Bagpipers are crazy. I know because I are one.
Or kind of one. I was doing pretty well playing the pipes until last year when I took some time off to finish my master’s degree. You know how it is. With a finite amount of hours in the day only so much can get done. Recently I’ve started practicing again. Getting started back up has been painful (even though I wear earplugs when I practice inside) for both me and my wife. The dog is deaf now (fortunately, in this case) so she doesn’t care so much.
Here’s where it starts to get crazy. Everyone knows what bagpipes played horribly sound like. They’re horrible. Grumpy cat would say no. The reason they’re horrible is they can sound like a calliope crashing to the ground, heaving and wheezing along the way. And tuning is a bitch, frankly.
Why is tuning a bitch? A bagpipe has four reeds, one double in the chanter (the melody pipe that the piper’s fingers play) and three single reeds in the drones (the sticks that point up past the piper’s ear). Getting them to be happy and play nice with one another is no mean feat.
Why is that?
A couple of reasons. The chanter reed has to be tuned so that all of the notes sound right with one another. Reed selection for the specific chanter (they’re all different in some respect) is the starting point and then moving the reed up and down in it’s seat in the chanter is how it is tuned. If one of the 9 notes won’t tune, you have to tape the hole or enlarge the hole until it plays nice with the others. And that is just the starting point.
The drone reeds are something else. Once you dial them in they tend to stay that way but dialing them in is where the madness begins and why pipers are crazy. At least this piper is. Drone reeds used to be made with cane, and still are for many pipers, but most of us use a synthetic reed of some sort. They have three adjustment possibilities (seat depth, bridle position and tuning pin) that impact four different effects (pitch, tone, loudness and strength).
Bagpipe tuning? Possibilities endless.
The strength is the balance between the drone reeds and the chanter reed. If they aren’t on the same page strength-wise, weird and annoying things happen when you start playing (strike-in) and when you stop (cut-off). This is the wheezing part of the calliope. And then, and only then, you try to get pitch, tone and loudness together.
Following that you adjust so that the three drones are in tune with the chanter. Which is great until something changes. Temperature. Humidity. The position of the moon and the stars. All will knock the tuning off kilter (see what I did there?)
But then. But then… You hit that moment when the hours of fooling around with adjustments finally works like it is supposed to. The dance of the four reeds finally results in four reeds that are matched in strength and loudness and in tune with one another. Pipers call it the ‘envelope’ and when you’re in the envelope it is a beautiful thing.
And so we pipers wrestle with the geometric progression of tuning possibilities. In the hope that there will be that moment when the envelope happens. And when the envelope is on, the music plays on. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Bagpipers are crazy. Really.