Moving from Highland to Uilleann Pipes

Copyright 1996 David C. Daye

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From the Internet:

>can any of you tell me what I should expect in transferring from >Highland to Uilleann.

A few obvious things.

First, there is no practice chanter, you begin learning on the real thing. But as with Highland, you can limit yourself to the chanter alone (with bag & bellows to power it). As a longtime Highland piper I found the drones little extra trouble but unfortunately they make tuning problems rather more obvious than they need to be while you are first gaining coordination.

Next, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get an uilleann pipe chanter to work. If you are an oceanic area you may be very lucky. In such places as Ireland, Scotland, Hawaii, Seattle etc the oceanic influence will be a big help for you. Also there may be some fine established pipers who will have solved the important problems and who should be able to get you started. Pages have been written about the great sensitivity of the uilleann pipe chanter to changes in the surrounding air. You will come to regard your Highland pipes as dependable as a piano by comparison.

Next, you might find the hand posture rather annoying. On many full sets of pipes there are so many protrusions that it is essential to hold the chanter top leaning way forward and far towards the bag, such that the finger holes are pointing down at the floor just in front of you. If you start with chanter alone, or chanter and drones, you will be able to hold the chanter erect like a Highland, but you should probably resist the temptation to continue doing what you can already do well and comfortably. If you graduate to a full set you will in the end probably have to adopt the distinct uilleann pipe posture so it is better to begin working on it in the beginning in my opinion. If you have skilled help nearby you should probably ask their opinion about this. In any event the wrists and palms should probably be rather straight just as with Highland, the better to minimize motion injury, and this healthy wrist position will be maintained by the oddly-leaning chanter angle when you hold a full set. (Some full sets have folded-back pipes which allow you to hold the chanter more upright comfortably, but unless you have one in your posession it may be wise to plan for the more awkward "normal" full set at this time.)

The bag can be held either far up into the armpit (possibly with the aid of a shoulder or neck strap) or else far down low against the hips or anywhere in between. This depends on the size of your bag, length and proportion of your arms, and the sensitivity of your elbow area to pressure from the bag.

Generally there is a lot less personalization of this instrument than with Highland pipes. The variables are neck length and blow- pipe length (well, the tubing connecting bellows and bag), and not much else. Since the chanter can be leaned at a considerable range of different angles, the neck length isn't so critical as with Highland pipes, and since there is only one stock there is less to worry with drones etc. This is probably only very important for a full set where the "regulators" or wrist-key harmony pipes are added.

Now finger posture. The embellishments are far fewer, far more optional, and generally gentler and slower than for Highland. For this reason it is possible to sustain a rather tight grip and still play easily, if that is your preference. I favor an easy grip for both Highland and uilleann and there is no reason you cannot do the same. Personally I believe that more people will do well with a rather easy grip, but if you are quite an experienced piper already you have probably resolved the issue of grip-strength, and have developed more than enough finger skill for this instrument (with certain exceptions).

Embellishments are much less important because the chanter has a greater range, some loudness variation ability, and stacatto ability (ability to stop briefly between notes). For this reason although no particular technique is terribly hard to learn, there is a rather dauntingly large number of them. At the very least, consider the length of an 1/8 note. It is no longer necessarily continuous, so you must decide not only how soon to play the next note but when, if at all, to end the current note and how much silence to put before the next. A 1/8 note can be as short a tiny gracenote followed by a lenthy silence, or almost continuous with just the tiniest bit of silent gap between notes. It's not nearly as hard to learn to do as a good taorluath but it will be a long time until you can sprinkle stacatto or silences throughout your phrases consistently and musically, because there are so many fingering combinations that create silences between all the different notes, and so much possible variation in the length of silences.

Incidentally the silences are caused by keeping the chanter bottom resting against the knee, and deliberately making crossings. This will be a temporary setback for your Highland piping as you strive to play cleanly in Highland and make all these crossings on the uilleann pipes. At first your meticulously simultaneous Highland finger changes will cause you to completely miss some silences and some sound effects that are created by slow crossings as you unconsciously avoid them by playing "correctly.". In the end this will all sort itself out.

So you will be tackling interesting musical problems rather early with this instrument. I found that technical problems were spotty. I could do many things with greater ease and speed than necessary, yet one or two notes would come along and suddenly I was back with Seumas in Book 1 :). But this happens to anyone who tries a 2nd instrument so it should be no real surprise.

With Highland pipes any particular reed has a best pressure for blowing. We learn the best pressure for our reed and then we learn to maintain it with perfect automation, almost subconciously, while concentrating on the fingers. With the uilleann pipe this goes right out the window. Like the flute and whistle, blowing pressure creates the 2nd octave. Like flute & whistle, we have a number of different pressures and so the blowing must be fully conscious at all times. In your early months there will often be times when you believe your reed to be out of adjustment because it will not jump into, or stay in, the 2nd octave. Often Highland pipers will unconsciously "lock" into one particular arm pressure and thereby fail to increase enough. Since they have trained themselves to be nearly automatic about this they may blame the reed by mistake at times. Generally the pressure increases as you climb the scale, and most pipers discover that a typical reed has some quirky notes which require some unusual blowing pressure compared to the notes adjacent to them. It is no small matter therefore to change chanter reeds!

The last thing I would say at this point is that the adjustment of the chanter reed is a very complex matter. The chanter is a full-featured oboe, jumping the octave when air pressure forces it to vibrate in a different way than it does in the 1st octave. The only way to tune the 2 octaves to match is to adjust the size and shape of the reed! Strictly speaking, it is the relationship between the reed shape and the chanter bore, so it is possible to make adjustments in the chanter by actually sticking wires and grass rushes into the bore to vary its effective diameter. Most important, changes in the air humidity cause the cane to expand and contract, thus varying the tuning of the 2 octaves, and to change stiffness rather noticeably, which can change both the base operating pressure and the amount of extra pressure needed to hit the octave. There are so many variables to this chanter/reed combination that a great many people abandon the pipes or, having learned to keep them playing, use them only during certain seasons or keep them always at home. This is why they are so rarely heard especially in folk bands where other musicians are depending on them. There is progress being made with partially or completely artificial reeds for some of the pipes (drones and regulators), and with coatings or treatments applied to cane chanter reeds which is beginning to improve the lot of those uilleann pipers who would perform on demand in public and in unsteady climates.

Well I hope I haven't put you off piping, if you love the sound you should give it a good try, and the best of luck to you!

david daye

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