with Brian Howard,
by Mick Furey
Tradition Magazine issue
well known that engineers have neither souls nor artistic ability. So
why is a toolmaker making that most exquisite musical instrument, the
uilleann pipes? And a range of low whistles that play well, yet don't
cost a whole fortnight's giro? Making that most brutal of blunt instruments,
the dreaded bodhrán, might be understandable, but uilleann pipes? I demanded
an explanation from Brian Howard.
His background with Moore & Wright, the Sheffield precision engineers,
gave him the necessary skills and discipline for such meticulous work.
During his folkie years, he played as support for the McPeake Family,
and later for Finbar and Eddie Furey. He was so fascinated by the McPeakes'
harmonies of uilleann pipes, harp, and voices, that he resolved to make
a set of pipes. He copied (young) Francis McPeake's chanter, when Francis
stayed with him. While lecturing in Mechanical Engineering at Corby Technical
College, he lived at Market Harborough. That's not so far from Daventry,
so he had access to Finbar Furey, whose pipes he also copied. In 1979,
he moved to South Kilkenny, and set up as a pipe-maker. Cillian O Briain,
his former apprentice, is now a pipe-maker in his own right. Since Brian
returned to Sheffield, they still exchange ideas; as does Geoff Woof,
who makes flat sets in Miltown Malbay.
"A big advantage of living in Sheffield is that the city still has a lot
of specialist craftsmen; a relic of the cutlery trade where operations
were carried out by many workshops. The local term, "Little Mester", has
connotations of the master craftsman who operated on a small scale, perhaps
with only an apprentice. So I'm able to consult on a personal basis, and
exchange ideas in a two-way flow of information, rather than deal with
some impersonal voice in a large company. Within a mile or so of my workshop
there are scores of small businesses, with many different skills on offer".
So why has there been an explosion of interest in the uilleann pipes?
"A shortage of good pipes was a major cause of the decline in piping.
Once the supply of dependable sets increased, the number of pipes did
likewise; a total reversal of the law of supply and demand. The Famine
was a great blow to pipe-making; the master pipe-makers seem to have just
disappeared. Old skills were all but lost, because most of the knowledge
was passed on orally. The line, while not broken, was certainly badly
disjointed. In the generations that followed, the shortage of skills,
background, equipment, etc., inhibited those few makers who were left
from realising their full potential. Most of them had other jobs, so they
couldn't devote all of their time to developing the craft. Leo Rowsome,
for example, was primarily a musician; secondly a teacher; and only thirdly
a pipe-maker. This is not to detract from him in any way, but he hadn't
a lot of time to be making pipes. The sets he did make are a testimony
to his skill".
"You see, pipe-making is not an art, it's a craft; a matter of good techniques.
If an engineer is given a set of drawings with all the necessary information,
he can make a set of pipes. If he is also an enthusiast with a knowledge
of piping, he will then try to improve on the original design. We must
respect the past, but we should also question everything if we're to make
progress. During the 1970s, some makers emerged who brought precision-engineering
skills to the craft. We now have computers and sound-spectrum analysis,
which make things so much easier. If these techniques and devices had
been available to the old pipe-makers, life would have been much easier
for them. They knew how to change things, but not why changes happened.
I've also learned from makers of orchestral instruments. Over the years,
those instruments have had so much thought put into them that can be easily
transferred to the pipes".
"It had been thought that the uilleann pipes didn't work in the same manner
as other instruments. Acoustically, that's largely true, but modern theories
about acoustics can be developed and applied to the pipes. Factors like
the size of the chanter bore, wall thickness, hole dimensions, etc., assume
great importance. Pipe-makers started to experiment with different methods
of achieving acoustical balance; and modifications were made by various
people. I contributed quite a lot towards that, including a tuning device
for the regulators. This moves an internal piston, whereas the older makers
shifted ferrules to achieve fine tuning".
"There was valuable constructive criticism from pipers such as Finbar
Furey, who didn't mince words. If he thought something didn't work, he
said so; forcefully. I also had access to some very good instruments as
examples of the craft, like Crowley, Kennedy, and Rowsome sets, as well
as some made before the Famine; all lovely instruments. This, together
with twenty years of self-criticism, and the study of acoustics amongst
other things, helped with my approach to making improvements in manufacturing
techniques. Over the years, the study of acoustics has been the equivalent
of a degree course".
"This is why, when I first made a brass low D whistle in 1974, I wasn't
too pleased with it. Looking back, my understanding of what was happening
wasn't great. When I came back from Ireland in '84, the first thing was
to design the current low whistles which are still selling well. I didn't
like the idea of a one-piece whistle with a metal head, so I worked out
an improved design for the mouthpiece, windway, and fipple, to be made
by plastic injection moulding. This took out the variables of a two-piece
head, had good volume-control, a better response to temperature difference,
and allowed production at an affordable price. Since then, the head has
been successfully re-designed to improve playing performance. I still
like to play one of the originals like yours, just to demonstrate the
"There is a mistaken idea that anything will do for folk music, this is
not just mistaken, it's totally wrong. For instance, pipes have been imported
that have been made down to the lowest possible price. I don't blame the
makers for that; they're in business to make a living. It's the importers
who try to pass them off as good musical instruments who are to blame.
I'm really concerned that some instruments on sale at present are not
of merchantable quality. So you find players who are unsure whether it's
the instrument or themselves that's at fault. All too often, it's the
instrument. Beginners need very good instruments to start with. A good
player can get the best out of a poor instrument; a beginner doesn't usually
know the difference. So if beginners pay as much as they can afford, and
the instruments are duff, then they may become discouraged and blame themselves;
usually quite unfairly".
"I'm organising things so that a beginner can get a practice set of pipes
at a reasonable price, without going on to a waiting list. Waiting for
a set to be made can be a discouragement in itself. I don't have a waiting
list; nor do I want one. So I constantly try to standardise to improve
efficiency, to make manufacture as quick and as easy as possible. It's
working out; it's taking less time than before to make pipes of a higher
quality. For instance, a standard conical bore will alter some 2nd octave
notes. The only way to eliminate this is to alter the bore so that there
are swellings and restrictions in critical places; in other words, a constantly-changing
gradient. This is much more complicated to design and produce than a plain
truncated-cone shape, but it is more effective. It needs more work, which
adds to the cost, but the end result justifies the effort".
"Of course it's necessary to include some of the cost of research and
development' that's as much as part of the pipes as materials and labour.
I know pipe-makers with long waiting lists who couldn't stay in business
but for the fact that their wives are working full time. It's unfair to
expect a wife to subsidise customers but this is happening. Now pipe-makers
are beginning to say; 'This is my living; so I need to set a price that
will feed me and mine, while still being fair to the customer'. There
are good makers who have packed it in; not because their pipes didn't
sell, but because they just couldn't make ends meet without doing another
job. Isn't it better to buy a set from a professional pipe-maker, rather
than from a hobbyist, or a part-timer?"
Why hasn't there ever been a standard reed for chanters? Orchestral players
can buy their reeds off the shelf, why can't uilleann pipers?
"Because, in the past, faults in the chanter meant that the reed had to
be tailored to correct those faults. Each chanter was an individual case,
so reeds had to be fitted to the chanter. It's much better to design and
make a fault-free chanter, so that the reed can be standardised. If reeds
are made in a certain fashion, the chanter is in charge, and any inherent
faults will be obvious. If the reed responds to the chanter, rather than
the reverse, it can be changed over from one chanter to another, and will
play as easily. With a fault-free chanter, fitting the reed becomes so
much easier. I've come across chanters that should have been used for
firewood, so that nobody would need to spend hours trying to make reeds
to fit them".
"If reeds are looked after by a good player, they'll last a long time.
I made reeds in 1980 that are still playing today; I know of 30-year-old
reeds that are still as good as when they were made. Some reeds are always
on the edge of playability; you get them to play, then the atmospherics
change, and they're unplayable. I don't see the point of a reed that will
only play under certain conditions of temperature and humidity. I'm working
on a reed that will play in lots of different chanters; as well as a chanter
that will accept different reeds. Once the two designs come together,
then I can try to make tuning much easier. I'd like to set up something
along the lines of orchestral reed-making. Those reeds are inexpensive,
of good quality, and they're mass-produced by machine rather than being
"Different materials have different effects on the tone of any instrument,
not just uilleann pipes. My pipes used to be made from African blackwood,
which gives a really crisp sound; now they're made from ebony, which has
a softer, mellower tone, with really good harmonics. Boxwood has an even
softer tone than ebony, and is preferred by some pipers. Most of my low
whistles are of nickel-plated brass. Some have an electro-static powder
costing fused on, which makes for ease of handling. Unlacquered brass
is popular with experienced players because it's more resonant. Solid
silver is also available; for some reason these are more expensive. I
made a gold-plated whistle as a presentation instrument for an old friend.
Due to internal corrosion, aluminium is not suitable at all; so I would
never use it".
Do you think real musicians will ever forgive you for encouraging the
cult of the bodhrán?
"The bodhrán is becoming a solo instrument in its own right, due to changes
in playing techniques. (I know that 'sean nós'
skelpers like yourself sneer at the idea, but you'll need to put up with
it). Even before 'Riverdance', there was such a surge in demand for bodhráns,
that people were encouraged to make them on an industrial basis. Previous
to this, bodhrán-making was a cottage industry. Because of the demand,
the supply of goatskins couldn't keep pace. Goats weren't breeding half
fast enough, so skins were imported from Asia. Due to the differences
in climate, they're thinner and don't have the same tone as European skins.
I developed simple internal tensioning system, so that the tone could
be easily altered. However, natural skins are still affected by humidity,
which slackens them. While I was at a trade fair in Frankfurt, I was approached
by Remo, the American drum-makers. They were working on a synthetic skin,
and were interested in my ideas; so they invited me out to LA to advise
them. The result is the synthetic skin currently available. This is not
affected by humidity, needs no playing-in, no treatment, and can be tuned
off-stage without its tone altering during performance. (Even you die-hards
admit they're good). An added attraction is that it enables people who
have ethical objections to natural skins to play bodhrán. The only thing
missing is the smell of the goat; maybe Chanel can come up with something"?
As a failed piper, I had to ask him about his favourite uilleann pipers.
"It's impossible to really compare the old pipers because early recording
techniques don't do them justice. Of those who did record in the recent
past, perhaps the greatest influences are Leo Rowsome; Felix Doran; and
of course, saving the good wine till the last, Seamus Ennis. Ennis was
the definitive piper's piper. The McPeake Family, old and young members
alike, are special favourites because they bridge the gap. Of the current
crop; Liam O Flynn (whom we've only just stopped calling Liam Og); Finbar
Furey; Paddy Keenan; Davy Spillane; they come to mind straight away. One
young piper who made a great impression is Dicky Deegan, now back in Tasmania.
Dicky amazed a room full of pipers at the Sheffield Irish Centre; had
some threatening to throw their pipes, and themselves, into the river
in despair. He's assimilated Seamus Ennis' style and technique so easily
and so totally that sometimes he sounds more like Ennis than Ennis does.
He plays with such authority and confidence, and he has an insight into
pipe-making too. There's a great number of really good young pipers out
there, playing away. Heather Clarke is amazing, when you think that she
was only sixteen when she wrote her tutor for the pipes".
Brian sees no real conflict between traditional and "progressive" musicians.
"The music is evolving naturally; as it must. It can't be set rigidly
in any one period or style, or it will become sterile and lifeless, and
performance will become mere recital. Techniques are developing, as they
have done for centuries. If something is good, it will be accepted by
the main body of musicians; if it's not, it'll just be ignored. The most
brilliant tune won't be widely played if it's seen as just a technical
exercise. The most popular tunes are relatively simple anyway. Music has
to mean something to people, or they just won't bother with it. It's a
living thing; it will endure, as it has for so long already. There was
a crisis in the middle of this century, but now interest is so widespread
and so enthusiastic that its future health is assured. There are thousands
of instruments out there, and most of them are being played for pleasure,
by people who have no desire to be on a stage. They play for their own
enjoyment and satisfaction, which is the best motive there is".
I'd been waiting all day for the chance to use the pun, so I asked him
what he had in the pipeline for the future. "I'm working on a tuneable
high D whistle, which will have new dynamics built-in to play less loudly
in the 2nd octave; just like the low whistles. There is also a scheme
to study and perhaps copy Bronze Age instruments. What would you think
about an Irish didgeridoo? We could call it 'D¡og dearg dubh' (red-black
dyke). Maybe that's where 'didgeridoo' comes from?"
I'd only one answer to that, but it's not suitable for a family magazine.