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Northumbrian Smallpipes

Bagpiper Andrew Watchhorn playing the Northumbrian Smallpipes

Northumbrian Smallpipes

The Northumbrian smallpipes (also known as the Northumbrian pipes) are bellows-blown bagpipes from North East England, where they have been an important factor in the local musical culture for more than 250 years.

The family of the Duke of Northumberland have had an official piper for over 250 years. The Northumbrian Pipers’ Society was founded in 1928, to encourage the playing of the instrument and its music; Although there were so few players at times during the last century that some feared the tradition would die out, there are many players and makers of the instrument nowadays, and the Society has played a large role in this revival. In more recent times the Mayor of Gateshead and the Lord Mayor of Newcastle have both established a tradition of appointing official Northumbrian pipers.

The instrument consists of one chanter (generally with keys) and usually four drones. The cylindrically-bored chanter has a number of metal keys, most commonly seven, but chanters with a range of over two octaves can be made which require seventeen or more keys, all played with either the right hand thumb or left little finger. There is no overblowing employed to get this two octave range, so the keys are therefore necessary, together with the length of the chanter, for obtaining the two octaves.

The Northumbrian smallpipes’ chanter having a completely closed end, combined with the unusually tight fingering style (each note is played by lifting only one finger or opening one key) means that traditional Northumbrian piping is staccato in style. Because the bores are so narrow, (typically about 4.3 millimetres for the chanter), the sound is far quieter than most other bagpipes.

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