When Colin Ross made my Boxwood 17-key chanter he asked me “do you really want a Bb key?” Apparently they are awkward to make and he was concerned that I wouldn’t make best use of it. I insisted that I did, because playing in G minor on the Northumbrian Smallpipes is one of my favourite keys for the instrument. My set is in ‘F’ which means this actually comes out in F minor when it’s played.
The sun is shining, the bees are buzzing (amazingly for February!) and so were the Northumbrian Smallpipes after some rather overdue ‘fettling’.
All piping (Uilleann, Northumbrian or otherwise) involves a certain amount of ‘fettling’ especially when the weather/seasons change, which can play havoc with your tuning if it happens suddenly and catches you unawares. Brass and metal work were polished, bores were oiled, bindings were re-hemped as required, and drone reeds tweaked, flicked and generally faffed with!
A day or two devoted to maintaining them every now and then is well worth the effort – you just have to be in the right mood to tackle the 17-key chanters with the polishing cloth…
Pictured above are my trusty Colin Ross Boxwood and brass 17-Key F set, and Andy May concert G chanter, and a lovely wee 16-Key G set by Dave McQuade in Blackwood and Nickel Silver. Both beautiful, but completely different beasts in tone and character. Dave McQuade taught me to play way back in the early 80’s so I am delighted and honoured to play a set that he has made.
Last Autumn I was asked to write an article for the Northumbrian Pipers Society quarterly newsletter. An edited version was published in the Autumn edition, but here is the full version…
Waking up on the morning after my birthday this year I realized with some horror that I had now been playing the pipes for 30 years (you would have thought I would have the hang of it by now really wouldn’t you?!..)
Starting back in 1983 with Dave McQuade’s loan sets to schools and moving on to a particularly decrepit Hedworth set which I played for many years, my early NSP playing was unorthodox to say the least, and heavily influenced by the Irish musicians in the area and my passion for Uilleann piping for which I am perhaps better known. The defining moment in my NSP playing career was when, after many years I finally acquired a beautiful boxwood 17key set from Colin Ross in 2008 – it did take a little persuasion it must be said, as he was concerned that the Bb keys may not have been strictly necessary, with me assuring him that them they were, and subsequently playing many Gminor sets just to make sure I got the good use of them! Anyway, on playing this set it was impossible not to fall in love again with the sound of NSP and I returned to regular playing with renewed enthusiasm.
Over the years my piping career has taken me to some interesting places, most recently in Russia where I was invited to play (Uilleann) pipes as a guest with the legendary Boris Grebenshikov and his (mainly rock based) band Aquarium. After several visits I introduced the smallpipes as my F set very conveniently played in the keys of F and C that my Uilleann sets (being a concert pitched or ‘B’ set) couldn’t, and they were subsequently used on several tracks even making a brief appearance on the (very heavy) album ‘Архангельск’.
Playing NSP in Russia with a (very large) rock band came with its own particular set of challenges, the first of which was getting them there. Travelling through Russian border control with a pipe case containing both Uilleann and NSP is interesting to say the least. The very first word I learnt in Russian was ‘волынка’ pronounced ‘Volinka” and meaning literally ‘bagpipe’ and it is essential information for smoothing the difficult conversation between me (no Russian) and the rather bemused looking immigration staff (little English) when they pointed to my case with a stern ‘open’..