|reference articles||competition journal||piping links||FAQ||contact me|
Andrew's Tips: Bagpipe Disagreements and Controversies
By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2002 - 2011
As with everything, everyone has an opinion. Piping is no different. Here are some of the controversies or arguments you may find yourself in if you express your opinion on these topics. A lot of this depends on what school of thought to which you subscribe. The goal here is to briefly cover different aspects of the topics. If you are particularly interested in an issue, you may find in-depth articles and/or books out there in the wide world of piping.
If you don't understand a term, visit my Piper's Dictionary.
If you've found something that you think should be included that is not, have suggestions, clarifications, or additional insight, please contact me.
There certainly are a lot of different drone/chanter reed types, most pipers don't try more than a handful. A lot of pipers will tell you that whatever they are playing is the best, and they tend to be a range of different reeds. The only one given is that natural cane drone reeds—under good conditions—sound the best, no argument there. Manufacturers more or less all claim that the synthetic reeds they make sound the most like cane. Cane is the ideal sound that synthetics shoot for.
One guy loves Wygent drone reeds, one Rockets, one Crozier, one ClearTone reeds, another loves some reed you've never heard of.
Thing is, the best reed will depend on you and your pipes. Each stand of pipes is different, each piper blows/strikes in a little differently, climate is different, chanter reed strength is different, desired sound volume and texture is different. A set of reeds will sound great in one set of pipes, not so good in others, that at least can be a little bit more objective. There's no one perfect drone reed for everyone, it's subjective. Some people like roses, others like irises. People like different sound qualities, if you don't believe me, why are graphic equalizers made for sound systems?
That's not to say that there aren't poorer sound quality reeds, for example the original Shepherd synthetic drone reeds, in my opinion. (See my Identifying Drone Reeds page.) Easy to maintain, but not very robust or rich in sound. But then again a piper I know took out a "better sounding" bass drone reed because it wouldn't consistently strike-in in his pipes and put in an old Shepherd reed.
You ask 10 different pipers and get 10 different answers. And it changes, and who's to say someone didn't just get a bad reed? Or has never tried anything else? Or doesn't know how to adjust their reeds? The only somewhat valuable opinion is the really experienced pipers who have tried a bunch of reeds in a bunch of different pipes and have no self-interest in promoting a particular brand of reed—unlike the situation where they are selling it or their friend makes it. These brands work better in this brand/year of pipes, those brands work better in that brand/year of pipes. Even then it's only going to be a rough guideline to what may (or may not) work for you.
One caveat. If a band is playing the same make of instrument and the same poly chanter model, then obviously uniformity will be a benefit for ease of tuning and consistency of tone.
While there are certainly characteristics that make a well-made set of pipes, all visual wood craftsmanship being equal, you get into that "what sound do you like" situation. (See my Identifying Quality Bagpipes article.)
You cannot always judge sound quality simply by the brand—though some are more consistent than others. Each set of drones is going to be different (particularly if they are wood), even from the same maker and same batch. Also an unplayed set of wood pipes may sound harsh since pipes tend to mellow with regular use. Some bore designs will accept a greater variety of drone reed makes than others. An experienced ear is required to tell the subtle differences between a good set and a great set.
It's not exactly "Beatles vs. Rolling Stones" but it's pretty subjective. The top bands/pipers are so good that on any given day, any one could be judged the best. Plus some never compete outside their region and some never compete at all. Makes it hard to judge on an international level. Plus it depends on what you like in terms of expression, not just execution. For example, at the World Pipe Band Championships, it's not unheard of for a single band to have a spread of 20 or more places by the judges, i.e. 2nd from one judge, 25th from another!
Six months only on the practice chanter? A year? Two years? Only exercises for the first three months or until the student gets it right and only then move on to tunes? Drones only on the big pipes while starting basic fingering on the chanter? Start on the pipes only with the chanter then add drones? Only a month on the practice chanter before starting tunes on the pipes?
There's about as many approaches to teaching the pipes as there are instructors. Each influenced by their own instructors, whom they will emulate or not emulate depending on their experiences. And each student is different, with different "finger wiring," musical background, and ability to absorb direction and progress.
Also each instructor many have different goals. One may be trying to get you into his or her band as quickly as possible, with or without regard to finer details. Another may want to mold you into a solo piobaireachd player. A lot of variety. Depending on what your goals are, your instructor's methods may or may not be a good fit, also depending on how flexible your instructor is.
This is one of those subtle nuances. On a theoretical level, grace notes take no time, so that's probably from where the controversy comes. Some say you want the melody note on the beat. But others say the embellishment should be on the beat or some note in the embellishment should be on the beat. The trick is that it varies depending on the embellishment and what grace notes define it or if it's just a single grace note. For some embellishments, half of it may be before the beat and half may be after. If it's a single grace note, it's typically finishing up on the beat, stealing time from the previous note, as it were. This is best discussed with your qualified instructor.
Musicians generally aren't expected to wear a particular outfit when playing an instrument solo, yet pipers are. If you were to show up at a wedding and not be wearing the expected Highland garb, the bride would be pretty disappointed—unless it was discussed otherwise beforehand. There are those pipers who argue that people aren't hiring a musician, they are hiring an outfit. And to a certain extent, that may be true. They are hiring an entertainer. To fit that roll the piper wears a kilt. Many accomplished solo pipers or pipers in folk groups don't wear a kilt when doing concerts. Not traditional, but they're just a different type of performer.
The light D-throw is the more commonly played. Some pipers swear that the so-called heavy D-throw is the only way to go—it is the ancient way. But then some no longer used finger positions were also the ancient way. In the end, more advanced pipers just decide on their own what they think is appropriate for a particular piece of music.
I, personally, strongly recommend earplugs for most playing, particularly indoor band work. A single bagpipe has sound pressure levels of around 95dB to 105dB to the player. In comparison, chainsaws and small firecrackers are also about 100dB. Indoor practices can reach 110dB in the band circle and once you add drums to the equation, you might experience over 120db—louder than a jet! Permanent hearing loss can occur when the ear is exposed to constant sounds about 85-90dB, well below a typical bagpipe. The damage is also cumulative. These days only time I don't wear ear plugs is when I'm a good distance from bagpipes. I'm not going to risk my hearing, I play it safe. (My ears ring after band practice if I don't wear ear protection—not healthy.)
But not everyone agrees with me. You can't hear the same range and intensity of sound when you wear earplugs, and many argue, perhaps correctly so, that they can't tune their drones (and/or chanter) as well when wearing ear protection as it can quiet or eliminate overtones. But then again, not all earplugs are created equal and with some you can also vary their depth into your ear, affecting the sound filtering. You can buy excellent custom earplugs made by a specialist for about $150.
Earplugs are becoming more and more accepted as time goes on, particularly with the advances in earplug technology.
Because of its high oil content and high dimensional stability, African Blackwood is the most common material for making bagpipe parts. Though you find some made out of cocobolo, rosewood, ebony, cocus, and other organics. You will also find pipes made out of Polypenco ("poly") or Delrin, such as the Dunbar make of bagpipes.
The advantages of the synthetics are consistency and price point. There's not much variation in the raw material and it's easy to get, unlike an exotic wood. The uniformity is good for bands. The synthetics are usually a little more loud and "brighter," but certainly do not sound bad. Synthetics don't split if you leave them in a hot car. One world level piper said that he wouldn't hesitate to recommend a set of synthetic pipes to a beginner as the sound is quite good, but he liked the acoustics of a wood set. You aren't going to find polypenco drones at world level solo competitions.
As for alternative woods, some have a following and others don't. Just know what you are getting when you buy a set of pipes, and do your homework.
Synthetic bag: no seasoning, easy tie-in (just clamps), predetermined stock positions, easy complete internal access (zipper/rear clamp), wispy feel, elaborate internal moisture trap system, space-age.
Hide bag: repeated seasoning required, complex tie-in, customizable stock placement, little internal access, nice solid feel, traditional.
There's also some bags that combine a hide exterior with a synthetic interior, to get the best of both worlds.
Bags do affect the drone sound of your pipes. So all things being equal you will find sound differences between a small bag and a large bag, a bag with a moisture trap and one without, a sheepskin bag vs. different hide bag. This difference is very subtle however.
Some pipers believe that pipes are getting too synthetic. You can have a set of pipes that is composed of entirely man-made materials, right down to the chanter reed. To them, it's comparable to a computer randomly putting dots on paper: "Is it art?" And there's something to be said for simplicity. For others they'll take full advantage of any edge they can get from the latest technology, disregarding any tradition. Depends on what you value.
African Blackwood, of which most bagpipes are made, contains natural oils that make it wonderful for a wind instrument. It repels water to an extent and that helps stabilize the moisture content of the wood and prevents splitting.
Some pipers never oil their pipes. Others insist on it. Some swear that oiling pipes results in cracking. Some swear lack of oiling results in cracking. How often and how long the piper plays is going to be a significant factor. Logically, you'd assume the oils in the wood would be expected to eventually evaporate to some extent, and would need to be replenished. Climate is certainly a factor—hotter, drier, higher altitudes are going to dry out wood faster. So if there is a place that oiling would be required, it would be up in some desert mountains. Central air-conditioning can result in dry air, even in humid climates, so this is another consideration. The best advice is to follow the manufacturer's recommendations for your set of pipes and the advice of experienced pipers in your climate.
Keep in mind that some manufacturers only recommend oiling the outside of your pipes. Others only the inside of your pipes. And some manufacturers change their minds after a decade or two.
Some recommend waxing the outside of your pipes which, aside from preventing absorption of water when playing in precipitation, generally stabilizes the moisture content. Varnished pipes will not gain anything from waxing. If you do decide to wax, in my humble opinion, I'd only recommend Renaissance Wax (Picreator Enterprises Ltd. of London, England), a brand of wax trusted by museum conservators.
Blowpipes are the most likely part of a set of bagpipes to crack. If you are going to oil anything, it would be your blowpipe—assuming it's wood and it hasn't been lined with brass or other metal. (Don't oil the mouthpiece which is typically plastic.)
One piece of advice if you do decide to oil your pipes is do not use drying oils such as tung oil, walnut oil, or linseed oil—these will leave a hard film on your pipes. Organic vegetable oils such as pure almond oil are generally recommended. Many recommend adding Vitamin E as antioxidant to keep the almond oil from going rancid. Others recommend a brand of prepared oil such as Bore Doctor oil.
And obviously, if you own a set of poly pipes it would actually be harmful to oil them. Where's the oil going to go? Not into the plastic, that's for sure. It would simply become a grime magnet!
Of course, this is personal preference, but the traditional garb sub-kilt is nothing—also called "going regimental." (A few—usually non-pipers—call it "going commando.") A bit breezy for those accustomed to undergarments, but cooler on hot days. And rather nippy in the frozen tundra. "Real men go regimental." But who's going to be rude enough to find out? (Drunks would be one answer!) For some, wearing undergarments are a matter of self-preservation—some kilts are downright scratchy. Undergarments also can be a bit more hygenic, particularly with kilts on loan from a band. (Something you may not want to ponder about that borrowed kilt!)
One survey of about a hundred anonymous pipers—including some female pipers—found roughly half wear some kind of undergarment under their kilts. (Is that giving it away?)
There's a few different techniques to executing a birl. Tap and pull: pinky tapping then quickly drawn completely across the Low-A hole. The "7" style: pinky passes down over the Low-A hole then pulled up and across. Slide method: passing the pinky down then back over the Low-A hole. The first two are the most common. Since every human being's fingers are not the same, one technique does not fit all. In my experience, tap and pull is taught first and the others are alternatives if tap and pull doesn't work, but who's to say that's not a regional thing? Personally, my instructor has a stubborn pinky joint and plays a "7" birl, but taught me tap and pull though I later switched to the "7" style.
This is definitely a point of contention. The piper wanting to start playing gigs will say they are ready, and the pipers already taking the paying gigs will say the ones who aren't need to wait as long as possible. Your instructor should provide some good objective insight into your piping skills. So will a competition judge.
Aside from knowing the tunes, playing them well and handling the pressure, a piper needs to know how to adjust his or her pipes in adverse conditions, have a back up reeds, etc. You don't bury a man twice. If you mess up a funeral or a wedding, there are no second chances, you'll ruin the family's experience forever.
Personally, I believe a piper should be at least a Grade III piper before taking gigs and if there are plenty of better pipers to go around in your area, you have no business taking gigs. If there are no pipers around and you can play well (keep the beat, tune your chanter and drones, know the tunes) then take some gigs. If you can't play well and there's no pipers around, it's better that you don't play at all. No piper is better than a bad piper . . . if you don't believe me, just watch some of the horrible performances for nationally-televised events which do great damage to the reputation of bagpipes.
Probably the most common tape for modifying chanter holes is electrical tape. Cheap, easy to find, the color matches, sticks reasonably well, comes off in one piece. Though it gets gooey and slides after a time. Some say car pinstriping tape is great (though more costly), yet others swear by gaffer's tape, certain types of medical tape, or even sail repair tape. Even a number of tapes specifically marketed for bagpipes are on the market. One probably is the best—and it probably varies some by climate—but not many pipers have tried all likely candidates for a good chanter tape.
A blade and a chanter reed in the hands of a rank novice can be dangerous, at least to the life of the reed. But regardless of the skill of the scraper, after a certain point, material removed from the reed wil be detrimental to the life (and performance) of the reed. Some pipers believe in maximizing reed life, this means no scraping, regardless of sound qualities or the pressure required to sound the reed. Others are willing to run the risk of destroying a reed to make a reed easier to play and to tweak its sound characteristics. I'd say most pipers scrape, but the ones that don't can sure believe their way is best!
Some pipers believe that chanter holes should be left alone (aside from taping) and that modifying the holes' position or size is asking for trouble. And for beginning pipers or pipers on a budget, this is certainly good advice. However, at the Grade I band level chanters get carved quite a bit to achieve the high level of precision required. Chanters are almost disposable at that level with a disregard for preserving manufacturer's original specifications. Some very well respected pipers say that the art of manipulating reeds is being lost and pipers are too quick to start carving away. There is no doubt some truth to that statement. Though when the band goes on in 20 minutes it's sure more quick and reliable (for a typical piper) to carve.
Now, there's ways a piobaireachd shouldn't be played, but the ideal way is up for grabs. Piobaireachd was taught originally by oral tradition and predates any acceptance of writing pipe music down on paper. Once written down on paper, it was subject to interpretation as notes on paper can't reflect all the nuances of this type of pipe music. Liberties are taken where short notes are played long and vice versa. Also different scores exist for the same tune. For some piobaireachd tunes, it's conventional wisdom that a certain variation (such as a "thumb variation") is never played, regardless that it is included in the score. Two major styles of play are MacPherson (more common) and Cameron, with subtle differences difficult to distinguish for less knowledgeable piobaireachd players. If you are around long enough, you may hear an old piper refer to a particular interpretation as "rubbish" and yet another express delight in the same performance.
The Piobaireachd Society (also known as the "PS") was founded to help preserve what appeared to be a fading genre of piping known as piobaireachd, sometimes called "the classical music of the pipes." They did this in part by publishing collections of tunes and holding competitions based on the settings found in their books. They did succeed in helping keep piobaireachd alive. But there are those who argue that the PS was also successful in crushing valid alternative piobaireachd settings in favor of their own—competitors were scored lower by judges if they played tunes not precisely to the PS settings. Some argue that other interpretations were lost due to this standardization. Some also argue that since new compositions were not found in the PS books, and therefore not used in competition, that the piobaireachd genre stagnated with a lack of adoption of newly written tunes.
So why are the pipes roughly B-flat instead of a true concert A? According to popular wisdom, this resulted from band competitions. Two bands being equal, the one with the sharper sound will sound better to the human ear. So what does a band do if the competition has a higher pitch? Raise their own pitch! Over the years, this has resulted in a continuing trend toward a more shrill sound. Chanter manufacturers respond to demand. With bands clamoring for higher pitched chanters, this is what they make. So has this shift been good or bad so far? It's open to debate. What's not open to debate is if the trend continues, it will be harder and harder to get and keep a bagpipe sounding good.
It's known fact that some top level bands, in order to ease tuning, internally plug one tenor drone. The person doing tuning walks around the band circle and pretends to tune both tenors when in fact he/she is tuning only one. This falls into a gray area. Understandably, if a piper has a brand new reed and has to block a drone in order to play, that's generally accepted. The question is: Is it fair to judge two bands as equals if one has pipers blowing only a two drone set of pipes. Maybe the rules will change someday. For now, it makes for a good heated discussion.
The bagpipe scale is really unique. While I won't even pretend to understand the technicalities of musical scales—hey, my degree is in computer science—the bagpipe scale doesn't fit the standard scales: mixolydian, diatonic, etc. It gets rather complex with flattened and augmented major and minor thises and thats to try and fit it into the traditional "Equal Temperament" scale, vs. a theoretical match with—but still "real-world" typically off—a "Just Temperament/Just Intonation" scale. It boils down to the bagpipe having it's own unique scale. The notes are designed to match harmonics of the drones—it gives the pipes their unique means of encompassing the listener's emotion. But for an excellent detailed discussion on this topic read Ewan Macpherson's article: The Pitch and Scale of the Great Highland Bagpipe.
This issue can be quite complicated. The piping world may not be quite as big as one might think. It is far more economical for a competition organizer to bring in qualified judges from nearby than from far away. Pipers are more likely to attend a nearby competition than one far away. Many judges are instructors. One instructor may have a dozen or more students that compete. What does this mean? You've got two run-away trains running head on at each other. It's almost inevitable that a judge will end up judging his or her own student. It's even happened at top solo piping competitions. What the question really boils down to is "can a judge be impartial under all circumstances?"
There is a long-standing feeling among many bands (and some soloists) that judges who also happen to make products cannot be impartial when it comes to adjudicating competitons.
Let's say Mr. Smith makes bagpipe chanters and is judging two bands. Band A plays Mr. Johnson's chanters. Band B plays Mr. Smith's chanters. Aside from a natural bias toward the sound of one's own product, there are financial incentives—particularly at the top-levels of competition. Mr. Smith knows that if Band B wins, he can advertise that "Championship Band B plays Mr. Smith Chanters!" If Band A wins, then Mr. Johnson can follow suit with Band A and damage Mr. Smith's market share. Even is Mr. Smith can manage to be impartial, there will be a perceived bias regardless.
There were times at the World Pipe Band Championships where a bias seemed readily apparent, betrayed by higher scores from a judge grading a band playing his products. For years, many have called for barring makers from the ranks of adjudicators.
The problem is that some of these makers are very good players and highly qualified to judge . . . as well as being very connected in the pipe band world with a lot of friends in powerful places. Honestly, who wants to be the one to tell a friend they've known and played with for decades that they are being banned from judging? Yet, it may happen someday.
Pipe majors are always on the look out for new pipers. By attrition, if no new players are added, sooner or later a band roster will be reduced to one or none! What better place to find a bagpiper for your band than in a nearby band? That player has been obviously judged good enough to play in a band. Of course, if you are successful, the other band is out a player. This results in a PM that's not too happy with you and your band "poaching" their member, especially if that PM has invested a lot of time and effort developing that player. I know that I'd be upset.
The bottom line of course, is that the player is not a commodity, but a person with a will. The player decides which band he or she will play for, maybe the other band better meets the player's goals. Of course, if a band has spent a lot of time developing a player, you'd hope that the player would feel some obligation to that band. Then there's hurt feelings. Having a player leave means you have to deal with a certain amount of rejection, not great for the ego.
What does this all mean? It means that it's not uncommon for some neighboring bands to feel some animosity toward each other, which really is a shame. Granted, it's not always the case.
Perhaps one of the most touchy issues is copying music. It's pretty common practice for bands to copy off music from a book for all the band members. Is it legal? In many cases, no. (Unless it states otherwise in the book which is practically unheard of. Though I know of a published composer that expects/allows bands to copy music for members from one "master" book.) Is it financially possible for most bands to purchase music books for every band member for every tune that they play? No. Are the authors/composers getting rich for the tune books they've put together? Not a chance.
According to one copyright attorney, bands are permitted to copy music as long as they do not make income from a performance of copyrighted material and are not performing in a venue where the sponsoring agency makes a profit from the event. Granted, some bands do meet those criteria, but many don't. Competitions typically meet the criteria.
What's the answer? Do bands need to limit their repertoire to what they can afford—maybe only public domain tunes? To be by the book, yes. Would it be fair that only well-to-do sponsored bands (or with well-to-do members) would be playing whatever tune they want? No, but then again, life isn't always fair. On the other hand, if all bands went legit and only played tunes from books they could afford, many public domain tunes might be discovered—or rediscovered. Bands might write their own tunes. More tune books would be published due to a bigger market. A world of possibilties.
With the rise of the World Wide Web, we now have a "tune by tune" sheet music download system in Jim McGillvray's PipeTunes, much like the fee/download system implemented by Apple Computer for recorded music using iTunes. Tune books really are pretty cheap based on the number of tunes in them. (A $20 book might have 100 tunes, that's only 20 cents each—quite a bargain.)
Is there hope for those authors and composers who would love to get fully compensated for their work? Probably not much. Who's going to turn in their band for copying music? When are all bands going to be sponsored and can afford to buy fifteen copies of a single music book? But maybe with some education, folks will feel a pang of guilt and just buy a few more music books than otherwise. I know I am.
There are two ways of playing a C note on a bagpipe chanter. One with the pinky down (closed). One with the pinky up (open). You'd never think such heated arguments would arise from such a topic.
In the 19th century and earlier, the Open C was pretty much the way everyone played the C note. Gradually starting around 1900, the Closed C started appearing and by the mid-20th Century, it was the almost always played. Why? There are a couple of explanations. As pitches started to gradually rise on the pipes, a closed C sounded better on some chanters. Another explanation heard is that a player has better control with the pinky down—particularly when executing a grip movement.
Either way, most judges typically mark down competition pipers for playing an open C. For pipers trained by someone who thought that an open C is completely acceptable, this can be a problem. For them, being marked down for playing in a traditional way is unfair. Some others argue that the open C is obsolete and is simply wrong by today's standards as the chanter may sound the note incorrectly. But, there is no world playing standards organization, so it's all convention and opinion.
Some pipe band associations allow lower-graded bands to incorporate a player who is a member of a higher-graded band provided that that individual is designated as an instructor. Often, a piper and a drummer are both allowed as instructors in a single band.
Some associations require that registered instructor be the pipe major or drum sergeant, others insist that that individual not be the PM or DS. The reasoning? If the instructor is not a leader, then they might be just padding the band numbers and not really being a true instructor. The flip argument is that instructors are there to instruct the band, and that the band should not have the unfair competitive advantage of the leader being a highly-graded and experienced player.
Some bands never use playing instructors. Perhaps they are geographically remote. Perhaps they don't have the money to hire an instructor. Or both. These bands are going to be at a disadvantage when compared to a band employing playing instructors.
These "instructor rules" are the most contentious of pipe band association rules and change frequently. It's not uncommon to see a proposal to change an instructor rule at an association's Annual General Meeting (AGM).
Some pipe bands, when traveling to the World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland, add additional players from other bands. There are several reasons for this. One, bigger bands tend to do better than small bands—you'll never see a pipe band with only six pipers win, for instance. Two, many pipers dream of going to compete in the Worlds. By joining a band that is going, even on a temporary basis, they can realize that dream.
Why is this good?
Experience is always beneficial. The more pipers with experience at the Worlds, the better. And associations get a feather in their cap when a member band does well in Scotland, and as I mentioned, bigger bands have a better chance of placing higher.
Why is this a problem?
It's a headache for the association administration. In the weeks leading up to the Worlds, a Band Registrar will receive numerous requests for band transfers. This is time-consuming for what is almost always a volunteer position. After the Worlds, the process repeats: a lot of transfers. After returning home, these players padding the band almost always transfer back to their regular band.
It also raises the question: if the band does well in Scotland, how do you grade the band? Bands that perform well over the course of a competition season are typically upgraded by their association. There is also tremendous pressure on an association to upgrade a band that wins (or nearly wins) in Scotland. However, if a third (or half) of the band transfers out once back on its home turf, is it the same band? Or did the winning version of the band cease to exist? What if only two players transfer out, but they were key to the band's success? And how does one know?
This page last updated Wednesday, November 30, 2011