A Beginner’s Guide • By John Slavin.

As part of the interviews conducted for this feature in 2011, I focused on a few topics which are crucial, or closely related, to the whole subject.  These discussions are not all about the theory but more about sharing the experience of the guys who do it for a living.  

Here, Calum MacCrimmon of Scottish folk band Breabach talks about the importance of having a concert pitch B-flat chanter, and further down the page, Finlay MacDonald, gives some thoughts on arranging sets of tunes.

The importance of concert pitch B-flat

with Calum MacCrimmon

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. 

•Calum MacCrimmon

“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 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.  They still used their 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.” 

Arranging Tunes

with Finlay MacDonald

WHEN I asked the musicians how they went about choosing tunes to play in a folk band situation, the standard answer was that the piper would pick a bunch of tunes and play them to the band for their feedback. The tunes which were eventually selected would be the choice of the whole band and generally tunes were picked that gave scope for the other musicians to do something creative with.  

Finlay explained how he chooses and arranges tunes: “There are a few approaches you can take and it really depends on how you want to portray your music.  There is nothing wrong with playing a big set of tunes which sit really nicely on the pipes and are comfortable to play.  Though at other times it is good to stretch yourself with tunes that are difficult and awkward to play, maybe in a situation where the tunes have been composed by musicians who are not pipers and which don’t quite sit as well on the pipes.  It is good to challenge yourself and push that out, though it is equally as satisfying to rattle into a set of reels which naturally feel good.

•Finlay MacDonald

“When it comes to arranging I like to pick tunes which sit comfortably on the lead instruments in the band.  So if it is pipes and fiddle which are leading, then I will naturally tend towards pipe tunes to give a big, strong feel to the sound, or just write tunes to give the feel I’m looking for.  When I’m arranging I sometimes need a tune in a specific key and with a certain vibe and if I don’t know one I will just write one.  

“I now often find that it is possible to do more with an arrangement when it is a simpler tune; and in the past I have probably been through the mill trying to play and arrange the most complex of tunes.  Those complicated tunes do have their place and it is all to do with how you want your music to come across but I now feel that you can’t beat a lovely 3/4 march with nice chords, harmony and a bit of percussion behind it.  That is where I am at the moment; enjoying these big strong tunes.  

“Tune players generally have an inbuilt ability to put sets of tunes together, without really analysing what they are doing.  I could be playing a tune and think, ‘that would be good for starting a set’, and then I will just naturally feel what the next tune should be.  It is important when you put a set together to think about it as a piece of music, rather than individual tunes, so that it has a start, a middle and an end.  There are so many ways to go and you don’t need to follow the same formula — start with a big tune, then go small and have a big finish;  or start small then get bigger before coming back down — there are so many options and it is great to explore them.   

“It is quite different arranging for a folk band compared to a pipe band where everyone has to be playing all the time and it is impossible to use dynamics.  It can feel limiting when arranging for a pipe band but it becomes a challenge in different ways.  When arranging a tune for various instruments I always like to think of a spectrum of sound with the pipes always fixed at one level, and then consider what the other instruments can do to fill in the spectrum above and below the pipes.  So you will have the bass guitar or drum filling in the lower end of the spectrum,  the snare away up high above the pipes and the fiddle, whistles or flute weaving in and out and above and below the level of the pipes.”

This series of features was only made possible thanks to Calum MacCrimmon, Finlay MacDonald,
Dougie Pincock, Mike Katz and Angus MacKenzie, by the generous sharing of their
extensive musical knowledge and experience of piping in folk bands.

Sincere thanks to Janette Montague for her help and advice in preparing this series.

Playing the Highland Pipes with other instruments – Part 1

Playing the Highland Pipes with other instruments – Part 2

Playing the Highland Pipes with other instruments – Part 3