Category Archives: Blog

My 2 Week Competition Season

Having switched studios, my daughter’s yearly dance recital did not conflict with the Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival & Highland Games in May (Albuquerque, NM) so I finally had a chance to return to a favorite games of mine, after 15 years if I’ve done my figuring correctly. At only 5 hours away this is the closest piping competition to Lubbock, TX. Two weeks later, I competed at my first indoor competition, the Austin Piping and Drumming Competition; Austin is 6 hours away. If I were not going to Yellowstone for vacation, I’d also attend the Pikes Peak Celtic Festival in Colorado Springs in another 2 weeks (about an 8 hour drive), making my competition season 4 weeks long. But, that’s it really for games that have piping competitions. There’s one in Tulsa, OK in September but I can’t find a website, hrm.

With owning many pipes, the first thing to do is pick which set of pipes to play in competition. The pipes I play most are my band pipes, my old Hendersons. The only other two currently in rotation are my Colin Kyo and Tim Gellaitry sets. It had been some time since I featured Tim’s pipe in competition and so I decided to go with them. This decision was reinforced by the glorious drone tone I’ve been getting with them. I have always loved the tone of them as one of the best and most stable using all original Kinnaird drone reeds, however I have recently switched to Chris Armstrong’s X-TREME bass drone reed and it is all sorts of fantastic. THE BEST BASS DRONE I HAVE EVER HEARD. Coupled with the tenors still using original Kinnaird, I get a most excellent, harmonic drone tone. I got many compliments from fellow competitors and judges alike on the tone of the drones. It should come as no surprise, my chanter of choice is Colin Kyo. A custom straight cut Husk was used in ABQ as their weather is similar to Lubbock’s but it started double toning on F in the humidity of Austin so about 10 minutes before I was to start my series of performances in Austin, I had to switch to a different CK chanter equipped with a Gilmour reed that’s as probably as old as my 7 year old son, luckily it played nicer with the humidity.

Below, you’ll find recordings of the pipes as played in Austin, though the chanter isn’t quite settled in for non-humid Lubbock as I’m still moving the reed and tape back to where they were prior to Austin. EJ Jones once told me it takes days to tune a bagpipe. TRUTH.

The mic is behind me so you can hear the drones clearly (understatement of the month). Most of the tunes below are competition tunes and some are ones I actually played, but not all.

Bessie McIntyre, Alick C MacGregor, Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree – I almost make it to 90 bpm by the end!

Highland Harry and Charlie’s Welcome – a bit quick into the terminal taorluaths in Highland Harry and just outright missing a few gracenotes in Charlie’s, haha. Someday I’ll get it!

Clachnacuddin Hornpipe and Rakes of Kildare – Clachnacuddin Hornpipe is an old version of The Inverness Gathering arranged by Capt. John A. MacLellan and son, Colin, and is a previous tune of the month with sheet music available in the archive.

One topic I have pondered much in recent years is tempo. I grew up listening to recordings of pipe music about as old as I was. Much of my MSR repertoire mimics the 1984 Grant’s Piping Championship album (available on iTunes if you can tolerate the random distortion from the “old” recording). While digitizing this album yesterday from my old cassette tape, I took a few tempo measurements. Iain MacFadyen played one of my MSR: Kantara to El Arish at 74 bpm, Inveraray Castle at 142 bpm, and Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree at 95 bpm. Truly an engaging performance. The slowest reel came from Hugh MacCallum’s John MacKechnie at 85 bpm, Malcolm MacRae’s at 98, Murray Henderson’s at 92, Gavin Stoddart’s at 90, and Bill Livingstone’s at 94. Other strathspey tempos were anywhere from 128-138. Marches in the low 70s. I feel that common tempos have fallen to slightly lower values at the current time. Marches are often in the mid 60s, strathspeys right around 120, and reels in the low to mid 80s. While I have enjoyed more measured performances, with great care taken in rhythm, and have tried to mimic them on occasion, I have come to the conclusion that I prefer slightly faster tempos. Marches are for marching and strathspeys & reels are dance music (and I don’t mean modern highland dancing). Strathspeys are a derivative of reels evidenced by, if nothing else, the often quoted SWMW emphasis in 4/4 time strathspeys which directly coincides with the cut time of reels: 2/2. Piping has many idioms, and I find myself favoring the THIS IS A HIGHLAND BAGPIPE AND I’M GOING TO GET YOUR BLOOD PUMPING style because MACPHERSON HOLDS THE FLOOR.

WPBC MSR BINGO

If you find yourself looking for some friendly pipe band competition when you’re arm chairing it from your living room instead of out on Glasgow Green then pick one of 8 BINGO cards produced by Llano Estacado (and District) Pipe Band’s own Nick Smith. Each time you hear a particular March, Strathspey, or Reel mark it on your chosen BINGO card. First to get 5 in a row horizontally, vertically, or diagonally wins!

Click here for the pdf.

The live stream of Saturday’s Grade 1 Final can be found here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e36c8g

Details can be found here:

http://www.rspba.org

Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat – September 24-27, 2015

This post is a quick blurb about the Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat held in Walsenburg/La Veta/Gardner, CO (Colorado). This retreat his held as part of the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival.

First, a bit about last year’s festival and piping workshops:

I attend the SPICMF last year where I attended an all day workshop on Saturday with Will Woodson of hybrid border/uilleann pipe fame. I learned a lot from Will: instrument maintenance, reed manipulation, bellows technique, melodic articulation and variation of style, and a few tunes. In addition to the workshop, there were evening concerts which were spectacular; Ireland’s Full Set was a real treat to hear Friday night and the instructor’s concert Saturday night was great too. I say instructorS because there were workshops for just about everything other celtic instrument during the weekend also.

This year is going to be even better! From a piper’s perspective anyway. Here is the official piping retreat schedule. What follows focuses on the highland style instruments, info on the uilleann pipe workshops with Jerry O’Sullivan (!!!) can be found here.

Starting Thursday, internationally acclaimed musician Carlos Nunez gets things started with a multi-instrumental workshop focusing on the music of Galicia. Later that day there’s the first concert of SPICMF.

Friday sees the start of the piping retreat (with a focus on bellows blown type pipes: smallpipes, shuttle pipes, border pipes, etc; mouthblown versions of traditionally bellows blown instruments are welcome too). The primary instructor for the piping workshop this year is Fin Moore, Hamish Moore‘s son. Hamish and Fin have probably the most famous bellows blown pipe making firm on Earth. I understand Angus MacKenzie of the Scottish band Daimh (“dive”, I think) might be milling about as well. Carlos will stop by the piping workshops before heading off to prepare for his concert Friday night. Carlos played a concert in Lubbock, TX (where I live) for International Bagpipe Day this year (March 10) and that was the best concert I’d ever been to, bar none. That guy has more music in the air he exhales than I’ve got in my whole body. I’d say the trip to Colorado was worth just this concert alone. But it gets better!

Saturday, the piping workshops with Fin Moore continue with an additional session in the afternoon playing with the harp workshop participants. I have never played with a harpist, so this will be a first for me. Following Saturday’s slew of workshops is the Saturday night concert with Daimh! Daimh is a Scottish group that incorporates highland bagpipes along with vocals, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and now uilleann pipes. It’s going to be a great concert for sure.

Sunday morning sees yet another workshop followed by the Grand Finale Concert which I’m guessing will be an amalgamation of the instructors playing together, always a delight.

Information regarding registering for the retreat can be had on this page. At the time of posting, a bit late I admit, the early bird discount has already passed (shucks!). Organizing the piping retreat is Jim Conley who’s a great guy and a very trustworthy man. Jim is the one who sent me a set of Henry Starck pipes to play and display on the blog while he was going to be out of the country for a spell, just for the heck of it. He contacted me, not the other way around. Jim also knows all the great places to eat and visit while you’re there. Which leads me to:

That area is a very beautiful part of Colorado. The Spanish Peaks are twin mountain peaks that you can go hiking around. Here’s me playing Jim’s Colin Kyo bagpipes out in Jim’s backyard.

spanish_peaks_photo

Walsenburg is a bit off the beaten path and so if you have non-piping relatives that you’d have to drag along with you (bleh, I know), there are plenty of great restaurants and outdoor activities to partake in. There’s Lathrop state park “just across the street”.

I can’t wait to go and I hope to see you there!

Focal Dystonia

Focal Dystonia (FD) is a condition where one loses control of voluntary muscle movements. It is a condition that is acquired when a task is repetitively done over and over again and is therefore task specific, meaning that it only manifests when one attempts a very specific task. A technical understanding of how it acts boils down to a smearing together of the signals intended for separate parts of the body. For example, in my case, when I aim to play an E grace note with my ring finger, my pinkie contracts violently. Presumably then, the signal to my ring finger instructing it to raise is also getting transmitted to my pinkie but is telling my pinkie to contract, albeit not voluntarily.

Reference: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1144495/

However, it is not simply the smearing out of nerve signals to nearby fingers, but it also involves the reception of signals by the brain. So, the process of receiving feedback after a signal is sent is also smeared out. Therefore, the entire process of sending a signal from the brain to a muscle, receiving feedback from the muscle, fine tuning the signal and trying again, receive feedback, etc. is seemingly corrupted. This process, sans corruption, is crucial to someone learning a new task. However, FD affects those who have engaged in a specific task repetitively for long periods of time. What is observed is that one gets better and better at the task as it is learned, but at the onset of FD, the ability to do that task diminishes. There have been some genetic and physiological links made in those who suffer from FD, but they are not entirely sufficient for causing FD as not everyone with those conditions exhibits FD. Therefore, FD is something that is self-diagnosed. There is no pain, swelling, or any discrete physiological condition that we can point at and say, that’s the problem we need to fix.

A few videos about FD (courtesy Nathaniel on the Bob Dunsire forums):

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JikRrqix4wU – The example used to introduce FD is that of a pianist who, when faced with playing parts that required extended reaches, found FD to manifest in his 4th and 5th fingers (ring and pinkie), but there was no problem otherwise (again, very task specific). It would seem these two fingers are the most commonly affected. I know of some people whose FD affects the motion of their B finger (ring finger) when moving their low A finger (pinkie). It should be no mystery that I prefer Colin Kyo chanters. These chanters have the smallest finger spread I’ve ever found among highland pipe chanters. I had a 3/4 John Center chanter at one time, ah, I loved that chanter, it was very small. Hand me a pencil, and I’ll finger bagpipe tunes on it all day, no trouble, E grace notes flying everywhere. Of course, my fingers fall right next to each other and are very relaxed. I am not charged with the task of ensuring that holes be adequately covered. I am so very fortunate that in addition to a smaller finger spread, the Colin Kyo chanter is simply a really good chanter with lots of other attributes you can read about in other places on my website/blog. As a side note, I love playing C smallpipe chanters; they’re like playing a pencil, no trouble what so ever finding the holes. Here’s a YouTube video of me wailing away on one and I hit most of the E grace notes! Gotta love these things!
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hGGjZQed-A – Talks about the smearing of nerve signals and the science behind our understanding.
  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBLHdaSYkxY – Briefly talks about treatment as being retraining of the muscles and appealing to larger muscles further up the arm and not focusing on the forearm and finger muscles. Refining of the motions of the fingers is left until after the larger muscles up higher have been retrained first.

and also this one

Regarding treatment via larger muscle groups and the left hand is that those muscles are engaged in squeezing the bag. How will relearning fine motor skills starting from the back and shoulder muscles (instead of forearm and finger muscles) be affected by heavy use of those muscles in squeezing the bag? What I find interesting is that it is not uncommon on a particularly bad day for my bagpipe to choke when I attempt to play E grace notes, indicating some connection to the larger muscle groups farther up the arm. Whether choking due to bag pressure loss is a manifestation of the FD itself or a side effect of consciously trying to correct the FD, I’m unsure. Perhaps it simply arises from tension in my arm as I anticipate the impending E grace note and I lose focus?

This document from the journal Muscle and Nerve shares some info on FD. See page 558, starting at the top of the right side column. Ultimately, treating FD boils down to coming up with ways of making the brain forget how to send the signal, retraining the signals and muscles, and the like. Injections of Botulinum toxin weren’t necessarily effective among other methods. I was particularly interested in references 21 and 72, although the author of the citing work above indicated not observing the same success as the authors below:

21. Charness ME, Ross MH, Shefner JM. Ulnar neuropathy and dystonic flexion of the fourth and fifth digits: clinical correlation in musicians. Muscle Nerve 1996;19:431–437.

72. Ross MH, Charness ME, Lee D, Logigian EL. Does ulnar neuropathy predispose to focal dystonia? Muscle Nerve 1995; 18:606–611.

My “journey” with FD:

My first bout came while in college. I wasn’t actively playing but one day I got my practice chanter out and my pinkie exhibited this strong contraction when playing E grace notes. Oddly enough, I was able to overcome the problem over the period of a few weeks by simply forcing my pinkie finger to stay erect above the chanter. Several years later in my mid-20s, the problem reappeared and hasn’t resolved itself since (I’m almost 31 at the time of writing). The first fix I tried was again holding my pinkie finger erect. Ultimately, this didn’t work the second go around as the pinkie is still contracting, it just has farther to go. I found the increased tension in my hand often made the problem worse. I also tried taping my pinkie to my ring finger but that ultimately detracts from the performance of the ring finger. I have no trouble playing the note E, the specific task that triggers the dystonia is the call for a rapid E grace note. I did at one time try building a pinkie rest to keep my pinkie erect and that sort of worked. I found it essential to get the pinkie back as far as possible, effectively debilitating it by giving it no leverage. I was so excited I made a couple YouTube videos of me playing with it. It was made of a brass colored clothes hanger so it may be hard to see in the videos due to poor resolution:

MSRHJ number 1, MSRHJ number 2, and some 6/8 marhces.

Musically, being unable to play an E grace note due to the violent contraction of the adjacent pinkie finger wrecked havoc on the musicality of my playing. What effectively happens is a big giant pause as my brain waits for the ring, E finger, to pick up, which it rarely does. Doubling tachums in strathspeys were very square and even, GDE timing suffered severely, taorluaths didn’t happen (don’t even mention crunluaths!), and D doublings amounted to G grace notes. Ultimately, the timing of my tunes suffered as I tried to accommodate the problem and you can hear some of that in the YouTube videos just linked. Furthermore, constantly thinking about the coming E grace note left little time for thinking about phrasing. There were times I toyed with just replacing every E grace note with an F grace note. But then taorluaths sounded really weird, trust me. The next thing I tried was to rest my pinkie on the chanter thinking if I was able to prevent the pinkie from descending below chanter level, at least it wouldn’t be pulling my ring finger down and maybe I could get the E grace note out. This was a great and a terrible idea. It sort of worked, but the tension in my hand still persisted. I’ve spent a great deal of time unlearning the habit of letting my left pinkie touch the chanter. Don’t try it.

One of the easiest cures for the problem was to just totally relax, absolutely and completely. Sort of like playing a pencil. Unfortunately, the overall quality of performance is diminished due to EVERYTHING then sounding rather mushy, something a few E grace notes can’t make up for. It is apparent then, that relaxation or releasing some control over the muscles is essential for retraining the fingers. Over the last couple years I’ve managed to learn to play a taorluath fairly well although it gets sketchy from C to C. I did this by basically relearning how to play it devoid of any knowledge about E grace notes. The piobaireachd dre movement came easily once I played it like an edre, the difference being whether you’re coming from a note below or above E, respectively. Coming from above E, you’re forced to effectively play the big note E on the way down to low A. From a note below E, you play an E grace note to low A; however, I play a full E note just really quickly (again, it’s about how you think about it) and fall back down to A to finish the movement with the F grace note, etc. This has influenced my crunluath playing, as I now play it by playing first a grip followed by this method of playing a dre with a “full E” grace note in the middle. GDE rhythms are coming along and the occasional, very slow D doubling happens every once in a while. Individual E grace notes from, say, C to low A still don’t happen all too reliably. It is still a very forced motion. Come to band practice and watch me play Flett from Flotta and you’ll see my dystonia rear its ugly head with every c{e}A movement. That, or practially the ending of every 2/4 competition march in existence.

As of recently, I’ve had success with returning to keeping my pinkie erect but with less of an effort of keeping it up, but keeping it over my ring finger, as odd as that sounds. Mechanically then as I push up the E ring finger, it physically pushes on the pinkie finger. It’s a bit tricky but seems to work. This is akin to taping the pinkie to the ring except the ring isn’t constrained by the motion or weight of the pinkie.

Other thought processes I’ve experimented with in the past involved simply forcing all grace notes to be large and that also sort of works. In all, the things that work best are the things where I don’t think about the E finger at all, but nothing has been a completely effective cure. You may or may not hear the effects of FD in my playing as distributed via this blog. You certainly only hear the best of the best of my recordings. I record a lot not for distribution specifically, but also to listen to my playing and improve, for critique. More than anything, I can listen to it and sometimes think to myself, “Hey, that was pretty good, I don’t suck as bad as my dystonia (or lack of practice in other areas, haha) makes me feel sometimes.” That is probably its most valuable asset; it provides me the motivation to once again break out the pipes and give it another go knowing full well that I can do this, because I have in the past. There is no encouragement like the struggles you’ve already overcome.

Work in progress….

PM Hugh MacPherson

It just so happens that former Senior PM Hugh MacPherson of the Canadian Armed Forces was traversing Texas on his way to Arizona and stopped in Lubbock. We had the opportunity to play for him and get some tips. He reminded us that the band needs a good 15 minutes of playing before one should even consider moving a chanter reed for tuning purposes; what was achieved tuning wise at the last band practice will probably be regained; provided the tenors aren’t moved when putting them in the case, just get the bass drones roughly where they were and get to playing to warm up. The other big take away for me was a reason for taping the tone holes. Previously, I’ve only taped the tone holes in the event that the low G was sharp, but I also noted that it did slightly affect the pitch of low A and B. Hugh presented the idea that taping the tone holes was also a way to help balance a chanter that was sharp on the bottom hand; this is a new method of balancing a chanter that I had not previously thought of and will have to give more consideration to in the future. Hugh also suggested we pick up several slow marches for the purpose of teaching pipers to blow properly as the slowness of the tune allows one to hear tuning/blowing variations. Lastly, he also suggested we pick up a few 2 part 6/8 marches, “stuff all bands should know,” (Bonnie Dundee for example).

Lastly, we did get Hugh to break out his 1897 (I think) blackwood Henderson bagpipes. He tells us that this set of pipes has quite the (military) history and it is featured on the cover of his (second?) book, but I cannot find links to them though I understand they are available from Scott’s Highland Services.

It was a great night of piping and conversation!

Winter Storm 2014

I just returned from the Winter Storm collection of competitions, workshops, and concert from this past weekend, held annually in Kansas City, MO. It has been a long while since I’ve been to a major piping event. Let’s say the last notable event I attended was the World Pipe Band Championships in 2001 when I played with Lyon College. Since then, I’ve been to 5 (maybe 6) small regional bagpipe competitions (having 2-4 competitors in my grade) and one small workshop associated with one of those competitions; all but one of those 5 or 6 is the same competition I go to annually in Salado, TX in November. So I don’t forget what I learned at Winter Storm, here’s what I learned:

Friday:

An all day indoor bagpipe competition can wear your ears out! I attended the Gold Medal Ceol Beag (light music, i.e. MSR) Qualifier and MSRHJ final in addition to a few of the amateur piping and Gold medal drumming performances. I didn’t catch any Piobaireachd or most of the drumming. If you don’t bring ear plugs, it’s probably a good idea to sit a few rows back to let the people in front of you absorb some of the sound.

I took notes during the Ceol Beag competition. Things of note is that the average pitch of low A for the competitors was 482 Hz with 2 exceptions in the field of 26 which came in around 474 (I think both of these were playing the McC2 solo chanter). Of course, there were McC2 chanters around 482 as well. Additionally, the Henderson solo chanter seems to also be a very popular choice in addition to Naill (which is “the” standard solo chanter of recent past). I also spotted a couple Strathmore chanters if I’m not mistaken and one Shepherd chanter. A few chanters had decorative soles and I’m not good at identifying those. One of these was Alastair Murray who says he played the new Gibson chanter he designed with Jerry Gibson. The only competitor to qualify for the Gold Medal Ceol Beag final that wasn’t on the Gold Medal Piobaireachd competitor list was Alexander Schiele (the Gold Medal Piobaireached list is composed only of those who have won the Silver Medal Piobaireachd in previous years whereas the Gold Medal Ceol Beag has no such restriction on entries, there is no Silver Medal Ceol Beag prerequisite). Alex had a great run in the qualifier and I had him pegged in the top 3 of the final but alas the judges felt differently. He is really good! Very entertaining player. Another of my favorite performances was Robbie Beaton in the qualifier. He had the loveliest chanter sound of the bunch. A teeny bit of crow on both high G and high A, both ringing with the high A having just a touch of vibrato, with excellent volume. Although he didn’t make it out of the qualifier in the Ceol Beag I believe he won the Silver Medal Piobaireachd.

It might have been the room (we were indoors after all) but there were a few players where a marked difference in volume was heard between the top and bottom hands; this is not to say their high hands were weak, I realize this sounds negative, but that their bottom hand, low A and low G, were too strong. Too punchy. There were some quiet pipes which were easy on the ears and there where some big pipes which I’m not sure fit the venue. So, bring ear plugs! Also don’t forget there is piping in the drumming contests too; this did not occur to me until it was far too late to catch many of the remaining drumming performances. There’s always next year!

Saturday:

You get to pick what workshops you want to go to, they are not assigned to you beforehand, you just show up to those that interest you. The first one I attended was the first of Fred Morrison’s smallpipe sessions which just went on throughout the day. Fred is a sweet guy and spent this time helping people understand their smallpipes and worked on a few of the McCallum/Fred Morrison brand reel pipes for people who were having trouble. Time was up before we got around to playing any music but I did walk away with an understanding of the most important thing with bellows blown pipes: everything must be optimized and airtight or your bellows arm will be flailing around unnecessarily and you’ll struggle to make music.

Next was Angus MacColl’s “small music” class where I picked up some nifty tunes I’ve heard a lot recently. This includes Angus’ own “Room 35”, the story goes this was the number of the room where he/they would go to play pipes while he was in school, if I recall correctly. Main take away, if there’s a high A in a tune, hold it. A copier malfunction kept us from getting to many of the tunes but it was a great class because I walked away with a lot of cool tunes!

In the afternoon I attended Colin MacLellan’s strathspey/reel course. His emphasis was on finding where the strong beat in each bar of the strathspey was. Strong Weak Medium Weak doesn’t apply to everything and certainly doesn’t apply to every bar in a strathspey. You’re more likely to find SWWW, WWSW, as you will SWMW and it varies even within the same part, for example: SWWW | WWSW | SWWW | WWSW. Additionally, the pattern probably won’t hold within the same tune as each part is different. He emphasized the question/answer phrasing of strathspeys and reels, which seem to me to follow a 4 beat pattern (so 1 phrase in strathspey = 1 bar, 1 phrase in reel = 2 bars). Phrase 1 = question, Phrase 2 = answer, Phrase 3 = question, Phrase 4 = answer, etc. He also provided some recordings of players from the past (circa 1950’s) who played at very fast tempos; he also stated these tempos were NOT a product of the conversion process of making the mp3 from a vinyl record, which he did himself. I got the impression that he felt competitive piping was perhaps allowing tempos that were too slow. While he did not advocate playing very fast for the sake of playing fast, he did outright say that there is expression to be had in the tempo of a tune. Listening to his World’s Greatest Pipers album in the car on the way home, he definitely practices what he preaches and that doesn’t seemed to have changed much over the years since he recorded that album. One other point he made is that in piping there are no medium length notes, except for jigs. There are really long notes and really short notes, but nothing in between. Make the long notes long and the short notes shorter.

Saturday concluded with a Donald MacLeod hornpipe/jig class with Roddy MacLeod. In addition to some background on Donald and providing a list of his compositions, Roddy focused more on how to memorize a tune than he did the technique of hornpipe/jig playing. While this technique of memorization was not new to me, I’ll share it here. The best way to memorize something is to play it without looking at the sheet music. Step 1: Identify common phrases between parts (like endings) and common bars within parts. Step 2: Part by part, play the phrases individually a few times until you’re familiar with them enough to not need to look at the sheet music. Step 3: Part by part, play the linked phrases together as whole parts with the sheet music for guidance. Step 4: Turn the sheet music over and have a go. The main point to emphasize is that you have to challenge yourself to memorize the music. Reading the music off the page isn’t going to help you memorize a tune! Look at the music, flip it over and give it a go. If you get stuck, flip it over, figure out what notes didn’t get connected but then flip it back over and try again without looking at the sheet music. Tunes are memorized by not looking at the music and challenging yourself. Only once you’ve convinced your brain that there isn’t a crutch to rely on will it record the information you need for later recall.

Sunday continued with more workshops. I attend Jack Lee’s hornpipe/jig session. Jack Lee is a very enthusiastic instructor and he has a very different style of teaching. Whilst, like the others, he will have the class play all together, he also picks certain phrases from the tune and will go around the room having each player play the phrase alone. He also made the point of having everyone introduce themselves. Jack is very affable and directly honest with you. He states clearly what he expects and what he feels is the best way to achieve it. If I ever organize a piping workshop, he’s at the top of the list. I imagine some of this comes from organizing the SFU organization. Birls. He only teaches the “7 style” birl as opposed to the tap and drag style I’ve always played. He stated he was surprised people still taught the tap drag birl (of course I learned it 17-18 years ago). He said the tap drag birl emphasizes the low G and so it’s easy to get stuck on the low G making it difficult to execute it whereas the 7 style birl emphasizes the low A with quick low G’s. He quickly identified the problem most people have when trying the 7 style birl (which involves starting with your pinkie above the low A hole but on the chanter [by that I mean vertically on the chanter, as in closer to the B hole, NOT aerially hovering directly above the low A hole] and then swiping your pinkie down so it crosses the hole and then contracting your finger so that it again passes over the hole). He said the most common problem is that people make too much of the movement and it causes their other fingers on the bottom hand to move off their holes, that is, they exaggerate the movement in an attempt to perform it. He said, make the movements small and localized. After swiping down, the pinkie should just be uncovering the top of the low A hole, not completely past it. I’ve always struggled with birls and having tried the 7 style just for a few minutes during the class intermission, with this “small movement” revelation, I was almost as consistent with it on the practice chanter as I am with the tap/drag on the pipes. So, here’s to giving the 7 style birl another go. Particular to jigs and hornpipes, Jack really like heavy strikes and heavy throws, if you haven’t noticed that from his recordings. This includes his preference for heavy throws even from low G! Jigs need a little bit of pulsing, almost always achieved by adding just a touch of emphasis on the first note of every 3 note grouping of 8th notes. Concerning hornpipes, Jack compared them to 2/4 marches, both being in 2/4 time. However, he said with 2/4 marches you’ll heavily rely on the question/answer format of phrasing with emphasis on the first beat of each phrase, but that this would kill (my wording) a hornpipe. Hornpipes should be played straight through to keep them flowing and fun. I don’t feel I’m describing this adequately but hopefully you get the idea.

Saturday evening was the Winter Storm concert. This is really a very fun event. I heartily enjoyed the concert. There were 3 performances which were big standouts, ranked in order: 1. Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl on pipes, John Fisher on snare drum, and Kahlil Cappuccino on bass. Just wow. John Fisher is AWESOME. The jigs at the end with the expression from John’s snare drum were just really rocking. Fantastic set. 2. Jack Lee playing along with a cadre of drummers though I don’t remember which ones! I’m sorry! Again, just great piping with great drumming with a very musical selection that wasn’t just another MSR. 3. Alastair Dunn’s solo performance. Alastair played, in a nod to current and past performers and judges at Winter Storm, Jack Lee’s “Andrew and Colin Lee”, Colin MacLellan’s “The Piper’s Bonnet”, and Bob Worral’s “The Homewrecker”. One of the greatest forms of flattery is imitation, and while Alastair wasn’t trying to imitate anyone, in just taking the time to share these tunes with us drawing from the compositions of his peers was just down right cool. Of course, all the performances were enjoyable but these were my favorite. Now, if someone can just teach Ken Eller how to pronounce the “a” in McCallum, we’ll be all set, haha.

Lastly, I attended Winter Storm with two mates, David (a student of mine) and Jordan. Jordan is the most recognizable person in that he was kilted out the whole time, most often accompanied by his full mask Egyptian jackal sporran which he named “Norman”. Much like pipeband chicken, I can readily imagine Norman making the rounds of Facebook photos as Jordan makes his way around the games. Jordan and I played a few sets (and I forgot how a couple tunes went in the process) at the Winter Steam party after the concert. I had not had the full opportunity to just jam with Jordan and it was great fun. He can improvise very well and harmonize with great effect and he’s got fantastic fingers. I look forward to playing with him more! Certainly made me wish there were more opportunities to “just play” outside of the structure of the organized events, but alas, it’s a busy weekend already! Below is a picture of Jordan (I stole from Facebook) wearing Norman alongside his instructor, Tom Campbell.

Winter Storm is quite the event with many varied things to do from listening to the competition, learning from judges, and enjoying the concert. Non-playing spouses also have the convenience of the Plaza just a short shuttle ride away, literally, it’s across the street with lots of restaurants and shops. Thank you for an enjoyable weekend!

Salado entry forms

For those of you not on the direct email list of the contest organizers of the Salado Scottish Festival, you might have noticed the entry forms to the Salado contest may not be too easy to find on the web. So, I’ve attached them to the bottom of this post for your convenience. It includes individual piping and drumming, pipe band, and dancing entry forms.

SALADO – WORD document

SALADO – PDF document

Are they really Robertson’s? IDing a set of bagpipes.

Alrighty, are these really Robertson’s?

Screams NO!

1. Bushings are totally off. Robertson’s bushing are raised but very short and are flat. These are raised but a little large and they are curved the whole way.

Left 1950 Robertson’s, right these pipes:

Order reversed:

2. Everything is rounded. The bottom of the bells aren’t square and the flare off the shoulders if fairly round.

3. Unique turning styles. Button mount doesn’t match any other button mount Robertson on Island Bagpipe, Jim McGillivray, or Ringo Bowen‘s website and the flat combing is a new one on me (the styling, not the concept).

4. Robertson only used casein and ivory, that I know of. Both stay white. Old casein looks like chalk and ivory looks like ivory. This stuff has turned yellow. It isn’t celluloid (no single line grain), certainly not ivory (no schreger lines), and not casein (because it turned yellow and it isn’t chalky). Jim McGillivray has Robertson using casein into the 1940’s so why doesn’t this set have casein? It looks like the plastic Hardie was famous for.

Screams YES!

1. Rounded stock bottoms (chanter stock obviously a replacement).

2. Mismatched tenor stock heights.

1920 ebony (not so much just a little, though Dave says his 1920’s have mismatched tenor stock heights):

1950 blackwood (oh yeah):

3. Double scribe lines on the bass below the shoulder. See pic of rounded shoulder above.

4. Bass tunes high on both pins (yes, top pin should always be high).

5. Bore specs are identical to that provided by Dunbar regarding their 1930’s replica save for the bass bottom bore on these which is 0.02″ smaller in diameter. So, they work great with Canning’s!

6. These pictures come from Craig Farley who purchased the sister set to the one featured so far in this post from the same vendor, both claimed to have been purchased in 1947. The varied materials of the ringcaps and bushings is interesting, but most interesting is the presence of a few pieces made of casein. Either the catalin (yellow stuff) was a retrofit to broken casein mounts or they were a mix from the get go (not likely I don’t think?). Especially since the bass bushing looks totally different. So, proof that both sets might have been originally mounted in casein.

Verdict: Maybe not 1947 Robertson’s? I’m going to make up some stuff now.

Not casein, yellow plastic imitation ivory coupled with a smaller bass bottom bore tells me late Robertson, maybe 1960’s? By that time Hardie is definitely using imitation ivory that will turn yellow and he’s also popularizing smaller bass bottom bores. James Robertson is also long dead so aesthetics well out the window. So turned in the Robertson shop using their long boring bits, but maybe turned by someone from another pipe maker’s firm. But, I just made that up. TOTALLY.

Verdict: I think they’re 1947 Robertson’s retrofitted with catalin at some point to replace broken casein ringcaps and bushings.

What do you think?

Lastly we have some very rough, informal audio recorded in a very live room with my new Blue Mikey Digital plugged into my iPhone 4, but trimmed and normalized in Audacity and exported as .wav so no “resolution” was lost to compression once edited. The tune is the same: first part of Deer Forest.

Canning’s – carbon fiber bass

Kinnaird – low pitch bass (even still tuned highest on the bottom pin!)

Rocket – Robertson spec

From the recordings alone, it’s hard to give a good preference. I think I would order them, favorite first, as 1. Rocket 2. Canning 3. Kinnaird because of 1. tone 2. balance between bass and tenor.