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What NOT To Do When Piping in the Cold

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Scheduled to play a parade in November? In Canada?  Preparing for that graveside memorial and the temperature takes a nosedive?  How do you play in cold temperatures and stay in tune?  Most pipers have been given the wrong advice!

Andrew discusses how best to prepare and play your pipes for events in the cold temperatures.  Be warned!  The answer may not be what you think!

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Video Transcription:

All right. How to play your pipes in the cold. First off.  What are the factors that affect the sound of your pipes and the tuning of your pipes? But what are the factors that affect sound and tuning in any environment for your pipes? What are they?

Some factors that affect the sound tone and tuning. People are saying stuff like temperature and humidity so that's a good, you're getting warmer but we need to be more specific.

Temperature and humidity. Yes, but we have temperature inside the bag. That's probably the number one thing. Number two thing, is moisture inside the bag. Okay? But then we have other factors, like particularly on a really cold day, we have temperature outside the bag and then moisture outside the bag, I guess, although you know, usually if we're playing a gig in particular, we're not really playing like in the rain usually. But if you were, like obviously condensation and stuff going on could be a factor.

There's a couple other things that are like worth thinking about. Like direct sunlight is one. Now that might not pertain too much to playing your pipes in the cold, but when you're playing your pipes in the heat, whether or not you're playing in direct sunlight is a big thing. Can we think of any other factors that affect the sound of the pipes?

Oh, altitude. Okay, let's skip altitude for now. But sure. Altitude could always be a factor, yeah, especially if you change altitude, right? Like if you tune your pipes at low altitude and then drive up a mountain, obviously they're going to sound a lot different.

No, we're not talking about fingers freezing. Okay, so what causes, this is another one just to keep in our pocket as we talk about playing pipes in different conditions. What causes condensation? Who can summarize it for me?

Is it, is it too much spit? Is it too much spit in our bag? No. What is it? No, it's not too much spit. Good, moisture. Moist air in contact with cold surface. And then the more moist the air, the less cold the surface needs to be because condensation. What did I just say?

The more moist the air is, the less coldd the surface needs to be to cause condensation. This is what dew point is all about. This is what relative humidity is all about. So like for example, even though it's the middle of summertime and the air never drops below 70 degrees overnight, you could still have dew on the grass in the morning because the humidity of the air could be that high. And am I correct? Like my scientist friends, I'm correct about this, right? So far so good. Right? So that's what causes condensation. All right, so these are the factors we need to think about.

Now when we're playing our pipes in the cold, the temperature in the bag is going to be a big issue because the outside environment is so cold and the starting temperature of your bag is going to be so cold that if we crank a lot of warm air into our pipes, what is going to happen really rapidly? We're going to get condensation in our bag really, really rapidly. As a matter of fact, a whole bunch of condensation probably forms instantly inside your blow pipe as you blow air into the back, right?

So what's the first principle of playing your pipes in the cold ? Is that we want to number one, minimize playing whatsoever. And by the way, playing, right, isn't really what we're talking about. Minimize blowing into our pipes whatsoever because condensation is going to form so fast inside the pipes. That's principle number one. So the myth, okay, so here's what people say, here's what people said on the Facebook page, what you need to do is you need to get to the gig and you need to get your pipes tuned up, and then for the entire ceremony, you need to be blowing warm air into your pipes.

But that's what people say you should do. That is like the overwhelming consensus. Guys, there's no way that can be right. All you're doing is blowing water into your pipes and onto your reeds without playing anything. Okay? So that's not really what we want to do. It can't be. It's like not a thing. Okay.

So what could we do instead? Like what's a way to get our pipes to sound as good as we can while minimizing the amount of air that we blow through the pipes? Does everybody understand this is the name of the game? Good. And I'm with John McCain on this one, so tune them cold, play them cold. So it's really this simple for me. What I would do is, okay, number one, play for five minutes or so in normal playing room before I leave the house. Right? This gets the reeds going. It gets a nice, like normal organic amount of moisture in my pipes without forming any condensation yet, but not playing enough that like they're slick with condensation or anything on the inside. Right?

Bert says stay in your warm car as long as possible, run out and play. You certainly can do that. And, and frankly the result might not be significantly worse. You know, the problem with that is you're going to kind of shock the instrument and we don't really know what they're going to do. All right? So what I would do, like if my objective was really, really, really to sound good, play for five or so minutes in normal playing room before I leave the house, and then you know, we can get them in tune, it doesn't really matter that much. And then once I get to the event, right, I want to play one minute spurts to tune and settle the instrument.

Maybe not even one minute. If it's cold enough, it would just be 30 seconds. But we're going to play one minute spurts, so I'm going to fire up for one minute. I'm going to, you know, play just maybe one part of a tune, maybe two parts of a tune and I'm going to tune those pipes up. All right?

And it's going to sound a little bit weird. One of the things you're going to notice is the bottom hand goes wicked flat, dude. And the top hand, particularly F seems to go kind of shrill and thin and sharp. So you know, you might need to move a piece of tape or two if you're really serious about trying to get a decent sound in the cold. So play one minute spurt. Okay, wait five minutes, do it again.

Okay. And then once you've done that two or three times, you will be good to go. Your bagpipe will have acclimatized to the freezing cold, and then you can wait any amount of time. Right? You know, once bagpipe has settled, you should be good. You hope, right? Like I'm picturing funerals I've played where I'm just standing out, waiting for the funeral service to happen, right? Once bagpipe has settled, you should be good, and then you should be able to play at the end. You should be able to play your Amazing Grace.

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Andrew Douglas Andrew is a prolific practitioner of the bagpipe, having been active at the highest level of pipe bands, solo competition, teaching, and creative endeavors for the past 20 years. He's also the founder and creator of Dojo U and of PipersDojo.com

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