You’ve probably noticed that the frequency of my posts has declined in recent weeks, and that’s due to a few life-chancing circumstances that will be announced here in time. Hopefully when things settle down I’ll be able to update a bit more frequently, but it’s also entirely possible that things won’t settle down and I’ll have to find some time to work in all the stuff I need to do. Whatever the case, rest assured that the Keydet Piper blog is not going away, and I am still floating around in bagpipe cyberspace.
I read an article is this week’s Sunday New York Times about classic violins; more precisely it was about the perceived value of class violins. The article opens with an interesting case study: 21 top violinists took a blind test in which they played six different instruments and were asked to choose their favorites. Among the six were two violins made by Stradivarius and one by Guarnerius, two of the most respected names in the field. The other three were modern instruments.
Here is where things get interesting: only 8 of the 21 players picked one of the old masters as their preferred instrument. One might ask if the old instruments are really as good as their reputation, but I think the real question to be asked is if one cannot find a new instrument that is just as good as one of the old ones.
This of course got me thinking about bagpipes (in all honesty, though, it doesn’t take much to do that), and the appeal of playing an old instrument as opposed to a more modern one. There are some key differences between what is considered an “old” set of pipes and an “old” violin; a classic set of pipes is generally more in the range of 100 years old than 300 or 400 you might find with a violin, and the price tag on a set of old pipes is usually significantly less (thankfully) than that of an old violin.
Those different aside, many pipers have on their wish lists a set made by one of the acknowledged masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Lawrie, Henderson, Glen, Starck, MacDougall, Center. But why do so many pipers want to play those old sets? Do they really sound better than a new set? Is that the only way to get a really true pipe sound?
I’ll tackle those questions in reverse order.
1. Is a vintage set of pipes the only way to get a good sound?
Absolutely not. As a counterexample I present Alastair Dunn, general manager of RG Hardie. He plays a set that was made within the last few years, and having heard him live at the Metro Cup last year I can attest to the fact that this guy knows what’s going on when it comes to bagpipe sound.
Personally, I think the sound comes more from the player than the pipes. A good player can make nearly any set of pipes sound good, but will obviously prefer a good instrument.
2. Do old pipes sound better than modern ones?
I think this is something that every piper has to answer individually. Personally, I don’t have the ear to be able to distinguish the finer points of drone sound, but I suspect that many comparisons involve some amount of confirmation bias. If a piper tells you that he’s playing an old set that sounds really good, you’re going to listen to them with that already in your head. I suspect the violinists who picked the modern instruments would never have dreamed of that if they had known what they were playing. If you expect an instrument to sound good when you first hear it, it’s likely that it will.
To answer the question, do old pipes sound better? I don’t know. There are a lot of old sets that sound great, but there are also some modern sets that sound just as good.
3. Why do so many pipers want old pipes?
Simply put, because they’re neat. Old things speak to a part of the mind that doesn’t decide things based on logic, but rather on nostalgia, beauty, sex appeal, and a dozen other intangible qualities. People want old pipes for more than sound, just as classic car buffs fill their garages with cars that are admittedly less practical than a car made last year. Pipers want old pipes for the legacy and history that goes with the instrument, to try to draw them a bit closer to the traditions of this great instrument.
When it comes to sound, it’s all about personal preference. There are plenty of well-made modern instruments that sound really good, but there are also a lot of old instruments that sound good. The key is to find something that you like and go with it.
Even though my pipes are something over 60 years old, I have to admit that I am not satisfied with them. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pipes, I love their sound, and I’ve had many other folks tell me they sound good. I could play them happily for many years, and in all likelihood I will.
But my dream is to play a vintage set from WWI or earlier. I don’t have something specific in mind, but I’d love to be able to tell people that my pipes were made in the early 20th century, and are mounted with real silver and ivory. The reason I want an old set is not based on sound, but on my own vanity.