Piper and multi-instrumentalist, Calum MacCrimmon of Scottish folk band Breabach, who were nominated for a BBC Radio 2 ‘Best Band’ Folk award of 2011, talks about the importance of having a concert pitch B-flat chanter.
Calum attended Celtic Connections in 2004 as part of The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland ‘support team’ as he was involved with setting up the band and helping to arrange the backing music. The NYPBoS had been offered an opportunity to play a concert with Carlos Núñez, and Calum explains how they prepared.
“The band had learnt all the music and we were at rehearsals setting up the pipes and they were sounding good, but I was a little bit concerned that the band wasn’t going to be in concert pitch B-flat. The chanters were closer to pipe band pitch, so I worked alongside Chris Gibb to flatten them off, and though it still wasn’t down to concert pitch B-flat it was closer — an improvement at least.
“Carlos Núñez came to rehearsals to see how things were going and I took the chance to speak to him. I said, ‘I understand you have played with pipe bands before, but just so you know, we are not in concert pitch B-flat.’ At which point his face changed colour and he asked what I meant. So I quickly back-pedalled, and said, ‘Oh no, no, we are close to B-flat, it will be fine, we will get there.’
“So we had these normal pipe band chanters and reeds — and just had to go to town on it. We taped up everything, in particular the lower holes of the chanter and lifted the reeds, and eventually got everybody in tune, but the tone from the chanters was horrific because it was all tape. So the band went on to play with Carlos that night and his comment after the show was, ‘This is the best pipe band I have ever played with.’ It was all because they were actually in tune with Carlos and his band — I can only assume that Carlos’s previous pipe band encounters were of poor concert tuning and accepted that this is what pipe bands sound like. He was blown away that these youngsters played and sounded so good… and that was with all that tape.
“It was at that point I realised that we had to get instruments that could cope with concert pitch B-flat and I went to speak to Stuart McCallum at McCallum Bagpipes. I had tried the B-flat chanter they already had but it was based on an Anderson reed which doesn’t naturally sit at a very low pitch.
“So I did a bit of research on reed types and I found that Troy Reeds were the most suited to sitting naturally at a low pitch. I based my research on 50 Troy reeds and set out to find out the common problems of the B-flat chanter McCallum Bagpipes already had. The chanter had to feel like a modern pipe chanter so to do that, and achieve the correct tuning, we changed the position of the low G, the A and B holes and from there it was a case of changing the size of the holes to get the tuning just right.
“I visited Stuart quite a few times and it took a while and a lot of trial and error on my own part, but now I have a chanter which I can stick a Troy reed in and straight away I’m within the realms of concert pitch B-flat.
“I then set up The National Youth Pipe Band with the new re-developed McCallum concert pitch B-flat chanters, as I felt it was important that they were making the commitment to be the first ones to get a great pipe band sound in B-flat. It enabled them to play with any other band or orchestra in the world, because when they walked on stage they were at correct pitch.
“The National Youth Pipe Band were one of the first bands to make the effort to be at concert pitch and it was a very original sound. I know that they still use the normal pipe band chanters when it is their own concert, but it is great that they have the resources and understanding to set the band up and be in tune with other musicians when the chance arises.
“It really lifts the musical world’s perception and appreciation of what pipers are in the modern age. We are not just the out-of-tune pipe band sound coming around the corner — we can be bang in tune. The pipes may not be an easy instrument to tune, every piper knows that, but that is not a good excuse.
“There are lots of great players with great pipe bands out there and they could do it. Certainly, any concert band should have the capability to achieve concert pitch B-flat.”