Iím delighted to introduce my apprentice Mark Stimson. Mark has unbounded enthusiasm, significant experience in fine woodworking and the business thereof, as well as a life long involvement in Irish music. He is also an author, boat builder, boat captain and successful oil painter of nautical scenes. Many of his paintings can be viewed at www.marinefineart.com. Several years ago he built his wife a beautiful Irish harp. He has played fiddle, whistle, guitar and bouzoukie for many years and two years ago decided to pursue his dream of playing and making the Uilleann pipes. He has shown profound commitment and his experience has already proved invaluable to me. In fulfilling an Iowa Arts Council apprenticeship grant in 2004, his skill and understanding in both making and playing have grown significantly. His ability to effectively finish reeds is maturing beautifully. Itís been a pleasure to share the shop with him.
I've known Tim Britton twenty-one years, having danced to his tunes at the local contra dances and played guitar and a bit of fiddle at the Irish music sessions. A few years back I took several lessons from him on the whistle, which had a great impact on my playing, some of which I was able to pass on to my eldest son.
There are a handful of Uilleann pipemakers in North America that could be considered top notch, and perhaps another handful worldwide. When I began to look at Tim's work I was dumbfounded at the elegance of his designs and the uncompromising attention to detail. At this level of work it would not be fair to say that one is "the best", only "different." But it is obvious to me that Tim has earned a place among the top makers; and he lives here, in my hometown. I'm honored to have the opportunity to work with him.
Pipemaking has for a long time been my dream. I recall years ago my wife asking me what I would do if I could do anything. I answered, "make bagpipes with Tim Britton." Two years ago I came to Tim's pipemaking shop and began to make myself useful doing some of the more mundane tasks so he could concentrate on the more difficult ones. He began by giving me the simplest jobs like bending pieces of brass flat stock into "S" curves and buffing them on a cloth wheel, and so producing the hooks that hold the bellows waist and arm bands in place. We put together a rudimentary set for me and I began learning to play the pipes as well. Over the last two years I have steadily gained proficiency and understanding in both playing and all the different aspects of pipe and reed making.
Iíve gotten quite familiar with the lathe, boring and roughing out all of the various parts: six different intermediary stocks, a dozen different drone pieces, chanters and tops, and four types of regulators. Although my finish turning of the smaller pieces has improved to a professional standard, I havenít quite mastered the very tricky and exacting work of finish turning the longer, less stable and more complicated pieces like chanters and regulators. I have also gained competence in all the other aspects, including making bellows, milling key slots, shaping, polishing, fitting and padding keys, the elusive art of reed making, and many other tasks. Many of these jobs require accuracy in the realm of one thousandth of an inch, as well as adherence to a very refined and specifically defined aesthetic.
The Stimsons hail from Brittany, the North of England, and Eastern Ireland, all native homes for the Celtic traditions of piping. It is not known whether any of the clan played bagpipes either in their native land or after they settled in America in the 1600's. I do know there were many musicians in later generations, and my parents raised my two brothers and me on traditional music and dance. In recent years my mother has become accomplished on the Scottish Highland bagpipes. On moving from New England to Iowa in 1982 I was glad to discover pockets of people practicing many traditional arts. Over the past twenty-three years I have seen marked growth in interest in folk music, dance and crafts and I am glad to have played a role in teaching young people some of the things my father and other elders taught me: Morris dancing, English Country dance, Square dancing and Contra dancing, along with the accompanying styles of music.
For me music and community are inseparable. We gather, sometimes just a few of us, sometimes in big celebrations such as Christmas Revels, and we play tunes. We teach each other new ones picked up in our travels and the tunes spread. It's like a language. There's almost always a tune in my head, something new or perhaps one I heard years ago and thought I'd forgotten. My father mentioned to me once that he, too, always heard music, and that there is something about it that makes problems seem less insurmountable and sadness easier to bear.
I intend to work with Tim as a journeyman for five years or more. As for piping, my goal is to be able to play effectively for the local contra dances. I hope to someday become a master piper and pipemaker and pass this on to the next generation. My eldest son, Albert, is showing promise on the whistle and has started to play my Scottish bagpipe practice chanter. Albert, who is an accomplished clarinetist, and I have also been experimenting with innovations in clarinet design. So the tradition continues...
See Mark's article, Being Tim's Apprentice, on the Articles page.