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CHANTER REEDS

BLOWING-IN NEW REEDS

  • For the uninitiated, the term "blowing-in" refers to the practice of giving new reeds a chance to settle to their natural strength with minimal adjustment to the reed itself. In a reed's early stages, this is necessary due to the fact that new cane will generally weaken with regular playing, making the reed easier over time. As a general rule, a reed that is immediately comfortable will have a limited lifespan.

  • It is normal for cane to dry out to some degree during transit, so breathe some moist air through the reed for 10 seconds or so before trying.

  • If you have a number of reeds to choose from, try to select one slightly above your normal strength. As stated, new reeds will generally become easier with regular playing. How regular will depend on the cane, but as a guide, 30 minutes a day for one week should be enough to bring the reed to a comfortable strength.

  • Don't rely exclusively on the blowing-in process. If a reed is still too firm after a week or so, you may need to coax it to your required strength. This will involve pinching and or thinning the blades of the reed. These techniques are detailed in Adjustments.

  • After a short rest, some new reeds will go flat quickly. This is a symptom of new cane absorbing moisture which causes the mouth of the reed to open up, hence lowering the pitch. In this case, it may be necessary to give the reed the occasional light pinch around the shoulder of the sound box. Once the reed has eventually settled, this should not be necessary.

  • If you find that a new reed is hard to the point of being unplayable, or a reed's strength is suitable but there are other issues relating to pitch or balance, the Adjustment section should help.

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MAINTAINING


These points apply to any reed, old or new.

  • Avoid exposing the reed to extreme conditions - too wet, too dry, too hot.

  • Don't lick the reed.

  • Take care not to damage the corners of the reed when handling.

  • To maximise the life of a reed, consider the use of a reed protector. This will enable you to remove the chanter and reed from the bag after playing, which will in turn prevent the reed from absorbing excessive moisture from the bag. If there is moisture surrounding the reed seat after playing, wipe it away and allow the reed to briefly air before putting the protector on.

  • If mould becomes a problem, then you are not drying enough, or you may need to place a small hole (about 1 mm) in the protector to allow some evaporation. This can be covered during hotter months if the reed becomes too dry.

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ADJUSTMENTS


The following contains information that will assist in getting the best out of new and old reeds. There are really only 4 basic things that can be done directly to a reed: Reduce the opening, enlarge the opening, thin the blades or shorten. These are outlined in detail throughout the first two sections relating to hard and easy reeds. The remaining sections will refer back to these techniques.
 

REED IS TOO HARD


This advice relates to new reeds that are strong to the point of being unplayable. The following will help you to adjust such reeds to a manageable strength. It will also assist with those reeds that refuse to weaken irrespective of how much they have been played.

There are two basic methods of easing a reed:

 

1) Reducing the opening of the mouth (the distance between the blades). 

2) Thinning the blades. 


Usually a combination of the two will achieve the best result. If you rely solely on one method, you may compromise the quality and lifespan of the reed. For example, if you make the reeds opening too small, you could reduce the reeds vibrancy and make it too sharp. If the blades are over-thinned, you could be left with a reed that is unstable. It is important to understand these points before you proceed.

Before deciding which method to start with, you need to ascertain if the reed is at the correct pitch. If the reed is flat and hard, reducing the opening will help to solve both problems by lifting the pitch and easing the reed.

However, if the reed is correctly pitched, but is still too hard, reducing could make it too sharp. In this case, the better option would be to thin the blades. 

 

Reduce The Opening

  • Holding the reed between your index finger and thumb, lightly pinch the reed across the shoulder of the sound box for a few seconds. If the sound box is pinched too close to the tie-on thread, it is possible to partially collapse the end of the staple (very unlikely but best to avoid the risk) and any pressure near the top will have little effect. Only squeeze to the point where the tips of the opening just meet and no further. If it is still too hard, try again, holding the blades closed for a little longer.

  • After you finish playing, the reed will most likely regain some of its original strength. Before each time you play, you may need to pinch the reed in ever decreasing amounts until it is eventually playable.

  • While doing this, it is important to monitor the pitch and vibrancy of the reed. A natural by-product of reducing the opening is that the pitch will go up. If the reed is still too hard and yet the pitch is now too high, or the reed is starting to lose vibrancy and volume, thinning the blades would now be the better option.

Thin The Blades

  • Thinning blades can be done with either a sharp knife or fine sandpaper. The key word here is moderation as once cane is removed, it obviously can't be replaced. The aim is to remove the smallest possible amount of cane and then test. Repeat this process until the reed is at the required strength. It is important not to drastically alter the side-on profile of the reed.

  • Begin by thinning the top area of the blades just short of the tips. If the reed is still too hard, you may need to further thin 2 to 3 mm either side of the middle and top area. Try to avoid over-thinning the centre of the middle area as this may cause instability on F and encourage a crow on High A.

  • Thinning the sound box should only be done as a last resort for reeds that are extremely hard.

  • It is important not to over-thin any particular point of the blades. As you proceed, regularly check that they are evenly matched for strength by lightly pinching the reed towards the middle and look for areas that resist more than others. If this happens and the reed is still too hard - focus your attention on these areas of the blades.

  • If you use a knife, use a sharp hobby knife, lightly scraping along the grain in the area described.

  • If you use sandpaper, only use a very fine grade. One technique is to wrap sandpaper around your index finger and sand each blade across the grain. With this method, it's easier to avoid damaging the tips. Another other option is to use a fine emery board. A circular motion is probably the easiest and most efficient.

REED IS TOO EASY

 

Enlarge The Opening

  • Doing this will increase the reed's strength and lower the pitch. Wet your fingers with tap water and apply some moisture to the sound box. Squeeze the reed at its sides around the sound box area. This might extend the life of an older reed.

  • For a more permanent result, take a reed mandrel and gently force it into the staple from the reed seat binding end. This should open up the compressed end of the staple and therefore increase the distance between the two blades. Excessive distortion of the staple may alter the balance of your chanters scale so try this in small stages.

Shorten The Reed

  • A last resort technique that should only be used if all else fails. Shortening a reed will increase it's strength with the significant side-affect of lifting it's pitch - be aware of this before proceeding. While there is an amount of risk involved, shortening an old or problematic reed is often successful and is a skill well worth mastering.

  • Holding the reed at the sound box, with the middle and top areas resting on a hard flat surface, cut a small amount of cane (.25 mm to .5 mm) from the tips using a sharp hobby knife. Depending on how far you have gone, you may need to thin the blades right to tips in order to compensate for the increase in strength - just don't end up back where you started. You may also find that the top notes are tight and restricted - again, thin the blades right to the tips. Also check that the interior of the tips are clean and free from stray cane fibres resulting from the cut.

PITCH IS TOO LOW

  • Remedy by pushing the reed further into the reed seat. Don't go too far as this may cause instability on F and possibly a crow on High A. Be aware that sinking the reed will also sharpen the higher notes more than it will the lower notes. In either direction, the higher notes will be more affected than the lower notes when a reed is repositioned.

  • If the reed is too hard, reducing the opening will help both issues.

  • If the pitch is still too low, shortening the reed is the only other option.

PITCH IS TOO HIGH

  • Reposition the reed higher in the reed seat. This will also flatten the higher notes more than it will the lower notes.

  • The reed may be too dry - check your moisture control system.

  • If the reed is too easy, enlarge the opening.

SCALE HAS SHARP HIGH NOTES & FLAT LOW NOTES

  • Lifting the reed will help to restore balance, however this will lower your overall pitch.

  • If the reed is too hard - try thinning the blades. Concentrate on thinning the middle to top area and also towards the sides of each blade. Ensure that the blades have the same amount of give and that the reed is vibrating efficiently.

  • Slightly thinning the sound box will also help to free up the top hand, but going too far here will compromise stability.

  • Enlarge the opening and if necessary thin the blades to compensate.

SCALE HAS FLAT HIGH NOTES & SHARP LOW NOTES

  • Sink the reed, however this will raise your overall pitch.

SHARP HIGH G

  • If the reed is too hard, thin the center of the top section just short of the tips.

  • If this fails, slightly thin the sound-box area or round off the shoulders.

  • Ensure that both blades are matched for strength and that the reed is vibrating freely.

  • If you can afford to strengthen the reed and lower the overall pitch, open the reed's mouth with a mandrel.

CROW ON HIGH A

  • High A crow is usually caused by under-blowing the reed. It is quite common in lower grade bands for pipers to blow a reed so that it just vibrates and no more. Increasing air pressure will help to clear the High A, but make sure the reed is firm enough to avoid the chance of skirling on Low A or Low G.

  • This is also caused by the reed sitting too far into the reed seat, however be aware that some makes of chanters will actually crow more with the reed sitting too high.

  • Check that your reed is not receiving too much moisture. If necessary, adjust your bag set-up to compensate.

  • Sanding the tips of the reed may also help. The simplest method is to sand the outside edge of the tips at 45 degrees on extremely fine sandpaper - 800 grit to be safe.

  • Another method, for extreme cases, is to actually sand directly across the end grain of the tips at 90 degrees. This is a more refined method of shortening a reed, but in very small amounts so the pitch is not that greatly affected. The initial step is to place very fine sandpaper on a flat surface. Then, pinching the blades together at the top area, between forefinger and thumb, pull the reed across the sandpaper for about 2cm. Test the reed and if necessary, repeat the process until the High A is clear. An important step is to check that the outside and particularly the inside of the tips are clean. If necessary, remove any stray cane fibers with the corner of some fine sandpaper.

  • It should be noted that some chanters are more susceptible to High A crow than others.

DOUBLE-TONING OR UNSTABLE F

  • Often caused by the reed sitting too far into the reed seat - lift the reed.

  • Also caused by the reed's opening being too large, often from exposure to excessive moisture.

  • If you can afford to ease the reed and lift the pitch - reduce the reed's opening.

  • Another possible cause is that the reed is too long for the chanter. If you can afford to lift your pitch - try shortening the reed.

FLAT F & OR C

  • Usually caused by the reed's opening being too large.

  • Similar to an unstable F, shortening the reed will also help.

REED SOUNDS DULL

  • Before trying anything - inspect the inside of the blades by looking down from the opening. Check for any foreign matter or stray cane fibers. Loose cane fibers shouldn't be there in a new reed, but if the tips have been sanded or cut, it's possible they were not cleaned up thoroughly.

  • If the reed is too easy and you can afford to lower the pitch - open up the mouth of the reed.

  • If the reed is too easy and you can afford to raise the pitch - shorten the reed.

  • If the reed is hard and dull then the tips may be too thick. Try thinning the top area right to the edge of the tips - ensuring the blades are still of equal strength. Thinning this area takes a lot of care - check often to ensure you don't make the tips too thin - particularly the corners. Use a fine black emery board in a circular motion for this area.

  • Excessively dry reeds can sound dull - check your moisture control system.

  • If none of the above helps - try refreshing the inside of each blade. This is useful for older reeds. With a pipe cleaner dipped in methylated spirits, pull the cleaner through the reed from the reed seat end, moving side to side. Another method is to use the corner of very fine (at least 800 grit) wet and dry sandpaper. Insert it into the opening just short of the corners - then, lightly pinch the top part of the blades together and pull the sandpaper out. Repeat for the inside of the other blade. The aim is to remove the smallest amount of cane just to clean up the surface of the reed interior.

"SKIRLING"

  • Usually caused by over-blowing a reed that is too easy. If fingerwork is not the issue, then opening up the reed with a mandrel is usually the best remedy.

  • Also be caused by not covering the High A and High G holes accurately when finishing a grace note or melody note on either of those holes.

  • Another common error is for the High A thumb to strike the chanter after the other top hand fingers when changing from High A to Low A, or High A to Low G. In this situation your chances of skirling are greatly increased, particularly if you are playing an easy reed. The top hand fingers and thumb should strike the chanter at the same time when changing on these notes.

"GURGLING" E, LOW A OR LOW G

  • Caused by over-blowing a reed that is too easy.

  • It should be noted that some chanters are more susceptible to this than others.

REED IS UNSTABLE (SENSITIVE TO CLIMATE OR BLOWING)

  • Usually caused by the reed being too easy - it may well be at the end of it's life.

  • Also caused by too much cane being removed from the sound box or middle zone. Try shortening the reed to compensate.

  • Lifting the reed will help to a minor degree with blowing issues, but of course will lower your overall pitch.

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EFFECTS CAUSED BY ADJUSTMENTS OR CONDITIONS

 

REDUCE THE REED'S OPENING

  • Make the reed easier.

  • Raise the overall pitch, in particular C and F.

  • Help to stabilise a double-toning or unsteady F.

ENLARGE THE REED'S OPENING

  • Make the reed harder.

  • Lower the overall pitch, in particular C and F.

SINKING THE REED

  • Raise the overall pitch, in particular the higher notes.

  • Possibly cause the High A to take on a crow.

  • Possibly cause a double-toning or unsteady F.

  • Generally make the top notes unsteady if the reed is pushed in too far.

LIFTING THE REED

  • Lower the overall pitch, in particular the top notes.

  • Help to clear up a crowing High A.

  • Help to stabilise a double-toning or unsteady F and the top notes in general.

THINNING THE BLADES

  • Make the reed easier.

  • Lower the pitch of the top notes relative to the lower notes.

  • Possibly brighten tone.

OVER-THINNING THE BLADES

  • Cause the reed's pitch to be overly sensitive to blowing and temperature variation.

  • Make the F unstable and possibly double-tone.

  • Possibly cause a crow on High A.

SHORTENING THE REED

  • Make the reed harder.

  • Raise the pitch.

  • Stabilise a double-toning or unsteady F.

SANDING ACROSS THE TIPS

  • Help to clear a crow on High A.

TOO MUCH MOISTURE

  • Cause the reed to open up.

  • Lower the overall pitch, in particular the notes C and F.

  • Possibly cause a double-toning or unstable F.

NOT ENOUGH MOISTURE

  • Cause the reed to close up.

  • Raise the overall pitch, in particular High G, C and F.

  • Cause the sound quality to become thin and dull.

 
 

FUNDAMENTALS OF PITCH - Chanter

  • Shortening the distance between the reed and the top of the holes will raise their pitch. This is known as "sinking the reed".

  • Lengthening the distance between the reed and the top of the holes will lower their pitch. This is known as "lifting the reed".

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METHODS OF TUNING

Unlike many reeded instruments, bagpipe reeds are not played directly in the mouth, which means we have no means of influencing the pitch of individual notes via pressure or embouchure. While an increase or decrease in pressure will affect the general pitch of the chanter, it is certainly not a valid method of accounting for individual notes. The tuning of the chanter depends entirely on reed manipulation and adjusting hole size - either by using tape or undercutting holes. Combining these methods with a steady blowing pressure will give the best result.

TAPE

  • We tune chanters with every note taped. Some will consider this excessive and granted, in a stable environment, with a well matched reed and chanter, it is possible to have a reasonably accurate scale with only 2 or 3 pieces of tape. In a solo situation, particularly in the hands of a top class piper, you can get away with as little tape as necessary. But in the real world, especially when playing outdoors, having tape on every note is of great advantage when trying to compensate for the effects of climate change. The problem with the pipe chanter is that when the temperature changes, the tuning of the chanter will also change, and not always evenly throughout the scale. Moisture on the reed will also alter some notes more than it will others.

  • Due to this uneven pitch alteration, we need to have a method of tuning each note independently, and this is where tape comes in. Don't believe in the myth that every note taped equates to having a poor quality chanter or reed. It is a practical method of creating a truly accurate scale and not one that is just near enough. Don't use normal cello tape, use black electrical tape or a quality medical tape.

  • It should be stressed that tape is for fine-tuning only. If you end up with a note half covered with tape, you clearly have a reed and or chanter problem that needs to be addressed.

  • The application of tape over the top of a hole will lower its pitch. This is because you have increased the distance between the reed and the top of the hole, which is effectively now tape.

  • If you then move the tape to a higher position, the notes pitch will be sharpened. This is because you have decreased the distance between the reed and the top of the hole.

TAPE & TEMPERATURE INCREASE

  • Temperature increase will lift the pitch of your chanter. It should be noted that when the temperature increases, the lower notes will tend to sharpen more than the higher notes. To re-balance the chanter, you could remove some tape from the top notes, or sink the reed. The problem with these methods is that your overall pitch could end up significantly higher. A more convenient method is to apply additional tape to the bottom notes (Low G, Low A, and possibly B). The advantage is that your overall pitch will not go up as much, and when the temperature decreases, you can replace the tape to its higher position.

TAPE & TEMPERATURE DECREASE

  • Temperature decrease will lower the pitch of your chanter. Opposite to the scenario above, when the temperature decreases, the lower notes will go down in pitch more than the higher notes. To re-balance the chanter, you could apply more tape to the higher notes, or lift the reed. Both of these methods could significantly lower your pitch. The easier method is to sharpen the lower notes by removing some tape. Your overall pitch will not go down as much and you can replace the tape to its lower position when the temperature increases.

UNDERCUTTING

  • Along with using tape on every note, this is another tuning technique that tends to be frowned upon. The fact is, many chanters are shipped with undercutting already performed on certain notes. Depending on the strength and type of reeds you use, you may find that a little more will be required to finish the chanter to your needs. If a note is persistently flat with a variety of reeds, and it has little or no tape compared to the rest of the scale, undercutting the top of the inside of the hole will permanently sharpen its pitch and bring it into line with the other notes on the chanter. This should only be done when you are absolutely certain that a note is flat and out of balance with the rest of the scale. If you have any doubt at all - do nothing and further adjust the reed if possible.

  • If you are confident enough to go ahead, undercutting can be done with a thin hobby knife or a thin file. Only remove a small amount of material at a time and test regularly.

  • Undercutting alone will only sharpen a note so much and in some cases, pipers will actually enlarge the hole opening by cutting it's top end at a 90 degree angle to the outside edge of the chanter. From here, further undercutting can be done if required. While this is not uncommon in top level bands, you should perhaps look to further adjusting the reed or changing chanters if you still have problems.

REED MANIPULATION

Refer to Chanter Reeds for more information.

PREPARING THE CHANTER

  • To begin with, place approximately 1mm of tape over the top edge of each hole - including the Low G sound holes. This will slightly lower the overall pitch and give you the opportunity to raise or further lower the pitch of individual notes as required. Any more than 2mm of tape on any given hole would normally be considered excessive.

  • The next step is to position the reed in the chanter's reed seat with about two thirds of the staple or tie on thread showing. This will give you a good starting point from where you may have to lift or sink the reed if necessary. It should be noted that it is desirable to set up a chanter with the reed as high as possible in the chanter's reed seat. This will help to create a stable, full sounding top hand, and help to ward off any crow on High A.

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TUNING A TENOR DRONE TO LOW A

  • For the sake of convenience, plug your bass drone and one of the tenors.

  • Ignoring High A and the rest of the scale, play Low A and listen to it's tuning relative to the drone. It's more than likely that you will hear some wavering. You will need to experiment with moving the the tenor in the direction required to slow the wavering down. This will require a little more concentration than just tuning drones.

  • While moving the tenor, play High A with the left hand and periodically check your Low A. If the wavering speeds up, move the drone in the other direction until it slows down and eventually stops. At this point, the drone and Low A will be in tune.

  • Despite the fact that your Low A is taped and therefore tunable, from here on in, do not adjust it. Low A will be your frame of reference for the rest of the tuning procedure. Once your chanter is tuned however, you may find that at a later date, in a different environment, a slight alteration to your Low G, Low A, and maybe B, is all that will be required to correct your scale relative to the drones.

  • As you proceed, regularly check your Low A against the drone and retune as required. This is particularly important in the first 10 minutes or so, as the chanter will rise in pitch as the reed warms up.

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CHECKING THE BALANCE OF HIGH A & LOW A

  • With the drone tuned to Low A, change to High A and listen to the tuning. Make sure you are playing a true High A with the bottom hand on the chanter. Listen for a unified sound. If you hear wavering, then the High A is either flat, or sharp.

  • Now, ignoring the Low A, re-tune the tenor drone so that it is in tune with High A. If you lengthened the drone, then the High A is flat relative to the Low A. If you shortened the drone, then the High A is sharp relative to the Low A.

  • Reposition the reed so that the High A and Low A are balanced, and therefore both in tune with the drone. Lifting the reed will flatten the High A more than it will the Low A, and sinking the reed will sharpen the High A more than it will the Low A.

  • If you're overall pitch is now either too high or too low, reposition the reed to compensate, and instead balance the chanter by adjusting the tape on High A.

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LEARNING WHAT TO LISTEN FOR

Before tuning the chanter to the drone, it can be a good learning experience to first of all practice tuning a drone to the various notes on the chanter. This will help you to understand what "flat", "in tune",  and "sharp", actually mean in terms of sound.

While it is relatively easy hear if High A or Low A is in tune or not, the other notes are not as straightforward. In very simple terms, you need to listen for a chord with the drones. If a note is out of tune with the drones, you will hear wavering, but it will not be as pronounced as with High A and Low A. When a note is only slightly out of tune, it will be difficult to hear wavering at all. Instead, if the note is flat, it will sound "dull" and "thick". If the note is sharp, it will sound "shrill" and "thin". 

Perhaps the best note to start with is D, because it is possible to play D without using the bottom hand on the chanter. (The removal of the right little finger only raises the pitch of D very slightly.) By playing D at the same time as tuning the drone, you can learn to listen for the changing harmonics between the two as you move the drone up and down.

  • Play D, with your bass and one tenor plugged.

  • At the same time, move the operating tenor up and down. You will hear the harmonic relationship between the drone and chanter alter as the D becomes flat or sharp relative to the drone. Remember that flat will sound dull and sharp will sound shrill.

  • Somewhere in the middle there will be a point where the two sounds will be in tune to each other. Listen carefully so that you are able to hear the speed of the wavering between chanter and drone slow down. Keep moving the drone until the sound of the chanter and drone lock in to form a chord. Then move the drone slightly higher - the note should sound shrill (sharp). Then move the drone slightly lower - the note should sound dull (flat). Then bring the drone back in tune with the D so that the sound locks in again.

  • Practice with the other notes as well. It will not be as convenient as with D, because you will need to check all other notes with both hands on the chanter. The principal is exactly the same as for D however. To make the exercise easier, you could tape the holes closed to play the note you want to hear - this way you can still tune the drone at the same time as hearing the note.

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TESTING THE NOTES RELATIVE TO LOW A

Now you need to test which notes are sharp and which notes are flat, relative to the to Low A or drone. If you can hear which notes are sharp or flat - you're half way there. If you're still unsure, the following method will help.

  • Tune a tenor drone to Low A, making note of it's position on the pin.

  • Now, tune the drone so that the Low G is in tune. If the drone had to be shortened, this means that the Low G is sharp relative to the Low A. If the drone had to be lengthened, this means that the Low G is flat relative to the Low A.

  • Repeat these two steps for the rest of the scale, remembering to retune the drone to Low A before checking each note. When you are finished, you will have an indication of what your chanters characteristics are and where tape will need to be adjusted. To make things easier, write down your results as you proceed.

TUNING THE CHANTER
Finally, we get to the task at hand. From the above test, you will know which notes are sharp and which notes are flat relative to the Low A.

Go back to your record of which notes are sharp or flat. With a tenor drone tuned to Low A, adjust the tape on each note so that they are in tune with the drone.
 
NOTES FLAT TO THE DRONE

  • Decrease the amount of tape covering the hole of that note. Try to ensure there is some tape left so you still have room to move.

  • If E, F, High G, and High A are flat to the drone, sinking the reed will help. This will raise the overall pitch and most of the effect will be on the top 3 or 4 notes.

  • If D, C, and B are flat to the drone, sinking the reed will also help, but it might cause the higher notes to become too sharp. Compensate by increasing the tape on the sharp notes, or consider the possibility of undercutting the flat notes.

  • Another alternative is to increase the amount of tape on Low A. This will require you to lower the pitch of the drone, which will bring it closer to the flat notes.

NOTES SHARP TO THE DRONE

  • Increase the amount of tape covering the hole of that note. Any more than 2 mm of tape could signify that further adjustment is required to the reed and or chanter.

  • If most of the notes are sharp, you could lift the reed. This will lower your overall pitch, and most of the effect will be on the top 3 or 4 notes. You may find that this will also make your High A too flat.

  • If you find that your overall pitch is now too low, adjustment to the reed may be necessary.

INDIVIDUAL NOTES SIGNIFICANTLY OUT OF TUNE

Refer to Chanter Reeds for more information.

TUNING 3 DRONES TO THE CHANTER

Once you are confident that your chanter is in tune, it is time to operate all three drones at once and tune them to Low A. The principals are exactly the same as for tuning the drones to themselves, except that like the tenor drone you have been using up to this point, all three will be tuned to Low A. 

With practice, you will be able to tune all three drones at once while playing High A. Remember that when playing High A with only the left hand, it is only a rough guide due to the fact it's pitch will be slightly sharp without the bottom hand on the chanter. Another point to be aware of is that your pipes will take more air with all three drones operating. You may find that you will need to increase your overall pressure to keep the chanter at the required pitch and to keep the High A clear. It's more than likely you will need re-tune the chanter to a small degree once all three drones are operatring. Refer to Tuning Drones for more information.

KEY POINTS

  • The reed needs to be low enough in the reed seat so that the pitch is what you require and yet high enough so that you don't have problems with top hand stability.

  • You then need to know whether most of the chanters scale is sharp or flat, relative to the Low A (Drones). Taping will lower the pitch of the sharper notes, but you may find that if there is too much tape on some holes (more than 2mm), you may have to consider the possibility of undercutting the flat notes to compensate.

  • Ideally, there shouldn't be any major difference with the amount of tape on each hole. This is where careful undercutting can help to balance up a chanter.

  • When sinking or lifting a reed in the chanter's reed seat - all notes are changed, however the higher notes are more sensitive and will alter more than the lower notes.

  • Lower notes are the most volatile and unstable with temperature change. Low G, Low A, and to a lesser degree B, will sharpen more than the higher notes in the heat, and lower more in the cold.

  • As you tune the chanter, regularly check your Low A against the drone, or drones, as the chanter will sharpen slightly as it is played - particulary when the reed is cold.

  • It is essential that you blow with a steady pressure.

 

FUNDAMENTALS OF PITCH - Drones

  • Shortening the drone will raise its pitch because you have decreased the distance between the reed and the end of the drone.

  • Conversely, lengthening the drone will lower its pitch because you have increased the distance between the reed and the end of the drone.

TUNING DRONES WITHOUT THE CHANTER

The act of tuning the drones without the chanter is relatively simple. To move through the following stages, you will need to stop some drones. This is achieved by reaching up with your right hand and closing over the hole at the top of the drone you want to stop. This should shut off the reed. If it doesn't stop, the reed may have a leak or simply be too strong. In this case, use a plug.

TUNING TENORS ONLY

  • Plug the chanter stock and stop the bass drone.

  • Irrespective of whether you hear wavering or not, move one of the tenors up or down until you hear a noticeable wavering.

  • Now move the drone back in the opposite direction so that the speed of the wavering gradually slows down, until it stops. They are now in tune to each other. To be sure, keep moving the drone further in the same direction so that the wavering speeds up again, and then bring it back in tune. Once you know what to listen for, this additional step will not be necessary.

TUNING THE BASS TO A TENOR

The tuning of the bass to a tenor is exactly the same principal as tuning two tenors. The only difference is that the bass is one octave below the pitch of the tenors. Due to this difference, the wavering is not quite as pronounced and therefore tuning the bass may require a little more practice.

  • Stop one of the tenors.

  • Irrespective of the sound you hear, move the bass up or down until you can clearly hear wavering.

  • Move the bass drone in the opposite direction so that the speed of the wavering gradually slows down, until it stops. Again, to be sure, keep moving the bass drone further in the same direction so that the wavering speeds up again and then bring it back in tune.

  • You should practice tuning the tenor to the bass as well as the bass to the tenor.

TUNING 3 DRONES AT ONCE

  • For the sake of the exercise, de-tune one tenor and the bass.

  • Try to ignore what the bass is doing, and focus on the sound of the tenors. Tune them as described above.

  • Now tune in the bass as described above.

  • Tuning difficulties will arise if your blowing is unsteady, or the 3 drone reeds are not matched for stability. It is important that the 3 reeds rise and fall in pitch at the same rate over your likely blowing pressure range. Refer to Drone Reeds for balancing drone reeds.

TUNING DRONES TO THE CHANTER

  • The principals here are exactly the same as for tuning the drones only, except that they will be tuned to the Low A of the chanter.

  • For the sake of convenience, plug your bass drone and one of the tenors.

  • Ignoring High A and the rest of the scale, play Low A and listen to it's tuning relative to the drone. It's more than likely that you will hear some wavering. You will need to experiment with moving the the tenor in the direction required to slow the wavering down. This will require a little more concentration than just tuning drones.

  • While adjusting the tenor with the right hand, you will need to play High A at the same time with the left hand only. Periodically check the drone's tuning against your Low A. If the wavering speeds up, move the drone in the other direction until it slows down and eventually stops. At this point, the drone and Low A will be in tune.

  • Unplug the other tenor and match it's tuning to the first.

  • Now bring in the bass. With a High A and two tenors operating, it can be a challenge for some to tune the bass. You may find it easier to tune the bass before the second tenor - use whichever method is easiest.

  • While tuning, periodically play a few bars of a tune. Often pipers will under-blow when tuning their drones and when it comes time to perform, their chanter is noticeably sharp. Also be aware that in the first 10 minutes or so of playing, the chanter will steadily rise in pitch. This is less prevalent if the instrument is already warm and all you're doing is a re-tune.

  • With practice, you will be able to tune all three drones at once while playing High A. Remember that when playing High A with only the left hand, it is only a rough guide due to the fact it's pitch will be slightly false without the bottom hand on the chanter. Another point to be aware of is that your pipes will take more air with all three drones operating. You may find that you will need to increase your overall pressure to keep the chanter at the required pitch and to keep the High A clear.

 

PREPARATION BEFORE A COMPETITION

  • As always, individuals should store their pipes in moderate conditions, avoiding the extremes of hot and cold.

  • Before the last practice prior to the competition, each piper should do a thorough maintenance check:

    • Ensure that all tuning slide joints are neither too tight nor too loose and that the stock joints are firm.

    • Check that your bag is air-tight.

    • Check that the blowpipe valve is operating correctly.

    • Check that all chanter tape is in good condition and replace as required.

  • If the Ross canister system is being used, ensure the drying desiccant is dried before the last practice and that the chanter sectiion is not altered from it's normal state. Many pipers leave the chanter section alone, only occasionaly drying a very small amount, however just before a competition would not be the best time to do this.

  • On the practice prior to the competition, it is advisable to do the most accurate tune-up possible - just make sure that it is done in a stable moderate temperature. This should save an enormous amount of time and heartache on the day.

ON THE COMPETITION DAY

  • Ensure all pipes are stored together in the shade with the pipe cases open. This is the first step in acclimatizing the instruments to the conditions.

  • Try to be situated where you have access to shade and an open area.

  • Realistically, 40 minutes to an hour is needed to tune an average pipe corp. If the tuning prior to the competition day was successful and the conditions on the day are similar – you shouldn't need more than 45 minutes.

BAND TUNING METHODS


CHANTER TO CHANTER

The usual method of having one or more key pipers tune the others one to one. As with any band tuning method, it's success is entirely dependant and all parties using the same blowing pressure outside the band as they would inside. One issue is that the piper or pipers doing the tuning will also end up playing more than the band and possibly end up sharper in the process.

  • The initial aim during the first 15 minutes of tuning is to acclimatise the instruments to the conditions. To begin moving tape and reeds before this has happened is a waste of time and effort as the pipe corps will only be chasing it's tail later in the tuning session. Playing together rather than solo during this stage is preferable as glaring problems can be identified early on, however higher grade bands often do part or all of this initial warm-up solo.

  • The initial drone pitch should be taken from the piper, or pipers, who usually produce a stable, reliable sound. The drones will need to be tuned a number of times as the pipes neutralise to the conditions.

  • Make sure all pipers are in the same environment as much as possible. Don't have some players in the sun and others in the shade. Rotating the band can also help to even out the effects of the sun.

  • Once the pipes have stabilized, tuning can begin. While individuals are being tuned, the remainder of the pipe corps needs to keep playing just enough to prevent the pipes going flat. Many bands fail here, over-working the players and leaving little energy for the onfield performance. It is only necessary to play for a minute or so at a time, working on intros, changes and stops. Have short breaks of up to a minute, however this will depend on the conditions; longer breaks in the heat, shorter breaks in the cold.

  • When checking chanters, playing the scale or just holding notes is a complete waste of time as the person being tuned will more than likely drop their blowing pressure - particularly in a lower grade band. While pipers should always strive to use the same pressure no matter what the circumstances, this type of unsteady blowing is often a fact of life that no amount of reminding or coaching will remedy. To ensure that the instrument being tuned is close to it's optimal pressure, notes need to be checked in the context of a tune – preferably something like a Strathspey which tend to promote a good overall blowing pressure.

  • During the tune-up, it is important that the drone tuner keeps checking the pitch of the piper, or pipers doing the tuning. The pitch will naturally continue to creep up, but if managed well, this should be minimal. If there is more than one piper doing the tuning, they will need to keep checking their chanters to each other as well.

  • 5 minutes before the line, it is best that one piper does the final checking to minimize variables. Make sure the drones are tuned again just before the line.

CHANTER TO DRONES

A useful method for tuning a lower grade band - it is best done by someone who doesn't actually play in the band.

  • The drones are tuned to the average pitch of the pipers and the chanters are then individually tuned, by ear, to their respective drones. The advantage of this method is that it can be very accurate with each instrument being tuned to itself.

  • Continual checking of the average pitch and tuning of the drones is necessary to keep pace as the instruments gradually sharpen throughout the tuning session.

  • The disadvantage of this method is that pipers need to play solo which may alter their blowing pressure from the norm - again a Strathspey is useful for promoting a realistic blowing pressure. Otherwise the band should be managed as per the chanter to chanter method.

WEATHER CONDITIONS


HOT CONDITIONS - DIRECT SUNLIGHT & WARM AIR OR BREEZE

  • On a hot day, a common mistake is to spend too much time in the shade and then wonder why the drones and chanters are going crazy once the band enters the sun (often too late to do anything about it). The pipes have to be acclimatized to the onfield conditions for optimal stability. Alternating between 5 minutes in the sun and then 5 minutes in the shade will gradually warm the pipes up - hopefully without them going over the top.

  • When warming up in the sun, occasionally rotate the band so that the chanters are sharing the sunlight and you don't end up with one side of the pipe corps too sharp.

  • When pipers are resting, protect the chanters from the sun by placing them under the left arm on the inside of the bag.

  • On a hot day, two things will change. One, the drones will usually tune higher on the pin in order to counteract the warm air inside the bores. Two, the chanter will of course sharpen, but importantly, the notes most affected will be Low G, Low A and B. Often pipers think their top hand is flat and start lifting tape – ending up too sharp in the process. It's much easier to just lower the tape on the bottom hand in order to re-balance the chanter.

DIRECT SUNLIGHT & COLD AIR OR BREEZE

  • The worst of all conditions. This is where getting out into the sun early is important so that the instruments can acclimatize quickly to combat the cold air. You can then occasionally retreat to the shade if you feel that the pipes are becoming too sharp.

NO DIRECT SUNLIGHT & WARM AIR OR BREEZE

  • Usually ideal for drone and chanter stability - the optimal conditions for an easy tune-up session.

COLD CONDITIONS

  • The chanters will be flatter than normal, in particular Low G, Low A and B. This is where it is beneficial to have all of the notes taped so it is simply a matter of sharpening the lower notes in order to re-balance the chanter.

  • While resting, make sure pipers wrap their hands around the neck and bottom of the chanter to prevent the wood or plastic chilling.

  •  

KEY POINTS

  • Do the hard work at home and at practice – not on the competition day.

  • Perform regular maintenance including matching drone reeds for stability.

  • Store pipes in moderate conditions and avoid the extremes of hot and cold as much as practicable.

  • Ensure your pipes fit comfortably with the correct bag size, non-slip patches and correct blowpipe length with blowpipe and mouthpiece adequately bored out.

  • Play pipes that are air efficient. Strong reeds can certainly contribute to stability, but too strong and they're just as likely to cause unsteady blowing.

  • Irrespective of whether you are playing easy or hard tunes, fast or slow tunes, solo or in the band, always use the same, steady blowing pressure. Also watch your blowing pressure on tune changes (long notes) and when changing from high notes to low notes or vice-versa. When your chanter or drones are being tuned, don't suddenly under or over-blow from your normal pressure – a common problem. Steady blowing is absolutely the most important element in achieving a good sound - solo or in a band.

  • When tuning your own chanter, try to do it within the context of playing a tune, rather than just holding notes or playing up and down the scale. The same goes for when others are tuning your pipes or vice-versa.

  • Bands should try to conduct clinics to teach as many pipers as possible to tune their own bagpipe. This in turn should make them more aware of their blowing pressure and resultant pitch within the band.

 

STABILITY

  • Stability is one of the keys to a good sounding bagpipe. It refers to how reactive your instrument is to temperature change and also how it reacts to blowing pressure variation. An increase in pressure will lift your pitch and a decrease in pressure will lower your pitch. Usually the chanter will react more than the drones. There isn't much that can be done to combat temperature change, but with regard to blowing pressure, there are a number of things that can be done to assist in making the instrument as stable as possible.
     

  • BLOWING PRESSURE

  • Firstly, good stability requires you to blow with as little variation in air pressure as possible. The best way to achieve this is to first of all listen. If you don't listen and concentrate on the sound you are producing, you can't possibly regulate your blowing pressure and therefore overall pitch. Secondly, avoid any radical changes in air pressure, particularly when squeezing the bag as you take a breath and when blowing into the bag directly after squeezing. Ideally, your arm should always be applying some pressure to the bag, only reducing pressure when blowing.

  • An ideal pressure is where there is enough to keep your High A clear and yet not so much that you are in danger of skirling on the lower notes. Of course, you should also be comfortable. Don't fall into the trap of blowing harder to clear your High A and then backing off when changing to lower notes because you are afraid of skirling. A correctly set up reed in a quality chanter should enable you to blow with the same pressure right throughout the scale.

  • Also be aware of "tempo" or "anxiety" blowing. A common problem where a piper has an average pressure for marches, then under-blows for slow airs and over-blows for a strathspey or anything difficult. It is important to be aware of your blowing pressure at all times throughout a performance, particularly when changing tempos in a medley or when playing a variety of easy and difficult tunes. Decide your ideal pressure and stay with it.

  • CHANTER REED

  • With regard to stability, a weak chanter reed will generally be a liability. They usually react more to climate change and pressure variation. Make sure you are playing the strongest reed you can comfortably handle. Remember that if a reed is too strong it may compromise your blowing stability and cause your arms and hands to tense up.

  • When storing your pipes, remove the chanter and place a reed protector over the reed. Ensure that the reed is never too moist or dry. Chanter instability is usually blamed on temperarure change, however the reed drying out in storage and being rehydrated when played can be just as responsible. Avoiding the extremes of wet and dry will increase the stability your chanter's pitch and maximise the lifespan of the reed.

  • DRONE REEDS

  • Generally speaking, the longer the tongues are on your drone reeds, the more they will react to pressure variation. To enhance their stability, avoid overly long or weak blades. If the tongues are made too short, you may find that striking-in will become difficult and your sound quality will suffer, so this is usually a compromise.

  • When using synthetic drone reeds, ensure they are kept free of excess moisture as most will radically alter pitch when wet.

  • Regular balancing or matching of your drone reeds will improve your overall drone stability.

  • BALANCING DRONE REEDS
    Unbalanced drone reeds are a major cause of difficulty when it comes to tuning drones. The reeds should be set-up so that if you vary your blowing pressure, the drones stay in tune to themselves, even if the overall pitch varies a little. The following method is useful for balancing or matching drone reeds and assumes that at least one tenor is correctly set up with regard to strength and pitch.

  • Firstly plug the chanter stock.

  • While blowing slightly under your average pressure, stop your bass drone and tune the tenors.

  • Once you have done this, increase your blowing to slightly above your average pressure. If the drones stay in tune to themselves, then they are matched. If the sound begins to waver, this means one drone is less stable than the other.

  • If this happens, hold the increased pressure and re-tune the drones by locating the one you have to lengthen. This is the least stable drone as it has reacted the most to the change in pressure. Refer to your reed's instructions to increase the stability of a reed. Generally you will either shorten the tongue and or strengthen the spring of the tongue.

  • Once the tenors are matched - bring in the bass drone and repeat the above steps with one or both tenors operating.

  • While it is important for the three drones to be balanced - they do not have to be perfectly matched over a wide range of blowing pressure - just a little below and a little above your average pressure is enough.

MAINTENANCE OF YOUR BAG SYSTEM
These notes relate to synthetic bags.
BAG

  • Regularly check the bag for air tightness, particularly around the stock holders – move them around to be sure. Also check under the blowpipe stock for pinholes.

  • When putting pipes away, always remove the chanter and the blowpipe and leave the zip or back of the bag open. If necessary, obtain another reed protector for the blowpipe tenon to protect any valve that may be fitted.

  • Also avoid undue pressure on the bag when closing the pipe box.

  • These steps will maximize the lifespan of the bag and hoses.

HOSES

  • If you use hoses inside the bag, regularly check for splitting along the hoses and in particular the stock cups. Kinks in the hoses are usually caused by too much pressure from the pipe box lid.

DESICCANT

  • The granules only requires maintenance when moisture is collecting on your reeds, although it is best to dry the granules on a regular basis to prevent any chance of this happening at all - once a fortnight should be enough for most. When using Silica Gel Beads, dry in a normal oven at 90 degress for 90 miutes. If you use Zeoloite clay, microwave 3 to 4 minutes on high. In both cases, allow to cool before putting them back into the canister.

  • The most important and yet often neglected step is to blow out the dust from freshly dried granules. Blow through each section of the canister at least 3 times, tapping the canister before each time. Ensure that there are enough granules in the canister to avoid them moving around, but not so many that there is too much pressure when the lid is on – both situations will generate unwanted dust. Failure to do this will result in dust blowing through to the drone reeds and possibly damaging them. When reassembling a bag with a clamp – tighten the thumbscrews as much as you can.

CHANTER

  • Clean the inside bore of the chanter by using a thin soft bristle bottlebrush. For the throat and inside the holes, use something soft such as a cotton bud or pipe cleaner.

  • Irrespective of whether a chanter is wooden or plastic, never remove a chanter from it’s stock by twisting from the bottom - always grab it at the top.

  • It is not advisable to oil a wooden chanter inside or out as it tends to dull the tone.

  • Ensure any tape used is in good condition.

DRONES

  • After playing in cold weather, check the drone bores for condensation. If moisture is present, dry the bores by using a pull-through.

  • Occasionally clean the bores of the drones by using purpose made drone brushes and or a pull-through.

  • Oiling drone bores - be aware that there are conflicting views as to whether to oil drones or not, but the occasional light oil can do no harm. Cold-pressed Almond Oil or Sweet Almond Oil are usually recommended for African Blackwood.

  • The age and condition of the wood will dictate how often they should be oiled. Older wood that feels dry and light could well need to be treated every couple of months until it stops absorbing oil - after this once a year should be enough. Newer pipes should only require oiling once a year.

DRONE JOINTS

  • The most important elements of a drone joint are the quality of the application and that the material used is resistant to moisture. While there are a few conflicting opinions as to the best type of hemp to use, pre-waxed black hemp is a good choice as it is resistant to moisture and so long as it is applied correctly, will provide a safe and long lasting joint. 

  • Irrespective of whether black or yellow hemp is used, wax the first layer with thermowax to prevent the joint slipping. All of the layers should have windings as tight and as close as possible. After each layer has been wound, tie-off the hemp and roll it flat between two pieces of wood. This compresses the hemp before the joint is actually used and will help to prevent further compression in the long-term. Never try to cram a new joint with too much hemp into its home -  stocks and tuning chambers can been cracked due to this.

  • Once the new joint gets to the stage where it is nearly tight but not quite enough, you will probably find that one more complete layer will be too much. At this stage you will have to experiment with a layer of hemp where each winding is spaced by about 2 to 3 millimetres. Doing this will allow you to get the tightness of the joint just right. Remember to roll the joint flat before trying it.

  • It is imperative not to make a joint too tight, particularly on drones with ivory or imitation ivory ferrules as they have significantly less blackwood than those with metal ferrules.

  • If a joint needs lubricating, try almond oil or cork wax.

CHANTER REED

  • These points apply to any reed, old or new.

  • Avoid exposing the reed to extreme conditions - too wet, too dry, too hot.

  • Don't lick the reed.

  • Take care not to damage the corners of the reed when handling.

  • To maximise the life of a reed, consider the use of a reed protector. This will enable you to remove the chanter and reed from the bag after playing, which will in turn prevent the reed from absorbing excessive moisture from the bag. If there is moisture surrounding the reed seat after playing, wipe it away and allow the reed to briefly air before putting the protector on.

  • If mould becomes a problem, then you are not drying enough, or you may need to place a small hole (about 1 mm) in the protector to allow some evaporation. This can be covered during hotter months if the reed becomes too dry.

  •  

DRONE REEDS

  • Ensure that your drone reeds are clean and free of dirt between the tongue and reed bed. Any foreign matter could well contribute to air leakage and instability.

  • Regularly check that your drones reeds are firmly seated into the drones and that they are straight with no chance of them touching the interior of the stocks.

  • Occasionally check reeds for airtightness. Excessive leaking may suggest dust between the tongue and body or perhaps damage to one or the other.

  • Regularly check that your drone reeds are matched or balanced for stability.

BALANCING DRONE REEDS


Unbalanced drone reeds are a major cause of difficulty when it comes to tuning drones. The reeds should be set-up so that if you vary your blowing pressure, the drones stay in tune to themselves, even if the overall pitch varies a little. The following method is useful for balancing or matching drone reeds and assumes that at least one tenor is correctly set up with regard to strength and pitch.

  • Firstly plug the chanter stock.

  • While blowing slightly under your average pressure, stop your bass drone and tune the tenors. 

  • Once you have done this, increase your blowing to slightly above your average pressure. If the drones stay in tune to themselves, then they are matched. If the sound begins to waver, this means one drone is less stable than the other.

  • If this happens, hold the increased pressure and re-tune the drones by locating the one you have to lengthen. This is the least stable drone as it has reacted the most to the change in pressure. Refer to your reed's instructions to increase the stability of a reed. Generally you will either shorten the tongue and or strengthen the spring of the tongue.

  • Once the tenors are matched - bring in the bass drone and repeat the above steps with one or both tenors operating.

  • While it is important for the three drones to be balanced - they do not have to be perfectly matched over a wide range of blowing pressure - just a little below and a little above your average pressure is enough.

 
 

PHRASING & EXPRESSION

  • What follows are some general pointers to assist with musical expression and phrasing. While mutually compatible to a degree, these are better suited to band piping rather than solo piping where the player is free to indulge in a more individual style. Even within the upper echelons of pipe bands, there are degrees of style, non of which are right or wrong - just different. These styles will however be based upon certain ground rules which have been outlined here.

    It should be stressed that most bagpipe music is only a guide and it is usually necessary to play well outside the notated values in order to correctly interpret the tunes. Due to the fact that the bagpipe is not able to separately articulate each note from the next, we instill our music with dynamics and life by creating an exaggerated distinction between long and short notes. This is known as "dot and cut" or "pointing".

    Please note that while time signatures have been written as "2/4" etc, in no way do they represent a numerical fraction - this is just a convenient way of representing them without a staff.

     

  • PLAYING ON THE BEAT

  • This is crucial to establishing unison of playing and a strong sense of drive and rhythm. A group of average players all playing on the same beat will probably sound better than a group of excellent players not playing on the same beat. The best way to practice this is to use a metronome. It may feel awkward at first but that's because the metronome is fighting your natural urge to speed up or slow down.

  • For those not experienced with using a metronome, it might be best to start at a slower than normal tempo in order to become accustomed to playing on a regular beat. Normally the metronome will indicate each down-beat, however doubling the tempo will highlight the up-beats (aside from compound time tunes). This is known as double-time and can be quite helpful when trying to control a new tune at a slower tempo. At a normal tempo however, a metronome set to double-time will make correct phrasing quite difficult.

  •  

  • 2/4 MARCHES, DOT & CUT HORNPIPES & POLKAS

    While these types of tunes may have subtle differences to each other with regard to ideal tempos, the fundamentals for each are essentially the same. Bear in mind that dot/cut hornpipes and polkas are often played in a more relaxed and flowing manner than a 2/4 march.

  • The first priority is to ensure you are placing place the down-beat notes accurately on the beat.

  • Place the necessary accents on the strong beats and to a slightly lesser degree the weak beats. A common fault is to accent the strong beats at the expense of the weak beats and up-beats - be sure to give them sufficient value to avoid an uneven rhythm. This will make the tune easier to control and ensure that it will have plenty of drive and lift.

  • Take care to give adequate value to the last note of each two-bar phrase. This is similar to punctuating a sentence and creates the necessary distinction between the question and answer phrases. The last note of a phrase excludes any introductory notes - these belong to the next phrase.

  • Whilst giving the correct value to longer notes is important, the short notes, such as semi-quavers (2 tails) and demi-semi-quavers (3 tails) must be adequately "cut" or shortened to complete the picture and to create a strong distinction between long and short notes.

  • Another common issue is to rush through passages of even quavers, which will be arranged in groups of two. The usual fault is to rush over the second of these two notes. This is the up-beat note and it needs to be controlled in order to avoid placing the next down-beat note before it's relevant beat.

  • Pay particular attention to the up-beats in groups of 3 or 4 notes - these will usually be arranged as:

  • Quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • Quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver 

  • Dotted semi-quaver /demi-semi-quaver / semi-quaver

  • Dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • Dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver

  • Demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver

  • The notes in bold blue indicate the down-beats. The notes in bold red fall on up-beats and are commonly rushed.

    With example 2, the up-beat falls on the second note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

    With example 5, the up-beat falls on the third note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

    With example 6, the down-beat and up-beat fall on the first and third note respectively, however in each case the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

  •  

  • 3/4, 4/4, 5/4 MARCHES

  • Similar in style to 2/4 marches, these are usually quite simple to play.

  • As with 2/4 marches, ensure that you are placing down-beat notes on the their beat.

  • Place a strong accent on the first down-beat of each bar, with slightly less accent on the remaining down-beats. Remember to give sufficient value to the up-beats - this is essential for controlling the tune and giving it lift.

  • Give sufficient value to the last note of each two-bar phrase.

  • Whilst accenting all of the long notes, remember to cut the short semi-quavers and demi-semi-quavers.

  • As with 2/4 marches, be sure to control passages of even quavers. These will be arranged in groups of two and it is quite common to rush the second of these notes. This is the up-beat note and it needs to be controlled in order to avoid playing the next down-beat note too early.

  • Pay attention to the up-beats in groups of 3 or 4 notes - these will usually be arranged as:

  • Quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • Quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver 

  • Dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • The notes in bold blue indicate the down-beats. The notes in bold red fall on up-beats and are often rushed.

    With example 2, the up-beat falls on the second note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

  •  

  • COMPOUND TIME MARCHES

    This applies to 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 type marches. This style of tune is open to a variety of interpretations, ranging from extreme swing to an almost square style. Most would agree the ideal is somewhere in the middle with a definite swing but still with a strong sense of control and lift. Listen to any recording of the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band from the 1980s for a master class in compound time phrasing and phrasing in general.

  • As always, ensure that all down-beat notes are placed accurately on the beat.

  • The key to compound time march expression is to give adequate value to the crotchets or dotted quavers. Dotted quavers will either be the first or second note in each group of three. Not accenting these notes will rob compound time tunes of their distinctive swing.

  • While accenting the above mentioned notes is critical, two major problems with compound time marches relate to cut semi-quavers and the up-beat quavers. Semi-quavers will occur at the beginning or more commonly the middle of a group of three. Up-beat quavers will always occur after a crotchet or at the end of a group of three. It is quite common for pipers to pay all of their attention to accenting the down-beats, but to then inadequately cut or shorten the semi-quavers and then not give sufficient value to the the up-beat quavers. This can result in too much swing and turn the tune into a fast waltz, lacking the drive and lift a march should have. Rushing over up-beat quavers can also cause the following down-beat notes to occur before the beat which will make the tune sound rushed.

  • STRATHSPEYS

    Strathspey phrasing is also open to a wide range of interpretation, ranging from extreme Strong/Weak/Medium/Weak (SWMW) to a style that is more or less Strong/Strong/Strong/Strong. Bands sometimes favour the latter style for the sake of control and unison, however most will attempt to inject a sense of SWMW, but not to the point that the tune becomes noticeably uneven in it's rhythm.

  • It is essential to place the strong beat notes on a consistent, steady beat and to give them as much value as musically possible. The following weak beat note should be less accented but not to the point that it sounds rushed. The next medium beat note should be stressed nearly but not quite as much as the strong beat. Again, the following weak beat note should be less accented but not to the point that it sounds rushed. If a cut note (semi-quaver) occurs on the beat, then the accent should take place on the connected dotted quaver immediately after.

  • Particular attention needs to be paid to the triplets. These are often played in a clipped fashion that will do the tune no favours whatsoever. Others tend to play triplets in an almost totally round fashion which is certainly the preferable of the two extremes. Despite the fact that most triplets are written in a fashion to suggest 3 notes in the time of two, it is quite safe to assume the first two are semi-quavers and last note is a quaver or the accented note. Some composers will notate their triplets in this style. This is somewhere between the above mentioned extremes and is at the very least a starting point. Bear in mind that if the middle note of a triplet is higher in pitch than the two either side, it will often, but not always, be the longer or accented note of the triplet. Adding to the confusion, the melodic line itself will sometimes dictate how the triplets should be played which may not follow any hard and fast rule.

  • Another stumbling block is the lack of fluency of G, D, E gracenotes. These may occur on a single note or in the context of a doubling to a lower note such as a G, D, doubling on C to Low A with an E gracenote. In any case, these should flow as described above for triplets and effectively be interpreted as two semi-quavers followed by a quaver. Be careful not to separate the D and E gracenotes with a pause, the three G, D, E gracenotes should flow evenly.

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  • DOT & CUT REELS

    Again these tunes can be interpreted in a number of ways, ranging from quite round to a strong dot and cut style. Reels perhaps sound their best with a definite dot and cut feel but are still allowed to flow freely as opposed to the control applied to 2/4 marches. That said, the principles of reel playing are quite similar to 2/4 marches.

  • Ensure you are placing place the down-beat notes on the beat.

  • Place the necessary accents on the strong beats and to a slightly lesser degree the weak beats. With the faster tempo of reels, it is vital to give sufficient value to the weak beats and up-beats to maintain control and lift.

  • Take care to give adequate value to the last note of each phrase.

  • Whilst giving the correct value to longer notes is important, remember to cut the semi-quavers.

  • Pay attention to the up-beats in groups of 4 notes - these will usually be arranged as:

  • Dotted quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver / semi-quaver

  • Dotted quaver / semi-quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver

  • Semi-quaver / dotted quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver

  • The notes in bold blue indicate the down-beats. The notes in bold red fall on up-beats and are often rushed.

    In example 2, the up-beat falls on the third note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted quaver.

    In example 3,  the down-beat and up-beat fall on the first and third note respectively, however in each case the accent should be placed on the following dotted quaver.

  • A typical problem is when a sequence of G, D, E gracenotes occur on Low G, Low A, B or C, in this order:

    Dotted quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver / semi-quaver

    The up-beat dotted quaver with the E Gracenote is often ignored and rushed.

     

  • "ROUND" REELS & HORNPIPES

    To their detriment, these are often played in a square, mechanical fashion. A certain amount of pointing will enhance these tunes and make them easier to control.

  • As always, ensure that all down-beat notes are placed accurately on the beat.

  • Any long notes should be held to their maximum value.

  • With regard to pointing, there are no hard and fast rules. This is not a march style of pointing, but a subtle accenting and cutting that will largely depend on the compositional style of the tune. In simple terms - play what sounds right and best serves the tune. Listen to recordings of top pipers and bands and you will hear that so-called "round" tunes are anything but.

  • To avoid a rushed effect, ensure each phrase is completed in full.

  • JIGS

    As with round reels and hornpipes, jigs are often played in an overtly round fashion, which, aside from not being particularly musical, can actually make them awkward to play and control.

  • Once again, pay attention to playing on the beat.

  • Ensure all crotchet notes are held to their maximum length.

  • As a general rule, accent the first quaver of each group of three with a slightly weaker accent applied to the third - this is critical for maintaining control. The middle quaver will need to be shortened however not to the extent that it is noticeably clipped.

  • Certain jigs require a different pattern of expressing the groups of three and will usually be notated with dotted quavers and semi-quavers as required.

  • As always, fully complete each phrase.