A piper emailed me recently to tell me his pipe major tunes the drones of individual pipers in the band while the piper plays only low A. He says he knows this is “not right,” but that his good-intentioned P/M won’t listen.
Indeed, when you are tuning someone’s drones, if you have them just sit on low A the whole time, your drone-tuning success will be very limited.
Try this little experiment. Tune someone’s drones to low A. Once you have them tuned, put your mouth to their ear and say, “Play high A.”
In nearly every case, one of two things will happen:
1) They will play high A and no sound will come out of the chanter.
2) Before they play high A, there will be pause while they put two big breaths of air into the bag so the high A will actually sound.
Whichever route they choose, when they finally do sound high A, the drones will go out of tune, either with each other or with the chanter, or both.
Here is the reason.
Because of the conical shape of the pipe chanter, the lower notes of the scale take less pressure to sound than the upper notes. You can ease off on low A quite a bit before the note chokes off. On high A, if you ease off the slightest bit, the note will choke.
If you let someone play low A for long enough, they will gradually ease off their blowing, usually without realizing it. As they do so, the note flattens. So now you’re tuning the drones to a flat low A. As soon as the piper begins to play a tune, they will blow the bagpipe harder and the bagpipe will go out of tune.
Playing out of tune does not make good music.
If you’re using a tuning meter, have the piper play a tune while you tune the drones.
If you are ear-tuning to low A, ask the piper every few seconds to play high A. This keeps them honest. Once you have everything in tune, ask the piper to play a tune and see if everything stays in tune.
In truth, if you’re tuning band drones with a meter, you should tune them while the whole band is playing. And if you’re tuning band drones without a meter, you’re living in the dark ages. But that can be the subject of another blog.
By the way, if you have any topics you’d like to see addressed here, email me: email@example.com