I had reached a certain, not very advanced, stage with my Säckpipa and decided it was time for some proper tuition. As it happened, I was planning a trip to Berlin and asked the resident bagpipe maker and player extraordinare, Mattis Branschke, if I could book myself in for a couple of lessons. He had something even better on offer: a 3-day course ‘Best of two worlds’ with group tuition by himself and individual lessons by Olle Gällmo, my piping hero and right up there on the pedestal next to Anna Rynefors. Being a bloody beginner (a perfectly acceptable expression in German!), I was concerned about keeping up with the rest of the group. Mattis stressed the flexible nature of the course, so I took a deep breath and booked a place at the ‘Pipenbocktreffen’.
Backtrack to a few months earlier. Having seen the bagpipes played by several reasonably normal-appearing people in real life at the Chester-based French and European dance group Rendez-vous, I foolishly attended one of Tom ‘Here kid, the first squeak is free!’ Hughes’ infamous bagpipe taster sessions and, as a result, decided to take up this little-advertised pastime.
I did some research and learnt that the ideal beginner’s bagpipe was the Hümmelchen, a German renaissance instrument. Small, inexpensive, of a very neighbour-friendly volume, singled-droned, stable, low pressure, and above all supporting open fingering to facilitate the transition for those of us adversely affected by decades of playing the recorder (or, in my case, playing the recorder decades ago). Based on all that, I drew the logical conclusion and placed an order for a Swedish Säckpipa from Seth Hamon.
“Why the Swedish pipes?” asked Olle at the Pipenbock. Well, I bought this album called Dråm, and Anna Rynefors really makes them sound so sweet and expressive and wonderful… I blame the tune ‘Fransosen’ in particular. At 02:43, enter the Säckpipa – instant goosepimples! I practised the tune on my tenor recorder, but, reader, it’s not the same. (Incidentally, my own Säckpipa is called ‘Jävel’ aka ‘The Bastard’. In my gentle hands it sounds more like a primordial beast breaking from the woods and screaming for its fill of oats….
After what seemed like a very long time to an impatient person (or a mere 4 weeks to normal people), my set of resin pipes arrived. (Little did I know at that time that, only months later, I would place an order with a 2 year waiting time…) Assembly was very straightforward and gave rise to a range of noises akin to several angry tomcats knotted together by their tails. I took a bottle of wine to the neighbours, and my partner started to look for detached bungalows.
Now I am a bullish, dogged and bloody-minded person, willing to persevere in the face of great adversity. Nevertheless, after a relatively short period of Jävel- wrestling, I found myself moved by certain external forces to seek assistance. Fortunately, here in the North West, we’re at the source of a plethora of knowledgeable and kind bagpipe players. I wrote an email: ‘Dear Tom. Divorce is on the agenda. Having spent all my pennies on a bagpipe, I do not have sufficient funds to pay out my partner. Please help!’ or words to that effect. Tom put me in touch with Sean Jones who, despite deciding that the overall design was severely aesthetically challenged, put a magic spell on the Säckpipa that made it sound really nice when he played it, and acceptable when I did (using my two dogs as calibration standard).
Fast forward to November 2014. I arrived at Schloss Dreilützow, erstwhile family residence of Count von Bernstorff, turned children’s home, turned residential home for the disabled, turned holiday camp for school classes. I had no idea what to expect.
The group sessions of the Säckpipa course took place in the ‘fairy tale’ room, an enchanted location with a ceiling featuring upside-down scenes from well- known children’s stories and unsuitable for arachnophobes. Each group session started with ‘checkpoint Mattis’, where all our pipes were tuned to within an inch of their lives. (Olle said that he liked giving courses in Germany, as German Säckpipas supported tuning to a much more exacting standard than their Swedish colleagues!) To my relief, my resin pipes passed muster with both Mattis and Olle (thank you, Sean!), although they turned out to be slightly louder than the wooden pipes (exactly what I didn’t want!). Refreshingly, there was no awkward public goal-setting à la ‘In this course, I want to achieve full mastery of the bagpipe and learn to crochet a mauve and off-beige drone protector using an intricate pattern of half double and double stitches’. Instead, one of the ‘old hands’, Dieter, shared a bottle of ‘Rotkäppchensekt’, a famous East German champagne speciality of highly nostalgic significance. With very little hesitation, I broke my ‘no alcohol before 18:00’ rule. Thusly invigorated, we started to play. Mattis had brought a suite of 18th century German dance tunes, mostly in major key and all a bit quirky. Later, we added a harmony. This was highly enjoyable.
I needn’t have worried about keeping up. The course was so well-organised that it effortlessly (from the course participants’ point of view!) accommodated everybody from myself up to the most experienced and seasoned player. We learnt each piece snippet by snippet, with plenty of opportunity to practise the tricky bits. Advanced players got advice on gracing and variations, while I was happy to play the basic tune and work on staying in time with the others. Throughout the weekend there were copious jokes to loosen the atmosphere, with a firm favourite being comments on playing ‘with rubber’ or ‘without rubber’ – to fully appreciate the hilarity it is helpful to understand that ‘rubber’ is a colloquial German expression for condom. (For those of you not afflicted by a Säckpipa, you switch between major and minor key by moving a rubber ring onto one of the finger holes..
The individual lessons were invaluable. I’d always struggled to make the high E sound anything other than extremely unpleasant. This became even more apparent when playing in a group. Olle recommended and demonstrated a much more closed fingering, and lo and behold, a stable E appeared! I learnt how to play staccato and started on some gracing techniques. Last, not least, Olle brought some cracking Swedish tunes that I hadn’t come across before. And it felt just fantastic to play a small piece together, with harmonies.
On Saturday night, there was a big concert where each group played or sang a couple pieces for the rest of the participants. My first ‘public’ performance couldn’t have been in a friendlier, more welcoming atmosphere. I felt safe in the knowledge that my pipe would mostly blend into the collective sound of 10 Säckpipas a-playing. We weren’t signed straight away, but it was very satisfying belting out the pieces we had studied. Afterwards, my resin pipes attracted some attention. ‘Are they made from bone?’ ‘Are they ivory?’ Even if they had been, I never would have admitted to the latter in this alternative, left-wing, vegan- dominated setting.
After our turn, I settled with a bottle of Störtebeker dark ale and enjoyed everybody else’s work. There was a big hurrah as a 15 or so piece brass band stormed the concert hall. They – completely unrelatedly to the Pipenbock – happened to have a get-together in the village and were overheard and invited in by one of the Pipenbock organisers. Never let it be said that Germans aren’t spontaneous! Their selection of old favourites triggered a standing ovation and at least three encores. With the beer in my hand and the roaring tunes around me, it was really time to relax, wasn’t it? ‘Hey, aren’t you with the Säckpipas? Quick, back on stage!’ What? I thought we’d well and truly done our bit! I clearly hadn’t paid enough attention (or maybe my German isn’t what it used to be?) – but we were to play all the German and Swedish dance tunes we’d been practising during the group sessions. In public. For people to actually dance to! Oh, how I wish I’d realised – I’m shockingly bad at learning tunes off by heart and would have tried much harder (or smuggled the dots in with me…). No matter, after some encouragement and helpful advice from my fellow players (‘If in doubt, just play the drone!’) I somehow muddled through, and let me tell you that trying to play a Säckpipa quietly does not have the desired effect. But it was fun, it really was – and it was great to see all those happy, smiling faces on the dancers around us..
But aside of this wonderful immersion into all things musical, there was another aspect of this weekend that made it truly outstanding to me. Having emigrated in 1991, two years after the Berlin wall fell, it was a very touching experience to be at a venue in the former East Germany, with people from the east and west, north and south of Germany, from the UK, from Austria, Sweden, Italy, France and Spain, all of us united in our love of music, and possibly all of us ever so slightly mad.
I can’t wait for the Pipenbocktreffen 2015.
For more details about the Pipenbock, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or see http://www.pipenbocktreffen.de/. The course is held in German/English, and translators are available. This YouTube video gives you a brief impression of Olle and Mattis: http://tinyurl.com/or3uhh.
I’d also like to hear from anyone who would be interested in a Säckpipa course with Olle in the UK as I’m thinking of organising an event. But first, I need to know how many people would want to attend. If you’re on Facebook, have a look at ‘Säckpipa UK’, a group set up by Vicki Swan.