A couple of years ago, I began writing instructional material on a blog on my Facebook page. The comments I got on the pieces were very positive. I put a lot of effort into each one, but my readership was small because of the limited way I was marketing the pieces (i.e., not at all). I couldn’t justify the time I was putting into each piece, but I enjoy writing about these things, so I approached pipes|drums about doing a regular column in the magazine. I was going to title it “From the Pipe Box,” but some view my approach to piping as sometimes different from the mainstream, so we came up with “Outside the Box” for the series.
Not everything I do piping-related is “outside the box.” Much of what I will discuss here is common knowledge to most experienced pipers, but still needs to be related frequently to the up-and-coming. Sometimes the smallest details can make the biggest difference in one’s piping life. As Chris Hadfield says in his recent book about life as an astronaut, if you want to become extremely accomplished at something, it’s important to sweat the small stuff.
So, this will be a regular look at a wide variety of topics. I’ll suggest how to make the instrument work better, how we might better understand the music, how we might better understand our important historical figures, and who knows what else.
I’ll look forward to any comments these pieces might generate, and to suggestions from readers as to future topics.
Steadiness is Job 2
I can think of few things more important in a piping performance than tuning the pipes well and having them stay in tune. Of course, Tuning is Job 1. I once made a video on turning and it ended up 140-minute minutes long, so I won’t hope to address that here. However, steadiness – that is, the ability of the drones and chanter to hold an exact pitch for an extended period of time – is the second most important part of a performance, assuming you’ve been able get the pipes in tune in the first place. This is a much less subjective topic, and a few sentences might help pipers address it. Here, in no particular order, are significant points about bagpipe steadiness.
The chanter reed
It’s crucial to understand that your chanter reed sharpens up for the first few minutes after you strike in. Most pipers strike in, tune one tenor to their low A and then tune the middle tenor and the bass to the first tenor. This may take them a couple of minutes. Finally they get all three drones tuned and they are frustrated to find that the drones aren’t in tune with low A. They think they screwed up. But all they did wrong was to forget that the chanter reed had sharpened up since they started. After three or four minutes of playing, you need to tune that outside tenor to low A again. Within 10 minutes a good reed will stabilize and hold its pitch fairly well. However, if you stop your bagpipe, the reed will flatten again quickly. You’ll have to repeat the “blowing up” process again, though it won’t take as long second time around. That’s why experienced pipers don’t stop their pipes during a practice session. Saves tons of tuning time.
Climate and temperature
When we see a professional piper step onto to platform and “tune” for five or more minutes, listeners often misinterpret what he or she is doing. We say they are “tuning,” and we wonder what is taking so long. But the piper is mostly acclimatizing the instrument to the room he or she has just stepped into. Temperature changes between one room and another cause the chanter reed to change pitch. It can take several minutes before this process is complete. Most top pipers can tune their pipes in 30 seconds. It’s getting the pipes acclimatized to the room that takes time.
I’ve had many pipers at workshops and schools confidently tell me they don’t have a moisture problem and don’t need any moisture control “contraptions,” but that they do have trouble tuning. More than once I’ve taken out one of their tenor drone reeds and found the inside of the barrel soaking wet. They had no idea that they had an invisible moisture problem. Moisture from their breath condenses inside the drone bores, beads up, and runs down into the reeds.
When this happens you can’t get the drones in tune. If you don’t take the pipes apart and dry them, they will retain that moisture in the closed case until the next time you play. You will think you are a tuning moron, but really, your pipes are just getting wet.
Get yourself a contraption. Pipes are especially prone to this kind of moisture problem in cool rooms or climates. When I was a young man travelling with my colleagues to compete in Scotland in the 1970s and early ’80s before moisture control systems were invented, we had a terrible time controlling moisture in the cool, damp Scottish climate. We had to learn that skill. Most top pipers thank God at least once a day for their moisture control contraption.
Drone reed selection
Naturally, the steadiness of your drone reeds is crucial. My advice is simple: don’t scrimp on drone reeds. Not every set of reeds from reputable makers will be steady in your bagpipe. Often you can tell if a reed is unsteady when you blow it in the drone in your mouth. Vary your blowing a bit and see if the pitch changes easily. If your drones aren’t staying in tune, it can be difficult to find the guilty reed. Process of elimination helps to discover the culprit – switch reeds out one at a time until you hear a difference. More often than not, the bass drone reed is the problem, but it can be hard to tell. Try shutting the bass off, tuning the tenors and playing only them for a few minutes. Once you have them staying nicely in tune together, then work on the bass. Most top players will tell you that of the four reeds in their bagpipe their bass drone is the hardest to replace. Most keep their bass reeds for years.
One important point about reeds that I learned in the smallpipe world is that more times than not if a reed is a bit unsteady, making it stronger will help. In other words, move the bridle to lengthen the tongue a wee bit. It’s a fact (for tenor reeds particularly) that if you increase pressure on a reed until it shuts off, it will make a sudden rise in pitch just before it clamps shut. If your reed is operating in the pipes right around that shut-off point, you’ll never get them steady.
The chanter reed again
Sometimes you will get a chanter reed that is unstable or lacks blowing “resistance.” You might not notice it when you blow it in your mouth, but you can’t seem to get your drones in tune. I’ve had great drone reeds that suddenly seemed to become unsteady after I put in a new chanter reed. The temptation is strong to start messing with the drone reeds. But I’ve learned that before I do that I should try my good reed again. Almost invariably my drones become magically steady again. It’s quite bizarre actually, and I don’t like bizarre, so I throw that reed in the garbage. This illustrates the best reason for getting a new reed going while your current reed is in peak form. Being able to compare your new reed to your good one is invaluable.
It’s no secret that some drones are steadier than others. This is not a topic to go into in great depth here, but some pipes are easier to reed (that is, more reeds go well in them) and seem to lock into tune more easily and stay there. If you can get yourself a set like this, good for you. But you still need to address all the basics to make them work.
I’ve left this to the end, simply because it’s not as important a personal fault as you might think. I have more often than not determined that pipers who thought they were bad blowers were simply playing bad bagpipes. By bad bagpipes I mean instruments that were too strong (chanter reed), took too much air (drone reeds) or were unsteady in the ways described above. Usually reed strength is the issue, especially with women pipers who often lack the physical strength of men. Once the bagpipe is efficient and steady, blowing steadily is a much easier process. I call this “blowing with your ears.”
Blowing with your ears is a big topic. We’ll leave it to another day.
If you have any questions, please use the Comments feature, and we can create some public dialog from which everyone else can benefit.
Ideas for topics? Email Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim McGillivray achieved great competition success as a solo piper, among his many awards winning both Highland Society of London Gold Medals, the Clasp, and the MSR at the Glenfiddich Championship. He was the Pipe-Major of the Grade 1 Guelph Pipe Band when it won the North American Championship, and was a member of the 78th Fraser Highlanders. He is Director of the piping drumming program at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario, and also owns and operates McGillivray Piping and pipetunes.ca.