Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tips for medieval bagpiping

I wrote this article a while ago for Steffan's Florigium (, and I realized that it contains a lot of good links to follow.

Tips for medieval bagpiping in the SCA

(1) Great Highland Bagpipes are a 17th century instrument. Though you could plug up one drone hole, and just use 2 drones instead of 3, the actual style of the Great Highland pipes, even the "antique chalice" styles seen on many websites, are simply not ancient enough to look like a medieval instrument. It's like playing a metal transverse flute with valves in a renaissance orchestra. You should look for a period instrument. If you could dress your Highland pipes so that they looked like the pipes in medieval art, then go for it. If you are a pre-1600 person, and you wear kilts, then you most likely would be using a 1 or 2 drone instrument. The closest direct ancestor of the Great Highland pipes are the Biniou Kosz from French Brittany. A Spanish Gaita is a close ancestor of the Great Highland pipes that is borderline pre-1600.

Basically, if you cannot afford a real medieval-style bagpipe from a professional craftsman (and let's face it, most people cannot blow $1000 on a music instrument), there are cheap options available. Check E-bay periodically for medieval bagpipes. Avoid Mid-East's Medieval Bagpipes in the Key Of F, as they do not work. These are ubiquitous, so watch for them. Most of the actual cheap, working medieval style bagpipes are either Pakistani-made or German made. Go for German, if you can afford it. They are usually between $300 and $800. There is a certain cheap Pakistani Medieval Bagpipe on the market that has distinctive conical-shaped drones. These bagpipes, which I own a set of, work, but only for people with a lot of experience. I started off playing them with just one drone until I could build up my lung capacity to play both drones.

There are about 2 or 3 cheap "medieval smallpipes" on the market. One is made by Mid East MFG (Pakistani-made, but sold from a warehouse in Florida), and they are in the key of D. Another is made by a company called Airstream, and they are distinguished by their conical drones and a spiral-carved blowpipe. Smallpipes are a lot easier to play, and usually a lot cheaper -- in the under-$200 range.

(2) Your costume should be appropriate to the time period you're playing from. If you have 13th century pipes like me, you might want to dress like the people in Cantigas De Santa Maria's illustrations -- robes with tights underneath, maybe a coife. If you are going as a 14th or 15th century German or Italian, you may want to get out your tunic and codpiece, with your puffy-hat. Dress either from the exact same period as

your pipe's design, or LATER. It's arguable that bagpipes and other instruments were passed down from generation to generation. I happen to think they were, since they were expensive and rather durable. There are museums that have actual working medieval instruments, as opposed to reproductions, and if a bagpipe or recorder can be playable 600 years after it was made, then playing your great-grandfather's 100 year-old pipes would be very appropriate.

(3) Play period music! I can't tell you how many times I've been to events where people are playing medieval bagpipes, but are playing modern (post 1600) music on them, and nearly always Scottish music. If you are playing medieval bagpipes, you really need to learn some medieval songs, and stick to them. There's actually thousands of songs available to you, and most are easy to learn. The Scottish Highland music from the 16th to 19th century that most people are familiar with, is highly refined and technical. Medieval music is much simpler, and if you play Highland music fairly well, you should be able to pick up medieval tunes with hardly any work at all. Nearly all medieval music can be played effortlessly on Bagpipes, as the instruments of the time that the music was typically written for, such as recorders, shawms, crumhorns, flutes, etc, use the exact same fingering, and have the same one-octave range. Most people will recognize tunes like Stella Splendens and Ecce Mundi Gaudium, and Greensleeves. It adds to the authenticity of your performance. The songs from the Cantigas De Santa Maria (13th century Spain) and the Carmina Burana, or Buranus Codex (13th century German) provide a plethora of music. You can find sheet music from these two books all over the web, and much of it for free, as it is of historical value.

(4) Drummers are essential! You should have a drummer to accompany you. A lone bagpiper is sad! If you have large, loud pipes, you should get a couple of drummers and some other percussionists with bells, tambourines, or other rhythm instruments. Middle-eastern and African rhythms are very appropriate for a lot of the Spanish music, because of the influence of the Moors. For more northern European music, though, you need to play different beats. English and northern European minstrels could often be found with a Frame Drum (usually called an Bodhran or Irish-drum), and a larger drum similar to a tom-tom (Usually a rope-tension drum with a thick head made of animal skin). The Frame drums were typically used for the overall rhythm, and the tom-tom was used for accenting. If you can get other bagpipers, great, otherwise, just fill up with Rhythms. In many occasions, you will bump into drummers and do impromptu jams with them. This can be fun and useful, as you can test playing songs to different rhythm styles.

(5) Smallpipes, singing, and recorders... One of the problems I encountered with playing smallpipes among other musicians is the musical scales. Most Bagpipes use the Mixolydian scale -- a musical scale that goes back to the Ancient Greeks, and which became replaced by Gregorian, Renaissance, and finally Baroque scales (well, finally, the modern scale). Bagpipes retained the older musical scale because they were considered "folk" instruments, not part of the standard court ensembles of the renaissance and Baroque periods. Essentially, when people playing a Baroque recorder play some notes, the Bagpipe chanter will play a sharp or a flat.

The modern standard on all modern instruments, for the frequency of the A above middle-C is 440 Hz (cycles per second). On medieval instruments, the A above middle C is anywhere from 470Hz to 480 Hz. You will see this a lot when you delve into the technical aspects of music. A Bagpipe's Chanter plays one octave, usually from Low A to high A. Compared to the modern scale, the notes in a Bagpipe's scale sound like A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A. The C# and the F# will sound dissonant when played together with a baroque or modern instrument. Of course, if your bagpipe is in a different key (the example provided is the key of B, which most Highland pipes are in), different notes will be sharp, or even flat. Stringed instruments, because they can be fine-tuned, and play in any key that the musician wants, have almost no problem getting along with Bagpipes; The musician only needs to tweak the tuning of a couple of strings, and play normally.

Other early instruments cannot be fine-tuned as easily as stringed instruments. There are several ways to overcome this. One way is to have a bagpipe maker custom-make a set of pipes that is compatible with the baroque scale. Many craftsmen will do this, but it's not something you will find already built into a cheap set of pipes. You have to have the instrument custom-made, so this is an expensive option. Another method is to have the recorder players adapt their playing to play the sharps or flats that your bagpipe does, if possible, or avoid the notes that sound dissonant when played with your bagpipe. This can be difficult, but it can be done. One method that I've heard several professional musical groups use is to play the piece using only the other instruments of the ensemble, while the bagpipes are silent, or with just the drones playing. Then, for the finale of the song, the other instruments stop, and the Bagpipes play alone with just the rhythm instruments. This works extremely well most of the time.

Smallpipes and Singing go together just fine, but forget being heard if big pipes are playing. The band "In Extremo", A Medieval-heavy Metal crossover band, plays big pipes with singing. They accomplish this by not having any singing going on when bagpipes are playing. They alternate between singing and the big pipes. This can easily be done without a heavy metal band. One problem for pipers with equally good singing voices is that you cannot pipe and sing at the same time, and transitioning between playing pipes and singing in the same piece can be a difficult juggling act. It's best to keep the piping and singing separated. Some custom-made pipes have a cut-off valve that allows the player to stop playing instantly, but this is usually just on the chanter. The drones still need to be pumped, which means that you will either have to deal with the sound of the drones losing air pressure (sounds like an airplane going down... or a sick cow), or keep your singing parts quick so you can pump the drones and get back to blowing before they become unstable (Usually, you have about 10-20 seconds of air in the bag to play just the drones). It's hard, and I've never really seen anyone do it, so i don't recommend it. Personally, I would look for other bagpipers to allow you to sing while he plays.

Great accompaniment for large pipes are shawms. Shawms essentially use similar reeds to the large bagpipe's chanter, and are as loud. In fact, medieval German bagpipe chanters are practically identical in construction, shape,and sound to the shawms from the same period. Corvus Corax, one of the most popular contemporary Medieval bands in Germany, uses shawms and bagpipes together with great effect. Though their arrangements are very modern, Corvus Corax's instruments are all authentic, and deliberately custom-made to be in compatible keys.

(6) Final thoughts. I'd like some input on these suggestions. I can be contacted at priscus.forem at gmail,com. I'm interested in hearing from other pipers all the time. Thanks! Please distribute this article only in it's entirety, and with proper credit to the author.

Related Links (where I got most of my info from).

Highland Bagpipe History Links:
History of the Great Highland Bagpipes
The Edinburgh Bagpipe Company
The College Of Piping
The Pre-Seventeenth Century Highland Bagpipe

Medieval Bagpipe history links:
Bagpipes in Germany

Bagpipe historical illustrations:
Bagpipes and Shawms


Cantigas De Santa Maria illustrations Index
Strange Double-flute with resonator

Wikipedia on Cantigas De Santa Maria
The Cantigas De Santa Maria

Carmina Burana (Burana Codex):
Wikipedia entry for Carmina burana
The Carmina Burana

Online text of the Carmina Burana
Carmina Burana Online

Historical Bagpipe Illustrations:
Bagpipe Iconography page (large collection of medieval bagpipe images)
the Bagpipe Iconography page

Places to buy Medieval Bagpipes from:
The best bargain in Medieval Smallpipes:
Medieval Smallpipes in D from Mid-East Ethnic Music

Alternative link for same set of pipes:
Same pipes as above from a different vendor

The medieval Bagpipes in F, which you should avoid at all cost:
Medieval Bagpipes IN F from Mid-East Ethnic Music

Alternative link to same set of pipes:
Same pipes as above from a different vendor

Dancing Stickmen (Bagpipe Craftsman)
Sam Coulter made a nice Hummelchen for me (link is now dead, hopefully Sam isn't!

Stefan Fischer, Sackpfeifenmacher (German) -- Makes a variety of Medieval and Renaissance era bagpipes
Stefan Fischer, Sackpfeifenmacher (German)

Jens Guenzel (IN German and English) -- Makes most famous Medieval Bagpipes
Jens Guenzel Dudelsack Werkstatt (German, limited English text)

Folkster Music Netshop -- Some interesting offerings
Folkster Music Netshop">Folkster (German)

Andreas Rogge (German and English) -- Some really nice and versetile pipes
Andreas Rogge (German and English)

Von Huene Workshop, The Early Music Shop of New England -- Boston's finest repository of early music instruments. He doesn't have bagpipes, but he occaisionally gets shawms, Rauschpfeifs, and other instruments.
Von Huene Workshop, The Early Music Shop of New England

Paul Beekhuizen's Early Woodwind Instruments -- A few authentic designs
Paul Beekhuizen's Early Woodwind Instruments

England's Early Music Shop, LTD -- EMS has many kits for hobbyists to assemble and play.
England's Early Music Shop, LTD