My public school music educator tried to help me learn to play the clarinet, and then later a bassoon. So, when St. Paul-based Northumbrian smallpipes player Dick Hensold told me the instrument fingering arrangement is similar to the bassoon I thought, well, it’ll probably make sense to me.
You can hear from Dick and some of his music this afternoon as part of a new Minnesota Sounds and Voices report on All Things Considered, and you can see images at mprnews.org.
The Northumbrian smallpipes, powered by wind, are made from African Blackwood and have finger holes and metal keys. But the similarity with a clarinet or any other woodwind instrument ends there. The wind source is a bellows that pushes the air into a bladder and from there across the reeds of the three drone tubes and the chanter.
Similar to other bagpipes including the Scottish Highland bagpipes, the Northumbrian smallpipes, is an instrument named for the region in England where it was developed 300 years ago, and can produce many more notes.
When I asked Hensold how long it took him to learn to play the instrument, he said, “I’ll let you know – I started 27 years ago.”
Hensold’s modesty can’t hide his virtuosity. He pumps out a cascade of notes for jigs, reels and airs with apparent ease. His passion these days is for traditional Celtic music from Cape Breton, the island just off the tip of Nova Scotia that juts out into the Atlantic from Canada’s maritime provinces.
Hensold wants Minnesotans to know the Cape Breton sound so he invited fiddler Andrea Beaton to join him on a performance swing through Minnesota with stops in Winona, Moorhead, Bemidji and St. Paul. Beaton is a member of an extended family of famous Cape Breton musicians including Natalie McMaster and Buddy McMaster.
The test for audiences is will they be able to sit still? The toe-tapping Cape Breton style music is highly danceable.