Robertson Rocket Drone Reeds

Much ado has been made about how Rocket reeds shouldn’t be played in pipes they’re not made for. In general, I’ve found this to be mostly nothing to worry about. I’ve put all sorts of glass tongued Rockets into all sorts of pipes. The worst that ever happened was they consumed air like nothing else, but still sounded great, haha. But one day I acquired a set of carbon tongued Rockets that were made for Robertson pipes and the bass just would not work in the seller’s Hendersons, if I recall correctly. I had the exact same experience. Now, the tenors generally work in any pipe, it’s the bass reed that is selective for a specific bore design. Starting the bass sharp, as one lengthens the bass drone it comes close to in tune, but starts growling and then starts going out of tune again. Here’s what it sounds like in a set of Chris Terry pipes (which are purportedly (Duncan?) MacDougall based):

Chris Terry with carbon Robertson spec Rockets

As any regular reader would know, I’ve got a friend with not one but two sets of Robertsons: 1920s ebony and 1950s blackwood. So a quick jaunt to his house to test if these reeds actually worked in some sort of pipe, and they do! They work just grand in Robertson pipes. Go figure?!

1950s Robertsons with carbon Robertson spec Rockets

It turns out this friend has his own set of *glass* Robertson spec Rockets, which allowed us to confirm a statement that used to appear on the Kron website (I’ll post a screen shot at the bottom in case the link dies) that stated carbon Rockets were generally mellower than glass Rockets. The glass Rockets below are definitely bolder than the carbon Rockets above (same recording conditions, sorry there’s no chanter).

1950s Robertsons with glass Robertson spec Rockets

We didn’t record it but the carbon Rockets worked just as well in his 1920 ebony Robertsons which is curious because there are some bore size difference between the two. It’s like the reeds just know they’re in a set of Robertsons!

Now, I have gotten these carbon Rockets to work in one other pipe, Keith Jeffers. I had to dig through my archive of recordings that I never shared on the blog before to find one but I do have proof from June of 2014:

Spanner in the Works, Room 35, Moonshine, & Mark Sheridan

It all just goes to show how fickle bass drones and reeds are! The key is to find one that is steady and consider yourself lucky if it sounds great too!

THAT high A!

An attribution error takes us down today’s rabbit hole. I’ve played the tune Eileen MacDonald (C.M. Williamson) for a long time. PM Angus MacDonald also plays it on his Ceol Beag in the Castle album, followed by Nameless Jig he attributed to the same composer. However, it turns out Nameless Jig is listed as Unknown in Scots Guards Vol. 2 on page 150 and is by PS A. M. Lee and H. Workman. Of course, that I already had the music in a book was only realized AFTER I transcribed the tune off of Angus’ album, doh! Thanks to Mic Sorrentino for the heads up! Unfortunately I can’t share the sheet music with you due to copyright concerns, but I figured I’d play the tune along with one of my own compositions that, un-ironically, doesn’t have a name yet either.

The pipes I’m playing in the recordings below are my Chris Terry drones with Redwood tenor and inverted Selbie bass drone reeds along with a decade old plastic Colin Kyo chanter with a current model Husk reed in it. Redwood tenors are bold reeds, which is even more evident since I keep the microphone behind me. I was so taken with the high A blend that I recorded a couple of other sets that feature high A as well. Hope you enjoy!

Unknown (Lee & Workman) and Unnamed (Patrick McLaurin)

Sleepy Maggie, Dancing Feet (George S. MacLellan), MacArthur Road (Dave Richardson) <- still getting the kinks out

Glasgow Police (Donald MacLeod, arr. Scots Guards) and Troy’s Wedding (Colin Magee) <- this is one of our band sets

Mic Sorrentino had suggested Unknown be a tune of the month, though I’d rather find a tune I can share the sheet music for. In the spirit of that though, if you’d like to hear my first run through Unknown and Unnamed on the pipes (a different set of pipes) and with a lot more errors, you can hear that below. Tune of the Month started as a challenge to learn a tune each month and I would post a recording at the beginning and again at the end of the month so progress could hopefully be heard. I’ve pretty much ceased doing that from the start but you’ll get to hear the progress of an hour long piping session. Pipes are 1950’s Hendersons with X-TREME drone reeds all around, Shepherd Orchestral (Bb) chanter with former model Husk chanter reed. I have several pipes and so I play each of them a little bit each day, hence the change in which bagpipe was being played between the beginning and end of my practice session.

Unknown and Unnamed <- just learning the tunes at the beginning of the recording session; the X-TREME bass is a beast is it not?

January 2019 Tune of the Month: Franc A’Phoill / King of the Pipers

I have long been enamored with Brian McNamara’s uilleann pipe rendition of King of the Pipers from his album Fort of the Jewels (a great album you should buy). There aren’t any links for you to listen to any part of this album online that I found given a cursory search. Anyways, the tune doesn’t fit the highland pipe scale restrictions so I arranged a highland pipe version. Below you can hear me play it following Lark in the Morning. The tune has a couple of names it’s known by. The superimposed notes at the end of the first part in the sheet music are my lazy way of doing 1st (D) and 2nd (B) endings.

Lark in the Morning & Franc A’Phoill <- mp3

Franc A’Phoill / King of the Pipers <- pdf

There’s another Irish jig that has been arranged for the highland pipes, Friar’s Britches (or Frieze Breeches). You can hear Andrew Carlisle play it in the Winter Storm Ceol Beag final on Facebook (his performance starts at 1:05:00, jig starts at 1:10:45). This seems to be Andrew’s go to jig as I’ve heard him play it at this competition several times. So there is some history to modifying cool Irish jigs to fit the highland pipe scale.

Tune of the Month December 2018: The Curragh

This jig, when played on accordion anyway, sounds like it comes right out of a Scottish country dance band repertoire. The last 3 notes of the first line need to be played an octave up from the original but I think it fits nicely. Paddy O’Brien was a famous accordion player and composer who died in 1991. A book of his compositions is for sale which makes me hesitant to share the sheet music, though the dots can be had from thesession.org which is where I found them when researching a previous tune of the month: The Maid in the Cherry Tree which is also known as the Curragh Races; however, I don’t really have sympathy for composers’ rights holders when they let their book fall out of print/availability. Since the book seems to no longer be in print, until that’s rectified, I’ll post the sheet music here.

The Curragh <- pdf of sheet music

The Curragh <- mp3 on the highland bagpipe

November 2018 Tune of the Month: Kitty O’Neil’s Champion Jig

There’s quite the history that goes into November 2018’s Tune of the Month. I first heard this tune on Fred Morrison’s “Broken Chanter” album (first tune on track 4 which is just labeled “Hornpipes”). I thought I found the title of the tune some time ago: Kitty O’Shea. However, this isn’t the correct title of the tune. It seems the famed Irish musician Tommy Peoples mixed up the name and it stuck. The actual title is Kitty O’Neil’s Champion Jig. Considering Fred listed it as a hornpipe, more about its “jig” nature is printed on the actual sheet music provided below and even further details can be found about the tune and its famed fiddler namesake who played a 7 part version of it can be found on this website: www.blarneystar.com/articles.html.

The version here is only, and very roughly, the first two parts. This tune was likely my first introduction to accidentals: C natural and F natural. Since recently rediscovering the tune with a now working set of border pipes and a Shepherd Orchestral chanter which plays better accidentals than even my border pipe chanter as evidenced in the October 2018 Tune of the Month post, I have arranged the tune myself beyond Fred’s version incorporating more bits of the original, inspiration from Irish sources, and my own preferences.

Kitty O’Neil’s Champion Jig < Sheet Music

Kitty O’Neil’s Champion Jig < MP3 file

Kitty O’Neil’s Champion Jig Simple Version < Sheet Music of a simpler version

There is currently no audio of the simpler version.

I’ll conclude with my distaste for the practice chanter. Pipers learn on a 9-note instrument and then graduate to a pipe chanter that can play accidentals with cross fingering giving 11+ notes. Cross fingering is a technique that does not work on practice chanters due to their cylindrical bore. I feel pipe chanter design and our common highland repertoire is adversely affected by the lack of accidentals in our music perpetuated by the use of practice chanters as a learning and practice instrument. The only reason practice chanters are in continual use is the high degree of technique our instrument has developed, though even uilleann pipers start on the actual, conically bored, instrument/chanter. Thus, it must only be the ridiculous strength of highland pipe reeds that ultimately demands one learn the fingering on a practice chanter before wrestling the big nasty octopus that is a highland bagpipe. What a shame. As you can tell, I’m still in the process of incorporating crossfingered notes into my scale, as such the tempo is a little slow. Join me in the challenge and let’s see where we are by the end of the month!

Recall that most chanters attain a C natural by playing with your bottom hand ring finger down *instead* of your pinkie and the F natural with your top hand ring finger down, all else being the same as the usual C# and F# notes. Take note that what pipers usually call “C” and “F” are actually C# and F# on the chromatic scale. C (natural) and F (natural) are the accidentals, being not contained within the D major (A mixolydian) highland pipe scale. If you would like to learn more about these things, go to this page on my blog.

October 2018 Tune of the Month: Ducks on the Mill Pond

Crazy (and long) post that includes the following: 1. Tune of the Month 2. The Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat 3. A Cocuswood David Glen highland pipe 4. Shepherd Bb chanter 5. Accidentals 6. Tunes outside the highland piping tradition. Whew!

This was my fifth year attending the Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat organized by Jim Conley in conjunction with the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival in La Veta, Colorado. The retreat/workshop focuses on the playing of Scottish smallpipes. Returning as an instructor this year was Tim(othy) Cummings who gave us a couple more Appalachian tunes to augment our repertoire from the year before; additionally Tim gave me a couple “challenge” tunes which have been quite fun and in line with my desire to increase my own repertoire beyond the highland tradition, both of these tunes can be heard below. A short plug for Tim: he is an awesome smallpipe instructor, music collector, and all around nice guy. Any workshop with him will be worthwhile. The band Heron Valley was over from Scotland playing at the festival and so their piper, Euan McNab, also taught a few tunes in the Scottish tradition when he had time to escape his performance responsibilities. What a great, young band.

The tune of the month for October 2018 is a tune Tim gave us during the retreat: Ducks on the Mill Pond. This is a great little hornpipey reel from the Blue Ridge Mountains here in the U.S. Sheet music can be obtained from Tim for $1.00. Just uno dinero. He’s got a bunch of other tunes that can also be purchased for that paltry sum, some of which are featured further down in this post. Note that this and some other sheet music obtained from Tim’s website comes with two versions of the tune, a simple melody that accompanies the included lyrics and also a “hoedown” version; I am playing only the hoedown version. Listen here on my new-to-me 1910ish David Glen cocuswood bagpipe (more on that below):

Ducks on the Mill Pond and The High Drive (Gordon Duncan)

A tune that surfaced during a jam session at the retreat was The High Drive by Gordon Duncan, but all mayhem broke loose when we reached the last line of the tune, as it seemed I was at odds with a few of the other versions out there. Without realizing it when I learned the tune from the music book “Gordon Duncan’s Tunes”, the last line has 5 bars! The others did a good job of having me question my sanity but upon returning home from the retreat I was vindicated by the sheet music, muahahahahahaha. You can hear Stuart Liddell play the extra bar as well in this youtube clip:

On to the 1910ish cocuswood David Glen bagpipe. CITES developments have made me nervous for a while so when this pipe came up for sale I jumped on it. It comes with the original chanter which is mostly for provenance now as I haven’t found a reed that doesn’t squeal yet (a thought just hit me, maybe a border pipe reed?). The pipe was located in Canada and had 2 rings that were still ivory along with the chanter sole. I had the seller ship the pipes to Dunbar to have the ivory removed and replaced with Mexican royal ebony, also known as katalox. I think Rick at Dunbar did a great job, at a great price, and at great speed. The saying about car repair, “you can have it done fast, well done, and cheap; but you can only pick two” doesn’t apply to Dunbar bagpipes, you get ALL THREE.

Before:

After:

I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with the pipes, but they don’t seem the most forgiving when it comes to drone reed selection. I’ve got a set of Rocket reeds in there now and they seem to go quite well. Canning reeds also seem to go well. For whatever reason, a lot of drone reeds just shut off. I’ve tied them into an old L&M bag and since my stash of Airtight smelled more gross than I remember a new bottle smelling, I’ve settled for seasoning the bag with 100% vegetable glycerin which turns out to be very runny. During the recording session I actually had some leak out around the chanter while I was playing! So I drained the bag a second time afterwards. Perhaps I need to get some more Airtight ordered? The drones come in right around concert Bb, 466 Hz, so I’ve paired them with a Shepherd “Orchestral” chanter, which is a solid Bb chanter. I’m playing a previous model Husk chanter reed. What will be obvious from the remaining recordings in this post is how well this chanter and reed combination plays the C and F natural accidentals!

You may have noticed I have not been posting much recently, save for the Tunes of the Month. I have been playing a lot of bagpipes in my new found unemployment, but not just highland bagpipes. In addition to Scottish smallpipes and border pipes, I am also playing in a border pipe ensemble using Jon Swayne border pipes in G. I understand they are English border pipes in G with some French chanter design influences, so I call them the Frenglish pipes. The chanter has the back thumb hole for the C natural (in highland terminology), and also plays the F natural and G sharp accidentals really well, in addition to having high B, C, C#, and D readily accessible in the next octave. This pipe has done a wonderful job making my fingers do new and crazy fingerings. Our repertoire is mostly English, French, Breton, and Galician. Here I am playing a Galician tune:

I also have a Seivane gaita chanter in Do (C) whose cork-like tenon wrapping fits perfectly into my 1960s Sinclair chanter stock whose drones I have tuned all the way up to concert C (Redwood bass reed, single Colin Kyo tenor reed, other tenor is plugged). Here I am playing a Galician tune:

Back to the highland pipes, influenced by my playing of non-highland bagpipes, I’ve got some more tunes for you on the new-to-me Glen pipes. First up is another Appalachian tune Tim gave us at the 2017 retreat followed by a jig I picked up from a Facebook video of uilleann piper Tiarnan O Duinnchinn. The Appalachian tune, Cluck Old Hen, utilizes C natural instead of our usual C#, which is fingered with the ring finger down instead of the pinkie. I play the song arrangement through twice followed by the hoedown version twice through. The jig that follows has no accidentals outside our normal A mixolydian scale, but it is also about a chicken so I figured they’d go well together despite being different time signatures.

Cluck Old Hen and When the Cock Crows it is Day

Next we have some bourrées. The first one is in 3/8 and is one of Tim’s challenge tunes. The rest are in some version of common time from the border pipe ensemble repertoire. You’ll hear heavy use of both the C and F naturals in the first and third tunes. You’ll also hear a mistake in each of the first three tunes, but the fourth managed to go unscathed.

Bourrees – the first one, “Calarem, calarem pas“, can also be bought from Tim’s website.

Lastly are some 3/2 hornpipes. If you have Gary West’s “Hinterlands” album he plays this set, turns out. However, I got the tunes from other sources. The first tune I’ve heard more recently in this very entrancing video on Facebook:

Comments in the video indicated the tune is called “Came Ye O’er Frae France”, however, what sheet music I can find doesn’t match what is played in the video so I transcribed it from the video (I have doubts about my transcription so I’ll have to work on it a bit more to make sure). I’m just gonna call it “A Lancashire Hornpipe”. Let’s just say, low G to C natural is tricky due to the ring finger and pinkie switch. The second tune is another of Tim’s challenge tunes: Mr. Preston’s Hornpipe. You may notice a dearth of gracenotes, which are less common in other piping traditions, which is just my excuse for sight reading the tunes and throwing gracenotes in there when I have the spare brain capacity to do so.

A Lancashire Hornpipe and Mr. Preston’s Hornpipe

September 2018 Tune of the Month: An Londubh (The Blackbird)

I’ve been listening to Mick O’Brien & Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s album “Kitty Lie Over” for quite some time, primarily for the title track. However, the tune (and track) An Londubh (played as a hornpipe and reel on the album) stuck out as one that would definitely fit on the highland pipes (they play it on uilleann pipes and fiddle). Here it is on YouTube:

A gander over at the sheet music on thesession.org reveals that even after transposition from D major (because it falls below our scale) up to A major (and turning all resulting G# into G naturals), the tune has a second part that then goes above our scale. But never mind that, as it’s not too tricky to rewrite something passable and that’s just what I’ve done. You can too if you don’t like what I’ve got.

An Londubh (The Blackbird) – Sheet music

I’ve also got a slightly less modified version for those playing in G major but still limited to the highland scale:

Sheet music for this version can be found in the “G major chanter” tune book found here.

August 2018 Tune of the Month: Fhuair Mi Pòg

Allan MacDonald and Margaret Stewart’s album opens with this tune, a lovely rendition of I Got A Kiss Of The King’s Hand. It is also heard many times as a warm up tune in all the live-streamed piping contests. More recently, it was employed as the air in the St. Thomas Alumni’s medley in the grade 2 final at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships. So, I wrote it down and now I’m sharing it with you. It doesn’t really follow the score you’d find in the Kilberry book, for instance, but a resemblance to the ground can’t really be denied. I have truncated them name to just the first part of the Gaelic name, so I think we’ve just got the “I got a kiss” part.

Fhuair Mi Pòg < ze sheet music (This has been updated [8-22-2018] because I originally wrote it in 6/8 and it’s much easier to understand in 3/4 time. My bad.)

Fhuair Mi Pòg < a quick run through on the pipes

July 2018 Tune of the Month: Maid in the Cherry Tree

July’s tune of the month has been a long time coming. I often feel inspired by a particular tune and so it’s an easy decision. But so far, no inspiration has slapped me upside the head. On another note, I often flip through the new arrangements of mostly Irish tunes that are published on thesession.org in search of new tunes that fit the highland pipe scale. I ran across one called the Curragh Races, which turned out to be a tune I already learned from Jerry O’Sullivan at the Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat workshop a couple of years ago but by a different name: Maid in the Cherry Tree. What is provided here is a collection of various arrangements to make 4 parts, mostly inspired by those arrangements found on thesession.org, with some spots wholly rewritten; and I hope you do the same: make the tune your own!

I hope to see you at the Spanish Peaks workshops and concerts in beautiful Colorado!

Maid in the Cherry Tree <- pdf of sheet music

June 2018 Tune of the Month: Dusky Meadow

Dusky Meadow is a strathspey that originates from Cape Breton, as I understand. Its range technically exceeds that of pipes that utilize highland fingering, but it is easy enough to move octaves around to make it fit on our standard scale. Unlike many strathspeys that utilize triplet runs, Dusky Meadow has quadruplet runs with each note having the same length instead of emphasizing the 2nd or 3rd note as common in many triplets. These quadruplets become very cumbersome if gracenotes are added to them, even just to start them off. The way I hear them, they come across as embellishments unto themselves with no further embellishment needed. However, if the rest of the tune is peppered with “standard” gracing the quadruplets stand out like a sore thumb. It turns out, less is more.

I play the tune on the smallpipes in the video below. It is often stated that highland pipe tunes played on the smallpipes could use some trimming to remove excess gracenotes. Smallpipes increase in volume going up the scale as opposed to highland pipes which decrease in volume. This increase in volume at the top of the scale results in lots of chirpy high G gracenotes on top of relatively quiet lower notes if highland tunes go unmodified which ultimately detracts from the melody. Thus, gracenotes must be used judiciously to accent and enhance the melody. The following arrangement has a total of 1 or 2 gracenotes per bar excepting birls (purposefully without preceding high G gracenotes) and high A half doublings. Additionally, those gracenotes accent the more interesting twists the tune takes. While I can’t say I’m going to purposefully rearrange every tune I know to use fewer gracenotes so that the ones I do play have more impact (less is more), this tune has certainly forced me to reevaluate why we use gracenotes and how they should be used.

Dusky Meadow – pdf file