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The Times
  • Bagpipes: A look at the popular instrument at Irish fest

  • The skirl of a bagpipe is one of the more distinct sounds in the woodwind family.

    It was also a sound that was hard to miss at the 10th annual Great American Irish Festival.

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  • The skirl of a bagpipe is one of the more distinct sounds in the woodwind family.
    It was also a sound that was hard to miss at the 10th annual Great American Irish Festival.
    But how exactly is that sound made?
    We asked Pipe Major Jim Clough from the Mohawk Valley Frasers to break down these centuries-old instruments.
    1. The chanter: This pipe, which looks a bit like the recorder you played in elementary school, plays on a nine-note scale, typical of Celtic music. It is a reed instrument, and wind from the bag flows out of it to produce the notes. Beginning pipers start on a practice chanter, which is just the pipe sans bag, to get used to the finger movements.
    2. The blowpipe: This is where the instrument gets its wind. Players keep this pipe in their mouths to constantly inflate the bag. Inside the pipe is a rubber flap that allows air to go in, but not to come back out. The harder you blow into the blowpipe, the higher the pitch.
    3. The bag: The instrument’s namesake, the bag distributes air to the chanter and the three drones (more on those later). There is usually a decorative covering (here in red velvet) over an internal bag. Traditionally, bags were made of leather, but modern materials such as Gortex are more common today. They’re not just full of hot air, either: A device inside each bag absorbs moisture from a player’s breath so it will not warp the plastic reeds inside the drone pipes.
    4. The drones: No, these are not the drones you’re looking for. They’re the three long pipes protruding from the bagpipe that produce the underlying, steady tones behind the melody. Two tenor drones play one octave below the scale’s B-flat note, while the longer, single bass drone plays two octaves lower. Unlike the chanter, which uses a wooden reed, these are usually stocked with sturdy plastic reeds, which do not warp as easily, but also can’t take on moisture like their wooden counterparts.
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