that Keeps the Cattle” (ohfa)
“Gallowa Hills” (ohfa)
“Now Westlin Winds” (ohfa)
“Kelso Lasses” (ohfa)
“The Wedding O’Blyth” (ohfa)
“All Night I lay with Jockey in my Arms” (ohfa)
“Stool of Repentance” (Dixon)
“Dorrington Lads” (Dixon)
“Gingling Geordie” (Dixon)

Border Variations

The world at 8am is a dark and dangerous place for a cyclist heading for Carlisle on the Wigton road, it is rush hour and it is the main road linking several towns along the west coast of Cumbria with lorries roaring past, cars, vans and one lone cyclist all heading for Carlisle in the dark with rain beating down and an icy wind on my back. I caught the 9.10am bus to Langholm, about 20 miles over the Scottish border, where I was to meet 2 Border pipers for a session of playing traditional melodies of those parts. One piper lives in Langholm and the other comes from Hawick, we play generally from 10am until 2.30pm with a small break where we enjoy a soup and a chat. The melodies we play are a mixture of different tune books but all are traditional Border melodies with variations. I am a new comer to the group and I add my share of melodies from Peacock and Bewick to the eclectic mix. I sight read where I can to join in, I am not so bad in sight reading but I loose my way with the speed they play and the variations that are still unfamiliar to me. The variations are very particular to the Border piping repertoire, sometimes runs and arpeggios are reproduced in other melodies and after playing a dozen or so, one can see patterns, clearly formulating a style to these types of tunes. Often a melody can be found in a different manuscript under a different title, possibly suggesting that a common melody travelled well but that the names were not passed on. The main manuscript to be used is the once forgotten “Dixon Manuscript” brought to light again by Matt Seattle who reprinted it for general use. The style of the melodies are very different to the Scottish Highland pipe tunes or to other melodies from the UK and Ireland, they have virtually no grace notes written in to the score, whether they were played in a systematic fashion is hard to tell there is no reference either way, but the general thought is that they were played in a more “Northumbrian/Border” style with little gracing. When I started playing the Border pipes I found the variations difficult to enjoy, in fact I did not play them, but now I see them as being a part of my tradition, an important part of our ‘style’ and part of my culture. Variations look a little like ‘practise pieces’ one finds in music tutors, as though a pupil learns an instrument and has a series of finger exercises before the main melody begins. On the surface it looks like they are just a series of arpeggios and runs, less melodic and more rhythmic in style, a series of repetitions and an unusual use of the 7th note (flattened or sharpened) that in theory is used as a passing note not an important part of the melodic structure, when played this 7th note should clash with the drones but it gives it ‘its’ sound, the particular sound of Border piping. It takes a while to get use to this sound, these runs and repetitive arpeggio use, but when it does get into your mind and heart it is captivating and it is a window into a lost world into the music of the Scottish borders.

Coming home the wind was in my face and it took me ages to cycle home, when I did I flopped in front of the fire and to pass the time got out the concertina and played some tunes that I had memorized trying to add harmonies to the bare melodies. I play mainly 3rds and 5ths to the main melody notes trying to add a harmony where appropriate.

After dinner I went back to the Border pipes and made some changes that I had noticed in the afternoon: making them louder by opening the reed, trying to get them closer to concert pitch “A” but realising that the top notes were too sharp and so it needed flattened by pulling the reed out but this would make the chanter flatter, it could not be helped, an ‘in-tune’ chanter is better than one that is half in tune! So I will have to make do with a chanter that is just below concert pitch and hope it will not make too much difference. I also tried playing melodies from memory, so building a repertoire. In all it was a good day full of music.

Tuning the Border Pipes

Today I got the Border pipes out of their old battered suitcase. It is a while since I played them and since I am having a session over the border in Langholm, Scotland tomorrow, I thought to get ready and dust of the fingers and try and remember some tunes. Remember I did, it all comes back after a few failed attempts, I played mainly Peacock melodies some new ones too. As usual I altered the reeds as I am trying to get the chanter in tune with the drones as close as I can to concert pitch “A” (440c), this is to blend in as much as possible with the other 3 pipers who will be turning up tomorrow also I wish to play with other musicians in time and the need to be compatible with other instruments is becoming quite important. I have played solo on the pipes for years and although it is very liberating to play what one wants, it can be quite isolating too. I put more thread around the sliding drones to make them air-tight and to stop them double tonguing. I also experimented in holding them, as they are not the most comfortable set of pipes to play. Old photos of the Border Piper have playing them with the drones set neatly across the chest. In practise this is not so easy; the drones are heavy, longer than the Northumbrian pipes, and flop around. I have had them over the shoulder, by far the better position, but a big separation between the chanter (melody) and the drones (harmony) I like the Northumbrian pipes as the chanter and the drones are relatively together blending nicely. I put the drones across the chest but it is very unstable under the bag arm, then I put them underneath the arm that they normally rest upon so they are lying downwards towards the ground with the arm over them. This is the best position as the chanter and the drones are sounding together, but the neck of the chanter was flapping around and also uncomfortable, more experimentation needs to be done. I pushed the chanter reed in as far as it would go, opening the end to make it louder and to flatten the top notes of the chanter. I have always tried to quieten the chanter as think it is too loud, but I now believe (because of playing on the streets and back ground noises) that louder is better to cut above the other street noises. It is a constant struggle between the reed and the chanter to get it right, very frustrating very tiring, all in aid to get it to concert pitch “A”, if I had left the reed the way it was it was a perfect match between pressure of the bag, drone reeds and pitch – a flat “A”, but problematic to play with others. Lets see what happens tomorrow at the session.

A New Look At Old Tunes


I have been relooking at some old tunes I have been playing for a number of years. I had not taking these tunes seriously before because I was playing a set of Border Pipes that were not easy to play so this did not inspire me to learn these tunes. These Border tunes were written with the Border Pipes in mind (whether they are traditionally accurate is debateable, due to them being written in the Key of A major with a sharpened 7th, and not the traditional flattened 7th). I got these melodies off a tutor for the “Half Long Pipes” by Cocks. The Half Long Bagpipes were the name I originally liked, but it has gone out of fashion with the pipers and the “Border Pipes” have become the norm. the Half Long Pipes were basically the same instrument except that the drone system was different, the Border Pipes had a drone system of A,a,a (‘A/La’ bass, two ‘a/la” tenors) whereas the Half Long Pipes had a A,e,a (‘A’ Bass, ‘e’ tenor, ‘a’ tenor) very much like the Northumbrian Small Pipes, both pipes were bellows blown, although a mouth blown version was used in the past.

These tunes were in the Cock’s tutor book for the Half Long Bagpipes which I found in the Newcastle Library in the 80s. They are a bit faded and warn now, some of the ink has detached itself from the paper, but it is still readable and I am once again playing the melodies with a firmer intension of learning and memorizing these tunes.

I practise them on the practise chanter using the Scottish fingering style but with a very limited gracing. I used to study the Highland pipes but only briefly and it gave me an idea of the gracing involved, but I do not use it regimentally like the Highland players, I use it mainly when I think it fits. In the Cock’s tutor there are grace notes used but very little.

Before I relooked at these tunes, I was playing a selection of melodies from the Bewick and Peacock manuscripts with their many variations, but these tunes are simpler, more basic and with very few variations. It was printed in the 1930s if memory serves me right (?) so it gives an idea of the repertoire used before they were broken tradition.

Some of the melodies I have been playing through have titles such as: Sandhill Corner, Sunderland Lasses, Follow Her Over the Border, Brave Willy Forster, A mile to Ride…

It takes me a while to memorize a tune, so I play it over and over for days, my practise chanter is an old style, it was given to me by my old Highland Pipe instructor, it is not in tune and I take the mouth piece off so I can blow it with the plastic reed in my mouth to reach the high notes and to try and keep it in tune, it works fine with a bit of puff.