South Alberta Pipes and Drums
Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada



Tuning the Pipes
Cold Weather Piping
The Sporran Repair Kit
Wearing the Uniform
Homemade Bag Seasoning
Threading Drone Seats
Piping Stamina

Tuning the Pipes

Tuning the pipes is somewhat dependant on the weather conditions, altitude and reed selection. The typical band practice also determines some of the settings. Mouth-blowing the chanter will not exactly replicate the sound of the chanter in the pipes. Using an electronic tuner such as a Korg CA-30 will enable a consistent approach to tuning.

Start by blowing Low A and calibrating the tuner so that the green light shows (=0). Sound High A, hoping for a green light. However, if tuner shows sharp (in the + range), then the chanter reed should be turned out a slight amount. If the tuner shows flat (in the - range), turn the reed in a slight amount. So the starting point is to try to get the LA and HA =0. If playing a weak reed, HA can be a little flat as it will sharpen with playing. Repeat the process for LG and HG. Both should be flat by 31 cents.

Tune the rest of the notes according to the scale below. If a note is sharp, it may be flattened by wrapping (with overlap to prevent slippage) some tape (clear surgical tape or black pinstriping) over the top portion of the hole. You cannot sharpen a note without opening up the top of the hole: an extreme measure and NOT RECOMMENDED to be undertaken without expert supervision.

Play for 10-20 minutes and recheck tuning. If pipes are put down for half an hour after playing, the chanter reed will take on moisture and change again. Play and then recheck tuning.

Cold Weather Piping

adapted from:

Blowing warm moist air through a set of wooden pipes in the cold tremendously raises the risk of "cracking". When you have that temperature differential across the wood, the stresses in the wood are increased and you could seriously damage your instrument. I haven't cracked/broken an instrument yet, but know those who have. As a result, I bought a set of plastic Dunbar P-3's with a plastic chanter which I play on these gigs. I can't recommend this approach highly enough. Having said that.....)

The problems of playing in the cold are: 1) that moisture condenses in the drones leading to a gurgling or flapping sound, 2) that the chanter reed becomes so stiff that you have to overblow (with squeals and drones shutting down) to make it keep playing, 3) that the chanter pitch drops, 4) that the chanter intonation gets messed up and 5) that your body will eventually become the limiting factor at longer times in colder temperatures.

The pipes can be set up to minimize their problems. Moisture condensation in the drones can be reduced by minimizing the moisture that gets into them. The Ross desiccant bag works well for this. The chanter reed will get hard and stiff as the moisture in it gets cold. This means that the vibrational mass is larger (lower pitch) and stiffer (harder to play). This also affects the pitch and intonation due to changes in flexibility of the reed. I have a reed which I set up for playing in the cold and it works beautifully - but it won't play worth a darn at room temperature. This reed allows me to use the same drone reeds at room temp and outdoors. It does, however, require a "bit" of tape on the chanter. If you have the luxury of a "spare" plastic chanter, leave it taped to compensate for the intonation issues. Setting up this reed will take a half hour of work in the cold before the gig, but reduces performance anxiety tremendously and is tremendously valuable for those who play several outdoor gigs in wintry conditions.

To set up the reed: Go outside. Get your pipes good and cold. Try to play in the bagpipe. Blowing a chanter by mouth is unrealistic for the conditions you'll be under. If the reed won't sound, weaken it by removing cane from the corners of the sound box. (Don't bother trying to use a synthetic chanter reed...It didn't work!) When it will play reliably (all notes and gracenotes), you're ready to tape up the chanter. Set the reed so that no note is flat and apply tape liberally.

In a cold weather parade/band setting, everyone should use the same brand of reed and the same model of chanter to have a prayer of tuning together.

After you're done playing the gig, take your pipes apart - totally. The hemp will be wet and needs to dry out - or you'll split a stock or tuning receiver. The effects on your body are another issue. The two major culprits are cold and wind chill. At wind-chills of -30C, exposed flesh (ears, fingers, knees) can quickly freeze. I've been able to do well in extreme cold by:
1. wearing gloves when not playing,
2. using hand lotion prior to the gig (the oil/wax prevents moisture loss - so put it on your ears and knees, too!)
3. wearing latex gloves while playing (keeps wind away from the skin, prevents moisture loss and the flesh colored variety doesn't look odd at all at a distance of 15-20 yard or on television),
4. taking a couple aspirin prior to the gig (increasing circulation through the extremities, but be aware that you're using calories to do this!),
5. petrolatum or wax (e.g.,Vaseline or ChapStick) for the lips (to prevent chapping/cracking), and
5. focus on simpler tunes (to compensate for lack of feel or response from fingers).

Beyond these ideas, keep in mind that you can/should dress for the cold. Ideas include:
1. a tee shirt, shirt, vest or sweater under jacket,
2. athletic warm-up shorts under the kilt (For even the most hardy, there's nothing like a chilly day to define the boundary between "tradition" and "stupidity".),
3. athletic socks under the dress hose and protective rubber overshoes for the ghillies (to protect from mud/slush).
4. In a strong breeze, a safety pin from behind to hold both kilt aprons together may be advisable.

If you're "doing o.k.", don't succumb to the temptation of jumping into a warm vehicle with your pipes halfway through the gig as your pipes will not sound right again when called upon to play at the end of the service. Pipes have to be at equilibrium with the local environment. Blow through them while not playing, but don't take them inside.

Currently, my "extreme piping" set-up has tape on everything except Low G, B and high A. I played it at 5F (-15C) with a wind-chill of -40F (-40C) in the falling snow and made it through a long, high-profile service for a fire chief with no problems - other than very cold fingers, ears and knees. The P-3's, as recorded/broadcast by the television station behaved well, sounded terrific and prompted comments that "other pipers don't sound that good at room temperature"{;^)}. No one who watched the broadcast even noticed the latex gloves.

The Sporran Repair Kit

What should a piper (or drummer) carry in his sporran to effect repairs on the march?

-rubber drone stoppers in case of lack of wind or double toning reed
-broken-in spare chanter reed, in a tin aspirin box
-a couple of black zip ties to fix cords if necessary
-a length of hemp to tighten up fittlings
-a stubby pencil to inscribe your  autograph on a fan's program
-a small penknife
-a safety pin to substitute for a lost button
-kleenex pack (multiple uses)
-lip gloss
-life savers for those dry moments
-end of a roll of black electrical tape for chanters or repairs
-$20 to buy a round, or taxi fare home, or a new reed, or ...

Wearing the Uniform

Balmoral: should be level across the forehead, tails centred at back of head
Tie: ideally, the point of the front part just touches the top of the belt budkle, therefore the underside part may have to be tucked into the shirt or into the kilt.
Shirt: once the kilt is buckled on, flip it up and pull down the bottom of the shirt to straighten it up. Should be clean and pressed in case jacket removed.
Kilt: the bottom of the kilt should line up with the middle to top of the knee cap when standing up straight. And yes, please, wear something under the kilt.
Hose: should be clean and come up to the bottom of the knee cap
Brogues: a black, brogue type shoe is preferred. Ghillie brogues are not generally worn by our band but are quite appropriate.

Homemade Bag Seasoning

This is an alternative seasoning for leather pipe bags:
Uptight Bag Seasoning Recipe by P. M. R. W. Lerwick
1 part vegetable shortening
4 parts liquid pure flax "wood" soap or "oil" soap (e.g. Murphy's Oil Soap)
Note, it might be a good idea to add a tablespoon of Dettol or  whisky for sanitary reasons.

Put shortening into seasoning and warm it up (microwave 30 sec at a time till shortening melts to clear).
Blend well (it may turn milky and gel a bit when cool), just rewarm (not boil!) for use.
4 oz. for a new bag, 1-2 oz. to replenish.

Threading Drone Seats

Drone reeds will stay in place better if they are threaded in and some pipes come with threaded drone seats. If not, using standard taps, threads can be CAREFULLY installed:

Tenor:  M10x1.25
Bass:  M12x1.5

Piping Stamina

The following advice was provided by Gord Macdonald of Edmonton (now Nanaimo), who received it from his grade one level instructor.

To build up stamina to play the pipes for longer periods of time:
-it is better to practise daily for 15 minutes than an hour once or twice a week
-concentrate on arm pressure, don't fight against your arm muscle
-relax your face
-keep the bag as full as possible
-smaller more frequent breaths are better than big long ones
-minimize restrictions in airways, for e.g. Airstream blowstick

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