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Jock Agnew has put into practice much of what he here preaches. At one of the Lowland and Border Pipers’ annual   competitions he competed in the duet Section under the combined names of J.

Agnew and R. Monica!

Pipers who have played along with other  instruments will already know some of the problems with tuning - both before and during the session - and with timing. They will also have experienced the satisfaction of producing an harmonious and attractive sound in combination with others.

I believe it also to be a useful playing discipline for pipers to mix in with other instruments. 

Now the smallpipes and harmonica will perform well together. The blend of sounds can be attractive, and to play both at the same time is challenging and fun!

The extra equipment needed is very simple. Just a suitable harmonica, and a frame to hold it close to the mouth. Most music shops sell these frames - as well, of course, as a choice of harmonicas. -

Harmonicas come in virtually any key. In the first instance it is probably wise to select one in the same key as the tonic (nominal low ‘A’) of the pipes being played. To have one in the same key as the 4th (nominal ‘D’) of the chanter needs a bit more skill (but see below). The higher the pitch, the less ‘puff’ required; I find that a harmonica pitched in ’D’ requires less air than one pitched in ‘Bb’. And of course the high notes on the harmonica also require less volume of breath than do the low ones; which can allow the player to move up an octave to recover his composure if a series of low notes are proving too arduous.

The small harmonicas (for some reason called ‘harps’) used in Blues music seem to be quite good - they are also reasonably priced, and take up very little space in the pipe box. It is possible to ‘bend’ the notes slightly on these, and being fairly squat they require the      minimum movement of the mouth to deliver the full range of notes. Those with plastic, as distinct from wooden, bodies are said to last longer and keep their pitch. A “tremolo”                       harmonica, which has two reeds to each note, one slightly off pitch to produce a ‘beat’,                 requires a lot more air to operate. And chromatic harmonicas are out of the running - they need a spare hand to operate the plunger! Some harmonicas produce a more muted sound; others are brighter. It is worth trying a few alternatives against the pipes being played to get the best combination.

For those unfamiliar with the harmonica, every other note is blow-suck-blow etc, with the 6th and 7th both requiring an intake of breath. So the scale would be

Doh = blow;

Ray = suck;

Me = blow; Fah = suck;

Soh = blow;

Lah = suck;

Te = suck; * Doh = blow.

* This note doesn’t, of course, match the flattened 7th of the Scottish chanter tuning i.e mixolydian scale - see below.

As far as reading music is concerned, when using standard Highland pipe music the notes on the lines generally mean “suck”, and those between the lines generally mean “blow” (the exceptions being high ‘g’, the 7th, and top ‘a’ - see above). The flattened 7th on the chanter (i.e. high and low nominal ‘G’) may pose a problem, and in the early stages it might be best to choose tunes that do not require these notes at all, There are plenty of them; 

Chevy Chase;

Mary Scot;

Hey Ca’ Thru;

Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow;

Money Musk;

I'll gae nae mair to Yon Toon;

Farewell to the Creeks;                                                                                                                         

Follow her o’er the Border; Drops of Brandy etc, etc.

Once the player has the two instruments working together comfortably, further tunes 

(pitched in nominal ’A’) can be tried, with the flattened 7th being fudged or omitted altogether. Alternatively, use a harmonica with its tonic pitched one fourth up (or one fifth down) from the chanter tonic in order to play a true mixolydian scale [See “Modal Music on the Lowland Pipes”, COMMON STOCK Vol 7 No 2, Dec 1992]. This will mean blowing and sucking at the required notes in a different sequence, taking ‘Doh’ as being one fifth up from the harmonica’s tonic:-

Doh = blow;

Ray = suck;

Me = suck;

Fah = blow;

Soh = suck;

Lah = blow;

Te = suck; Doh = blow.

This should match the chanter scale.

Tunes pitched in nominal ‘D’ (which usually start and finish on the 4th) have, of course, no flattened 7th to worry about. However the new 4th - yes! that nominal ‘G’ again - will still be the problem note for the harmonica pitched in the same key as the chanter tonic - unless you change harmonica (see above)! And tunes written in nominal ‘D’ which do not use the 4th (i.e nominal ‘G’) are difficult to find;

Corn Riggs;

A Border Air;

Bonny Gallowa’

Creag Ghuanach;

Corriechoillie’s welcome to the Northern Meeting are examples. And playing the harmonica (which is pitched in the chanter’s tonic) accompaniments to these can be quite confusing; you may have to suck when all your instincts tell you to blow - and vice versa. Better to have a second harmonica in the correct pitch.

Perhaps it would help to get rid of these confusing references to ‘nominal’ notes and give an actual example. For my pipes pitched in ‘D’ I use a harmonica pitched in ‘D’ for tunes like;  Chevy Chase; Mary Scot etc,

and one pitched in ’G’ for such tunes as;

Nut Brown Maiden (a good one to start on);

Mill Mill O;

Drink the Worts and Spill the Beer; as well as Corn Riggs; A Border Air, etc.

And this harmonica is also suitable for playing the mixolydian scale in ’D’ as described above. To read the (Highland pipe setting) music, though, we do the opposite to the example given earlier. In other words we blow for notes on the lines, suck for notes between the lines - the exceptions being low ‘G’, ‘A’, and ‘B’.

It is not always necessary to exactly follow the melody. By keeping the mouth at or near to the tonic (or ‘Doh’ position) on the harmonica and sucking or blowing as described above, some acceptable accompanying sounds can usually be produced. And although it is possible to coax a single note out of the harmonica by pursing the lips, this isn’t necessarily as effective as covering a few of the adjacent notes at the same time. However once a single note is achieved, then some nice two note harmonies with the chanter can be introduced, the most easily played being in thirds. Chevy Chase is a good tune to try this on.

I have found it helpful to tune the drones directly to the harmonica rather than the chanter - having first of all established that the chanter is fundamentally in pitch (which can, of course, be varied slightly by increasing or decreasing the pressure on the bag: and that calls for some careful elbow control). And if stable drone reeds are used (ones which will not noticeably alter their pitch despite changes of pressure) then the annoying habit of the chanter reed altering upwards in pitch as the chanter becomes “played in” may be corrected by                    simply setting up the chanter reed a wee bit further out, so that extra pressure on the bag is needed to bring it up to the pitch of the harmonica and drones at the start of play. Then, as the reed settles in, reduce the pressure to keep it steady with the drones. (I am told that       plastic chanter reeds do not suffer from this particular quirk).

We all know that it is not possible to adjust the volume of the chanter - at least not while it is being played. However this isn’t the case with the harmonica. With careful breath control the accompanying tune or harmony can be woven in and out of the piece - sometimes with extremely gratifying effects. And of course the chanter itself can be used purely as a drone by sounding a continuous low ‘A’ (the ‘E’, or even high ‘a’ may be too overpowering) to let the harmonica alone carry the melody. (If playing a tune in the key of nominal ‘D’, then use that ‘D’ as the drone note on the chanter).

Some other variants which might be tried include using the harmonica (with or without the chanter) as an instrumental interlude when singing to the pipes; and even humming through the harmonica as the tune is played!

Pitfalls? Well if, like me, you sport a whiskery face, then there is the painful chance of trapping those whiskers in the harmonica or its frame! And you have to have a familiarity of feeling with your pipes: once the harmonica is in place it may be impossible to look down to see which drone you are adjusting, or where to plug in the “umbilical”!