A Big Event for a Small Instrument

By Aaron Holt

The Swedish bagpipe, or säckpipa is a rare instrument, even in Sweden. For those of us living in North America, it would seem almost inaccessible. Until the present decade, you would have a hard time finding one at all, much less someone who could teach you to play it. But in the past five years that has begun to change, and the number of pipers on this side of the Atlantic, while still quite small, has grown exponentially, thanks to the efforts of Gerald Revelle of Elk Mound, Wisconsin and noted piper Olle Gällmo of Uppsala, Sweden. In 2006 they created the Norden Säckpipa Association of the Americas (NSAA), an internet discussion forum for Swedish Pipers in North America, which has since attracted a membership from around the globe and become the place to be for musicians interested in this unique instrument. To say that the NSAA was a huge success would be an understatement. It succeeded in connecting otherwise isolated pipers and gave them a place to exchange their ideas and experiences. The forum has had the honor of hosting – among many other interesting people – two of the first professional Swedish pipe makers on the continent: Seth Hamon of Arlington Texas, and Boris Favre of Vancouver, British Columbia. Both have been active on the forum since its inception, and their skills at the lathe have helped supply the growing demand that has attended the instrument’s newfound accessibility. But Gerald and Olle had still larger plans to promote the Swedish Bagpipe. Even before opening the NSAA forum, the two had frequently discussed the possibility of hosting an annual workshop for Swedish pipers in Minnesota. At first, basic costs and logistical concerns kept this dream for becoming a reality but with Seth Hamon’s recent advances in low-cost resin cast pipes, these concerns were finally put aside. On March 18-19 2011, Norden Folk hosted the first ever Swedish Bagpipe workshops in North America led by Olle Gällmo himself, who flew in all the way from Sweden just for this event.

Olle Gällmo with Extended Swedish Pipes

In the minds of many pipers, Olle has an almost godfather-like association with the Swedish bagpipe. Awarded with the title of Riksspelman (musician of the realm) by Sweden’s Zorn Jury for traditional music, Olle’s efforts to promote the Swedish säckpipa have earned him an inestimable amount of respect from his peers. His enthusiasm for the instrument and professional talent for instruction (he teaches computer science at the University of Uppsala) have made his website the most venerated place on the internet for most Swedish pipers. Having a chance to learn directly from a master such as Olle is a rare opportunity, and the knowledge he brought to the workshops was highly appreciated by all.

The first class, for advanced players, was held at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis on Friday, March 18th. Seth Hamon’s new resin pipes were available both for rent and purchase, each chanter and drone equipped with something most Swedish pipers have long thought impossible: a synthetic reed. This small addition to the workshops represented an enormous advance in the ability to teach a group of pipers. This was the first time ever that inexpensive but very reliable instruments were readily available for students at a säckpipa workshop. The Swedish säckpipa traditionally employs a narrow single-bladed cane reed in the chanter as well as the drone. The reeds are very sensitive to moisture, require a lot of attention, and can misbehave quite stubbornly. This has meant that many of the workshops in Sweden have devoted as much time to tuning and maintaining reeds as they have to playing and instruction. Seth’s new synthetic reeds eliminated most of these tuning problems and enabled Olle to focus on teaching tunes, demonstrating playing techniques, and discussing the long history of piping in Scandinavia. After lunch, Olle and several attendees moved to a different room for a demonstration on traditional reed-making while the main group practiced the tunes learned that morning. It was possibly one of the first times that reed making and maintenance were a side discussion in a workshop rather than a main focus. After spending the remainder of the afternoon learning another new tune, the group of happy pipers went home for the day to practice what they had learned.

Advanced Workshop

The beginners’ course held on the following day at the Tapestry Folkdance Center was much smaller than the advanced course but every bit as fun. The class offered a nice introduction to the instrument and allowed students to get a feel for the basic mechanics of the säckpipa. Learning to regulate the relatively low pressure required by the instrument was one of the bigger challenges the new students had to face. Again, Seth’s new reeds were of immense help, ensuring that more time was spent playing than tuning. Later that evening, spectators and students from both workshops gathered for a second time at the Tapestry Folkdance Center for a concert and dance. Olle was in great form that night and kept the dancers busy all evening.

While both workshops would be considered small, even by Northumbrian Smallpipe standards, they would have been almost unimaginable just thirty years ago when the säckpipa’s revival was still in its infancy. All of us who attended are very thankful for the effort that Gerald, Seth, and Olle took to make this happen. After playing one more concert in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, Olle flew back to Sweden having sown the seeds for a new generation of pipers here in the US. It hasn’t yet been decided whether this will be an annual event, but this year’s workshop certainly helped the small number of Swedish pipers around to grow a little larger.

Aaron Holt is one of the charter members of the NSAA. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and has been playing the Swedish pipes since 2006. He came to Swedish piping through a long-standing interest in Scandinavian music and had no prior experience with other forms of bagpipe