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Pipes: A cautionary tale

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Or “Oh Jane! What have you done?”

Anyone who is familiar with a Piva gig (the group run by Eric and Jane Moulder) will be aware that pipes play quite a prominent role. Most members of the Piva Collective play them. Most, but not all. I’m generally a string player: cello, viols, a bit of violin when required, but also voice and recorders. I was invited to play with Piva nearly 3 years ago now and for about the past 2 years Jane has been encouraging me to have a go on the pipes.

Those of you that are used to tours, festivals and concert preparation will know that there is rarely time for extracurricular activities. Our annual course at Halsway Manor came round twice and I was unable to go to the ‘Have a Go Bagpipes’ session because it always clashed with when I was teaching. But this February Jane and I were determined to get me into that session. There may have been conspiratorial plans. I honestly didn’t have high hopes. I’d briefly had a go on Tony Millyard’s pipes a few years beforehand and the weird disconnect between breath and phrase, let alone that crazy half-closed fingering, had left me baffled.

There were about 5 of us in the group, all total beginners. Some with other wind instrument experience and some with absolutely none, although I’m not really sure that playing recorders or shawms is necessarily that helpful which it comes to the crazy octopus that is the bagpipes. Jane took us through the process of tackling the beast steadily – posture, filling the bag, getting a steady drone, playing your first chanter note, half a scale, a whole scale. None of us passed out, which I think was quite an achievement! I did however feel I’d been arm wrestling with The Incredible Hulk. But I left that room as someone who felt they could play the pipes, albeit messily and without much musicality.

At the end of our Halsway course the BagSoc pipes were travelling back to the Midlands to be available for a have-a-go session led by fellow Piva member, Jude Rees, during the Spring. Needless to say, COVID-19 had other plans and that session never happened, so as I have more storage space than Jude does and we’re both Coventry residents, I offered to keep the pipes safe at my house until they could be returned to Jane. They’re still here!

So, imagine my quandary, dear reader. I’m a fairly unemployed musician in lockdown. I’ve been led astray by Mrs Moulder down the path of bagpiping. I have a suitcase full of bagpipes. What’s a girl to do?!

Now I’d like to say that I’ve done daily practice since the beginning of March, but that would be an outright lie. I started well and got to grips with a couple of G major tunes from the Piva repertoire and then it petered out. I have an unhelpfully low boredom threshold, plus, well, lockdown! Who amongst us didn’t find their ability to concentrate was affected? But I’d made a decent start. Then Lizzie Gutteridge published her third Medieval Music for Bagpipes book so, as I’m a medievalist at heart, I ordered all three. Now these pieces had B flats and I was not prepared! I got some tips from Jude and muddled my way through, but the beauty of these pieces is the harmonies and counter-melodies Lizzie has written, so I really wanted to play them with others. Luckily Jude was able to become part of our household bubble so we could play together again! Hurrah! We set aside an afternoon and played through all 3 books. And by the end of it I had tamed the pipes.

Where does that leave me now? Well, I’ve joined the Bagpipe Society, I’m looking at buying my first set of pipes and I’m more grateful than ever that my neighbour is mostly deaf! But I’m painfully aware this is a slippery slope. Before I got involved with the Early music scene, I owned one cello, an upright piano, a flute and a violin. I’m now the proud but impoverished owner of: Modern cello, Baroque cello, Baroque viola da gamba, Renaissance bass viol, Treble viol, Medieval vielle, Medieval giga, Psaltery, a full consort of Renaissance recorders, a soprano shawm, three crumhorns and a medieval soprano recorder. And I’m deliberately excluding the instruments that are my wife’s because they don’t count, right?

I fear one set of pipes is unlikely to be enough …

Jane Moulder adds: At the time of publication, the Piva Renaissance Collective’s Real Roots! course at Halsway Manor is still going ahead. It’s your chance to submerse yourself in 16th century harmonies on all sorts of instruments, including bagpipes of course and will be taking place from 22 – 25 February. This follows on from the equally popular Bagpipe and Hurdy Gurdy weekend which will feature David Faulkner on bagpipes (intermediate and advanced) on 12 – 14 February. Further details and booking available from