New chromatic key system

Three examples of Baroque pieces played using the new key system

Pipers will be familiar with the feeling of disappointment when the next tune in a session is in the key of A or E, or even worse C, F or B♭, meaning that they have to sit out the tune. Piping audiences may also be familiar with performances where a piece of music modulates then the pipes have to drop out until the music returns to the strong keys of the pipes.

I think it’s essential for pipers to be able to modulate to different keys, so I have implemented a new semitone key system for the uilleann pipes, allowing the player to use straight piping fingering throughout but still play the semitone notes.

The problem with traditional metal keys

Semitone keys have been added to uilleann chanters since the late 1700s in a way that emulates the keys on simple system flutes, but there are two problems with this approach. First, unlike the flute, the uilleann chanter is played with straight fingers, meaning that flute-like keys are difficult to reach. Second, to support the staccato playing that distinguishes the uilleann pipes from all other instruments, the chanter must operate as a sealed chamber. But traditional flute-like keys with leather pads tend to leak air, with the consequence that pipers frequently resort to holding the keys closed with rubber bands or even give up altogether and seal the hole up with tape or stationery putty.

A new approach to semitone keys

Following six years of iterative design, the semitone keys on the Westwell Chromatic Uilleann Chanter can be played easily at speed with straight piping fingers. The key pads and semitone holes are designed to seal in an airtight fashion. The key pivots are considerably further from the centre than for a conventional chanter, meaning that the keys work in an ergonomic way.

The new key system opens up huge new repertoire possibilities for the uilleann pipes, including traditional tunes that have previously been off-limits, Baroque (such as the Bach piece above), classical (Schubert piece, below) and minimalist repertoire.

An example of a Classical piece played using the new chromatic key system