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Interview in the Northumbrian Pipers Society Journal

Back in 2016 I was interviewed for an article for the Journal of the Northumbrian Pipers Society.  Here’s the interview which gives some history about how I got into piping and pipemaking and who helped me along the way.  I’m very grateful for all the help I’ve received – people have been so generous.
1) You first surfaced as an NPS member whilst living at Leaplish up at
Kielder. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to the pipes, where
you’re from, and so on.
I’d been playing for a year or so before then.  I moved up to the North East when I left university.  We used to live in Whickham and I married my wife Lynda, in 2000.  I’m not keen on wearing jewellery and didn’t want a wedding ring, so I asked for a set of pipes instead!  I’d seen David Burleigh featuring on a local TV programme so we went to visit him and placed an order.

2) Did you play other instruments before, or have other musical interests?
I’d played the usual crop of instruments and even sang in the Church choir as a child.  I learned to play the piano and recorder when I was young and the guitar as a student and wanted to learn something new.  I’d always been aware of the pipes but didn’t know a great deal about them.  I think there are a lot of benefits to starting early in life.  I find I can now find my way around most instruments fairly quickly, and bash out a simple tune or two!

2a) (whoops) – who taught you the pipes? How have you found your
interaction with the piping / competition world in terms helpfulness,
progress  etc
When we picked up my set from David he asked if I had a teacher.  He offered to teach me himself, but thought  perhaps it was too far to travel.  Instead, he gave me Roland Lofthouse’s number.  I rang Roland who kindly agreed to take me under his wing and I went to him every fortnight for a year or so.  I really appreciated his tuition.  Nearly all the tunes were new to me and he gave me a really good technical grounding and established a good traditional repertoire.
We then moved up to Kielder.  I was managing an outdoor centre there and I wasn’t able to visit Roland anymore.  We started a family and with two young girls and a busy job I stopped playing too.  One day, my eldest daughter asked me about my set and why I didn’t play them any more, and she said I should start playing again.  So, after a gap of several years I started to play at home and then saw the Whitley Bay course advertised.  I thought this would offer a good route back into playing and might help me make some connections, so I went along and had a great week.
Andy May and Chris Ormston were tutoring and both offered different but appealing approaches, so I went along to see each of them for lessons occasionally.
As with most pipers, when people find out you can play they ask to hear.  I’d really only been playing at home until this point, but wanted to be a confident enough player to play in public and thought the competitions would be a great way to do this.  With this in mind I entered the intermediate and a couple of open class events in 2015 with some success!

3) Tell us a bit about pipers who kayak, or kayakers who pipe! Are you
the only one? You seem to be playing the fiddle as well now, and fit
that in on Shetland courses!
mmm..  I think I’m the only one who plays the Northumbrian pipes although I know of a couple who play the Scottish pipes.  But there are plenty of musical kayakers.  I’ve been on sea kayak or canoe trips to lots of places and we’ve had memorable campfire sessions in Alaska, Norway and throughout Europe.  The pipes aren’t very portable though, so it’s usually been a whistle which can be easily packed away.  I’ve made a lot of good friends in Shetland and many of the sea kayakers play the fiddle.  I started to play the fiddle a couple of years ago to help my daughter learn.  It’s always had the reputation as a difficult instrument, but I found it relatively easy probably as a result of learning to play the pipes!

4) What made you decide to start making pipes. Obviously kayaking must
be a seasonal thing: do the two mesh together well?
I started maintaining my own pipes almost straight away.  After playing for a month or so, one of the cane drone reeds started playing up.  I diligently followed the written instructions which came with my set and passed the reed through the flame of a candle.  After I’d stamped out the flaming piece of carbonised cane and run my fingers under the cold tap I decided it would be useful to learn how to make my own.  I started by copying what I had and soon got the hang of it.
One day, Andy May asked if I was interested in making pipes and I dismissed the idea but I think a seed was planted.  By the time Julia organised a bag making workshop with Jackie Boyce I had already started to make chanter reeds.  I’d reached the stage where I could make the bags and I could make the reeds, so I only needed to fill in the gap between them and I’d have a full set!  It seemed like a logical step to make.

5) What skills did you have beforehand – and what have you had to do a
crash course in?
The main asset I have is a believe that we can all more or less learn how to do whatever we want to if we get on with it.  I’d already learnt how to use lathes and other workshop machinery at school, and my Father had taught me a lot of practical skills too.  I visited Julia, Barry and Andy for start up advice and a shopping list and set up a workshop in my garage.  Luckily, I enjoy problem solving.  For my first set I used the information on Mike Nelsons website and spent 95% of my time head scratching and 5% actually making.

6)  Pipe design and style – what are you hoping to go for? How do you
view the functionality v. aesthetic debate?
My first set was definitely functionality – could I make something that works?  When I knew could I started to think about the aesthetics.  My own taste is for something fairly traditional looking but without being too ornate.  I like a more delicate look too.  The look of my sets is still evolving as I think through new ideas or am inspired by something I’ve seen.  Now, the functionality is paramount, but much of my motivation comes from the pleasure of making something which looks good.

7) Have other pipemakers been helpful – who did you talk to / get
lessons from?
Yes, very helpful.  I was able to see David Burleigh and Colin Ross at work before I started making, and Julia and Barry Say and Andy May have all been really helpful.  Richard Evans and Francis Wood have offered remote advice too which is very much appreciated.  I think most have gone through the same problem solving process as I have, and we’ve often come up with out own pragmatic solutions and preferences.

8) How easy was it to assemble the necessary equipment and materials?
It was very easy.  The main purchase was a lathe.  Once I knew what to look for I went to look at several second hand ones.  Most were deathtraps and best avoided.  I decided not to buy a cheap one offered to me when I counted the number of fingers the owner had and noticed that I had more.  But Andy pointed me to a dealer in South Shields.  They had a few in stock and I was able to buy one there and then.  I bought some materials from the NSP pipe making stock for two sets but now source all materials directly.  Most of the materials  are readily available and many of the tools are standard.  There are some specialist tools needed, but these are often adapted from existing ones or made from scratch, and not too complicated.

9) What are your plans for the future?
I’ve just moved to Byrness and have set my workshop there.  Kayaking is seasonal, and often means working weekends so I do have plenty of time for pipe making.  I have orders for sets ready to go and people are coming to me for fettling too, so I’m just going to carry on doing what I’m doing, but aim to do it better.
Things have moved on a lot since this interview, so for more information about the Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

How to Look After Northumbrian Smallpipes

‘Rules’ for looking after Northumbrian Smallpipes

A well maintained set of Northumbrian Pipes will last a lifetime. If they are played, handled and stored correctly you will protect them from damage and they should only ever need minor maintenance to keep them in top condition.  However, it’s important to inspect them regularly and carry out a few checks to head off any problems.  There are also a few ‘rules’ it’s wise to follow to help avoid accidents.  Do remember that your pipes are very fragile so look after them well.

Storage

Northumbrian Smallpipes are safest when stored in a case. The delicate drones and chanter can be protected wrapped in clean cloths and inserted into plastic tubes. I recommend you use these whenever your pipes are not being played. Protect your pipes from excessive cold and heat, avoid storing them in direct sunlight or extremes of humidity.  Never put them down where they might be damaged.  People have put them on chairs where they have been sat on, or on beer tables in pubs where they have been spilt on.

If you are moving from one environment to another, the change might affect the reeds and they might need a short amount of time to settle down and play in tune.

Handling

Support the Pipes and the Stocks

Always handle with care. Handle your pipes by the two main stocks (the Chanter and Drone Stock) near the bag, and always support the chanter.  Do not let it dangle freely as it may fall from its stock and break. Do not lift the set just by the bag, the drones or the chanter.

Regular Checks

The joints holding the drones and chanter into their stocks should be tight enough so nothing moves but not so tight that they jam. Check them often.  The drone slides should slide easily to tune them, but should be tight enough to be air tight. The end caps are all held on with bindings and are not usually glued (unless you have a Burleigh set). With any set, some compression of the bindings is may occur and they may work loose. As the joints are made from wood and wood changes size with humidity, over time the bindings might loosen too. If they do you can wind a length of cotton thread (usually waxed lightly with bees wax) to make them hold again.

 

Following these simple ‘rules’ will prolong the life of your pipes and hopefully avoid any damage.  For more information about Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

How to Adjust Northumbrian Smallpipes Chanter Reeds

Northumbrian Pipes Chanter Reed

Once set up in the chanter, a Northumbrian Pipes reed will hopefully be trouble free. However, they are affected by knocks, temperature and humidity and they made need some settling in time in a new environment.

The Chanter reed is made from Arundo Donax. This is a natural material. There are two vibrating blades and the opening between them is carefully set. This opening may open up or close down, or the pitch may change slightly depending on the environment you play in. This is normal and one of the challenges all Northumbrian Pipers live with!

If either your chanter reed goes out of playing condition for any length of time they may need some minor adjustment.

 

 

 

The reed needs to be positioned correctly within the chanter so that the chanter plays in tune. This can be confirmed by checking the octave between the top and bottom G notes.

  • If the top G is too sharp compared to the bottom G the reed needs to be positioned further out of the chanter.  You may need to add a couple of wraps of waxed thread around the Staple (the metal tube) at the base of the reed then re-insert it in the chanter.
  • If the top G is too flat compared to the bottom G the reed needs to be positioned further in to the chanter.  You may need to take away some of the thread wrapped around the staple.

There are two vibrating blades and the opening between them at the tip is carefully set. However, this aperture may open up or close down, or the pitch may change slightly depending on the environment you play in. This is normal and one of the challenges all Northumbrian Pipers live with!

If the Chanter will only sound at high pressure the aperture has opened and needs to be closed slightly.

Before you make any changes it’s wise to check a few things-

  • Is the Chanter airtight – make sure there are no leaks where the Chanter meets the stock, the end cap, from your fingers or the key pads.
  • Is there any damage to the Chanter or Chanter Stock – check for cracks and breaks.
  • Is the reed seated firmly in the Chanter?

Closing The Aperture of a Smallpipe Chanter Reed

Northumbrian Pipes Reed Adjustment

Hold the metal wire bridle around the base of the reed and gently squeeze your fingers and thumbs together. This will close the aperture slightly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the Chanter reed cuts out before full playing pressure is reached the reed has closed and needs to be opened slightly.

Opening the Aperture of a Smallpipe Chanter Reed

Northumbrian Pipes Reed Adjustment

Hold the sides of the metal wire bridle gently (you might need some pliers). Gently squeeze and the aperture will open slightly.

 

 

Both of these operations are very delicate and it’s easy to damage a reed is they are done too roughly.  Ideally, the first time you do this you will be guided by someone who already knows how to do it.  However, if you are careful you can learn to do this safely and if done properly either or both can be carried out, testing the reed as you go, until you have the reed adjusted to your liking.

For further information about Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Fettling Reid Northumbrian Smallpipes

Reid Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes by Robert Reid

Robert Reid (1784–1837) is widely acknowledged as the creator of the modern form of the Northumbrian Smallpipes. He lived and worked at first in Newcastle upon Tyne, but moved later to the nearby town of North Shields at the mouth of the Tyne, probably in 1802.  The Reids were a family with a long-standing connection to piping; Robert’s father Robert Reed, a cabinet maker, had been a player of the Northumbrian big-pipes, and an associate of James Allan, his son Robert was described later by James Fenwick as a beautiful player as well as maker of smallpipes, while Robert’s son James (1814–1874) joined his father in the business. Robert died in North Shields on the 13th or 14th of January 1837, and his death notice in the Newcastle Journal referred to him as a “piper, and as a maker of such instruments is known from the peer to the peasant, for the quality of their tone, and elegance of finish”. He is buried in the graveyard of Christ Church, North Shields.

 

 

 

Reid Northumbrian Smallpipes

Its estimated that perhaps seventy sets of his pipes exist, and occasionally I’m asked to fettle a set.  The set I’m working on at the moment is a lovely three drone set, and the chanter has seven keys.  One of the first jobs is to clean it up.  Over the years dirt accumulates in the bore and around the keys.  Eventually, this builds up and effects the sound and mechanics of the set.

 

 

 

 

 

Dirt removed from the keys

Thankfully, it’s quite easy to remove it with tissue paper and cotton buds.  The amount shown in the photograph is just from a few of the keys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northumbrian Pipes Chanter End Plug

In the Base of the Chanter was a short dowel plug.  A plug is often inserted in the chanter to help eradicate random harmonics which can affect the tuning.  Now, most of these are plugs made from cotton wool so it was interesting to see one made from wood.

I still have a lot of work to do on these pipes so will update with progress as the work continues.

For more information on Northumbrian Pipes contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Northumbrian Pipes

‘Because He Was A Bonny Lad’ played on Northumbrian Smallpipes

Here’s a quick tune on a set I finished last year.

For more information on Northumbrian Smallpipes contact me on Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Northumbrian Pipemaker – Repairs to a Robert Reid Set

Robert Reid Set

I recently had the privilege to work on a set made by Robert Reid.  Robert Reid (1784–1837) is widely acknowledged as the creator of the modern form of the Northumbrian Smallpipes.   About 75 of his sets are known.  Most of these are kept in collections and only a handful are played.

 

 

Repairs to key spring and block completed

This set needed some repairs as the old repair to the C# key block had failed and the low E key spring had broken.

 

R Reid stamped on the Drone Stock

 

For more information on Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

 

 

 

Northumbrian Pipes Refurbishment

Replacing Artificial Ivory on Northumbrian Smallpipes

Northumbrian Smallpipes Ivory Replacement

It’s now illegal in the UK to buy or sell most items containing ivory.  Many historical set of Northumbrian Smallpipes were made with ivory end caps and fittings, and increasingly I’m being asked to replace these with artificial ivory.  Here’s a set of Northumbrian Smallpipes I’ve just finished work on.  The replacement parts can be seen fitted and in place with the original ivory parts on the table.

For more information on Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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