Save Your Breath! It Might Be The Bagpipe…
Several years ago I was invited to conduct a workshop for a non-competition band. I hadn’t worked with this band before and really had no idea of what to expect. I attended a function the night before where the band had been hired to put on a performance. This was actually very helpful in understanding the challenges that the band was facing. I observed a neatly attired group that struggled with just about every aspect of the instrument and its music. I noted that the sound was very weak, poorly set, and that there were many corks sticking out of various drones around the circle.
The next day I started out by asking several questions. How long had they been together, how long had various members been playing and where, etc. I wanted to get a sense of the history. If I could find bedrock, well, that’s not a bad place to establish a foundation. From there we could move forward.
I asked about the sound and the corks. The band had made a commitment to play synthetic (plastic) chanter reeds because “cane is just too hard to blow”. I took a risk. I called the Pipe Sergeant up to the front of the room and asked him to strike up his pipes. In so doing, his blowpipe and chanter both popped out of their respective stocks! Everybody laughed, except me. I just smiled, but inside I was thinking “Here we go!”
We put the bagpipe on the table and started by checking all the fittings. All sections were loose and wobbling in the stocks. None of the seals were airtight. We corked the drones and found that two stocks weren’t tied in securely leaving air to escape. Little by little we worked our way through the bagpipe correcting various fundamental issues. All told, the two stocks had to be re-tied, every tenon was loose and losing air, and drone reeds all required adjustment to sound and behave correctly.
After fixing all the obvious issues the piper almost blew his synthetic reed through the bottom of the chanter! I had a number of cane chanter reeds already blown-in and ready to hand out. I took a calculated risk and put one into this bagpipe. I had the piper blow up once again and quickly turned his drones. I turned to face the class and everyone was scribbling notes and looking amazed! The piper couldn’t believe how easy his bagpipe was to blow and how well it sounded.
Of course, this was just one small step along the path. From this point we talked about blowing properly for a particular set-up and blowing steady. We talked about clean strike-ins and cut-offs and playing in unison. The happy ending is that a few years later they decided to compete in Grade 5. After a year or two they were moved up to Grade 4 where they continue to play today.
I always stress that the GHB may be complicated however it is 100% logical. If you take care of everything you’re supposed to take care of, the instrument will reward you with both ease of playing and superior sound. In just a little over 30 minutes, we had this piper playing a decent cane reed and three drones!
If you’re not checking your bag to ensure it’s airtight on a regular basis, you may be working harder than you need to be. A good bagpipe starts with an airtight bag. With absolutely any bag on the market, first and foremost, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Check your bag periodically to ensure it’s airtight. It may require a spot of seasoning or the zipper may need lubrication. Stocks need to be secure and airtight. I’ve published an article about this in the Museum Sandbox section of our site: Air-Tight Bag. I have another story…
Many years ago I was conducting yet another workshop. A new piper approached the table and was visibly frustrated at not being able to manage more than a few notes on his bagpipe. I did a quick check and all the stocks seemed secure. I inspected the stock and there were no cracks. I put some rubber stoppers in the stocks and the bag was airtight, yet when I put the drones in place, the bagpipe was extremely difficult to keep going. I put corks into the bushings and blew up the bagpipe. Now I expected, based on what I had previously done, that the bagpipe would remain inflated. After all, the air had nowhere to go!
Wrong! The bag deflated quickly with just a little pressure applied. On a whim, I took the drones out of the stocks and inspected the bore of each stock. Every stock was non-concentric. For whatever reason, the bores were more egg-shaped that round. When I had put the rubber corks into the stocks, they conformed to the oval shape and the bag was airtight. But when I put the hemped tenon into the stock, it did not fill the oval bore which allowed air to escape at specific points around the circumference of the tenon. To cut this story short, I wrote the fellow a letter, he sent the bagpipe back to the maker and received a replacement set with proper concentric bores.
So, if you’re new at piping or you find yourself struggling with your bagpipe, dive in and find out what’s wrong. It may be something minor or it may be something major.
OK, one more short story. Again, I was doing a workshop and this piper approached me with the look of frustration on his face. “How come I can blow your bagpipe with no problem but I struggle to keep mine going?” I blew his bagpipe and sure enough, it was difficult to keep going. I took a look at his reeds and they were set up pretty well. We tore it down and corked the drone stocks. The bag was losing air. I checked the zipper and it was airtight. I checked the seams and they were all airtight. I couldn’t find the bag itself losing air anywhere. Then I took a real close look at the stocks. One of the stocks had a very small gash running all the way through to the inside bore! It had been combed over and the clear outer-finish was applied right over the flaw. This was an apparent wormhole that was undetected at the shop. The piece was bored, combed, and finished and went out into the world. The piper had been struggling with this bagpipe for years. We tied in a replacement stock and he blew his bagpipe with no difficulty for the first time ever. We shipped the original stock away for repair/replacement.
So here’s the bottom line. If you’re having issues, just don’t continue to struggle. Go over the instrument carefully. You might find something you hadn’t considered. If you need help, write or call me.
In my next blog we’ll talk about drone reeds and how to set them up for best performance.