The Pacific Northwest Group of Northumbrian Smallpipe players has held an annual Spring workshop every year for the last ten or 12 years. This year, we were fortunate to have two instructors, Ian Lawther who provided piping instruction, and Mike Sharp to teach us how to diagnose and then fix problems with reeds, drones and chanters.
The workshop was held in Lakewood, just south of Tacoma, Washington, on Saturday April 13th and Sunday 14th, with an informal meet-and-greet session on the Friday night. Most of the attendees were local members of our group, but Mike Sharp and Bill Wakefield made the two-day drive up from the San Francisco Bay Area to join us for the weekend. Mike and Bill arrived Friday afternoon. Mike set up his tools, an array of pipes that he’s currently working on, and a variety of reeds for his reed repair session.
On Friday evening people started arriving around 6:30 pm for conversation, refreshments, and tunes. Bill Wakefield entertained us with an impressive series of jigs and reels on his Ross pipes, and Sharon Korchonnoff joined him on her Sindt whistle. Mike Sharp got to work adjusting drone and chanter reeds to make sure everyone was ready to play in tune the following morning.
Saturday morning began with a piping basics session, covering bellows use, fingering, and ornamentation. The fingering discussion led to some interesting opinions, as many players in the session play F sets as well as D or C sets. The point was made that closed fingering on an F chanter does not feel or sound the same as closed fingering on a D chanter, and several players said that they changed their fingering, or their articulation, just ever so slightly, to compensate.
Then came a section on making a tune your own, and developing the tune beyond the written dots to make a more personal statement.
While all of this was going on, Mike Sharp was very free with his time, materials, and advice on diagnosing and fixing problems in many sets of pipes.
Because he and Bill drove up from California, Mike was able to pack a considerable number of tools and a large amount of material in the car. He brought enough old chanter reeds so we could all have a bash at adjusting them without fear of damaging our only reed. He showed us how to diagnose certain faults, and then made us perform the actual fix on our own pipes, so we would have the confidence to work on our sets in the future, if necessary.
On Saturday evening, Ian played an hour-long house concert, with NSP, SSP, dual chanter SSP, low whistle, English concertina, and Irish pipes, finishing the concert with tunes on a prototype set of Pastoral pipes made by Mike. A bombarde even put in an appearance at one point.
On Sunday morning Ian began a discussion he called “The History of NSP Recordings from the 1920s to the 1960s”. To set the scene he began with a brief survey of early recordings of all kinds of pipes, and played tunes by Patsy Touhey on uilleann pipes and by John MacDonald on Highland pipes, before moving on to a set of 78s called “Pipes of Three Nations” which included the NSP playing of Anty Charlton. Ian traced the continuing NSP recordings through the playing of Tom Clough, George and John Hepple pipe and fiddle duets, Jack Armstrong and Joe Hutton from the BBC archives, and Tommy Breckons from American Folkways recordings. Ian also described several compilation records of the period, which featured recordings of many different area musicians or dance bands on the same record. The inevitable conclusion drawn from Ian’s survey is that while recordings of NSP were indeed made across this whole time period, they were widely spaced, and nowhere near as common as recordings of Highland and Irish pipes.
Thanks to Ian and Mike once again for leading the workshop, and thanks to Mike and Bill for making the four-day round trip to attend the workshop. Our group was once again selected to play at the giant Northwest FolkLife festival in central Seattle at the end of May. To see all of Bob McFarland’s photographs of the weekend, go to: Bob MacFarland’s Photo Gallery