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Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

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  • Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

    I need an opinion or two on tone enhancers being used by students. But before you send that "gut" reply, let me qualify the question a little. I have a female student who came to piping later in life(40+). She has done well on the practice chanter and has been on pipes for a few months. But she is struggling to the point of disappointment and I'm afraid she might even give up. Much of the problem is the technical side of owning a set of pipes and keeping everything in good adjustment and working order. And of course there's the initial hurdle of learning the bag we all had to face. So, to my question, is it wrong to allow a piper in this situation to add tone enhancers so they can enjoy the playing of the pipes knowing that I may be giving her a crutch that may be hard to remove later?
    Thanks, Tom

  • #2
    tone enhancers, devis spawn or saving grace?

    You may consider that for your student, tone enhancers / valves may be very appropriate. Will they allow her to progress? Would she be likely to give-up without them?

    Training wheels on bikes allow kids to progress with other bicycle aspects prior to going on only two wheels.

    Why would it matter if she never played bagpipes without tone enhancers?

    The subject of tone enhancers or valves seems pointlessly polarized.

    If you want my opinion, they are aids to learning, but should be viewed with an aim to remove them eventually. Some people despise them, others use them all the time. Could you really tell the difference for most average pipers?

    "Melancholy as the Drone of a Lancashire Bagpipe" (Behn, Aphra 1678. Sir Patient Fancy)


    • #3
      Re: Tone enhancers, devis spawn or saving grace?

      Drone valves reduce drone volume and interfere with tone, so generally, better pipers avoid them.

      HOWEVER, if it helps the overall performance, then, sure, use them.

      It's like a Third Hand for tuning. There are those that say, "Good pipers never use them. I'd never be caught dead using one." But if it means that the drones are in tune, then I say, "Use it."

      Eventually, the piper can take the training wheels off. In the meantime, if it keeps the piper on track and makes for an overall more pleasurable listener experience, do what you have to.

      If I were her instructor, I might try to figure out what's wrong that's keeping her from playing successfully without them, but using them is far better than quitting.

      Andrew T. Lenz, Jr. • BDF Moderator - Reference for Bagpipers


      • #4
        Re: Tone enhancers, devis spawn or saving grace?

        Much of the problem is the technical side of owning a set of pipes and keeping everything in good adjustment and working order.
        IMHO you can probably help her best by not helping her with this. No doubt you have already shown her once or more how to do what is necessary.

        As for ' tone enhancers' ( they aren't )...a good valve choice imho because of the built in moisture absorbing pellets. ( but a simple set can be made with wine corks with a thru hole) But they ought to be be shelved after a while...maybe one at a eliminate the crutch effect ,get back to basics...and undampened 'most' out of the drones.
        Last edited by Andrew Lenz; 05-04-2016, 08:40 AM. Reason: Repaired mangled block quote syntax.


        • #5
          Re: Tone enhancers, devis spawn or saving grace?

          What purpose are the tone enhancers serving in this scenario? What aspect of maintaining a well running bagpipe is being made easier by adding tone enhancers? Is she in a band environment where she is consistently mis-striking or something?

          If not, I would reduce the number of drones in operation rather than add drone valves, personally.


          • #6
            Re: Tone enhancers, devis spawn or saving grace?

            Just consider them a training device. When I started I couldn't get a solid E in the two beats without valves in my drones. After a couple years I took them out and found out I didn't have a problem anymore. It was just a question of developing enough lung capacity, which came with time.


            • #7
              Re: Tone enhancers, devis spawn or saving grace?

              Great responses here. Only thing I'd like to add is that certain valves are better than others at making it easy to strike in. I once set up a set of pipes for an adult learner with a set of valves that had screws in them. I used the screws to make finite adjustments and I was actually surprised to find that I was able to strike the pipes in easier than my own pipes. They made the whole bagpipe very efficiant as a matter of fact. I personally don't use them being that I play sheepskin, but If it helps the student out, then by all means put them in.


              • #8
                Re: Tone enhancers, devis spawn or saving grace?

                Hi, I am similar to your student, late starter, adult, but I am male.

                Several years on I still choke occasionally. It is for usually 1 of 2 reasons.
                I am concentrating heavily on something (either a particular passage or embellishment) or not concentrating at all. For me everything isn't totally automatic yet. So I might forget to add pressure to the bag as I am taking a breath and CHOKE.... annoying but not the end of the world!

                Stamina will help too, she is very new on the pipes.

                Remind her of how far she has come. Get her to look back at scales that once were difficult but now not so much at all.

                I came to it without being able to read music or anything. So when I start to feel discouraged I pick up my original tutor book and look at the very first tune and remember that once that was very difficult and I couldn't play it.

                It reminds me how far I have come and gets me back in a better frame of mind.

                “Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” ― Paul Brandt


                • #9
                  Re: Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

                  My intent is not to be sarcastic, rather simply question - to obtain an "educated" (for lack of better word coming to mind this late in the evening) please, do not read into my comments as you read...

                  Somewhere in time, I guess I missed the discussion with the specific, validated reasons why these devices are "so bad".

                  I once heard a sage, professional and former member of a multi-time worlds championship band say that he challenged someone to be able to tell him when others are using these devices and when they are not. (Interestingly enough, he made the same comment about the synthetic vice sheepskin / hide bag.)

                  There may "possibly" be a couple of the masters who might be able to tell you - but the overwhelming majority will never be able to tell you when a solid piper is using these devices and when they are not.

                  Yes, I read, that the person is a beginner...but if a solid piper uses these devices, I am at a loss to see the problem.

                  So, I am trying to understand and wondering what is the big fuss over the use of these devices? IMHO - As long as he teaches his student to competently and properly strike in - why does it matter? The aim should be to teach the aspiring piper to strike in properly. IF it is an aid to learning - why not. If after they have been piping for years, having learned how to strike in properly, and are using the devices, as someone else mentioned, as a moisture control device - what is the problem?

                  It may be that the person never learns to strike in without the assistance of these devices... does it really matter. After all, at the young age of 40+, I am fairly sure that there is no expectation of replacing Roddy McLeod at The National Piping Centre.

                  At this late in the "young" piper's piping life - the idea is to help the person achieve a goal. Helping the student achieve the goal and watching that student make that big leap and seeing the smile on that piper's face - "priceless"!

                  Besides, the aim should be to promote piping...not allow a person to become discouraged and quite. The teacher is being paid to teach, coach, mentor and assist...doesn't that imply a bit of a contract...that the teacher use his knowledge of all the tools available in the piping community to help that person meet their goal - to learn to play the pipes?

                  Just my humble thoughts, but I think that the teacher should give a good explanation of what the "pros" and the "cons" are of using the devices (perceived or fact - based on specifics) and go from there. Even if it means that the teacher enables the student as a "step" with a goal to advancement, leading from the use of the devices...if there is really a solid reason why a person should not be using them.

                  Loss of volume...ok...and??? Even a professional - any piper could get that with any given set of synthetic drone reed and any given make of pipes from what I have read in other posts.

                  Again - not to be sarcastic or poke anyone in the eye here... I am at a loss as to what is the perceived / factual problem with using these devices.

                  If there is indeed a problem, I would be disappointed that quality, renown and respected pipe makers should produce them...just to produce another gadget to get people to open their wallets for something of no real value to the individual piper.

                  Just my humble, personal doubts and opinions - and I am looking forward to learning another lesson on my journey to become a competent piper one day!


                  • #10
                    Re: Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

                    I personally use them. I used them initially when I first started competing with my old band, to help control stops and starts. They have stayed in there ever since. I dont honestly think I have ever played without them. And, I was told, at the beginning of my piping career, by a Grade 1 piper, that its OK to use them, as the strike ins and cutoffs at our level are critical, and the tone will blend with other pipers.
                    Of course, he also said it was a temporary fix. But, hey. They are my pipes, I am the one who plays them, and I dont compete (yet) solo, so there really isnt a need to change. I, too, started late in life, and am under no illusion of EVER being at the level where they will, or will not, make a difference competing. The instructor for our band is a member of a competing Grade 2 band, and he has never mentioned the tone at all. Not that that either quantifies or negates the use of them-but, its something I dont concern myself with, as I will never be competing at the level where it would make a difference.
                    Scottish Proverb; 12 highlanders and a piper make a rebellion


                    • #11
                      Re: Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

                      I agree with most of what has been written above about valves being an aid, the use of which may be explored by the beginner mentioned in the OP.

                      I do disagree about the age issue though. Why should 40+ year old beginners have more difficulty than younger player in terms of strike-ins or cut-offs? I can accept that with regards to complex and fast fingering.

                      I started playing at 40+ years old, current play gr3 in light music (hope to move up) and gr2 piob. Furthermore, I have not used valves for years in both solo or band settings.

                      "Melancholy as the Drone of a Lancashire Bagpipe" (Behn, Aphra 1678. Sir Patient Fancy)


                      • #12
                        Re: Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

                        [QUOTE=Army.Bagpiper;130022 :

                        So, I am trying to understand and wondering what is the big fuss over the use of these devices?


                        I think you answered your Q further in your post....loss of volume is a side effect of valves.

                        I think no one could tell if or not someone is playing with valves do so you would need to hear the same pipes and setup played immediately with and without to actually hear access the difference.

                        As far as an aide for beginners...I'd agree...but only for a short while to get over the bad start/stop hump while getting used to the instrument and and bag 100,000's have done before us. Somewhat of a purist view . Less is more.


                        • #13
                          Re: Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

                          Would valves help what the OP thought is the issue? (maintenance, keeping in good working order, calibration I also guess). How would valves help this?
                          They are a controversial product that can be used for a few reasons at the cost of others.
                          However, I don't think making a pipe easier to play for a beginner is anything they will help with.


                          • #14
                            Re: Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

                            I'll relate an anecdote about drone valves (I think I may have mentioned this before). There was a fellow in my band who had a set of Hardies that he bought new 40 or 50 years ago. I never gave it much thought as far as tone or whatever. One day, he can't get his bass drone started. We inspected all the pieces and I spent a while fiddling with the reed. We checked everything, and finally it occurs to him to mention that he has a drone valve installed (I never even considered it).

                            Well, the thing had become blocked and that was the problem. I removed it, and then removed the valves in the tenors.

                            Man, what a glorious sound! His pipes went from being totally nondescript to easily one of the best sounds in the band. I mean, they're really fantastic. When he's not there, the band's drone sound noticeably suffers.

                            The downside: he now had to re-learn how to strike in.

                            So that's my experience; drone valves are a thing that costs money, adds another point of failure, and makes wonderful pipes sound blah. In return, they make the drones consume less air and prevent mis-strikes. Everyone is free to make their own choices about their instrument, but it's an easy choice for me.

                            The fact that some people who use them then need to re-learn the proper strike-in technique after removal indicates to me that they have a dubious place in bagpipe instruction. Especially if it's just to resolve the simple matter of air consumption.
                            Last edited by tbrown747; 05-06-2016, 06:51 AM.


                            • #15
                              Re: Tone enhancers: devil's spawn or saving grace?

                              Originally posted by tbrown747 View Post

                              The downside: he now had to re-learn how to strike in.
                              TB,..,Well, is a daily learning experience to be appreciated.

                              Your number might be higher...haha... but I'd swag two bazillion Pipers have learned to make perfect starts and stops without valves.