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The Old Ways are Still the Best

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  • The Old Ways are Still the Best

    It's been quiet on the BDF of late, so I thought I would do a post/diary regarding my latest adventures in piping which is a return to cane drone reeds. Not actually sure if this should go in the Beer Tent or Technique, but I have put it in Technique/Instrument as it will probably lead to lots of discussion on reeds and setting them up (I hope).

    I am based in Sydney, Australia, and we are currently in lockdown. The area I live in has been particularly affected, so I won't be going anywhere soon. I am working from home and have had a bit of a resurgence in my piping over the last couple of months - both with tunes and pipes. I get lessons on-line so I am busy learning a new piobaireachd (The King's Taxes) plus a bit of light music. I must admit that I have let things slip a wee bit over the past couple of years, so I am spending a lot of time on technique, getting old tunes going again and of course my pipes. Every lunch time I play for about 40 minutes or so and feel that I am starting to get some sound back again.

    My current set up is:
    Pipes - Naill's - DN5 - silver/imitation ivory 1998
    Chanter - Naill - 2011 blackwood
    Chanter reed - McPhee
    Drone reeds - Cannings in the tenors and a Kinniard Evolution in the bass
    Bag - Gannaway hide - tied in with no zip - Old skool!
    Moisture control is a Moose valve in the blowstick stock

    This is what I am currently using - I did have Redwood tenors in for a few years and liked them but tried the small tongued Cannings as an experiment and found them to be quite good.

    As a baseline, here is a sound file I did last week:

    I know the high A is a bit on the scratchy side and the more I listen to it, the more things I hear I don't like, but on the whole it's not too bad. My Naill pipes are solid with a big, solid sound.

    My project is the get some cane drone reeds going and see what they sound like. I must add that I have been piping for a long time - I learnt as a child back in the 1970's, so I started out on cane and hide. It wasn't until the late 80's that the Geoff Ross black plastic reeds with the cane tongues came out. At first we all thought they sounded coarse. Then came the Wygents and the Ezee-drones along with the Shepherds and in a few years we were all playing plastics. I still think they don't come close to cane, but they are easy to set up and you don't need to play them every day or so to keep them going. You can put them away under the bed for a couple of months, get them out and they will work. Coupled up with a synthetic bag they are trouble free. You just look after the moisture control etc. Just quietly, I think hide/sheepskin bags are less maintenance, but you need to play them regularly - sheepskin, every couple of days at least.

    Day One,

    Today is the day! I bought some cane reeds last year with all the good intentions of getting them going again but just wasn't playing enough to justify it. Just going to concentrate on the tenors - get them going first and then do the bass. Funnily enough I only had three tenor reeds. Maybe one or two got lost or something. They are brand new and haven't been played. However, they do look a bit on the thin side. I picked out two likely looking suspects and so the first thing was to put some extra hemp on the end to fit them into the socket. I would have preferred some fatter ones, but at least I suppose I won't have any trouble pitching them correctly. My Naills tend to tune a bit low on the pins.

    Middle one first. Put the reed in and give the tongue a flick. It actually makes a noise when I blow it! That's a start. I have a Blair tuner on the table and it's blowing around 465. I should add that I am currently pitching around 475 when the pipes are warmed up and going. I move the bridle up a bit and blow again and I keep doing this until I am around 474 or so. Surprisingly, it's going ok and I don't have to put a hair under the tongue, nor do I have to unduly bend the tongue. You know, the old put a finger on the bridle and bend the tongue. Seems to be ok so I do the outside tenor.

    Same deal here, although the bridle seems a bit loose. Bridles are the key to your cane reeds. Not to tight and not too loose. This one is way too loose, so I get out the black waxed hemp and tie a new one. It's been years since I have done this and I vaguely remember it is sort of a couple of turns and a few half hitches. I stick it in the reed seat but it just doesn't seem right. It just won't work. Even bending the tongue a bit doesn't seem to do any good. I fiddle with the bridle and re-tie it. Still no luck. Some reeds just don't want to work. Not sure about cane reeds these days, but 30 years ago, you had a hit rate of about 50% or less. And that's just getting them to go. To get a really good sound, you had to go through a lot of reeds. I take the reed out and get the third and last reed. Hope this one works because it's the last one. I used to have a whole bunch of them held together with a rubber band - but they are long gone. I learnt a long time ago, to throw all the rejects away, as that way you won't be tempted to try and resurrect them.

    I put extra hemp on the end of the third reed, give the tongue a bit of a flick and then a mouth blow. It works! In the seat it goes and another mouth blow. It's pitching around 468. A bit more fiddling and blowing and I have it around 474 like the other.

    OK - time to blow the pipes. I put a cork in the chanter and blow them up. All over the shop, as I expect but I get them reasonably close. A bit more blowing and fiddling with drones and they are pretty close now. Chanter goes in the stock and I blow them up. Already, I notice that the sound is completely different. After a bit of initial tuning, I play a few 3/4 marches and then another retune. Gosh they are moving around a lot. You can hear them move after just a couple of bars. They actually switch on and off OK, which is also a good sign. A couple more 3/4's and they are a bit more stable now. The outer one is tuning a bit on the low side, whilst the middle one is right on the hemp. Not going to worry about that at the moment. Not to going to worry about balancing them either. The aim is to get them going first. I play a few 6/8 marches and after that another re-tune. They are still moving about and haven't settled down yet, but that's normal. It will take a week for them to really steady up. Other people might have different experiences, but that's how it has always been for me.

    All up I play for about half an hour for my first session. The reeds are working, are not constantly shutting off and don't have any hairs under the tongues, so it's all pretty good so far. It's spring time here, so the moisture isn't too bad today.

    That's it for the first day. Will get them out tomorrow and see what happens. I fully expect the next day to have a few problems, especially with the reeds stopping but you have to persevere through that. There will be much flicking and bending of tongues, maybe a hair or two. We will see what happens.

    I might add at this stage, but I don't believe in the old paperclip trick, where you half unbend a paper slip and stick up the back end of the reed to spring the tongue open a bit. In the old days, this was the absolute last resort as it tended to make the reed roar or sound really coarse.

    This post has been longer than I thought, but hope it generates some discussion and people find it interesting. I will add to the thread with updates of how the reeds are going. Hopefully by the end of the week, they will be sounding good enough to upload another sound file.

    O Wad some the giftie gie us
    To see ourselves as others see us

  • #2
    More ramblings ahead I am afraid. This post will contain a lot of thoughts and musings about tuning, reeds, set-up, tunes and practicing as well as my experiences etc. Be prepared.

    Day Two

    I always knew that the second day would not go smoothly. It never did when blowing in cane reeds before. As soon as the moisture hits, everything changes. The reeds swell and tongues can grab, change dimensions and all of that sort of stuff. My custom when starting a practice session is to get the pipes out of the box, and quite lately they have just been sitting in the bag/box on the bed in the spare room fully assembled with the bass drone sticking out, the chanter is already out and a cork in the stock. I blow them up and see where the drones are sitting, usually they are fairly close. However, it’s day 2 and the middle tenor was working but the outer one decided that it didn’t want to do anything. It’s always the outer tenor! I pulled the drone out and gave the tongue a wee bend and a mouth blow and then stuck it back in the stock. Blow up the bag and see where the drone is. At least it was working, however, after the tongue bend, the drone went a fair way down the slide to get into tune. They always do this, and as you play and the tongue settles back down, it will come back up again. From experience it will take about 10 minutes to get back to where it was.

    It always amazed me that that in band competitions, coming up to the line, and someone has a drone that doesn’t work, they, or the Pipe Major will pull it out and give the tongue a big flick or a bend and then stick it back in! It will take at least 10 minutes to settle down, by which time the competition event will be long over. Don’t they get this? Much better to leave it shut off that have it out of tune, or even worse, roaring or double toning. Believe me, I have heard and seen pipers start up in band comps with double toning drones and not even be aware of it, much to the consternation of the Pipe Major and the pipers next to them.

    Anyway, drones seemed to be going OK. Chanter goes in and blow up again. Spend a minute or so tuning. I always shut off the middle tenor and tune the bass to the outer, and then move both up and down together to get them in with the Low A. In this case as the outer had just been fiddled it was the other way round. The bass is a known factor, so I tuned the tenor to the bass until it came in. Then the middle. They were sounding a bit raucous but that was ok, I was hoping they would settle down.

    I always start my practice session off with some 3/4s. I have quite a repertoire of them by now and play them in pairs, rotating them through each practice. This time it was Shoals of Herring and My Land. However halfway through the first tune, the outer tenor stopped. I was given advice many, many years ago, that if your drone stops, you keep playing and let the moisture seep in a bit. After about twenty minutes you give the drone top a flick and the reed will start up. I kept going until the end of the 3/4s and popped the drone top but the reed went for about 20 seconds and stopped.

    A bend of the tongue later and still the same. I think it was time to try a hair under the tongue. I have found that the hair has to be pushed right up to the bridle which I did. However, this sent the reed crazy. It started double toning and needed a pop on the drone top to bring it back it into line. The drone moved way down the slide accordingly, plus it wasn’t stable.

    Next on the repertoire was a couple of 6/8 marches, 4 parts of course. Again, I have quite a collection and rotate them each practice. This way, they keep fresh in the memory banks. However, the outer tenor was proving problematic with the hair. So I decided to remove it, which I did and this time it wanted to work and off I went.

    With the cane tenors in, it is now a vastly different instrument to what it was before with the synthetics. The tuning is different and takes some getting used to. Even after all these years of tuning my pipes, band member pipes etc, I still find it’s a new ball game with a different setup in an instrument that I am on quite intimate terms with. It’s the old adage “know thy instrument”. Even after a bit of a break, the instrument (even with the same setup) can be different and you have to get to know it again. I have spoken to other pipers and they have found the same thing. It’s not like that with my guitar. Or perhaps it is, but I don’t recognise the nuances enough to be able to tell.

    I played out the rest of my session, about 40 minutes in total, tuning between sets of tunes and after, pulled the drones out to let the moisture dry a bit.

    That was the second day – so far so good. Not expecting smooth sailing tomorrow either, but we will see.
    O Wad some the giftie gie us
    To see ourselves as others see us


    • #3
      Great stuff, really enjoying your posts. I've got a cane bass coming in the mail so am looking forward to fighting with it, having only ever used synthetic reeds.


      • #4
        Ah... Drewz Drones... :-)

        Living in this Old Stone Cave--as I do--I was immediately enthralled by the
        title of your Thread.

        Nothing----Nothing----sounds like----cane!! :-)

        And---Welcome Back--and Into--the Fold!! :-)

        The synthies do have--their rightful place--and playing in cold--wet weather--
        is--and of course--one of their preeminent advantages.

        But that being said--when ever I am to play--in some old stone church--or in
        some other--and equally special setting--where the reverberations--will send
        the heart soaring!!--then in my Old Pipes--it is out with the synthies--and in
        with the cane. (And especially--in those smaller old stone amphitheaters!! :-)

        Some trouble?? Well--yes.--But worth it??--Ever so.--Ever so

        I envy you your new adventure!!--and I am sure--Great Enjoyment!!--shall
        be yours!!

        All the Best!!,


        Last edited by Pip01; 09-14-2021, 07:21 PM.
        My friends all know,
        With what a brave carouse...


        • #5

          Day Three

          Really looking forward to getting the pipes out now. Although, my lunchtime sessions in lockdown have been quite enjoyable. Older tunes, that have slipped of the radar as well as the memory banks are coming back also. Mind you, some of that is because I have been playing them on my practice chanter for that very reason. I have quite a good repertoire built up over the years, and playing a separate set of tunes each practice session is no problem. I seem to have more than enough 3/4s, 6/8 marches to get me through. I remember playing at a Ceremony of Hope (Cancer fundraiser event) a couple of years ago where I led a candlelit procession around a sporting oval and I just played 3 /4 marches one after another for the full 800 metres and still had a few tunes left at the end.

          Anyway, I digress somewhat. Where was I? Oh yes, tunes for my practice sessions. I follow the same routine each session. Pipes up and running with a fairly rough tune up. Play a couple of 3/4s to settle the pipe down and myself and just listen to what’s going on. Another tune up and then play 2 x 4 parted 6/8s. Another tune up and by this time they are going pretty good (or should be). If I am practicing on a regular basis, around about this time, I will notice that the sound is “there”. It’s not something I can define but I can tell when it’s all working. By this time, it’s all going well, so I usually play a slow air, 2 if they are wee ones and just listen to everything. I won’t keep repeating myself by saying that I retune between each set because I do. It’s just minor adjustments by now as the pipe is starting to stabilise. The next bracket of tunes are the odd ones, ie 12/8 marches, small strathspey and reel sets, or a favourite of mine, 4 x 2 parted Donald MacLeod 4/4s ie Battle of Waterloo, David Crosbie Miller, Flett from Flotta and 52nd Highland Division. Then it’s a hornpipe and jig – each tune played twice. From here on in, I play all my tunes twice, to correct any errors for the first time round and to help really lock them in. My 2/4 march of the day is next, a comp strathspey and a comp reel. Then, depending on how I am feeling or how the pipes are feeling, I will do a complete piobaireachd, or just an urlar, or even the toarluath/crunluath variation. This is 40-45 minutes of practice easy. I don’t vary the format, just rotate the tunes around.

          Back to the cane tenors. Over the course of the 3/4s and 6/8s the drone tops started going up. Which is pretty much what I expected after a tongue bending. Play my air, and I am quite liking the sound. This is the third day and although they still aren’t really “sitting”, it’s not going too badly. I did say earlier that this will take me a week of playing.

          I play my two parted jig set – Merrily Danced the Quaker’s Wife/ Queen of the Rushes / Rocking the Baby and Kesh Jig. Then it’s my hornpipe, twice through The Flying Scotsman and twice through Isabelle Blakely, an old favourite recently resurrected – got this one out one of the Rab Mathieson books. You know how it goes, sit down with a book and a practice chanter and just play stuff at random and sometimes you find a tune you really like and learn it.

          My comp march for today is Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band followed by Susan MacLeod and then Sound of Sleat. The drones seemed to peak somewhere in the middle of these tunes and the sound and tuning just dissipated. The drones had started coming back down the slides whilst the chanter hadn’t really changed all that much. Not sure if it was me or the pipe. I am still getting my “match fitness” back and I am not as young as I used to be. Maybe the reeds are still soaking up moisture like the greedy little sponges they are. Not sure, anyway that’s about 40 minutes of playing. Time to put them down and get something to eat before going back to work.

          Tomorrow is another day.
          O Wad some the giftie gie us
          To see ourselves as others see us


          • #6
            Drewz Dronez, wowoooo.... You are certainly overperforming for a piper down-under. Your routine is inspirational to be sure. KUTGW. (keep up the great work).


            • #7
              It's enjoyable reading your day to day account. It gives me the itch to try cane. Once you are happy with the sound please add a recording,