Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson - Intermediate Finger Exercises and RSPBA MAP Tunes

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Medieval Bagpipes - preamble

In the beginning there were reeds pulled out the lake. A tongue was split in the end and this made the noise. This became a 'launeddas', still played today in Sardinia It is a hugely interesting and exciting instrument. It is pictured in ancient Egypt...so a little before medieval times.

At some point somewhere the reed became an actual reed and it was stuck into a tube (a pipe) with holes in it. And we have the beginnings of a new kingdom of music....

Missing out a good few hundred years and not asking too many questions about the variety of origins of bagpipes, we find ourselves in the 13th and 14th centuries with a 'rauschpfeif'. This was a very loud instrument, a conical tube made from wood and set into motion with a double reed. It has a reedcap on top so that there is no contact between the player's mouth and the reed. Earlier instruments did not have this reedcap, and it is this step which brought us to where we are today.

'Rauschpfeif' is obviously a German word, meaning something along the lines of 'screaming pipe'. It was used like a trumpet in later times - as a loud signalling instrument. A couple of modern equivalents are the Gralla from northern Iberia and bombardes from Brittany. Similar instruments can be found in India and the Middle East, even in China.

Circular breathing (blowing all night without a break, through the technique of breathing in through  the nose while blowing with the mouth) led to the addition of a bag and gracenotes to repeat notes. Drones were a common feature of medieval music (and later) which meant the addition of one drone in medieval times. A second drone was added in the Renaissance.

This bagpipe was all over Europe - although it was not the only bagpipe around. It found a place at Court and is featured in many pictures in the period, particlarly together with a second pipe (the rauschpfeif).

Bagpipes were used featured with drums. Something not widely reaslised outside of music circles is the kind of percussion that was used at this time - bass drum played with two diferent sticks - one with a fat soft end, and the other a thin cane like stick. Often a little cymbal was fixed to the top and drummers often had bells tied to their ankles. Bizarre but true -  in medieval times there was something like a drumkit !!

So the standard historical models of bands were a duet (bagpipe and rauschfeif) and a trio (bagpipes, rauschpfeif and drummer), and multiples thereof.

We only have pictures of medieval bagpipes, not actual examples we can look at.

What we can see is that there was one drone, a bag and a chanter, they were mouth blown and had flares on the end of both chanter and drone, like bells in brass instruments today. The chanters are always represented as conical. If you think carefully (but not for very long), you discover this is a description of a Gaita Gallega - a Galician bagpipe. Gaita can honestly and simply claim to be the naturally evolved successor to the medieval bagpipe and as such we can justify using it in this way as well.

At some point in the 20th century, when interest in 'early music' took off, someone decided to revive the medieval bagpipe. I don't know who, and have never met anyone who does. In fact, this entire was process was unneccessary given my remark above. The one saving factor here is that pictures all show chanters as being big and the name rauschpfeif suggests something far louder and with more 'body' in the sound than the gaita, which as bagpipes go is pretty sweet, delicate and refined.

As a result of this revival a few assumptions were made by makers, which are quite strongly to the advantage of the instrument:

  • Rauschpfeifs are treated as being the chanter and can be put in the chanter stock and used as such.
  • The fingering system aimed to be the same as for the recorder - which means you can learn without annoying the neighbours too much. Quirks mean that sometimes you need to improvise fingering or be open to different solutions (like on a recorder, which has two basic fingering systems). This means anything a recorder can play, a medieval bagpipe can play (well, almost...but the rauschpfeif can...)
  • Scottish bagpipe reeds have been chosen by many makers (not all) to be used, as they come from a stable and reliable tradition.
  • Two basic tonalities have been chosen, and they are named in an idiosyncratic way - C/d or G/a (C/ d minor or G/a minor).  This means that sometimes the tonic is treated as being all fingers closed, and the drone is tuned to that note, and sometime it is the second bottom note.
  • Drones can usually tune to two notes - either by having  along tuning slide or a peg in the side which can be opened or closed.
If you can play the medieval bagpipe, then you can play the rauschpfeif. Once you have learned the fingering with a recorder (low cost entry to the joys of 'piping) then you can buy a rauschpfeif, and in time invest that little bit more in a bagpipe.

As medieval pipes have undergone a revival, there are no native players and there is no native tradition to offend, therefore you can really play whatever you want on them, from hard rock (people do) to medieval cantigas.

In this section of teachyourselfbagpipes you will find basic instructions, links to where you can contact people who are playing these pipes and where to perform, some exercises, as well as a small repertoire of music - both medieval. You will also find a list of makers, although appearance on this list is not an endorsement by Lindsay Davidson. If a maker is reported to have sent out poor quality instruments then they will be removed from the list.

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