I am back in Poona now and the weather is just right. Tee- shirt weather. This morning I moved my mattress out onto the balcony at 5.0 am and snoozed until 7 and then got up and sewed a pipe bag while watching the sun rise over the wooded hill in front of the 8th floor that flat I am living in. Peaceful and warm.
It wasn't like this a week ago when we were searching for Indian Highland Pipe makers in Meerut. It was cold. We flew up to smoggy Delhi and then took the 90 minute train north to Meerut. On the way from the station the taxi driver took us through Jali Kothi- a street bristling with instrument makers and instrument shops. It is a narrow street and it was dusk, but as we drove by we got tantalising glimpses of shops festooned with drums and brass band instruments.
EXPLORING THE DIVINE NATURE OF HIP-HOP BAGPIPES IN INDIA
I have wandered far afield from my workshop this month. I am writing this from Poona, India, where I am staying with my son and his wife for the entire month of January, so I am afraid I will not be answering any business emails until February.
It is a welcome break from the Scottish winter and I am spending much of my time here in bagpipe related pursuits. The main task is to finalise all the text for my tune book, which I hope will be completed and published in 2017. I am interspersing my time at the computer with spells of bag sewing; I completed sewing a Scottish small pipe bag this very day.
WHAT CAME YE TO SEE? A REED SHAKEN BY THE WIND?
It was Pete who drew my attention to a moment in pipemaking that should be a treated as very special. This is when a brand new chanter is fitted with a new reed and plays it first notes. It is a moment of alchemy... two separate creations are brought together and they combine to produce musical notes.
I admit that until Pete drew my attention to this I had never even thought about celebrating it. To be perfectly honest I had always previously listened with critical ears at that time and concentrated on what I didn’t like about the individual notes that the fledgling chanter had played. Of course ultimately I do need to know if any notes need adjustment, but I lose sight of the magic if I do not take time, even only for a second, to celebrate this first stage in its journey towards it making sweet music.
AT LAST....... THE PERFECT ANSWER.
At approx 7.53am this morning, while nursing my early morning cup of Earl Grey in bed, I had a flash of inspiration. I finally found the perfect answer to a bagpipe question about fingering systems that I have previously never been able to answer satisfacorily. Over the years I have developed various ways to sidestep the question or change the subject...
Those of you who know me will have gathered that I insist of people being clear about the difference between closed and covered fingering. I do 'go on' about it. (Possibly a bit too much?). I even made a video for this website where I explain the vital distinction between the two systems. It's important, don't you know?
However I am frequently asked to explain the difference between half open and half closed fingering and that's when I always tried to change the subject.
But since 7.35am on October 19th 2016 I now have The Perfect Answer.
From now on, when someone asks me
“What is the difference between half open and half closed fingering?”
I shall always reply
“That depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist!”
It is wise to take good advice, even if it comes from a most unlikely source. Pat recently bought a pillow which had a large sticker on it with excellent advice to all pipers who plan to perform at their best.
FOR BEST PERFORMANCE
PLEASE PLUMP UP
TURN, TURN AND TURN AGAIN.
I have spent most of my piping life trying to ensure that I am as relaxed as possible when piping. I well recall those early days of gripping my chanter like grim death; grasping it so tightly that it left white channels beneath the tips of my fingers and the imprint of each finger hole at the bottom of each channel. And whenever I teach anyone piping I encourage them to relax their fingers and I teach several nifty wheezes that can help them. It is perfectly logical.... if your fingers are tense, then so will be your arms and shoulders... your whole body is involved in using energy that ultimately is reducing your ability to play the music with fluidity. Which is what I assume every musician wants to achieve.
For the last two years I have treated myself to weekly Alexander Technique lessons and this is helping me observe how I use my body in everything I involve it with. I am now much more aware that there are ways that I use my body that are not beneficial to me.... in fact they often are detrimental. Who is it who repeatedly bites the blow pipe tip on all my own pipes? Of course it is me. It is fascinating to reassess all the ways that I choose to stand and move my body; all the habits I have acquired without considering if they benefit me.
I am a self taught wood turner. I started when I was about 12. It used to be potentially hazardous back in the days when I was using a crude home made lathe and jabbing decidedly dodgy and blunt turning tools at a bit of wood that was whizzing round at over 1000 rpm and hoping for the best. At any moment there might have been be a sudden jolt and a spinning chunk of wood could free itself from its moorings and fly into the air. It is not surprising that in the early days I tended to approach the process with trepidation. But I now very seldom have scary moments. I have a solid lathe, extremely sharp tools and after 33 years of professional wood turning am pretty confident in how to use them safely and efficiently. However my body is still stuck in habits acquired when turning wood was scary.
There is no activity in one's life where the Alexander Technique cannot be consciously applied and I have only just begun to consider how I use my body when I am turning wood. My teacher came to the workshop for a lesson to observe how I use the lathe and to help me find ways of operating the lathe that might be more beneficial. And it has been a real 'eye opener' as she drew my attention to the amount of tension I hold in my shoulders, arms, hands... she even spotted the tension I hold in my jaw! I tend to grip my turning tool like grim death..... Now that I have begun to notice it myself I am in a position to do something about letting it go... to break these habits that I set up within me back in the days I was always aware that things could get nasty and dangerous in a split second.
It is so obvious and so exciting! There is so much to unlearn.... and new choices to make in my posture at the lathe. I suspect that I have tended to stand upright with my feet together and my neck bent down over the piece I am turning. I now see that it should come as no surprise that I sometimes get back problems. I am now busy experimenting with new foot positions, and bending from my knees and hips.
And last week, even though I was busy concentrating on changing my habitual posture, I observed that my turning was going really well... I don't think that is a coincidence. And I wonder why it has taken me 33 years to notice the similarities there are between playing a musical instrument and turning wood?
Ah well... right now it is time to wander back down to the workshop, thinking FORWARD and UP as I go!
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the previous weekend was The Aquabal at The Hathersage Village Hop. It is quite possible that you don't know about this wonderful annual event which my wife Pat organises in the Hathersage Memorial Village Hall, in Derbyshire. It's a grand do with lots of good food, music, dancing and workshops. The hall is next to a large 80 year old outdoor heated swimming pool and every year she books the entire pool so that we can have an Aquabal.
THIS WEEKS PLAYLIST
In my workshop office this week I have been listening to several BBC tapes of Frankie Howerd while assembling and reeding up a new G set of Leicestershire smallpipes.
At other times back in the 'dusty end' of the workshop this week I have been busy making the split stocks for last weeks production of G smallpipe chanters. They are a tricky combination of wood, brass, epoxy glue and fibreglass resin. While waiting for various bits of glue to dry I have also been working on 12 bells for D Leicestershire smallpipe chanters, mostly in yew.
I love this sort of work and usually wallop on a CD and crank up my sound system to provide stimulating accompaniment. I enjoy contrasts. Here is this weeks running order so far.
Elena Ledda and Sonos- Incanti.
Tommy Smith and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra- Modern Jacobite.
Mike Gulston- Barking.
Julian Clary (Radio 4 documentary on tape).
Kiki Dee- Amoureuse.
Duke Ellington- Vintage Performances.
Underworld- Pearl Girl (short).
Mahler- Symphony 9.
Inge Thomson- Shipwrecks & Static.
Kabir- by Abida Parveen.
Mahvavishnu Orchestra- Birds of Fire.
All great listening, though I still continue to be unmoved by Mahlers 9th.. Any helpful suggestions welcome.........
About 3 years ago I fitted a wood stove in our house and this has helped me be more realistic about some of my stock of pipe making wood which I have been storing for well over 20 years.
Last month I spent a whole weekend sorting through my wood store. This involved inspecting each plank and cutting out any bits that had cracks, knots or looked dodgy. Some of my large planks of yew looked wonderful, but when I cut into them I found that they were riddled with a maze of ancient cracks. I had bought some promising 2” planks in 1998 from a yew tree that grew at Dalkeith Palace and have been hoarding them ever since. Counting the growth rings I calculated that it was planted in about 1780. It was dispiriting to find that about 70 % of this tree was unusable for pipes, however it does make excellent fire wood.