The early life of a late-start bag-piper

I was always a lazy bugger, and learning to play an instrument entails a lot of practice. So after learning a few chords on the guitar as a teenager, I decided and declared that I would never be a musician and gave it up as a bad job.

But when I retired 50 years later my world changed a bit. I am a South African by birth, but there was some Scottish blood in the ancestral line and we grew up in a household where a lot of Scottish music and poetry was heard. My dad played the bagpipes and so did my uncles, i.e. Dad’s brothers. We learned to love the Scottish culture and when I retired and finally had time to do these things, I joined the Caledonian society in Cape Town. They had a group of members who were being taught the chanter by the society’s honorary piper. I did not think I had a hope in hell of learning to play at 70 years old, but I joined the chanter group and have been attending lessons for 2 years now. One starts on the practice chanter, a small wind instrument that makes use of a plastic reed (two plastic blades vibrating against each other) to produce its characteristic but unusual sound. It has nine finger-holes on the pipe below the reed and when one blows air down the blowpipe end, it passes over and through the reed, sets it vibrating and produces musical notes. The distance from the reed to the open holes decided what pitch a note will have and it is possible to play musical scales up and down the chanter although the intervals between the notes are not the same as on modern instruments.

Chanter_1
Practice chanter

The practice chanter with its plastic reed can be played inside an apartment without disturbing the neighbours. That is why it is called a practice chanter. One problem with the practice chanter as a performing instrument though is that the musician cannot blow endlessly into the blow-stick without pausing for a quick breath. But the music does not usually allow for breathing stoppages so the effect on the listener is not very salutary. Another problem with the practice chanter is that it plays only single notes at any one time. Some notes are played very fast in quick sequences and this helps to make it more interesting but one cannot play chords on it. Both of these shortcomings are addressed to some degree by the addition to the chanter of a bag full of air and 3 other pipes that produce droning sounds at two different pitches. These harmonize with the chanter in different ways on different notes and make it sound much more colourful. So the whole ensemble resembles a sort of 5 armed octopus of quintopus if you prefer.

Neal playing the bagpipes
First lesson on the full set of pipes

Here is a picture of yours truly with his brand new set of bagpipes trying to learn the not-easy technique of keeping the bag full of air, squeezing it under the arm with a constant pressure and actually trying to play a tune all at the same time. The actual full set of pipes does not use a plastic chanter reed as with the practice chanter. It uses a reed made, would you believe it, of a special type of reed (or cane). It makes an extremely loud sound which cannot be produced in an apartment without raising a lynch-mob, and in addition, the three drones all have reeds in them as well. The sound produced has a primal quality to it that would scare off most enemies, but it is balm to the Celtic soul.

How am I doing with my learning? Well it is conventional wisdom that it takes a young man with a good ear and attitude 7 years to learn the basics and he then enters a second seven year period in which he strives to become a master. I quote from the ‘Highland Bagpipe Tutor Student Manual’. “Actually, there is an old quotation that starts ‘To the make of a piper go seven years… At the end of his seven years one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and leaning a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs.’ (Neil Munro from The Lost Pibroch 1896) This quote reflect not only a much earlier practice of several years of apprenticeship and indenture to learn the art, but also a contemporary reality.” 

I started at 70 and had never previously shown any musical talent so let’s just say I am about where I probably should be. I have learned to read pipe sheet-music however and with a bit of practice each day, my teacher is happy with my progress. The main thing is that I really enjoy it and it adds meaning to the tapering down phase of a busy life.

One of my favourite pipe tunes goes by the name of “Black Bear”, so I have mischievously created the calling card below

Black bear calling card web

Bamboos and boxes

Provide the base support for the chanter

So when I started to learn to play the bagpipes, the first thing I had to purchase was a practice chanter. The full set of bagpipes uses a hide or synthetic bag to provide a steady flow of air through the chanter and the drones. The drones are the three pipes that rest on the pipers shoulder and they just make different bass notes to support the chanter. IMG_0505The chanter itself though is the pipe with finger holes in it that makes the notes of the tune. Here is a photo of yours truly taken by my bagpipe teacher when I went for a lesson with my new Chanter reedpipes. There is a reed in the chanter that vibrates when a stream of air from the bag passes over and through it. But here’s the thing. A bagpipe chanter makes a heck of a loud sound (so,me would say noise), and so do the drones. If you practiced playing them in your apartment, some neighbour would sooner or later shoot you. So in modern times, the practice chanter was developed. It is similar to the actual chanter, but the reed is made of plastic and is relatively un-noisy. There is no bag so the air to sound the practice chanter is provided directly by the player blowing down a blow stick which is connected directly to the practice chanter.

So having set the scene, let’s get back to the title of this blog article, i.e. ‘Bamboos and boxes’.

Chanter quiver comp
Chanter quiver

Any musical instrument should be protected for transportation and since I had some bamboo lying around, I sawed off a length and used it to make a carrying case for my practice chanter. The cap and strap are made of leather. I thought it was quite arty looking and would be a convenient way of carrying the chanter around. Here is a picture of what I called ‘The Quiver’. It worked O.K. but it is quite a long and bulky object and I realised after a while that it was not very practical. So I made a container of a different design for the chanter. It is a little foam lined, hinged box with cutouts in the foam to cushion the chanter.

To transport the chanter in this box, one unplugs the blowstick from the lower part and stows them side by side. The reed has to be removed too because it would be too vulnerable if it was left protruding from the playing tube. The reed and also a couple of spare reeds get popped into a small plastic pill box with a desiccant to keep the reeds moisture free. Piper 2 nealPractice chanter reeds are made of plastic and don’t work well when wet. Real chanter reeds are made of special Indian reed and they have to be moist if they are to be coaxed into making any sounds at all.

A haven to practice bagpipes

If this were Zen I would ask the question, If bagpipes are played in a concrete room with nobody there to hear them, are they played?

Most people know that the bagpipes are a very loud instrument and any piper who lives in a built-up area has the problem of finding a place to practice that will not disturb the neighbours. I live in an apartment block and practicing the pipes inside the building is definitely a no-no. My cat would report me anyway. But luckily for me, there is a concrete room on the basement level of our block with no connection to the main buildings.  The painters and maintenance men use as it a common room for their lockers, lunches etc.  It can best be described as a bomb shelter or concrete bunker and when the maintenance staff knock-off work at 5 PM, nobody uses it. I have fast-talked my way into getting a set of keys for this room and that is where I will practice making my pipes produce music.

Driveway to pipe room web

Here we are going down the driveway from the road to the under-building parking. Note the Red picket gate on left hand side away from building.

Pipe room outer gate web

We have turned left off the driveway and are now facing the gate we saw in the previous picture. Note that it is not under the building at all.

Pipe room yard web

 

 

 

Behind the gate is a small yard full of junk and the door of the piping room can be seen at the far end from the gate.

Pipe room_1 web

 

 

The room is a pigsty but who cares? It is large, 7m X 5 m and is full of sound       absorbing junk so it does not echo.

Pipe room_3 web

As you can see it is a veritable concrete bunker.  I will run there when the bombs start falling.

I have started increasing the lengths of my squawks on the bagpipes. From an initial, cat terrifying, three second skirl, I have managed to sustain a single note on the chanter, without drones, for almost a minute continuously. With the chanter corked and the three drones opened, I have been able to get all three drones to sound for quite a long time. I am learning that the piper does not so much squeeze the bag under his arm but rather holds the bag steadily under the arm and allows the expansion of his chest to compress the bag. This way, the pipe bag becomes a sort of extra lung. When the piper breathes in, his chest expands and compresses the bag making it play. Then as be exhales into the bag, the bag inflates again and his chest deflates. The theory is simple. Actually doing it is another thing altogether.

 

 

 

 

Bagpiping_1

Somewhere, sometime in history someone realized that if you tie the flat surfaces of two thin bits of reed together, put these blades between your lips, and blow, the reeds will vibrate and make a squawking sound.

At school we did the same thing with tissue paper over a comb. This principal was later embodied in many musical instruments to provide them with a voice. Clarinets and the like use just one flappy reed against a fixed lip-piece and other instruments use two flaps of reed which vibrate against each other. But the bagpipes are rather special. With other instruments you have to stop the music periodically to allow the musician to take a quick breath so he can go on playing without expiring. The bagpipes have a lung of their own. The bag is just that. It is an external lung which the player props in under his arm and squeezes steadily to provide the airflow needed to maintain the tune even whilst the music maker is taking in fresh air. He then blows more air into the bag through his blowpipe to keep it inflated. This is tricky to do in practice but when perfected it works very well. Actually, they discovered that it works so well that they could attach three more reeded pipes to the bag and get them all to sing in harmony. The piper can of course only play one tune at a time. So the reed instrument taht is being given voice by air from the bag, has a number of holes down its length to enable the piper to play different notes. This tube is called the chanter. The other three reeded pipes each simply sound off on a single monotonous note. They are called drones for obvious reasons. Two of them are tenor drones and they each produce a monotone which is exactly an octave below the ‘low-A’ note of the chanter. The third and longer, bass drone produces a note that is yet another octave lower. For those not musically informed, two notes an octave apart will be in perfect harmony. For each flap of the reed in the lower tuned pipe, the reed in the shorter pipe will flap twice. The combined tone we then hear is acoustically interesting because we can hear that the two notes are very different but the combination pleases us because they beat in time with each other. To understand a similar thing in the visual world, imagine the following. Two soldiers march side by side. ThePiper 2 nealy move forward at the same speed but one takes two short paces for each long pace that the other takes. Their movements are patently different but they are clearly still in step. They can be said to be synchronized, or in harmony.  More on bagpipes at another time.