page 7

MIKE MECHEN sets out some thoughts on taking up the small pipes from scratch:

AS WITH all skills, the expert makes it appear to be easy- especially when those skills involve the dexterity and co- ordination required to play our cauld-wind pipes. The gentle but oh-so-rhythmic pumping of the bellows, the firm pressure on the bag producing an even flow of air, the fingers flying about the chanter, the notes appearing like magic in a lovely sequence...all these wonderful skills are magic to watch from any onlooker's point of view, but when you are a complete novice they take on special significance. These skills become difficult, frustrating, laborious, impossible barriers which, of course, only proper practice and good tuition will put right.

I am a novice and I have mixed with a good number of would-be players at the same level of playing as myself. In talking to my fellow-novices I've noticed that it isn't just the actual playing of the pipes that is difficult to take on, it is the overall presentation of everything to do with the pipes. In short, there is a cloud of unanswered questions hanging before my eyes. How this? Why that? Plenty of questions which only you experts can answer, especially when you consider that most of us haven't got some expert "just round the corner" whom we can consult, and maybe some novices wouldn’t want to expose such lack of knowledge by asking "stupid" questions.

It might also be true to say that experts tend to forget what it’s like to be a novice, and to all you folks out there who can sit down and rattle off Drops of Brandy at the drop of a hat I say, "Hey hang on - this is not so easy."

So those points are aimed at any other novice who is wondering about something, but perhaps until now has felt it was a stupid question, and at any expert prepared to comment accordingly. the only consolation us novices have is that, in a way, we too are experts - at making the same mistakes, again and again and...

PUMPING: WHEN I am pumping the bellows, everything seems to want doing at the same time; my right arm is busy providing air for the bag, my left is busy squeezing the bag with a steady (in theory at least) pressure, at the same time my fingers are searching for finger holes which appear to take on a life of their own and stray up and down the chanter.

At the same time as all this I am supposed to be releasing the notes in a steady sequence (called "rhythm" or something). At the same time as all this I've got my pipe in my mouth; if I ever tried to blow and suck that as well, I’d probably disappear in a great cloud of squeaking, groaning sparks. You experts don't believe this? I'm telling you - it's not easy!

Once the bag is full, do I squeeze until it's almost empty and then refill it, or do I just use so much air then replace it, thereby keeping the contents of the bag at a steady capacity...and if so, how full should the bag be? How fat should it feel? How do I know if I am overblowing?

DIFFERENT TYPES OF PIPES: THIS is an easy question, but it has been made hard for me to understand because I get different answers from different people. What's the difference between Border pipes, Lowland pipes and smallpipes?

DIFFERENT TYPES OF CHANTER: I KNOW that some pipes have got conicalbored chanters and some have got "straight" bores. Why do they sound different? Why should they sound different? DRONES: WHEN I am practicing, ifI have all the drones off it seems easier to play because I don't have to pump so often and therefore there is one less action to worry about, but the air coming through the chanter seems more compressed and "hard". Things are liable to squeak. On the other hand, with one or two drones on, the air seems to flow through the chanter more easily and it seems a bit more friendly, but of course I do have to pump more often, which is something else to worry about. So, do I practice with my drones on or off?

NOTES: SPEAKING of notes - if all the holes of my chanter are the correct distance apart, and I don't change the pressure from the bag, and all the holes are covered correctly, why do some notes actually sound louder than others? And why won't my middle drone behave itself and "fit in” with the harmony provided by the chanter and the other two drones? Even after correct adjustment with the correct chanter note, it still doesn't want to comply with everything else.

PRACTICE CHANTER: LEARNING tunes on a practice chanter is very fine and handy, but when I come to transfer that new note sequence to my pipes, everything goes wrong and my fingers become un- controllable sausages. Why? Because my pipes are in the key of A and the holes are six feet apart compared to a neat little practice chanter. Should I forget the practice chanter and thereby lose a convenient training aid? Can I buy a practice chanter the same length as my A chanter?

SO MANY questions - and I've got lots more, so you experts try and bear with me. The novices like me will know what I mean, and some cross-flow of information can only be good for the society. (By the way, when I switch off a drone by tapping its end, why does it stop?)