Scottish deer bones – episode 2

This is the second part of my adventure, experimenting with how to produce high quality bones which will be suitable for aulos making.

It was only a month ago that I found out that Barnaby was looking for someone to take on that task.  In my innocence I said “Yes, I’ll do it”, thinking it was maybe just a case of throwing some bones into a bucket of water, waiting a few months, then sawing off the ends.  How wrong I was!

It has been a steep learning curve, but I am really enjoying the challenge.

My first batch of bones arrived on 28th October. They had been well scraped and there was very little flesh on them. I didn’t have a bone saw at that time, so I decided to put the (previously frozen) bones into water until I was able to cut off the ends.  I was able to correspond with craftsmen who were possibly going to use them and they advised me about which part they wanted.  I thought it would be best to saw off the ends and extract the marrow to speed up the maceration process as the cold Scottish winter would slow down the process.

Bones after macerating in water for two days.  Even with the cold weather, something is happening.

Bones after macerating in water for two days. Even with the cold weather, something is happening.

My saw arrived two or three days after the bones had been put in water, so I set to cutting off some of the bone ends.  Even after that short period of time they were pretty smelly.  The bone was quite difficult to cut but the marrow could be extracted quite easily.

Sawn off knuckle showing the marrow.

Sawn off knuckle showing the marrow.

I was in the process of doing this when Barnaby phoned to say that some bones which he had been macerating since July were looking beautiful and not to bother sawing any more.  Was I glad to hear those words!  I stopped immediately.  We arranged that I should collect these bones and bring them back to my house to finish them off.

On my way to collect the bones I stopped off in Kirkintilloch to collect some hydrogen peroxide which I would use to give them a final clean and to improve their appearance.  The box of bones was ceremonially photographed and transferred into my car (see episode 1) and I felt things were really progressing rather well.  They may have looked good, but they still smelled rather awful.

The next day I decided to cut the ends off some bones to check if the marrow had rotted away and to see what they looked like close up.

With the first cut, stinking water came dripping from the inside of the bone.  After both ends had been sawn off I tried to extract the putrid paste which was in the marrow cavity.  The stench was overpowering and the marrow really difficult to remove, making the whole process quite the most horrible thing I have ever done in my life!  A heavy duty face mask and an electric saw are on the shopping list for tomorrow!

So far I have learnt to saw the ends off the bones as quickly as possible after receiving them – while still frozen in fact.  I’m sure the process would be much quicker and the bones take up much less space that way.  A lot more pleasant for me as well.

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Scottish deer bones – episode 1

by Barnaby Brown & Sylvia Stevens

200 deer shinbones

Reproducing ancient auloi/tibiae is fraught with difficulties. One obstacle is getting hold of the raw material: tibia bones. Barnaby was corresponding with two aulos makers in May, Robin Howell in Canada and Marco Sciascia in Italy. Both had problems getting hold of tibia bones of the right dimensions, in sufficient quantity, optimally processed for strength and durability.

Every summer in Scotland, thousands of deer shin bones are removed from venison carcasses. This happens on the estates, before the meat goes to wholesalers. Overseeing this operation are the estate Keepers,  professionals who lead the shooting and work the dogs. The Keepers are responsible for deer management, keeping the population under control and in good health.

We are grateful to two individuals who put us in touch with their local Keepers: Stuart Letford, editor of the Piping Times, and David Greig, who was at the time writing an English version of a play by Aeschylus, The Suppliant Women.

On 18 July 2016, Barnaby’s father collected 200 red deer shinbones from Robert Wilkinson, an antler merchant in Bridge of Cally. Dimensions were ‘as they came’ (i.e. no selection), front and rear legs (tibiae and metapodial), skin removed, bagged and frozen. The bones were transferred to a plastic storage box then filled with water and left outdoors in the sun to macerate. 15 weeks later, on 3 November, Barnaby took off the lid and tipped out the water:

200 macerated bones

Fat had floated to the top and the smell was – well, you can imagine! Barnaby sloshed several buckets of water over them to wash off loose matter. A high-pressure hose would have been more effective but was not available. It was raining – a week of Scottish weather would have done the job, but dogs might have had a feast. After scrubbing a few bones, it became clear that they weren’t quite ready – some sinews still clung on tightly. Perhaps a higher temperature would have accelerated the maceration process. This all took place at a cottage overlooking Loch Awe in Argyll, without the benefit of Greek summer temperatures.

The processing is critical. Maceration in water in a sealed container, followed by a bath of diluted hydrogen peroxide, seems to be a suitable method (see Allowing insects and sunshine to do their work would be another option. Bones for making auloi can’t be boiled and bleached because that breaks down the structure and they become brittle.

The next day, 4 November, Sylvia collected the bones in Glasgow:


At the raw stage, the knee cartilage is very strongly bonded to the bone. After 15 weeks of maceration, however, it had dropped off most of the bones and, where still attached, could easily be prized off by hand:


Many bones are unusable – too small or too deeply indented. Aulos makers need tubes of circular cross-section with particular internal and external diameters. Perhaps the waste product could be used in medicine: a study published in 2014 found that the administration of deer bone extract protected against bone destruction in osteoarthiritic rats.

Sylvia has taken on the processing and shipping as a small business sideline – she lives in Perth, near the antler merchant who deals with Keepers all over Scotland. She is excited about developing a reliable supply of ‘instrument-grade’ tibia bones. If you are interested, please get in touch with her directly:

Sylvia Stevens <>

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Some Trial Reeds for the Berlin Aulos

Here is a link to a short video of some work I have done this week on the Berlin Aulos.


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Making reed caps 1

A very exciting package arrived 10 days ago from Robin Howell in Toronto – just before we left for a family holiday in Cornwall. Here are two videos kindly made by my 10-year-old son Sebastian, documenting my holiday project: a better solution to that all-important item, the reed cap.

These reed caps are for new reeds, i.e. they go further down the blades and serve to teach the reed its unfamiliar new shape over the breaking-in period, preventing lateral slippage of the blades and, fundamentally, making them playable. Reeds of this type are unusable without caps and I have learned since my aulos debut in January that well-fitting caps make a huge difference to being able to pick up an instrument and be its master in front of an audience, reliably. Hence the effort invested here, tailoring each cap to its reed.

Having to make 24 caps all at once for 12 beautifully-made Pydna reeds gave me an opportunity to develop my system and production method. I would welcome feedback – I am a new student at this and in these videos present only one of many possible solutions. Next time I make a batch, I think I will try using two strips of large-diameter cane, carved flat on the inside, then hot-soaked and bent around a hardwood carved reed shape, tied and dried before the final step of customising to fit an individual reed.

My “Towan” solution (the farm cottage where we are staying in Cornwall) is more labour-intensive. Rather than bending a flexible material, here I carve a hard one. Garden prunings are much better than dowel rod bought from a DIY store because they split perfectly. In these videos, I use rose I cut back last October and tied in a bundle to straighten the canes, but long straight shoots of some shrub or tree with softer wood and solid section (rather than pith) might be better. Rose is very hard, but I am pleased with the results and hope you can pick up something useful from these videos.

Part 1

Part 2


tip end


back end




roughly sanded




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Libation tune

After a lot of Louvre and Pompeii on this site, here’s a move towards the Archaic and Classical period: the Dorian aulos I have recontructed from textual evidence in my Ancient Greek Music: A New Technical History, playing the intervals recorded by Aristoxenus for the traditional Libation tune ascribed to Olympus, which seems to have remained in ritual use for many centuries.

I’ve made new reeds for it, returning to the hard cane I had started work on aulos reeds almost twenty years ago. And yes, I’ve toasted them a bit.

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Toasting and preservation of Aulos reeds

Idioglot double reeds (tubular reeds) have a natural tendency to return to their open, round condition when wet, making them harder to play. I find that ‘toasting’ the reed helps to maintain a closed tip. This is done as a matter of course with Duduk and Mey reeds, various bagpipe reeds, and even clarinet reeds in some cultures, especially Albania and Turkey.

First, put a clamp on the reed when it is completely dry, covering the top third or half of the blades. Then dab oil (olive, canola, almond…) on the exposed part of the blades. The oil will lightly penetrate the cane, and when heated will form a protective layer acting as a preservative to a small degree. Heat the entire exposed surface of the  blades, not neglecting the sides, until it begins to show signs of browning. You can also include the tube below the waist, especially if the rind has been stripped away, being very careful not to burn the binding. I prefer natural fibres over synthetics for the binding. They are less prone to damage during toasting, and in general seem to have a better chance of maintaining the proper tension. If the binding does burn, quickly rebind the waist while the reed is still hot, taking advantage of its temporary plastic state. While still hot, compress the back of the reed firmly for a minute or so between your fingers and thumbs to fix the reed blades close together (in the video above, I abbreviate this step). It will cool within a few minutes and be ready to finish scraping.

I use a Bernzomatic micro torch ( with the heating tip in place. I have come to prefer this to an open flame as it is much more controllable. A gas hob works fine, as does charcoal, an alcohol lamp or industrial heat gun, the only issue is focusing the heat in the proper area, and using a clean heat source which will not leave residue in its wake. I’ve tried toasting the entire reed and not had much luck. I have found though, that it is possible to bake a reed which is too light. A low heat (about 250 Fahrenheit or 120 Celsius) for half an hour or so will give it some more stiffness. Radical, but it does work.

I generally toast before the final scraping, so that if it comes out overly hard one can compensate. Toasted cane will still be somewhat malleable when wet, and if the form needs some touchup, reheating while the reed is wet will be more successful than retoasting, as there is a limit, a point at which the reed chars rather than toasts, and begins to lose its elasticity. One can also harden soft reeds using the same method, being quite delicate when approaching the tip area.

The inside of the reed may be wiped with canola (rapeseed or ‘vegetable’) oil – initially when first dried and occasionally throughout its lifespan. A heavier oil will impair the reed’s vibration, but a very light oil will lengthen the reed’s useful life. I have found that alcohol has no preservative effect on reeds, but many people disinfect a reed in either alcohol, mouthwash, or H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide). These, however, will dissolve any oil previously applied, so the two methods may be considered mutually exclusive. H2O2 is actually much more effective for cleaning and disinfecting reeds than any sort of solvent, and has fewer harmful effects on the cane. Alcohol eventually depletes the cane of some of its natural sugars, which are essential to its elastic properties.

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A selectively-tongued attempt at Bellermann, DAGM 37

Using Pompeii 2+3 with rather wide reeds.

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Learning to Play 1

Having attended the London Aulos Group’s November meeting with Barnaby, I left having been lent the EMAP/ Workshop of Dionysios’ ‘Lilac Louvre’ with which to practise (a 3D print of the Louvre aulos). A condition of this loan was that I would document my learning process on this blog. As such, my first post delves into ancient history (last November) and recalls the first stages of my learning. Subsequent posts will look at what I got up to in the December meeting, explore how my playing has progressed since then and document the various hurdles on the way.

I wrote the following a week after the November meeting.

Circular Breathing

During the meeting Barnaby taught me some basic techniques and practices. I left being able to do ‘step 4’ of his guide to circular breathing. This involves breathing through a straw into a small glass of water and then ‘topping-up’ the air flow with big sniffs in through the nose while maintaining the bubbles (i.e. the airflow out of the mouth).

The morning after the meeting I practiced Step 4 some more (straws courtesy of a nearby McDonalds). When I was feeling confident enough, I tried doing the same while playing an instrument. Since bassoon reeds are more familiar to me than aulos reeds, I tried the exercise on my bassoon.

As Barnaby had warned this stage would not be easy. Try though I might, what I intended to be a sniff ended up being an almighty breath in from the mouth… less than ideal. This process is still on-going, and I am getting better at it, yet at the moment cannot circular breath while getting the instrument to sound.

Breaking the reeds (in).

This process, for me at least, took about a week or so of light playing every day. By the end of the week, the reeds were much easier to play, their tips had narrowed up nicely too, and they had taken a nice shape.

I spent more time playing the high pipe on its own (my right-hand bias), and some things became apparent. At this early stage of the reed’s life, it was quite lively, prone to overblowing-squeaks. It was also very difficult to tongue the reed without it either squeaking, not-tonguing, or stopping the flow of air. The fourth finger-hole took more time in particular to ‘mellow’ than the other holes, being a lot squeakier.

While spending more time on the high pipe, I would occasionally play with both. My initial observation was that if one pipe alone didn’t suck all the air from my lungs, then two pipes certainly did! These reeds needed an unholy amount of pressure in order to sound!

After this, I spent more time on the lower pipe. This reed seemed harder to break in than the other one. The first hurdle I had to overcome, however, was the rather large gap between holes 4 and 5, it must have been made for an ancient Greek Rachmaninoff! Reaching this gap was made easier by covering the holes with fingers, rather than my fingertips (this form of playing can perhaps be inferred from various ancient depictions of aulos-playing). After a similar amount of time playing-in the low pipe, the reed had improved a little, though not as much as the high pipe reed had.

Because the lower reed was proving difficult to play, I decided to try and scrape it. This is something I have done with bassoon reeds before, but I do not proclaim to be an expert. Taking the bridle off the reed I slowly scraped away. However, I must have been holding the reed too tightly and, unfortunately, broke it!

My next post will document the December meeting, and also the arrival of my own Louvre aulos (and reeds) from Thomas Rezanka, as well as some of the practice studies I have been preparing.

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Practising episode 2: Seikilos song & tounging

I’m having fun with the Seikilos song, prompted by a collaboration  with Aleksandra Szypowska. I met her last month in Mark his Words, a semi-staged dramatisation of St Mark’s Gospel in Greek, by Patrick Boyde, in which we were both performing. Yesterday, she gave a presentation on Ancient Greek Music at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, singing three items of ancient notation. In the first two, she explained and illustrated the nature of the problems; in the third, I had the pleasure of accompanying her on Louvre aulos.

This morning, I took forward the idea of using this melody as a study to develop my aulos technique. I practised tonguing each reed separately and, at the end (26:17), explained the good practising habit drilled into me by Seumas MacNeill at the College of Piping in Glasgow when I was 8 years old.

Episode 1

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Learning to play the aulos: practice documentation 1

It has been quiet on this blog for the last five months. Callum Armstrong has been busy, however – practising, composing and making reeds. I have kept up my documentation of his progress by pressing record on my video camera and audio recorder every time we meet, but I have fallen behind with the editing and publishing of this material, occupied by other projects (e.g. Highlights of Callum’s progress will be shared here in the coming weeks: he is a source of serious inspiration, leagues ahead of me in his capacity to bring the Louvre aulos to life!

For the documentation of my own journey learning the aulos, I am going to adopt a different policy. This is episode 1. I simply pressed record and am uploading my morning’s practice (with commentary, sharing my thoughts in the moment) without listening back. To avoid backlog, I want to get into the habit of recording and uploading on the same day. What you hear is fresh, unedited, direct from recorder to blog.

Why share a messy, organic process, warts and all? I want to encourage this revival and know that for learners it is more helpful to hear a co-learner struggle than to hear the polished end results of a master. How did the master get there? I’d like to know! I trust that this documentation of my practising will advance understanding of the slow process of conquest, reaching higher levels of competence on this glorious instrument.

It would be great if other learners joined me, in order that the library of practising here documented the struggles and breakthroughs of different types of learners at different stages. Episode 1 of my journey begins too late to be of much use to students who are climbing the circular breathing mountain. People sharing their trials and solutions at that vital stage would boost this revival more powerfully than I can because circular breathing is so fundamental (after efficient reeds – the most important thing of all).

As you will hear, I am at the foot of another mountain range, gazing up at distant peaks that are no less challenging. It is an exciting journey ahead, so much to learn!

Episode 2

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