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Nigel Richard, player and maker of extended range Border pipes, describes his approach to some of the problems involved.

It may come as something of a surprise to those not well acquainted with Border piping, that the activity referred to as “Shivering the back Lil” is neither immoderate, imprudent or illegal; nor is there - fortunately - any evidence that there are any harmful long term side   effects. I would, however, suggest that it is impractical, despite the near mythical status it seems to have assumed amongsome of the Border piping fraternity.

In this article I would like to look at some of the acoustical aspects of extending the bagpipe scale beyond the standard nine note range, starting with “shivering the back Lil” or “Pinching up to high B” as it is often known. If we finger a good Border/Lowland chanter for low B and move the top thumb fractionally off the top hole we should get high B sounding. Interestingly a number of the old Border/Lowland pipe chanters have a nail mark across the high A hole where this has been done. The small hole has introduced an antinode which divides the wind column and encourages the production of overtones (in this case the first) of the note which would otherwise be sounding if the hole were closed. Similarly if we     finger for low A or G [this description pre-supposes the chanter is tuned to A. Ed.] we will generally get the octave of these notes sounding. With our partly closed thumb we have   created the equivalent of an open speaker key as in the clarinet, oboe, saxophone etc. Given a responsive reed (with a cane reed, one that has been more thinned than usual) upper C# and even D will sound. Certain well-regarded pipemakers of my acquaint have produced good conical bore pipes that sound well in the second octave up to the fourth above by     increasing the bag pressure slightly without any need to pinch the back hole (generally G pipes going up to C rather than A pipes going up to D). Then of course the Uilleann pipes produce two complete octaves - although note that the upper limit is a D of the same pitch that these “high ranging” Border pipes achieve. (This pitch seems a natural limit on both acoustic and artistic grounds for a bagpipe chanter of this type).

The fact that the potential range of a bagpipe chanter is governed by a number of factors, and for example, fitting a speaker key to a Highland pipe chanter is not going to suddenly produce an upper octave disappearing into the musical stratosphere. The flexibility of the reed and the pressure under which it is operating are inter-related and critical. The typical Highland pipe reed, operating under considerable pressure, can only be adjusted within very fine limits, or it becomes useless, it is certainty reluctant to sound more than a tone in either direction outside its nine note range. When we come to the Border pipes the reed is thinner and more flexible and has the potential to sound a wider range of notes. A flexible reed on a good chanter may produce one or more notes above the normal scale with or without pinching the thumb hole. However the moment you thin the blade beyond a certain point you are likely to lose the brightness and body of the notes in the lower and mid range of the instrument. It is necessary to make a qualitative decision about the sort of sound you want from your pipes as this in itself will prescribe the range of notes that you could expect to be able to get from your chanter. If we want a Border type pipe that plays two complete octaves, it becomes clear that we begin to change the musical character of the instrument, in fact we end up with Uilleann pipes - a magnificent beast to be sure, but not Lowland or Border pipes. This is not to adopt the outlook of an arch traditionalist of the myopic school,         opposed to any change; on the contrary, I am completely in favour of extending the range of the Border pipes. I recognise however that there are practical acoustic limits to what you can achieve.

Let us return to the speaker key. This key is ideally positioned close to the pressure node of the overtone (generally close to the pressure anti-node of the fundamental). For every note the pressure node is situated at a different place, and therefore we would theoretically need a number of different speaker keys, one operating for each of the notes required in the second octave. This is impractical, and in fact woodwinds have from one to three speaker keys positioned at a compromise point to promote overblowing for a number of notes. Clearly the pinched A hole is too low for an ideal B speaker key but it still works up to a point.   Certainly an actual separate speaker key positioned above the high A hole on the Border pipes would encourage the overtones for B C and D. However one important fact should be remembered, a speaker key hole should be very small, and close to the pressure node of the desired overtone, in order not to affect its pitch. Pinching the back A hole generally produces too large a speaker hole which is also some way from its ideal position, the pitch of the high B suffers, this having been confirmed empirically by many who have set out to produce it!

I will briefly describe my own approach as a pipe maker to the question of extending the Border pipe range. Firstly I decided to put in a key for high B, the advantage being to my mind that the note is fully ventilated by the open holes immediately below it and it has a fuller harmonic spectrum than the first overtone of the lower B. Secondly I decided to extend the range downwards to F(#) and E, because the tone of these lower notes is fuller than those further up the scale, and they produce excellent harmonics with the drones. The keywork for these lower notes uses a classical type pillar and rod construction and the levers are operated comfortably by the little finger of the left hand. I do find that for the particular chanters and reeds thatI| use, avoiding speaker keys, shivering Lils and overblowing, means that I can retain the degree of robustness in the reed which I find most satisfactory. However tastes vary, and for pipers the proof of the pudding is in the playing.

Looking at collections of pipes in museums, it appears that there was more variety in bagpipes in Scotland 150 years ago than there is now! It is unfortunate that some people believe that in order to preserve the piping tradition it is necessary to avoid any new technical (or indeed musical) development. In the case of the Border pipes we do have an historical precedent for extending the range, but that should not of course be necessary to justify doing it now. I expect the MacCrimmons themselves would have made good use of an extra note or two had they been fortunate enough to have them.

References:- Fundamentals of musical acoustics - Benade. Acoustics aspects of woodwind instrumenis - Nederveen.            

Clarinet twelfths demystified - Playfair

Acoustics of the Highland Bagpipe chanter and Reed - Firth and Sillitio.