Q: Who made your pipes?
A: My current set of pipes are a 16 keyed F set made by Mike Nelson from Cambridge, but the set I learnt on were a 9 keyed Archie Dagg F set.
Q: I want to learn the Northumbrian pipes. I am ordering a set but the pipemaker has asked me how many notes I want. Help!
A: It probably depends if you have the opportunity to borrow or hire a set to start off with, in which case the more basic the better. However if you are buying a set then you probably want a reasonable amount of notes for your investment! I started off on a 9 keyed set and certainly wouldn’t advise anything less than this for a beginner – in fact I reckon you should go for a minimum of 11 keys – when you first start you can just ignore the keys and concentrate on the fingered notes and add the keys in as and when you feel ready for them. At least they’d be there when you needed them, rather than the frustrating situation I had where I really wanted to play tunes with certain notes in, but had to get a whole new chanter!
Q: If I wanted to write something for Northumbrian pipes what information do I need to know?
A: There is a lot of controversy and discussion at the moment (and for the last 30 years at least) about the preferred pitch for the Northumbrian smallpipes. I do not want to fan the flames of that debate, so I am copying below something I wrote out several years ago for a group of contemporary classical composers who were writing for an ensemble I was involved with at the time.
Please bear in mind that this information was given specifically about my own particular set of pipes. Other players may have more, or less, notes on the chanter, more or less drones and also might have such things as drone cut-off switches etc.
The Northumbrian pipes are a transposing instrument. They are in Bb (although pipers always think of them as being in F as that is the key 90% of the traditional repertoire is in)
They have no dynamic range – the interest has to be brought out through phrasing and ornamentation, including use of vibrato.
These are traditionally tuned to the tonic and 5th.
Either F,C and high F; G, D and high D or D, A and high D (in concert pitch)
Other combinations are possible, but each drone can only be either F or G, C or D etc.
My drones also have the possibility of A on the lowest F drone.
Drones need to be tuned manually before playing – you can’t just bring them in halfway through a piece and expect them to be in tune…you can hope, but you can’t be sure!)
The basic octave on the chanter is F above middle C to F an octave higher. Pipes can have keyed notes to extend the range.
My pipes have 16 keyed notes, and my range is (in my pitch) B below middle C chromatically up to B two octaves higher, minus the top Bb. (So…in concert pitch – A up to A, two 8ves, fully chromatic apart from the top G#)
The basic octave F‑F notes are all played by the fingers uncovering/covering the holes and there are no problems at all between these notes. All other notes are keyed notes and are played with the RH thumb, with the exception of low C and high G (my low D and high A) which are played by the LH little finger. The low B (my C#) on my pipes can be played with either little finger or thumb.
This means that although the chanter is fully chromatic (almost!) certain keys will require many consecutive notes to be played with the thumb, which will result in a disjointed, unmusical sound with little or no opportunity to ornament, phrase, slur etc.
One way to avoid this is to alternate fingered notes with keyed notes.
If all this sounds a bit complicated, then basically if you stick to the keys of G, D and A minor (if played on F pipes it will sound approximately one tone lower) and write tunes that don’t stray too far from those scales, and stick to a basic range of D (above middle C) up to A an octave and a half higher (that’s your written note, which will sound a tone lower) then you can’t go far wrong.