Here’s the second of the decision charts for new pipers – one of the most frequent questions I am asked is ‘what keys should I get?’ There is no perfect configuration – everything is a compromise – and the most common one is ‘standard 7’:
Note that this chart only applies for F & G pipes – on a D set the chanter stick is much longer and different restrictions apply.
For anyone new to Northumbrian piping, and expecially for a lone piper, it can be difficult to work out which sort of instrument to get. Whether commissioning a new set or looking for a used instrument – here’s a basic guide to choosing your Northumbrian smallpipes pitch:
As you can see – the default answer is ‘F’. At some point I’ll add another chart for choosing keys – that question comes up even more frequently – and the answer is ‘7’
Reading and researching old music manuscripts takes a lot of effort and is very much a specialised interest – but just occasionally it all comes to life in unexpected ways. I was recently playing in Devon and was sharing some music with some friends, when fiddler Paul Burgess played a lovely G minor hornpipe that felt strangely familiar:
Paul had it from an 19thC manuscript as ‘A Modal Hornpipe‘ – whilst I’ve always known my version as a James Hill hornpipe called ‘XYZ‘ and commonly played in A minor a bit like this:
I eventually found the G minor transcription in the William Irwin manuscript at the Village Music Project. Irwin was a fiddler in Langdale and two of his books dataed 1838 & 1850 were partially copied in the early C20th but the original MSS have been lost. The question then becomes which came first; Irwin’s Modal Hornpipe or Hill’s XYZ?
XYZ was a famous racehorse born in 1808 who won numerous races in the North East from 1811 to 1814. James Hill was born in c.1810 and wrote music through out his short life but many the sources and attributions to James Hill come from much later – a challenge addressed in Graham Dixon’s wonderfully presented & encyclopaedic book ‘The Lads Like Beer‘.
The tune explicitly named XYZ appears with a direct attribution to Hill in the Jock Davidson (Kielder Jock) manuscript and the Clough family manuscripts – both sources from the early C20th. Unattributed but named versions appears in both the Robert Davison and William Green manuscripts; both c.1850. The RD version titled ‘X.Y.’ is much closer to the Modal Hornpipe than many:
In all of the earlier versions there are musical curiousities and what can only be called mis-transcriptions. The c.1850 version from Collingwood is transcribed in A Major and the Robert Davison version (included in the PDF) has a particular ‘double flat’ in the B part!
There’s nothing definitive in any of these manuscripts to say which (if any!) is the primary source and a good tune is still a good tune to be played and enjoyed – but I’ll still keep my ear out for such coincidences as they’re a constant joy. Here’s a PDF with three transcriptions: XYZ and Modal Hornpipe
Here’s a concert pitch set of Northumbrian Smallpipes made by Dave Shaw. Chanter & drones are Boxwood & Brass. It has a 9 keyed chanter with the standard 7 + F naturals; the middle B and e holes are angled to ease the finger spacing. Four drones each with tuning beads, hand rolled ferrules and Dave’s piston drone ends (not chained stoppers). Fully reeded, full playing condition – bellows & case included.
Price: £1050 + delivery
Location: West Northumberland – and occasionally elsewhere