Reed Making for Smallpipes: An Exhortation

by Bill Wakefield

The first step in reed making is splitting cane cut to length with a stout blade and hammer to make the slips

The first step in reed making is splitting cane cut to length with a stout blade and hammer to make the slips

For several summers in the 1970’s & 80’s I’d opportunity to study Highland piping with PM Evan MacRae, late of Ft William.  I recall him exceptionally affable, of constant jocularity, and a fountain of stories about the army and India, where he’d served with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.  I gathered that, at least in his day, pipe majors were expected to be reed makers and, at any rate, Evan MacRae was the first person I ever watched make a reed and, what’s more relevant for present purposes, he was the first to tell me that I ought to “have a go” at reed making.  Although the suggestion appealed to me, such interest as I had wasn’t equal to my regrettable lack of workshop know-how; and with the difficulty of obtaining or making necessary equipment at a time when neither tools of the trade nor explanatory, instructional information were available, I didn’t pursue.

Much more recently, in 2011 at the excellent, residential course for Northumbrian Smallpipes held each October at Whitely Bay, Richard Evans, a well-know maker of smallpipes who is regularly on faculty at the course, suggested the same thing Evan MacRae had so many years ago, stating that players “really should” try to make reeds.  This time I followed up a bit, resources being incomparably better these days, and a good friend who is very handy and lives not far away set me up with block & gouge and put me through the steps outlined in Colin Ross’ book, about which, more later.

Finally, after a year and a half of trying, not intensively at an average of perhaps several hours monthly, I seem to have got beyond the beginners stage during which, while learning the sequence of steps, I turned out a few acceptable reeds by chance.  I’d like to think, too, that I’ve recently passed a longer and at times more frustrating, intermediate stage of practicing skills associated with the different steps, during which some acceptable reeds were produced amid many failures and botched attempts.  But all the while I’ve learned from mistakes as well as by interrogating the experienced for explanations, tips, and insight.

Now that I can, with practiced understanding, produce an acceptable reed more often than not, I’m recalling the perspicacious if understated encouragement of Evan MacRae and Richard Evans with greater appreciation and, I think, better comprehension.  What’s a bit ironic in this is the difficulty I’d have trying to explain why pipers “really should have a go” at reed making.

Understatement being best left to the British who are, after all, much better at it than us, I’d begin by mentioning a few obvious reasons for taking it up.  The main spur for me was the thought that by learning to make reeds I’d gain understanding that would enable me to make appropriate adjustments the ones in my pipes, whether of my own manufacture or not.  This sort understanding and resulting confidence actually accrues from the outset.  In addition, one may aspire to such expertise as would enable one to control one’s sound — a prospect I find increasingly enticing, whether or not I ever achieve it.  Naturally, less time waiting for replacement reeds in the post has its attractions and, of course, for anyone who could get to be both good and fast at it, I suppose the prospect of vast riches to be had selling them might prove a stimulating allurement.

Apart from these and no doubt other such practical considerations, I’d mention the sense of pleasant satisfaction that comes not only from making an acceptable reed for playing, but also from the process itself.  A friend of mine, recently successful in competitions while playing one of his own reeds, mentioned feeling the former kind, while another friend alluded to the latter sort by comparing some reed making skills to those necessary in fly tying.  He drew an interesting analogy by observing that “the fish teach you how to make the flies and, making them, you learn more about the fish.”  This sort of insight and appreciation is impossible to quantify and express, really .  One suspects it’s the reason understatement is employed as encouragement by those working “organically” in living piping traditions.

Not least among the many inducements to this rewarding craft is the sheer number of resources available to anyone interested in having a go.  To begin with there is Colin Ross’ excellent Manual with detailed specifications and instructions: “Reedmaking for Northumbrian Smallpipes, Scottish Smallpipes, and Border Pipes,” available from the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society.  Stephen Douglas has posted a series of videos showing Colin making reeds, which are a great inspiration and help. In its Members pages, the NPS website also has links to the videos.  For those, like me, unable to make the few pieces of necessary equipment as described in Manual, John Ross, a silversmith in Devon, can provide superb hand made tools to the correct specifications, including block and hand-forged gouge..  For tube cane, both Ted Anderson at Piper’s Supply, in Northern California, and Joseph Sampson at Sampson Cane in Bakersfield are ready, reliable sources in the US, while Medir Cane seems to be the preferred European source.

Finally I think it very worthwhile pointing out that Chris Apps, an excellent, commercial reed maker, offers prepared slips and staples in order that pipers can learn reed making without initial investment in equipment, and this seems a great way to take initiation.  I suspect there are many, many people who would shine at making reeds (and in less time than it took me just to get acceptable ones consistently) if they had slips and staples ready at hand, but who will not bother with it at all if they have to go to the trouble of getting equipment for splitting and gouging cane to make the slips.  By the same token there may be others interested only in splitting and gouging!  A little conversation on this topic between piping buddies and/or club members, along with pooling of resources might fruitfully result in more equipment circulating for use by sharing so that more slips could be made available and more pipers could try their hand at reed making — which they most emphatically should do.

Gouging slips on the block.  The homemade block on the right, while perfectly adequate, takes more practice to use because it lacks the brass guide rails visible on the other block.  The gouge rests on these rails which are designed so that the slips are of uniform thickness every time with just a few strokes of the gouge.

Gouging slips on the block. The homemade block on the right, while perfectly adequate, takes more practice to use because it lacks the brass guide rails visible on the other block. The gouge rests on these rails which are designed so that the slips are of uniform thickness every time with just a few strokes of the gouge.

Strong light shining through the slip gouged to about .026" thickness

Strong light shining through the slip gouged to about .026″ thickness

Gouged slips, one showing end points that will be bound to the staple

Gouged slips, one showing end points that will be bound to the staple

Scraping the slip at the ends, and in the middle, lozenge shape, before folding

Scraping the slip at the ends, and in the middle, lozenge shape, before folding

Brass and aluminum tubing and staples made from it.  Notice two staples stood on end showing the shaped aperture.

Brass and aluminum tubing and staples made from it. Notice two staples stood on end showing the shaped aperture.

Staple inserted between the blades of the folded slip -- usually held in place by glue before binding

Staple inserted between the blades of the folded slip — usually held in place by glue before binding

The plumbers tape ensures airtightness before binding with thread for strength.  After this comes the long process of alternately sanding and scraping the blades to nicely tapered shape, adding the wire bridle and further scraping until the reed 'craws' in about C#

The plumbers tape ensures airtightness before binding with thread for strength. After this comes the long process of alternately sanding and scraping the blades to nicely tapered shape, adding the wire bridle and further scraping until the reed ‘craws’ in about C#

 Bill Wakefield Lives in San Francisco and has been piping for more than 40 years.  Having trained on Highland bagpipes from an early age, he took up Northumbrian and Scottish smallpipes in his 20’s on becoming an apartment dweller and currently plays and maintains several sets of pipes as so many vestal flames.

 

Mar is léir dhomh fhìn/ As I See It: Pipe Music in Cape Breton

By Barry Shears

Pictured here is Joe Hughie MacIntyre of French Road / Grand Mira. Joe Hughie was the son of Donald “Domhnuil mac Thormaid `ic Dhomhnuil `ic an Tàilleir”

Pictured here is Joe Hughie MacIntyre of French Road / Grand Mira. Joe Hughie was the son of Donald “Domhnuil mac Thormaid `ic Dhomhnuil `ic an Tàilleir”

“Oh there were good pipers. Of course, they had the Gaelic touch to the tunes. There is a lot of that lost. A lot of the Gaelic touch is lost from the tunes today. I suppose they cannot help it. They are only playing it correctly by note. They are only playing them as correct as they are written. But you haven’t got the memory, the history… You didn’t hear them played, so you are only going following the style that is in the book and there is a lot miss­ing from the book. There’s only the frame­work.” Joe Neil MacNeil

Joe Neil MacNeil was describing the pipe music of a bygone era, as played by the last of the old style players in Cape Breton. For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries pipe music was nurtured in the home, in a largely Gaelic environment and in several instances by women of the house, or extended family. Many of the melodies had Gaelic words that helped establish rhythm and phrasing, in addition to being an aid in memorization. This was Gaelic music. It was dance music, and they were delighted to share their music and their experiences with anyone who made time to visit them. Sadly, by the end of the 20th century there were only a handful of these musicians still alive.

But what of their music? It was differ­ent, but not in a bad way. For pipers trained in modern bagpipe technique, it sounds foreign and therefore some-how incorrect.

But the playing and recollections of these senior musicians plainly illustrates what a wonderful and diverse tradition of dance music existed in Cape Breton, and most of the Nova Scotia Gaidhealtachd, earlier last century. Pipers such as Art Severance of Foruchu supplied first-hand accounts of piping for solo and group step-dancing in the 1920s and 30s from Gabarus Lake to Meat Cove to Inverness Town; Alex Currie was very generous with his music and memories, and the MacIntyre pipers of French Road, Sydney and Glace Bay added considerably to my understanding of what constituted tradi­tional piping in Cape Breton. I consider myself fortunate to have met these men and collected some of their memories and music.

Some of the recordings available to me were not professionally recorded and they reveal some unbalanced chanters and drones not quite in tune, but these were men in their 60s and 70s and certainly not in their prime. One has only to look beyond these minor tonal issues to hear the real value of these homemade record­ings. It’s the way in which the music was interpreted and expressed, and the “fresh­ness” often found in the regional settings (arrangements) of many common pipe tunes. Contrary to modern interpretation, there never was a single definitive style of performance among the old pipers in Cape Breton. It varied from area to area, commu­nity to community.

After cross referencing many of the tunes found on these recordings, with collections of bagpipe music published in Scotland in the 19th century, one is immediately struck by the quality of the arrangements. The music was not all from the Old Country. Locally composed tunes took their rightful place alongside many of the melodies brought from Scotland. Unfortunately, most of these local compo­sitions are not easily retrieved since they were never written down and instead have to be painstakingly gleaned from archival recordings.

In the past few years, I’ve had more time to listen and reflect on the research recordings I’ve complied since the 1980s and have come to realize that the old pipers had a powerful influence on the style of music I play as well as many of the tunes I’ve memorized over the years. As I listen again to these taped interviews and performances, I am reminded of the invaluable legacy these musicians have left behind.

Since many of the immigrant pipers to Cape Breton couldn’t read or write music in staff notation, they depended on lilting or a form of singing known in Gaelic as Port a Beul (Mouth Music). Gaelic was the first language of these musicians and according to local sources, almost every tune had Gaelic words to fit the music. Although Joe Neil MacNeil was not a singer, he knew the words to dozens of pipe tunes. He had a close association with one of Cape Breton’s finest dance pipers, Neil R. MacIsaac of Beinn Eoin. Neil R died in 1971 and regrettably there no known recordings of his music. Neil R learned a lot of his music and Puirt a Beul from his father, Ruairidh Shim, whose maternal grandfather had been a piper at Waterloo, 1815. The staff notation printed here was based on the playing of the late Alex Currie, another fine dance player who grew up about 30 miles from Neil R MacIsaac.


rejected Lover half pageThe Rejected Lover

 Fhir nan casan caola, cha leiginn ann `am leabaidh thu    (O man of the skinny legs, I wouldn’t let you in my bed)

Fhir nan casan caola, cha leiginn ann `am leabaidh thu     (O man of the skinny legs, I wouldn’t let you in my bed)

`S tàr ort, `s tàr ort, `s tàr ort mum beir iAd ort     (Flee, flee, flee before they catch you)

Tàr ort mun tig a’ latha        (Flee before the break of day)

Tàr ort mum beir iad ort      (Flee before they catch you)

Tàr ort mun tig a’ latha        (Flee before the break of day)

Tàr ort mum beir iad ort      (Flee before they catch you)

The majority of this article previously appeared in the magazine An Rubha published by The Highland Village Museum, an outdoor living history museum that tells the story of Gaelic settlement in Nova Scotia. It is located on a stunning 43-acre property overlooking the majestic Bras d’Or Lakes in Iona, Nova Scotia, the heart of central Cape Breton. Thanks to the museum for permission to republish.

Barry Shears is a Cape Breton piper, researcher and author of three tune-books arranged for pipers. His specialty is traditional dance music played in the Gaelic style. Barry is a founding member of Alternative Pipers of North America.