Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rebirth of My Hummelchen

After I learned to play bagpipes a few years ago, I decided I needed to get myself a quality instrument to play, as opposed to the cheap Pakistani ones that I learned on. Truth be told, the cheap pipes were great, and they served me very well, as they taught me everything I needed to know to play and care for bagpipes, but because of their cheap quality, they were a little high on maintenence, and the lack of precision is identical to what musicians who play recorder know -- it's better to get a high quality recorder with a sweet voice, that will keep it's sweet voice and literally play perfectly in tune every time, whenever it's picked up. With cheaper instruments, you have to constantly tune them, or find that they don't quite get along with other instruments from time to time. The same is true with Bagpipes, as with any other instrument. Cheap pipes make you spend a lot of time not playing them. So found Sam Coulter, a craftsman in the USA who made Medieval bagpipes. He had a selection of pipes based on medieval designs, and I thought that since he was in the USA, that it would eliminate a lot of the expected issues with foreign currency exchange, and so on. So I contacted him, and ordered a Hummelchen. What I didn't expect was that he'd as me questions like:

  • What key do you want them in?
  • What kind of fingering?
  • Do you want A=440?

The key of the instrument can be summed up as what is the first note on the instrument, and what is the range it plays in. The Renaissance saw the creation of a standard in music -- instruments were divided up into Sopranino (Key of F), Soprano (Key of C), Alto (F), Tenor (C), and Bass (F). From the renaissance on, you would only see these instruments in C and F, with the occaisional descant D.

With bagpipes, since most of them were not chromatic, they were available in a variety of different keys. What I didn't know was that a Hummelchen is a chromatic bagpipe by design, and it was usually available in the Key of C and D (You would get the instrument in C, and could tune the drones to D. Luckily, since my problem was that I couldn't play with recorders, I asked for them in C, which was pure serendipity.

A=440 Explained
See, since I knew nothing about music prior to learning the pipes, and was pretty much self-taught, these questions didnt' mean anything to me. A=440 is "modern tuning", where the A above middle C equals exactly 440 Hertz, which is a measure of audible wave frequency. See, in medieval times, before we had electronics and sensitive tools with which to gauge the construction of instruments, all tuning was done by ear, and the tunings were more like A=315 or A=385, which, to an untrained ear, can sound almost identical, except when you play them together, ahd hear the slight wavering sound of dissonance. Since the main reason I had for getting a real instrument was to play with other people, and I knew that most people had A=440, I decided on A=440.

There are several types of fingering in simple wind instruments -- Highland, Recorder, German, French, and others. Many different instruments have unique fingerings, meaning covering different holes with your fingers produces different notes. There is closed fingering, such as in Highland pipes, where you keep the holes of unused notes covered. OPen fingering, like on a recorder, has most notes below the one you're playing left open. Cross fingering is a technique that you use on some instruments to produce half-tones (sharps and flats). Highland fingering only allows for whole notes, while cross fingering on a recorder offers a complete chromatic range. With Highland fingering, you just have "a-b-c-d-e-f-g-a-b" (this is an oversimplified example), but on an instrument with recorder fingering, you have A-A#-B-B#-C-C#-D-D#, and so on. The advantages of recoder and cross-fingering is that you can play a much larger range of music. WIth Highland fingering, you're limited to Highland music, or having to adapt music to the instrument's range. Since I had only used Highland fingering, I decided on Highland fingering. This was a crucial mistake on my part.

Asking for Highland fingering sort of made my instrument a hybrid, and totally inappropriate. Unfortunately, you cannto blame the craftsman, because he builds pipes for all sorts of people with all sorts of specifications, and he cannot tell which ones are making bad choices, and which aren't. He has no idea if a customer is a genius or a total novice, if they want a set of pipes like I asked for for convenience, or for a special project, or whatever. PLus, the customer is always right -- if you ask for a set of pipes with characteristic A, B, and C, he is obliged to deliver those things in his instrument. So I got this set of pipes that sounded really great, but they still played in a highland scale, and were sort of still not compatible with other instruments. I played them occaisionally, but for the most part, didn't touch them a lot. I started thinking of new pipes -- actually buying a real German-made Hummelchen, but then thought "Why not just get a new chanter for the one that I have?" So I contacted Sam again, and asked if he could make a new chanter for me. I told him that I needed the following things on the new chanter:

  • Key of C
  • Chromatic
  • Recorder fingering
  • It needs to get B flat, and E flat (common required notes in a lot of medieval music)
He said he could do it, so I sent him my hummelchen, and in a few months, the newly reborn instrument arrived at my door. It works perfectly.
Above is a picture of the original highland-fingered chanter on my Hummelchen. Note the large holes.
This is the new chanter. Note the Double-holes. These allow it to play chromatically, almost exactly like a recorder.

I have included sound samples of it in it's different modes (C and D-minor). For more versatility, I crafted a leather drone-plug, which allows me to turn off the baritone drone for easier tuning, or to just shut it off when less drones are required. I will eventually make a second plug for the bass drone, because I discovered that the new instrument sounds great with the Hurdy-Gurdy, but we have to shut the drones off, because the gurdy already drones loud enough, and more drones means that nobody would hear either instrument's melody. So for some duets, I need no drones to work at all.

Here is a sample of my Hummelchen playing in C, with the drones tuned to C anf G. The song is a German folk tune I heard from favorite band called Spectaculatius. The good thing is that My hummelchen sounds exactly like theirs, which means that I have an authentic instrument now.
Here's the same pipes playing in D-minor, with the bass drone set to D, and the Baritone set to A. This tune is one I heard Wolgemut play. This also demonstrates the chromatic nature of this bagpipe, as there is a ubiquitous B-flat in this tune.