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Those who attended the 1999 Collogue will remember David playing along with Jon Swayne and others. This interview took place during the Bagpipe Society’s annual weekend “Blowout”, and all around us was the sound of pipes and other instruments getting to grips with harmonies and tunes.










What sort of pipes do you play?

The main instrument I play is a set of pipes made by Jon Swayne, They’re a kind of modified version of the Border pipes. People used to call them half-long pipes, but I think that is now being dropped and they are just called Border pipes.

What pitch are they in?

Well I use several pitches depending on what I’m playing. It could be low ‘C’ ‘D’ or ‘G’. I tend to use ‘G’ mostly.

And are these separate sets of pipes, or do you interchange chanters on one set of drones?

They are all separate instruments. The six finger (tonic) note being ‘C’ on the ‘C’ pipe, ‘D’ on the ‘D’ pipe, and the drones of these pipes are all octaves of the tonic, the smallest one being the same pitch as the chanter.

Right, and some of these low chanters must have quite a stretch for the fingers, don't they?

They have got quite a stretch. I haven’t got, I don’t think, especially big hands, but you get used to it quite quickly. The ‘C’ pipes aren't that much bigger than the ‘D’ pipes, and are probably very similar to the Irish [Uilleann] pipes. It’s not as bad as the low whistle.

When did you get interested in pipes ­ and why?

I think I developed - well I started to play in a Folk band after having been involved in all


sorts of other music, and I started playing the whistle after having played the bass guitar. I was in quite a lucky situation in that the village I lived in in North Devon there was a man who had a Folk shop - old father Abrahams - and he used to sell instruments and Folk books on folk lore and music and stuff. And in conversations with him I learned he had a set of English Renaissance pipes - or a copy of them - made by Bill O’Toole. And Robert who had the shop wasn’t using them, so I thought the thing to be doing was to get them out and get them working. So that’s what I did really.

And you did that yourself? Or did you have someone to help you?

When I started I had absolutely no idea [about pipes]. They made a horrendous noise. At that time I had no idea there was a particular relationship between the drones and the chanter. Eventually fiddling around - someone said they should be the same note - so I sort of tuned them. That set used Highland reeds scraped down in a sort of vicious way.

You use plastic ones now 1 think?

Yes, these are all plastic reeds. I think the drones reeds were brass. I broke the last one a lit- tle time ago - forgetting it was brass I bent the tongue double trying to open it. Now they’re all plastic - made from yoghurt pots for the chanters.

Going back to the time you started up; you had this copy of a renaissance set ,and you got some sort of noise out of them eventually, something you liked and wanted to progress?

Well there was a condition attached to my borrowing these pipes: there was a Morris Side in the village area called Ockington Morris, and I could only borrow them if I used them for the Morris Side, which laid the beginnings of my repertoire. I had to learn the tunes that they were using - which mostly kind of fitted. Otherwise I had to arrange them to suit. These pipes had a sharpened leading note at the bottom, and you could play a sharp or flat- tened top seventh. So that was the first part of my repertoire.

So in effect you borrowed a set of pipes which you knew nothing about, got them working eventually, and managed to get Morris type tunes out of them that people could dance to. You didn’t get any formal training in the fingering or anything?

No. No. I had been playing the whistle a bit before that, so there was a bit of a cross-over with that, but if things worked it was only by chance really.

So then you went on from that to these Half­longs or Border pipes which you’ve now got. And you said they were modified in some way?

Basically the range is extended. You can go from the tonic note, ‘G’, to the ‘C’ above that.

Three notes over the octave.

And a flattened leading note below the octave.

You have a key on the set of pipes you were playing today. What is that for?

Basically a chanter switch, that stops the air going through the chanter. For these particular instruments it is quite useful. You can actually have the drones playing at full power and then switch on the chanter when needed. I find it useful for playing with groups, in sessions


in sessions - losing a tune you can just stop it; it doesn’t mean to say you have to stop the bag ; you keep the drones going, and come back in when you know where you are.

Any other modifications? How do you get up to your three notes above top the tonic? Is that by over­blowing or is it by pinching?


I think the pressure is slightly increased. There’s a term in Border piping, I think, called “shivering the lil”. I don’t really know much about that. You can go to the note above the top tonic direct from most notes in the lower octave by moving the


You can go to the note above the top tonic direct from most notes in the lower octave by moving the thumb very slightly to break the air flow, to trick the pipe into going up


thumb very slightly to break the air flow, to trick the pipe into going up. But it does that most reliably on the first note above the octave, then you can kind of go quickly to the other ones.

But you couldn't go from a note on the right hand, for instance, to one of the other two top notes without having to pause first on top ‘A’?


There’s probably something in between. You might be able to do it so quickly that the ‘A’ doesn’t sound. Generally you can’t reliably go from the bottom octave to the top two [overblown] notes.

What about your lower hand. Do you have a back thumb hole for the lower hand?


Yes. Most notes you can do with just cross-fingering like on a recorder, except for the lower minor third. Cross fingering produces a third which is not flat enough. So just to get round that Jon [Swayne] put a hole at the back.

Do you find that when covering that hole with the right thumb it cramps your fingers at all? You have to keep your thumb well down.


You do have to keep your thumb well down. And on the lower [‘D’] pipes at the start it feels a bit strange. But having done it for twelve years now, it comes naturally. Some people, when they start, tape the hole over. But if you can manage without doing that it is better.

You went on from playing for Morris dancing to playing with various groups. What groups have you been involved in?


I moved to Bristol, and played at sessions a few times a week. Playing English, French, a bit of Irish music - everything really. Go along, and if it works on the instrument - some tunes don’t work on the pipes. From there I started playing with another piper. From that combination we got a group together with an accordion player, a percussionist, a singer, a guitarist. Not doing traditional stuff so much, it was more writing songs and performing in a freer way.

What influenced you in your style of playing. You are not a Highland piper ­ that is obvious in the way you play. So what makes you play the way you do? Hearing somebody else?

...there was no proper way to play these pipes and for me that was quite a useful thing. I didn’t want to feel I had to do things in any particular way...


Initially, one of the reasons I chose Jon’s pipes was because they had a very definite broken tradition with the Border pipes. I don’t know anything about the traditions of people playing now, like Matt. But, what I


did do, when I was looking for repertoire, I started to listen to music that fitted the instrument. I used to listen to Blowzabella quite a lot, and through that it was very easy to get into the French music because the repertoire of some of the French pipes fit this instrument so well. And at the time a whole lot of people were playing it here. There was, and still is, very little kind of English bagpiping around. I listened to some of Gordon Mooney’s playing and Hamish Moore’s playing - they were kind of breaking new ground in numerous ways. And listened to the Northumbrian piping as well. And it’s picking up bits from all these places really.

And your gracing. Is this something instinctive with you or is it something you’ve cultured?


I think it’s probably something I’ve cultured. I have listened to other sounds that I like, and tried to emulate them. Whether I’m actually doing them in the right way, I don’t know. Basically you just play a very pure sound, then you can affect it by doing different things with your fingers. Because you can’t make it louder or quieter the only thing you can do change the way the air is moving through. And I enjoy messing around, trying to find the kind of things that work. Sometimes things just don’t work. You can do things that are very extreme on the instrument, and under the right circumstances those things can work, at other times they don’t. You have to use your judgement. I do think, though, there is a common bagpipe technique. There are only so many ways you can kind of split notes. In Highland piping there is a very emphasised way of doing it, and there are bits of those techniques used in French piping and Spanish piping. I think it is the degree to which they are stressed that makes a difference. And also the tune, the way the tunes work. You can tell a Highland pipe tune just by the way it’s written, not necessarily by the way the person’s playing it. It’s the same for French tunes.


We started talking about other people you have played with. You mentioned another piper and an accordionist. I know you are in the Eel Grinders ­ any other groups.


Well there’s a trio I play in with Jon Swayne and Don Ward, which plays pretty much the music that Jon has written - a low ‘C’ pipe and two ‘G’ pipes. And there’s a kind of a bigger version of that with six pipes and a percussionist which is called [Deferus?] that has a high ‘C’ pipe, 3 ‘G’ pipes and two low ‘C’ pipes. That started off playing a set of variations that Jon wrote on a Playford tune. I play with a music and story-telling group using two pipes and percussion, and I play with a Ceilidh band which has got quite a line-up of trombones and bass guitars and melodeons, fiddles, and an occasional hurdy-gurdy.

The story­telling group, though, you don't play while the story­telling is going on ­ or do you?


Most of the times, no. Sometimes we do pieces of music that are integrated. Some of the music can be intertwined through a story, especially when a story can be a major epic like an Icelandic saga, or big Irish myths and legends. I might use pipes or whistles.

I’ve seen you dancing and playing the pipes at the same time. Can you tell us more of this ­ I have a feeling it is one of Dixon’s tunes...


Well it can be any tune. I think moving with your music has got to be a good thing - you know, keeping your feet in time. It is one of my ambitions to play some Dartmoor stepping tunes and then step dance at the same time: I haven’t managed that yet.

When you held the workshop here on piping ­ you were talking about one or two things 1 thought you wanted to extend further but were unable to at the time because others were throwing in questions (quite rightly) on other things. For instance you were talking about the lightness of the fingering. You came out with an expression ­ I can’t quite remember what it was ­ something like feeling the air coming up underneath your fingers.


Well people can play with a lot of tension in their hands, and can end up with cramps and all sorts of problems. It actually came from a conversation with Jon and Blowzabella doing gigs, and what it was like playing in a big amplified situation, and I asked him if he knew he was playing the right notes when he couldn t hear himself, and he said he could feel it. If you do hold your chanter lightly enough you can feel on your skin the vibration of the air against it. If you do it too lightly then it starts squeaking. I think it is a good exercise just to

see how lightlyyou can do it, then when you go back to how you were doing it before you can perhaps see if there is a lot of tension in your hands. The more relaxed you can be about it the better.

This morning we had a lecture in the barn on posture and how not to hunch yourself up and so forth. Have you any thoughts on that at all? I noticed while you were sitting playing just now you looked fairly relaxed.


Well I try to make myself aware of it and sit straighter. Because if you are playing your pipes you can be sitting there for an hour or so - a couple of hours - and at the end of that you have got so used to being hunched that you stand up and you are still hunched. And at the end of the day you can go to bed hunched, and you can get up in the morning and be a bit more hunched. If you don’t straighten yourself out you can end up with all sorts of problems. And I think piping can be very bad for your posture. I know some Irish pipers have terrible problems where they have to play lifting the shoulders right up, and stooped over. I think it is something you have to be very aware of really.

Do you practice in front of a mirror yourself?


Sometimes. You don’t see yourself playing. You might think you are sitting up straight - like people who think they are moving; you say do a bit of moving and they do a little bit and think they are doing all sorts of exaggerated motions when they are just about standing still.

One of the other things you said at that workshop was that the sound of the drones could damage your ears. So you plugged your ears and then you couldn’t hear your metronome so you strapped it to your forehead. Do you actually do that, or was it just for the fun of the day?


Well if you want to experiment, probably more so with the conical bore chanters, not like the small pipes, they are slightly louder; slightly harder sound. If you actually have a little play with the ears bunged up, and then if you take your ear-plugs out and play again when you’ve been trying to listen carefully to what you are playing, it is very loud. I don’t think my pipes are particularly loud - but if I’m in a room playing them, and I’ve been practising with the ear-plugs in, and then take them out, your ears have got used to hearing less. And when you actually listen to them again afresh you really notice the difference then. But most of the time I think it is really good practice to play with the ear plugs in. You can only go deaf once.


That begs the question do you normally play with the drones over your shoulder or across your chest?


I do both really. If I’m playing with other musicians I tend to have them across my arms so that I can hear other things easier. If I’m playing on my own I might have it in my ear so that you can hear the drones.

The reason I asked that is if you do have them over your shoulder the small drone must sound strongly in your ear.

 Yes, it does. I think that might be the reason that I initially stopped doing it. Because I don’t have them over my shoulder so much now.

Am I allowed to ask you about Dixon? When I last talked with you, you were playing quite a lot of Dixon, but not making it known generally.

I’ve learned a few tunes. I think more people should learn it; it’s great music. It is challenging music.

Which particular titles could you recommend?


Cuddy Claw’d her is a jig I’m learning just now. There is such a body of music to choose from it is difficult to know what ones to do. To be able to play them is a challenge. So you almost have to learn it and really get to know it before you decide whether you actually like it or not. Because there are so few other people playing it, it’s hard to decide.

Finally ­ anything you wish to add ?

I think the main thing is to really enjoy piping. A bagpipe is an instrument with a drone. And lots of the pleasure is having that going on, and really using the relationship between the drone and the chanter, and just hearing it. I think a lot of people who play don’t really kind of listen to it. And if you don’t listen to it and enjoy it you might as well be playing a banjo!

Thank you, David. It was good talking to you.