Monday, January 14, 2008

From Practice Chanter to Ffirst Set of Pipes

If you're aware of medieval bagpipes, then I probably don't have to tell you that there's dozens of other types of bagpipes available in the world. unfortunately, in the USA, our piping heritage comes primarily from England, and Highland pipes are so ubiquitous here, because we have lots of English, Irish, and Scottish people here, who like to keep their heritage alive, and a lot of that involves kilts, Great Highland pipes, dance and ancient British languages like Gaelic.

If you want to have any bagpipe other than Great Highland, in the USA, you will hit a lot of dead ends, and feel as though you're left in the cold. Don't worry. I'm writing this to let you jump over that part, and just go right for what you're looking for.

Big Pipes or Smallpipes?

You have many options for your first set of pipes. What you want to do is decide if you want smallpipes or big pipes. The difference is that big pipes, like Highland pipes, are more difficult to play than small pipes, and some people just don't have the lung capacity or coordination to keep it up. Don't be intimidated by the big pipes, as you may find that you do have a knack for them -- I only found out after sheer determination and about a year of trying. Hopefully I can help you avoid waiting that long.

The evil key of B-flat

Among smallpipes, there are many types -- Border pipes, Uileann pipes, musettes, and others. Most of these pipes familar to dealers of Highland pipes come in the key of B-flat. All practice chanters come in B-flat. Don't bother looking for a practice chanter in a different key -- They don't make them in other keys, unless you have a custom-made one. B-flat is a terrible key. Most medieval music in in the key of C, D, F, G, and A-minor. B-flat will be an obstacle to you when you start playing medieval music, because you will have to adjust your fingering to play in other keys, and thus, have one less note on your scale.

The Solution? Buy a recorder!

The practice chanter is set up with Highland Fingering, which is different from the baroque fingering that a set of medieval pipes will use. Baroque fingering is typically what you use when playing recorders, crummharns, and other medieval and baroque period wind instruments. You really do need a practice chanter to learn the pipes, as far as dealing with blowing continuously, and dealing with gracenotes. What you should do is buy a cheap plastic recorder, in addition to your practice chanter. Yamaha, Gill, Angel, and other manufacturers make excellent recorders for less than $10. Here is why you need the recorder: You will practice your breathing and playing on the practice chanter, then you will use the recorder to learn the fingering that you will need on your non-b-flat set of pipes.

I'm Cheap!

Pipes are expensive. Medieval pipes can be more expensive, since they're less common these days. Don't think of your first set of pipes as the only set you'll buy. There's no need to commit to a good, expensive set of pipes until you are absolutely sure what you want to end up playing. When you got your driver's license, you didn't go out and buy a $40,000 lurury car, did you? No, your first car was a beater -- a second-hand car with dents, dings, and well, cheap enough so that you weren't going to pay for it for the rest of your youth. Do the same thing with your first set of pipes. Look on craig's list or Ebay for used pipes, if you can. Remember -- these are pipes you will learn on, and that includes learning how to properly care for them (which some people call "learning how NOT to take care for them", if you get my drift...).

It's doubtful that you'll find a good set of used "medieval" pipes for sale, for reasons I've already mentioned. Don't worry. What you need is playing experience, experience using and setting up pipes. If you can find pipes in a key other than B-flat, especially in the keys I mention above, those are good possible choices. Do research on the features and sounds of the pipes you see online. Make sure that they're not proprietary -- make sure you can get the reeds for them without knowing how to make or modify your own reeds.

Beware of Crappy Pipes

I mentioned in my first article that Mid-east has a good set of medieval smallpies. They are good, and if you have $130 - $160 (The average retail price range for that model), get them. But watch out for their large "Medieval Bagpipes". They are junk, although they look nice. First of all, the large Medieval pipes they offer are less expensive than the smallpipes. Go figure. The problem with the big pipes is that they are in the key of F, but you only get a B-flat reed meant for Highland pipes. This combination does not work. Secondly, the holes are rough and full of splinters. Holes on the wood of a music instrument should be all smooth, otherwise they don't play the right tones. The joints are all leaky -- bagpipes need to be ait-tight. With a lot of work -- and I mean re-tooling, re-boring some holes, sanding, and re-hemping all the joints, and having a reedmaker custome make a reed for you, you can get them to work, but that will be a descision you'll have to make for yourself. Avoid those pipes if you don't want to spend weeks working on them.

My first set of pipes were in B-flat, unfortunately, but they helped me figure out how to play large pipes. Sure, I had to be a solo musician for a while, but these pipes -- which cost me about $300, were ultra-cheap, looked medieval, and were a good cheap way to pick up the skills needed to play most large pipes. Since I couldn't play along with other musicians, I tended to play mostly with drummers and other percussionists. Mostly, I played alone, as you will likely do, because you don't want people to hear you playing until you actually get reasonably good at it... Or maybe you do? Heck, even I know some people I'd like to play pipes badly around, just to drive them crazy!

Until you're confident that you can buy a good professional set of pipes, you may want to stick to local vendors -- find the nearest babpipe suppliers in your area, and see if they actually have models to demonstrate. The more local, the easier it will be to get support and information for when things go wrong.


didymus said...

I am interested in learning the medieval pipes. I play tinwhistle and have joined the cast of a medieval fair that opens the last of March. I hope to pick up enough hints from you so that I may be playing the pipes at the fair next year.

David W. Irish said...

Well, tin whistle is good, but you really need to get a recorder ($10 or less for a Yamaha or Gill plastic one... Don't worry, they're actually good, and sadly, expensive wooden ones are devalued as a result...), and a Bagpipe Practice Chanter. I recommend a Dunbar or Walsh plastic practice chanter, as they are a really good deal, and last forever.

The way you play is similar to the tin-whistle, but the fingering (usually provided on a chart with the instrument) is different.

The recorder will help you with playing the scale and fingering of the medieval pipes, and the practice chanter will help you with blowing at the right strength/volume.

Most medieval tunes are in the form of AB AB AB. You play the A part, take a breath, and then play the B part, and take a breath. When using the practice chanter, you blow continuously, at a constant steady pace. The idea is to play the A (and maybe B part between breaths.

Once you can do that, you need to try blowing continuously, by puffing your cheeks, breathing in through your nose, and maintaining the same flow of air. This is called circular breathing, like playing a digeridoo.

Once you can play a bunch of tunes on the practice chanter, you can get that medieval smallpipe from Mid-east. It's about $130 - $160, depending on the specific vendor. The drone reeds that come with them are small and delicate, and well, I'll confess that I broken them as soon as I got it. There are plastic reeds available that fit from MacMurchie. I swear by them. They last forever.

Of course, you should not let this be your only source of information. Look up "Bagpipe Fingering Chart" and "How to play the practice Chanter" online, to find guides that give more specific information on playing. What it takes to play bagpipes is more determination and persistance than anything. If you REALLY want to, just keep trying, and it will all just come to you.

Here are a few good resources:

"Andrew Lenz's Bagpipe Journey" for lots of info including playing, finger charts, seasoning the bag, and lots of other helpful hints.

Kyle Music -- he offers the best pricing on the Medieval Small Pipes.

Macmurchie makes the best smallpipe reeds for the medieval pipes. They're in the UK, but they have US distributors, usually angry old scottsmen who sell bagpipes out of their basements :)

Have fun!

Joseph Ortega said...

Is it possible to turn a regular scotish chanter into a baroque fingered one?

David W. Irish said...

Joseph Ortega said...
"Is it possible to turn a regular scotish chanter into a baroque fingered one?"

No, not really, not unless you modify it. A Baroque-fingered instrument has a different scale. The Bagpipes use an ancient musical scale called Mixolydian, which has a couple of sharps or flats in places where the Baroque scale doesn't.

You COULD play the Highland chanter and get all the correct notes of the Baroque scale, but you would be using different fingering from both.

That's why you want to get yourself a recorder for practicing non-highland music.

If you have access to some cheap practice chanters (ones that you don't mind destroying), you could try filling up some of the holes, or partially covering them with electrical tape, and maybe drillign new holes, to get it to play the baroque scale with baroque fingering, but that's certainly a big project, and I have no experience doing it. I have heard of other people doing it, though. In the end, your chanter looks like crap, but it play correctly... theoretically...

Joseph said...

Thanks. That is actually my question.

I got a set of crap bagpipes for £0.75 (honestly, I still believe somebody made a mistake posting them in ebay and there were no bidders). I have customized the chanter so it looks cool and plays the baroque scale now. But the new bag I made leaks a bit, so I need to keep going. I will post pictures of it on my blog soon, if you are curious.

David W. Irish said...

Many of the cheap-ass bagpipes on the web are terrible. IN fact, I'd say that most are downright rip-offs, and that I only got lucky when I got the Medieval smallpipes, and they turned out to be excellent.

When you can't actually see the pipes up close before you buy them, you take a big risk. Many of the cheap pipes are roughly cut, and not finished -- I've seen a lot of pipes that have splinters and sawdust on the inside, because the holes weren't sanded smooth. I saw another set of cheap pipes that were covered with a sticky resin, which I later found out was due to the pipes being stored in a damp warehouse. The metal parts were corroded, and the wood was actually splitting in places because the water caused the wood to expand -- good pipes do not do this when stored in a damp place -- the wood is usually treated to lock out moisture.

You cannot really think about finishing the pipes on your own, without the risk of the chanter going out of tune (which you already have experience with, since you modified yours).

For cheap pipes, I'd recommend getting USED ones. There are hundreds of music stores sellign the same crappy bagpipes from Mid-east, all made in Pakistan, and only some models are worth buying. The Harp and Dragon, which I placed a link to on my last blog posting, actually claims that they set up and tune their pipes before they ship them to you, and they sell Mid-East pipes, although just a few select models, including the terrible Medieval pipes in F, which I warn about. Most of the Mid-East pipes that Harp and Dragon sell are playable, and they claim right up front that the Medieval pipes in F are for re-enactment purposes. I've pressed them on whether or not they play, and they said they didn't know, because they haven't had a chance to set those up before.

I say go with used pipes, sold by an individual and not a company, because most used pipes are probably working fine, and merely being replaced by new pipes. You need to talk to the owner before buying, and ask them what condition the pipes are in. Otherwise, everything is like shooting craps -- you won't know what to expect. Unfortuantely, for medieval pipes, there are few people using them, and fewer used ones to select from.

I've had people tell me to just avoid cheap pipes, and save up for a good set from a real pipe maker. This is not an option for pipers, because we MUST make music. We are driven to play the pipes, and cannot wait to save up $1500 for a new set of pipes. So we buy a cheap set, learn and practice with those, and then save up. Hopefully, some day, you can get one of Julian Goodacre's pipes or something from Germany. I'll tell you right now, I learned on cheap, crappy pipes, and saved up for the Pipes I got from Juergen Ross in Germany. It was worth it, because those pipes were so much better than the cheap pipes, that I am able to play with greater ease, and spend less time tuning them. The cheap pipes that I started out with taught me a lot about how to care for and maintain the pipes, and I owe my ability to play my German pipes to the cheap Pakistani ones.

Good luck!