Wednesday, June 30, 2004


A New Beginning...

Ever since I found out that the great Bonnie Rideout calls herself "The Piping Fiddler", I've been increasingly uncomfortable with my own use of that moniker, and have been thinking about a new one for myself, one that would be unique.

My purchase this weekend gave me the clue. "The Black Bow" sounded delightful, and mysterious. It sounds as ancient as the carbon-fiber bow that inspired it is modern. And it sounds great in Gaelic: bogha dubh.

So I'm proud to announce the relaunch of my music site, and my blog, respectively as and

The blog has been updated with title fields and the ability for you, the reader (all 4 of you) to comment. The new website will probably launch this weekend, with new title graphics and all. I also have a new email address just for my musical endeavours: will remain, eventually becoming a repository for essays on piping and fiddling, from the perspective of someone who does both. I also hope to open it up to other contributors as well.


The Jitters...

One of these days I'll get over performance anxiety.

It's not the obvious stuff like forgetting how the tune goes, it's the subtle stuff. Like my bowing. My bowing, which has made tremendous strides over the last couple of weeks and months, enhanced further by my new divine bow.

I had a recital last night, and my bowing stank. I'm sure the other students thought I was pretty decent, but I could hear every bad bowing, and Elke could too.


Saturday, June 26, 2004


You Had Me at "SFIRE Sanctioned"

Some festivals want you to compete there more than others.

Harrisburg sent me a flier to invite me to compete on pipes there. Me and every piper from NY to VA, apparently. But still a nice gesture, for them to come to us.

The Virginia Scottish Games has one-upped them. I got an invitation to compete on fiddle again, along with an entry form. But included therein was a photo of me from the last time I competed there. It was quite the pleasant surprise, considering that the photo was of my first competition ever, wherein I took 1st in Novice grade. Since Steve and Trisha were running late, they missed my performance, so it's nice to have a record of it. And, naturally, I'm competing there. This time in Open. With luck (and my awesome new bow!), I might even place!

I went to the park to pipe, but had to quit after 15 minutes because I'd blown my lip. That sucks. I'm going to practice in 30 minute increments for the rest of the evening, hopefully that'll build it back up for next week, when I really have to burn the midnight oil practicing.


Sticker Shock!

I went to the violin store to get my "good" $200 brazilwood bow rehaired, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a second good bow. I've been playing with fiberglass since the hair came unglued at the tip of my brazilwood bow, and the difference is significant. Considering the improvement in sound going from light to extra-sticky rosin, I thought having a spare good bow would be a good idea.

So I was handed a variety of their heavier bows, and I tried them. I saw one whose stick was pitch black, "a carbon fiber bow" I was told. I tried it. I have never sounded better in my life. I could get control of tone like I have never heard myself get before, from a great trumpeting sound to a faint whisper of pure tone. I played through airs, strathspeys, reels, jigs, even a hornpipe. My heart leapt. "How much?" I asked "$600". My heart landed in my stomach.

I tried another one of the same brand as my "good" bow, and though I liked it, I didn't take quite to it. "How much?" "$470". "But this one was like $200 a year ago." "That one is brazil-wood, this one is pernambuco." So I was forced to decide if I wanted to blow the extra hundred bucks to get the bow I really loved. It didn't take me long to decide.

Now I'm playing with an awesome bow that cost me dearly. I'll remember the price I paid when I play slow airs, that should make them especially sorrowful.

While I was there, I tried a pair of baroque violins. They were reasonably priced, but getting used to their intonation and warmth is going to take work, not to mention getting accustomed to the gut strings. But what really struck me was how light they were! They felt like feathers in my hand, like I might break them at any moment. However, that's a purchase for a different day.

Sunday, June 20, 2004


Not Bad for a First Pipe Competition

I competed on pipes for the first time yesterday, at the Harrisburg Pipes and Drums festival, and am fairly happy with my results. Summarizing my competition results, from worst to best:

Gr IV Slow March: Leaving Rhu Vaternish, 82/100, next to last in a pack of 10. Though the judge commented on my unsteady blowing, he liked my execution (& my marching), but hated my tempo. I get the impression that he thought it was less of a Slow March contest than a Slow Air contest (and even called it that at one point), and I played at way too high of a tempo for his tastes. That cost me severely. He didn't like my tuning either, but no other judge faulted it. The chances of me competing in Slow March again are small (since this contest is so rarely held), so I'm not worrying too much about this one - had it not been for the huge mismatch in expectations as to what the contest was about, I probably would have done much better.

Gr IV Piobaireachd (Urlar only): Lament for the Old Sword, 84/100, middle of the pack (3-way tie for 7th) of 13. The judge liked it overall, but my slightly unsteady blowing cost me. Also, he couldn't hear one of my gracings. I wish the judge had made more comments, honestly - there's not much guidance on his score sheet.

Gr IV 6/8 March: Cock of the North, 88/100, 3rd in a pack of 9. The judge liked it, but thought I was crushing some of my tachums, and had some unsteady blowing. Said I wasn't "musical enough". Maybe I was slipping from compound time a bit, and that's how he's expressing it. He also thought I was too fast, presumably because I was playing at close to a band tempo.

Gr IV 2/4 March: Prince Charles' Welcome to Lochaber, 88/100, 3rd in a pack of 16. The judge liked it, thought I was very bold in the 3rd part, but also that I had some blowing issues, that I was "losing D-throws" (I'll concede they were crushed). He also stated that I'd played too fast, suggesting that I was playing at a band tempo, and should slow it down. Judge liked my pipes, thought my chanter was a tad "coarse". Everyone else described it as "bright & balanced".

No above grade level marks this time.

So the lessons I take from this:
1) Tempo. Playing band tunes can hurt me in this area - because I'm accustomed to the faster tempo - unless I consciously slow myself down,
2) Steady blowing. Spending all this time on practice & electronic chanter has hurt me. Back to full time on the big pipes.
3) Some executional problems, but fairly minor ones. Crushed tachums, probably caused by an over-sized d-grace note. I also miss f-doublings (which no judge noticed, but I did).

All in all, a very respectable performance for the first time out. The other Gr IV contestants seemed to agree there were a lot more contestants than anyone was expecting. I was running with the "late registrants" pack - the first performers in every contest - and they all seemed to like my playing a lot.

Hopefully I'll do better at Grandfather Mountain. There's just Piobaireachd and 2/4 there.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004


Costume Update (4) and Singing in my Head

Wahoo! Last night, I got in my fabric for my costume. First thing I did was to doublecheck with my clan tartans book to make sure none of them actually represented a clan pattern. Though some were vaguely similar, none were. I don't know what I'm going to do with them yet, though. The yellow-and-black (which looks more orange-and-black to me) will almost certainly become several sets of hose. I might also make a set of knee-breeches out of this same cloth, to reproduce a pair in a portrait of Neil Gow. There are two green patterns, one a muted green with a thick brown striping, and yellow and red pinstripes; another with a brighter green field, with blocks of black and a pinstripe of white. I don't know what I'm going to do with these two. They seem too thin for a kilt, but might be appropriate for waistcoats and trews; whether they are thick enough to serve as a jacket remains to be seen.

I also got my steel-framed flintlock pistol and basket hilt sword from The Discriminating General last night. Both look fantastic! I need to stitch the sword belt tight to cinch it around the scabbard. Also, I figured out how to take the red velvet lining out of the basket without damaging it. I will probably sell my brass-handled basket hilt to a friend, along with a sword belt for it. A flint will be a necessary accessory for the pistol, and (eventually) have a vent hole drilled, so it can be fired.

All my lessons went well today. I discovered the secret for fixing the biggest problem I was having with the pipe 6/8s was to "sing it in my head" before striking in. Just from one week, I showed huge improvement from doing that. On the fiddle front, it was my last Scottish fiddle lesson until fall, and Elke wants to start sending me to the original sources (rather than the fiddle club books) next year, and start me on chords, harmonies, and variatons. Philippe has me on jigs now, and preliminary roll exercises. Mastering fiddle rolls should come quickly, I think.

Monday, June 14, 2004


Potomac Celtic Festival '04 - 2 of 2

Living History:
I learned a lot about costuming, both from the reenactors, and from trying out some of the things I've read about in sources.

For example, my belted plaid is 6 yards long, consistent with what I read about in the sources. The reenactors keep telling me that's way too long, 3 yards is enough. And there's a clear difference. Their plaids produce much less material above the belt than mine, while still more than adequately wrapping the waist. My belted plaid looks more like a high-class portrait, with the voluminous material left over the belt, and the very clean, sharp pleats in back. Their plaids looked much more bunched, like the sketches of more ordinary Highlandmen. But the amount of material used in the past, according to the sources, is similar to mine - 5-8 yards. The difference, I think, is that when looking foppish, one will lay the whole length of the plaid out on the ground, pleat it, and put it on. When being practical, one will fold the plaid in half lengthwise, before pleating it. This folding is documented; some sources insist that it was always done, and Waitt's portrait of the piper to Laird Grant shows this, if one looks closely. The pleats aren't nearly as sharp or neat (especially with a heavier weight wool), but the width of material above the belt is much more managable. And in the end, it's not much hotter. The thickness in the front skirts is doubled, but by the same token, it's actually a little thinner in back. The portion of the plaid over the belt is double the thickness, but there's still enough clearance between it and the back for air to flow through. I was fairly comfortable in 70+ degree weather in the outfit even with a doublet. I only became uncomfortable when in a crowded tent, thanks to all the other people's body heat.

Sadly, my outfit needs some work still for authenticity. The handle on my triangular-bladed dirk is too long by about 3/4" - though it should be fairly straightforward to cut down. If I can add 3-4" length of similar fabric to the hem of my shirt, I probably should. My moggans are apparently too similar to a variation of the Stewart tartan (though I looked, and I just don't see it). And, of course, my currans need to be out of deerhide, and my bonnet needs to be knit, not sewn. My doublet interested the 17th century guys most. They thought the neckline was a little short for their period, but there was nothing obviously wrong about it. Sleeved doublets of the 18th century were more commonly in a tartan wool, but the doublet could probably still work for then. The actual design is based on a late 18th century portrait. To improve it, I'll probably double the number of buttons in front. The biggest downside costuming-wise was that my black neck-cloth hadn't been washed enough times, and my sweat caused the dye to bleed onto the collar of my white linen shirt. So I had to bleach it, something I was hoping to avoid.

The other interesting factoid I learned from the reenactors was that men's clothes were not home-made in this period in the Highlands. A travelling weaver/tailor would come to town, instruct the local women on the colors and amounts of the wool he needed, would weave his preferred setts, and then tailor the clothes for the men in exchange for what he could get in trade. It made me wonder: would the idea of a "district tartan" derive not from a locally popular sett, then, but from a given weaver's usual route?

In chatting with a woman with the 1644 group, she had a book on old Irish dress, and was considering selling me a spare copy. In it, there's an early 16th century Durer print I had never seen. It was part of a plate showing Irish kerns and noblewomen's dress (all of which was familiar), but also included a child playing a full-sized Irish Piob Mhor. The instrument was a two-drone instrument, almost identical to another (German?) bagpipe Durer illustrated in a 1514 print, and very similar to the 2-drone Highland pipes seen frequently mid-18th century. It seems that the two-drone tenor and bass, or tenor and baritone, arrangement was very conservative. Even the drone tops were the same: chalice shaped, not like the mid 18th-century Waterloo drone tulips, or the modern form.

I also heard some great bands. In addition to my three teachers, John with City of Alexandria, Philippe with Coleman's Cross, and Elke playing solo & with the fiddle club, there were some great musicians there. Maggie Carchrie & an a capella group called Navan had some great Gaelic vocal work (and Navan sang in Cornish, Manx, and other languages as well). I caught Lunasa and the Homespun Ceilidh Band, the latter of which had, in addition the usual instruments, Renaissance cittern and viola da gamba. Ed Miller and Slainte Mhath were there, as was Moch Pryderi, and a few more artists I had the chance to see, and a few more I (sadly) missed. I think the fiddle club performance went well, and with my own playing I only got distracted and messed up a few times, and Elke's skillful playing surely hid most of my mistakes.

It was, in all, a blast, one of my favorite festivals every year I go to it.

Saturday, June 12, 2004


Potomac Celtic Festival '04 - 1 of 2

Lots to tell. Great music, great times. My costume caught the eye of two reenactor groups, who promptly recruited me - the 1644 MacLean Company of Foot, and the 1745 Appin Regiment.

Here's a pic of me (left) with one of the newer Appins (right):

Full report coming soon...

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


The Well-Tempered Smallpipe

I should have realized it before. The E drone on my smallpipes is only slightly longer than the tenor A drone. This means that with a spare reed for said A drone, I can get that E drone to become a G drone. Why would I want to do this? For my D chanter, of course. This allows me to play [A,,A,] and [G,D] on my drones successively, meaning I can quickly alternate between playing tunes in A & D on my A chanter, and in D & G on my D chanter, and still have always two drones running.

This opens up a while lot of possibilities for me with playing smallpipes with the fiddle club. For example, during this summer's performances, we're playing three smallpipable tunes: a Cape Breton march in A (I can't remember the name off the top of my head), and Skye Boat Song and Road to the Isles in G. With a quick change of chanters and the uncorking and corking of two drones, I'll be able to play all three of these tunes. I might even work up a smallpipable setting of Flowers of Edinburgh, since we play that as well.

Drone configurations for A chanter:
[A,,A,] - for all tunes in A (all modes), D major, and Bminor
[A,,E,A,] - for all tunes in A & maybe E dorian
[A,,A,D] - for tunes in D major, Bminor, maybe A mix
[A,,E,A,D] - for alternating tunes in A, Bm, & D, though there's some dissonance

Drone configurations for D chanter:
[G,] - for all tunes in G major & E minor
[D] - for all tunes in G major and D major & mixolydian
[G,D] - for all tunes in G major and D major & mixolydian
[A,,A,D] - for all tunes in D major & mixolydian

I expect the smallpipes will get their public debut during the Virginia Scottish Games in late July.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


Piobaireachd, Pipe Competition Plans, and Still More Costuming

I played my Grades IV & III competition piobaireachd, Lament for the Old Sword, straight through in public for the first time at the park yesterday. By the crunluath a mach variation, I was a wreck. I was leaking air at the lip, I couldn't remember the tune, and my hands were just totally locked up. And that was just a 12 minute tune. I'm at least a year away from playing this thing in competition, which means I better make this part of my regular practice regimen. I think that as I rebuild my endurance, I should be less distracted by my own problems, and should be concentrating on the tune. Interestingly enough, a jogger stopped, about 100 yards away, and listened through the whole thing. I'm hoping he doesn't know the pipe idiom, and thought I had performed masterfully! Another fellow, a clarinetist, came by to watch my fingering, and asked about the mechanics of the pipe, and a lady waved and complimented me from a van.

I think I might enter my first competition earlier than I'd planned, on June 19. There's a Pipes & Drums festival in Harrisburg, PA, about 2.5 hours away, and I think I'm going to go out for it. This means I need to burn the midnight oil on my Grade IV competition tunes. I'm happy with my piobaireachd urlar and my 2/4. They also offer a slow march contest; I'm not sure if that's EUSPBA-sanctioned. If it is, I'll ask my teacher about an appropriate tune. A good showing here could take some of the load off of me for later contests, especially ones where there's a fiddle contest the same day.

I've got my neck cloth dyed black, and did so without even making a mess! I probably should have used a finer linen for it, since it's kind of thick and stiff when worn, but it's servicable. I'm still engaged in the tedious task of stitching around the edges to keep it from fraying further. I'm using threads that have frayed off for this. It's usable until that task is done, but not really washable. Hopefully my orders will start coming in soon, my new basket-hilt sword & steel-framed pistol, my tartan wool, and my Lochaber axe and 17th century shoes from various vendors should all have shipped, or be near shipping. I expect to put together the fitting pieces for my waistcoat, hose, and jacket this weekend. I might need a sewing machine to speed this up.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?