Frequently Asked Questions

 

Important things to know if you're thinking of hiring an uilleann piper. . .

How do you pronounce "uilleann", anyway?

Despite the way it looks, it's pronounced "ILL-un" or "ILL-en". During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Irish language was out of favor, the uilleann pipes were usually referred to as the "union pipes" (this may have been because of the "union" of chanter and regulators, a feature unique among bagpipes). Whether or not this was the original name for the instrument, we may never know. With the resurgence of Irish nationalism and the Irish language in the 20th century, however, they are now always referred to as the uilleann pipes ("uilleann" being Irish for "elbows", since they are played with one elbow squeezing the bag, and the other pumping the bellows).

Do you wear a kilt to play the uilleann pipes?

No; unlike the Great Highland Bagpipes (Scottish pipes), there is no particular traditional dress associated with the Irish pipes. In fact, since the uilleann pipes are played sitting down, wearing a kilt would be fairly awkward! Uilleann pipers (including the ladies) almost always wear trousers; they also often roll up their sleeves, since it's easy for a loose sleeve to be sucked into the air valve on the bellows.

Can you march/walk while playing the uilleann pipes?

Again, no. The chanter (melody pipe) has to be stopped against the thigh, and the drones and regulators supported by the legs, making it awkward to play the uilleann pipes while standing, and impossible to play them while walking. The piper pretty well has to be seated while playing.

Can you play any sort of music on the uilleann pipes, or just Irish music? Can I request a specific song?

As American piper Jerry O'Sullivan proved on his album The Gift, it's definitely possible to play any kind of music on the uilleann pipes, even Bach! Some kinds of music are easier than others, though...the pipes are definitely best suited for folk music, and playing in certain keys can become very awkward, depending on how many keys one has on the chanter. The pipes are not a truly chromatic instrument, even with a keyed chanter--a tune that might be easy to play in E minor would be brutal in G minor! Also, some melodies just don't sound good with a drone, if they modulate (change key) too often. Many things are possible on the pipes, and I am always happy to take requests; however, if you want Schubert or Coltrane, you're probably better off hiring a string quartet or a jazz combo.

How loud are the uilleann pipes?

Much quieter than the Great Highland Bagpipes. The uilleann pipes were created for indoor use, and while modern sets tend to be louder (and higher pitched) than 18th or 19th-century sets, they still aren't a "battlefield" instrument. In general, the uilleann pipes, with drones and regulators, are a little bit louder than a violin or oboe. Unlike a violin or oboe, though, they have no dynamic range--they can't get louder or softer. There are some small things that can be done by a piper to affect volume, but in general, they're always pretty much at the same volume level. Since they're relatively quiet, though, they can be played with other instruments (fiddle and concertina are particular favorites of mine).

Can you play other instruments too?

Yes, and I'm happy to do so. I also play the Irish flute, tin whistle, and low whistle, as well as the bodhrán (Irish drum). I even sing on occasion. If you want me to add these into the mix, just ask!

Do you play with other people, and can I hire a group instead of just you as a soloist?

Yes, I regularly play with other professional musicians, and I'm happy to ask them about their availability if you'd rather have a duo, trio, or more of an "Irish session" feel for your event. Options include guitar, fiddle, harp, and cello--let me know if you're looking for more than just one musician.

Are the uilleann pipes difficult to play?

Yes, but like any instrument, practice makes perfect (or better, at any rate!). They do take a high level of coordination to play, since you have to be doing several things at once (pumping the bellows, squeezing the bag with varying pressure, fingering the chanter, taking the chanter on and off the leg, depressing regulator keys, etc.), but it's no more coordination than is required to play, say, a drum set. Maintenance is probably the most difficult thing--a full set of uilleann pipes has seven reeds (four double reeds and three single reeds), all of which are delicate and subject to the slightest change in temperature or humidity. There are also over thirty different joints on a set of pipes, any or all of which can leak air if they're not sealed properly. As difficult as the playing itself can be, care and maintenance of the pipes is the biggest challenge for most pipers.