Interview with Brian Howard,

Uilleann Pipe-maker

by Mick Furey

Living Tradition Magazine issue 29

 

 

It's 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 improvement".

"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 hand-made".

"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.

Mick Furey