We conclude our history of one of the greatest pipers of all time, Donald MacPherson. Here Donald gives important advice relevant to all pipers, whatever their level…..
I always made my own chisels and gouges for working with reeds. I wasn’t satisfied with the standard tools. I experimented grinding them down and then dipping them in oil. It used to stink the place out. I enjoyed making reeds but I’m not one who could go in for mass production. I thought at one time I could maybe sell them but orders came in too fast. I couldn’t keep up. I would have needed a full team behind me and I gave that up quickly. I couldn’t do that but I was able to control my own sound. I wasn’t at the mercy of another reedmaker. That was the idea behind making my own.
Anyone starting out should think about this firstly: the pipe has to sit comfortably without a big long blowpipe which forces the head to twist round, or a wee short one that brings the head over the bag. You’ve got to stand upright with the chanter lying naturally under the fingers. That’s the first thing. If a piper is comfortable he is able to think about what he’s playing. The blowing has to be steady. If you’ve got to think about keeping the reeds going you’re doomed from the start. Lose your concentration for a moment and the prize is away.
As far as tuning goes I was always very fortunate in being able to tune three drones at once. Some people thought I was pretending and that the bagpipe was already in tune and I was using steel reeds and things, but it wasn’t that at all. I could just do the three together. My father used to say ‘that’s amazing’, as most people stopped drones back in those days. I think it is definitely better if you can do all three drones together. If you can, I don’t see the point in stopping them unless you are unsure. When I was competing I never had to stop a drone because even with all the pressure and the nerves I knew the bagpipe and what it would do. Ten minutes or 15 minutes playing was all I ever needed and then I could go on to the platform.
The balance, resonance, and harmony of the pipe was achieved by careful selection of reeds and the set up of the chanter. The bagpipe must stay in tune at least 15 minutes and a bit longer for the likes of Donald Gruamach and the other big tunes. I’ve played three piobaireachd – smaller ones mind you – without touching a drone. As I said earlier I maybe inherited a good ear from my father. Even in the Boys Brigade when I was given that old set of pipes with a bit of string holding the drones together and an old torn bag, my father was able to get them going. We used to visit old Peter MacNicol who lived across the road from Peter MacLeod in Partick in Glasgow. On one occasion Peter said that I had to get rid of the half set as they would spoil my ear for the full bagpipe.
When I started competing I would start to get ready when the chap a couple of places in front was called, though I would already have had a blow in case I was pushed on early after a break down or something like that. In the tuning room I would just stop and start and keep the bagpipe going. As I said I knew the pipe and I never went to a competition struggling with the instrument.
As a young man l was exposed to good sound and it never left me. Teachers should encourage pupils to hear good instruments as often as possible. There are lots of competitions these days so there is ample opportunity to hear the best players. There are many, many good sets of pipes but there are still only half a dozen or so who are winning the prizes. The ratio between the successful and the not so successful more less has stayed the same. So that's a thought. It is part of a young piper's education to go and listen to the top players.
I don’t think I took too long to tune up when I was on the platform but no one seemed to bother about time taken to tune in those days. I have very often gone on when the pipe was perfect and that was annoying because I felt I should do some tuning when I first went on to the platform.
There is one point I would like to mention. Today in piobaireachd competition, you can hear some pipers tuning up by playing a slow march. Personally I would rather hear some pleasant tuning notes.
I used to play my father"s pipes when I started competing but he later sold then to a piper who went to live in Canada. When I was competing with own pipes I used the same Hardie chanter all the time. The gradual rise in the pitch of chanters didn’t affect me as I just made reeds to suit - along with a little surgery to my chanter.
Competitors should try lo get a good instrument and feel comfortable with it. They shouldn't have to grip the bag too tightly, and the fingers should be relaxed on the chanter - or by the time they reach the crunluath variations the fingers might be tiring. You can't feel relaxed if you have to blow a strong reed as the arm could be under too much tension. I've got reeds I have been playing for years and I keep them in a wee tin box, using them in rotation.
The last reed I bought was from D.R. MacLennan over 30 years ago. I think there has to be some resistance in a reed so that a slight vibration can be felt under the fingers. I would stop at nothing to get the sound I wanted, even to removing the sole of the chanter in order to get the low G into tune. Some discordant notes on the chanter can be rectified by scraping the reed provided there is enough cane, but it is not advisable to scrape the reed too near the edges, and always take a little off at a time.
The pitch of bagpipes has gone up slightly, a bit above concert Bb. I think the loud bagpipe sound favoured by pipe bands has never been very popular on the solo platform. I remember big Donald Maclean. He often had the loudest bagpipe I ever heard. If you are playing outside, the pipes can afford lo be a little harder of course and even a little louder in pitch as it sounds better than the higher pitched pipe.
As far as bagpipes are concerned it is worth remembering that if you are buying an old set to check the bores in the drone lops and the middle joint in the bass drone with calipers to make sure they are parallel, otherwise you may have to get them re-reamed.
It might be of interest to young pipers to know of an incident which happened to me on my first competing experience at Oban in 1948. I was sitting in the hall and I think I was number six to play. I thought to myself there are plenty of pipers here so I don’t need to get ready just yet. First to pIay was Neil Henderson from Dundee, who was playing well but was so nervous he could hardly put his foot onto the platform without it shaking. This unnerved me. He'd just finished when the steward came up to me and said, ‘You’re next!' Well the were pipes still in my box.
It was early in the morning and I pleaded with him that I was number six, but he just said, ‘Oh, the rest are not here, you're next.’ I went outside the door of the hall and struck up my pipes. Well you can’t stand tuning too long when the judges and audience are waiting for you, so I went onto the platform. Sheriff Grant, one of the of the judges, said he would give me an extra minute or two to tune up. When I started my tune I thought to myself that I had no chance at all because of the very short tuning time I'd had. Fortunately, my pipes had been going well before I left home, so I kept playing and managed lo get through the Old Men of the Shells. The drones began to go very slightly out of pitch al the beginning of the doubling of the crunluath variation. so I had to he ease off the pressure on the bag in order to keep the drones in perfect tune. I kept waiting for a choke but il didn't come, and I won the Gold Medal. Later the same day, I won the Open Piobaireachd.
There are many times when I've played and thought I couldn't have done any better and that was when the pipe was perfect. Being successful with my own reeds was an added pleasure. I've always been fortunate in having people coming up to me and saying ‘you’II be first today’, and ‘your pipes are beautiful.’ Young people learning should leave no stone unturned to get the best sound they possibly can. How do you get enjoyment from your piping? Get a good sound. That is what it is all about. That is what gives you happiness and pleasure when playing. There is no pleasure otherwise. The bagpipe is a great instrument, but only when it is going properly.
• Donald MacPherson passed away on Sunday 21st April, 2012. His funeral in Edinburgh was attended by all the leading pipers of this and previous generations who could manage. One of his favourites tunes, Lord Lovat's Lament, was played at the committal by his pupil Iain Speirs.
Here is part of it played by Donald himself. This is from the 'Living Legend' album available on the Suibhal label here.