Bag and Bellows Technique.
Scottish Small Pipes, and particularly Border Pipes, are pressure sensitive, the pitch increasing and decreasing with relatively small changes of pressure within the system.
The function of the reeds and therefore the sound of the pipes is also dependent on the absolute pressure with which the pipes are played.
It is important therefore that the correct pressure is achieved and that this pressure is maintained with as little variation as possible.
For this to be happen, it is vital to develop an excellent bag and bellows technique.
Optimum sound from the chanter reed is dependent on correct pressure. If the pressure is too low the reed will not vibrate properly, the sound will be weak, of low volume and “croaky”. Equally as bad however, is too high a pressure which will result in the blades of the chanter reed being squeezed and only vibrating over a small percentage of their potential area, the resultant sound being strangulated and with poor harmonic content.
The ideal absolute pressure falls within a quite narrow range. For Border Pipes it is 13 inches of water and for small pipes, between 16 and 17 inches of water measured on a manometer. Ideally, learners should use a manometer so that pressure and variations of pressure can be monitored during the course of the bag/bellows cycle.
Manometers are simple devices which measure the number of inches a column of water in a glass tube is displaced under pressure. Simply remove one of the drone’s top sections, attach the manometer’s connecting tube to the bottom section of that drone and play the pipes. The pressure will be displayed in the glass column.
As can be deduced from above, unless a good and accurate bag/bellows technique is learned, the pipes will never sound at their best and never be in tune.
It is important to practice the following techniques at least every day and always best to practice little and often until “muscle memory” is achieved, when, like the use of a clutch in a car, the player doesn’t need to think about bag/bellows technique but always achieves it automatically.
While learning the techniques of bag and bellows it is unhelpful to attempt the playing of tunes at the same time, as full concentration will be required to maintain a correct and steady pressure. It will also safe guard against introducing and learning bad habits. It is worth while taking the time to practice for 5 to 10 minutes at least once and if possible more than once per day while just holding a Low A on the chanter. Once the technique has been mastered, and the time to achieve this varies from person to person, then move at random from one note to another and finally attempt a slow air which is known well to the player.
Before going on to describe the techniques to be followed, here are some helpful suggestions, basic principles and rules.
While learning, it is useful to use a mirror to monitor movements.
The bellows pipes are played principally with the bag and not the bellows.
For pipers who already play highland pipes; think of the bag as your lungs and the bellows as your bag. In other words the power house of the bellows pipes is the bag, (equivalent to your lungs while playing the highland pipes) and the reservoir for replenishment of air is the bellows, (equivalent to the bag on the highland pipes).
The points in the bag/bellows cycle where there is most likelihood of pressure variations are at the changeover between bag and bellows and vice versa.
With the previous thought in mind it is important to use the entire capacity of both bag and bellows as this will minimise the number changeovers.
As a general rule the use of bellows and bag should be smooth without fast, jerky or exaggerated movements and thought of as being in slow motion. Movements of the bag arm should be hardly detectible. The bellows should move at the same speed all the time.
It goes without saying that the pipes should be completely air tight. If this is not the case a good bag technique will never be achieved. If it is suspected that air is escaping or the pipes are taking too much air then please refer to the appropriate maintenance section.
Getting Started. The Bag/Bellows Cycle.
The bellows should be strapped on fairly high up on the waist and immediately below the rib cage. The belt should be tightened so that there is no movement of the bellows round the waist.
The arm belt should be positioned above the elbow and again should be fairly tightly fastened.
Once the bag is fully inflated it should be positioned right up and under the arm pit with the arm encircling the bag just behind the common stock.
Attach the blow pipe to the bellows connector lightly (so that it can easily be detached with one hand) and with the bag full and the tenor drone tuned to low A, disconnect the blow pipe from the bellows.
Play low A on the chanter with as steady a pressure as can be achieved, for as long as possible and until the bag is deflated. Repeat this exercise at least three times.
The exercise is the quickest way of learning what it feels like to play the pipes with the bag and it will develop the adductor muscles of the upper left arm, so essential to acquiring a steady pressure.
The Bag/Bellows Cycle.
Again with only the tenor drone sounding, attach the blow pipe to the bellows outlet tube in the normal way and fill the bag. Do this using full and slow strokes of the bellows.
Play low A and keep a constant and steady pressure on the bag until it feels uncomfortably empty. Depending on the strength of the reeds this typically takes between 6 and 8 seconds. During this phase the bellows can be slowly moving out so they are ready for the next stroke.
With the bellows in a fully extended position squeeze them steadily and at the same speed with which they were extended until just before all the air has expired. It is important during this bellows phase that the bag arm is kept steady and NOT allowed to be pushed out by the air coming into the bag. In other words there should be full pressure on bag and bellows at the same time.
Immediately before the air in the bellows has expired, the bag arm can be slowly released to allow the bag to be filled and once this has happened the bag can take over and the bellows can be replenished until the cycle is ready to be initiated once more.
If these instructions are followed carefully, there is no reason why the player cannot achieve a good bag technique in a fairly short time thus allowing the pipes to be played with their optimum sound and tuning.