I started off my music career playing the piano. As I learned I passed through books of songs that were designed to teach me a specific skill. When I discovered this great instrument, I realized that every tune I learned was repertoire and would be performed publicly at some point.
I tell my students that my job is to teach them how to practice this week. The problem sometimes is that they don’t listen very well. That is especially true when they come to their lessons and start off by saying: “”This is what I did this week.”” When I designed my bagpipe instruction program; “”Bagpipes For Beginners””, I designed it like a piano teaching program. I use tunes to teach skills. I found that most of the older programs lacked motivation. The majority of my students sign up with me because they are curious and not committed to playing the pipes, yet. I tell everyone one of them to warm up with the skills and tunes that you are familiar with and have done already. What that does is reinforce what they already know, and it also extends the amount of time that they practice each day. I believe that to be a good bagpiper in today’s competitive market place you need to have a varied repertoire of tunes as people don’t want to hear “”Scotland the Brave”” played a million times over. My experience has been that when a student jumps right into the development part (the newest tune) of their practicing they get frustrated quickly and cut practice time shorter. The question is this: How long do you want your initial development process to be? Do you want a 20 year development plan, a 10 year development plan or a 5 year development plan? Personally, I’d rather do it in 5 years so that I have more time to enjoy playing this instrument well. How about you?”
A customer calls me and is a little distraught. “”I’ve only had my pipes for 18 months and I found a crack”” he says.
Let me just say that any good reputable bagpipe maker is going to use the best blackwood available in the market place to put in his/her instruments. I honestly believe that the company that made these pipes did just that. Now, 4000 miles can make a difference in climatic conditions. The maker guaranteed this product for a year. Most of them do just that. Just because one section has a crack doesn’t mean the whole set is bad. It’s almost like buying a car. It’s great when it’s brand new, however over a period of time, you might have to replace something. Most of the time with bagpipes, its bags, reeds and hemp. All good bagpipe makers can make a replacement part. Most of the parts would be under $100.00 to replace, so it’s not going to kill anyone to replace that part.
Let’s talk about insuring against cracks:
4) Buy a good case and use it.
If you get a crack, you need to determine whether it affects the function of the pipes or whether its just cosmetic. The worst case scenario is that it is a functional crack and has to be repaired or replaced. A repair, is conservatively around $50.00 US and a replacement in most cases depending on the part is less than $100.00 US.
These are the realities of owning a wooden instrument. Don’t panic, call and get information and then respond.”
I presently have a lot of students who have come to the point in this process where they are starting on their pipes. “”Blowing and squeezing”” is a relatively difficult concept to achieve properly.
The first thing that needs to happen is for the student to discover what a full bag feels like. Most people believe that full is 100% and they squeeze down to 75%. I think that belief makes for a very tired piper after only a few minutes of playing.
Consider this idea: if a tire is full at 100% capacity, it won’t support the weight of the car. PSI (pounds per square inch) is achieved after 100%, right? The first thing that the new bagpiper should do is cork their chanter stock and 2 of the drones. The goal is to be able to blow enough air into the pipes to shut down the 1 existing drone. Let’s say that that happens at 130%. Where they should be blowing is up to 125% and squeezing down to 120%. If they “”work the psi”” in this manner, they will have to blow and squeeze very little to keep the pipes sounding. This results in long playing times. A Receiving Line at a wedding can sometimes be up to 45 minutes long!
After they can blow out the first drone, the goal is to remove the corks one by one and continue the process until they can blow out all three drones at the same time. Again, this establishes to them what a full bag feels like. I would then cork all of the drones and install the chanter and practice playing a steady tone on that and even go back to some basic fingering exercises just to get my hands used to the pipe chanter fingering. All the while, the arm needs to be firm on the bag. You might practice squeezing in long durations to build some muscle in that arm.
This is a process that will take longer than a week to develop, it might even take a month. You need to be patient and listen to your teacher. Believe it or not, we can save the new student a lot of time, money and aggravation provided that they listen and do what we need them to do. I tell my students that my job is to teach them how to practice FOR THIS WEEK. Strong lungs and strong arms create a very enjoyable experience for everyone.”
Like everyone else, you have a job. What happens to your new bagpipe endeavor when you’re on the road. if you’re like most people it suffers from your absence. The most important thing that you could do when learning to play any new instrument is to practice daily, even if it is for 15 minutes. The question of all is how do you do this and travel at the same time?
I think that the best tools that you can use are an Electronic Chanter and a “”Split Stock”. The greatest thing that ever happened to the music industry was electronics. I wish as a kid that I had an electronic keyboard or an electronic chanter. The ability to put my headphones on and practice whenever I felt like it would have been a great satisfaction in my life. Today we have those things. I personally sell a lot of electronic chanters. Being able to put the headphones on and practice in your hotel room will keep your fingers trained. The instrument is not very forgiving so your fingering will have to be more accurate than your regular practice chanter.
The item is usually sold with a tube type water trap. I found that using your blowstick and a split stock and a bag of balloons will keep your lip and lungs in check when you travel. The split stock has a fitting that the tube normally connects to that is perfect for a balloon. When blowing into the blowstick you get the same pressure simulation that you would get inflating a set of pipes. The people in the next room aren’t going to hear you blowing up the balloons, but it will keep your lip and lungs ready for the next time you pull your pipes from the case.
The combination of both an electronic chanter and a blowstick with a split stock in your suit case will keep you on track even if you travel all week!
I am a bagpipe teacher. As a teacher I would tell anybody new to playing the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland, that it would be worth their time and money to hire a teacher. Although the instrument has only 9 notes, it is a relatively difficult instrument to play well. My job as a teacher is to teach you the student how to practice on a daily basis. It’s not only important what you practice but also the sequence and how you practice it. I have a student that had a fingering problem. I suggested that he do this particular exercise to warm up with. Needless to say, the student went home and only practice that exercise. Because of some scheduling conflicts, we didn’t get back together for 3 weeks. The result is that he practiced only the exercise and not the rest of his music. Although it fixed the problem he was having, he had a very difficult time playing the tunes that we were up to. Having a teacher teach you how to practice will save you time, money and aggravation. Just listen.
Welcome to “”The Bagpiper Blog””. I’d like this blog to be about playing the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland. We can talk about education, tools, bagpipes, bagpipe products, bagpipe bands and anything else you can think of. I welcome your views and opinions. I’d like this to become a forum.
As we are all civil people, I’d like to keep it civil, polite and clean. You can constructive criticize other people’s opinions if you do it in a polite and courteous manner. You might read “”How to Win Friends and Influence People”” by Dale Carnegie if you have a problem not being polite and humble. Please do not use profanity on this site. Any violators will be eliminated.
Last night as I was teaching my AOH Group, one of my students wanted to tell a “funny” story. As I teach people I find that their hand position can go from good to bad through neglect. My suggestion was for them to buy a small mirror like a makeup mirror that they can put in front of them when they practice their practice chanter. With the mirror, they can see and adjust their hand position.
One of my students actually took my advice and bought a mirror. He was practicing with the mirror on his coffee table while he sat on the couch. When he was finished practicing, he left the mirror in place. Upon his return, he found that there was a black singe mark on his couch that had burned into the foam padding under neath. It turned out that the mirror had been left in the 5X magnification side and received some direct sunlight through his bay window behind the couch.
At this point, I am going to offer the same recommendation if you have a problem with your hand position, however I am going to advise you to use it at your own risk and release myself from any liability in the use of the mirror. Thank God that was all the damage, it could have been a lot worse! 🙂
I’d like to make a product endorsement. When I first started playing the pipes almost 40 years ago, we played everything “wet”. Hide bags, seasoning, cane drone reeds, etc. The goal was keeping everything from drying out. Today we have taken a 180 degree turn. Everything is about keeping the pipes dry. I have to say that dry pipes are more stable in the tuning department. Over a period of time, I have tried various moisture control products to keep my pipes dry. I have used the Banatyne Bottle and Sleeve, the Gibson “Quick Release Water Trap”, the “Kinnaird Canister” and my present product. I believe in sharing with people what I think is a successful product. With all of the products that I have mentioned so far, I found myself literally drying my pipes with a towel after a 45-minute performance. My pipes got so wet that my Kinnaird Drone reeds filled up with water and gurgled and finally stopped. I was desperate for something new.
Recently Kim at Gibson Bagpipes sent me a new product to try. It is called the “Gibson Universal Moisture Control System”. This system uses a material kind of like a car shammy cloth that is rolled up on this inside of a plastic cylinder. I have to say that this is an incredible product. I can play a whole week of gigs before I even have to think about it. Since I play out on a regular basis, I have made it a weekly regiment to change the shammy inside so that I am good for another week. I can’t believe the difference. The product sells for $95 plus tax and shipping. I can only tell you that if you’d like dry pipes and don’t want the burden of a heavy canister system, this is the way to go. If you’d like to order one,
Gibson Universal Moisture Control System
Currently, my favorite moisture control system is the new Gibson Universal Moisture Control System. This product is installed at the bottom of the blow stick stock. The canister has a rolled up shammy inside that does the job like no other. I can literally get 4 hours of playing out of this product before I have to change the shammy. As I play a lot, I make it a habit to change the shammy once per week. At that time, I put the whole thing in a bleach bath to clean it up and insert the spare shammy into it while the first one dries for next week’s installation. Thank you, Jerry Gibson. He has produced an excellent product!
This product ships in a Medium Priority Mail Box. The cost of shipping that box is $14. I can ship up to 70 lbs worth of merchandise for that price. If you add to your order, I will refund the difference in the shipping.
In the 30 years that I have been teaching I have seen one of two things happen to most students. They come in all excited to learn to play the bagpipes. The come weekly, practice daily, and progress to the point where they buy pipes. At that point, they come to a fork in the road. Some continue and some quit. The question is why?
I have a theory about this situation. I have found that the people who quit are those whose only connection is coming to lessons. As I have said in previous posts, you need to have something bigger than just playing the bagpipes. A person can consider themselves “done” when they can play Amazing Grace on the pipes. Personally, I don’t consider that done, or medium rare. I would call that “thawed”.
When I was progressing through the bagpipe world, I had two types of bagpipe activities. I liken them to college courses. For most of you who have some college training, many of the courses consisted of “seminar” and “lab”. I would consider lessons to be the seminar. Practicing is at the beginning of the lab. For the people who have gone on to be successful players, I have found that their lab morphed into playing in a pipe band. As bagpiper, I think one of the most important things that you can do is play in a pipe band as you’re growing in this skill.
Pipe Bands make you accountable. They give you a deadline to learn your music and a minimal requirement in regards to bagpipe maintenance. I remember as a kid going to band practice and having my drones fall because of the compressed hemp. I was told to sit it out that night. I made sure that that was the last time that ever happened. If I was to play in the band I had to assume responsibility for my instrument. I needed to make sure that it was “hemped” properly and that everything worked. If I had a reed problem, it was my responsibility to make sure it was fixed before band practice.
I think that another good “lab” for bagpipers is competition. The idea initially isn’t to go out and beat the kilt off of your competitor, the idea is that it gives you a reason to practice more and learn new music. It also makes you accountable in that you have a target date to get things done like learning the tunes and making sure that your pipes work. A little trepidation is good for people and will ultimately make you a stronger performer.
Though Christmas seems eons away, it’s really just around the corner. And perhaps all those Christmas in July sales put you in the holiday mood. That means now is a good time to start thinking about Christmas Carols. How is your Christmas Carol repertoire? Can you play your favorites?
Two years ago, I published “A Piper’s Christmas”. I sold them mostly to my students. Last year, a major retailer in our business picked it up and I sold more than 200 copies. “A Piper’s Christmas” includes a large collection of carols, hymns and secular songs for the Christmas season. Most are quite familiar.
From a teaching point of view, I found that my students who played from this book became better sight readers as a result of playing all of the carols. August is a great month to purchase your copy. It gives you 5 months to learn and memorize as many of these tunes as you can. You friends, neighbors and relatives will be quite surprised that the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is even capable of playing such well-known seasonal music. If you are interested in a copy of this book, it is available on my website at: http://www.bagpipechristmasmusic.com
As I work with people learning our great instrument, I find that sometimes we forget that the bagpipes are indeed a “musical” instrument. My goal as a teacher is to develop not only bagpipers, but bagpipe musicians. Along the way, we develop not only fingering skills but also rhythmic skills. I’ve talked a lot about this in the past – about active techniques to develop your ability to read and produce rhythm.
Specifically, as a musician, I find that I am constantly in motion while any music is playing. It’s like Pavlov and his dogs. Hence, I think that you should condition yourself to be in motion whenever you’re playing the pipes. You can do this while listening to music or playing music.
With technology being what it is today, we definitely can’t say we don’t have any opportunity to listen to music. So, you’ve been playing the pipes for a while; how many CD’s do you own?
If you don’t have any, you can buy some from me. I have recently updated my list at: https://www.bagpipelessons.net . After you have them, here is what you need to do:
So, don’t sit still! It’s time to get moving!
I seem to be working with a lot of people right now on “blowing and squeezing”. The Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is one of the few wind instruments in the world where “the breath” has nothing to do with the musical line. The job of the breath on our instrument is to keep the bag full. The bag acts as a reservoir for the air so that when we do breathe, nothing happens to the sound. The problem is that it takes a lot of strength to be able to blow steady.
There are three facets to blowing the pipes: the breath, the lip and the arm. The lip begins developing the minute a new bagpiper blows on the practice chanter. (That is the downside of electronic chanters.) The lip improves in the process of playing the practice chanter. Developing the breath and the arm are like a pendulum. On one side of the pendulum is the breath and on the other side is the arm. The goal is to start at the extremes of the pendulum and work toward the middle.
The goal to ultimate “blowing and squeezing” is to make it look easy to our audience. Let’s face it, if we look like we are struggling when we play the pipes, no one would ever want to do it.
In order to develop the breath to its ultimate strength, we have to set a goal and break it down. The average person walking the face of the earth has this much breath /———————-/; however on a daily basis they only use this much: /—–/. People neither inhale completely nor exhale completely in the course of a day. The exception might be athletes, wind and brass musicians, and singers. On the bagpipes, I would say that your ultimate goal is to be able to blow out all three of your drones.
Test your strength: Put a rubber stopper in your chanter stock and blow up your pipes with all three drones open and see if you can make all of them stop by blowing hard. If you can, then you have enough breath. If you cannot do this, you should put in 2 drone corks and see if you can blow out 1 drone. If you can then try blowing out 2 drones. The goal is three. In order to blow a steady tone, your bag should be full right before the point that your drones go out. At that point, the bag should feel like a volley ball. At this point, the bag is above capacity to where you are now working in “psi” or “pounds per square inch”.
Most people believe that you blow the bag up to 100% and squeeze down to 75%. If you blow over 100%, you now develop “psi”. I would say that the best place to be is blowing up to 110% and squeezing down to 105%. It’s less work and enables you to play for a longer period of time. Blowing harder to get to this point also develops your lip so that it lasts longer. When blowing into the bag, some people make the mistake of “bottoming out” their air when they squeeze. You inhale from the point that you finish blowing; you don’t exhale the rest of the air and then inhale all of the way to blow. This takes too much time and your bag is severely lacking in air and tone at this point.
The other side of the pendulum is the arm. Most people that don’t blow steady have arms that are undeveloped. You want to go to the far side of the pendulum to exercise your arm as well. The way you do this is to keep the chanter stock plugged. Blow up the three drones and squeeze for as long as you can. When you feel like your arm is going to fall off, take the deepest possible breath you can take and replenish all of the air back in the bag. The goal of this exercise is to squeeze for as long as you can and keep the tone of the drones steady. If you practice this exercise enough times on a regular basis, you will develop an arm needed to play the pipes well. You will always have some pressure on the bag even when you are blowing into it. Blowing and squeezing is like hydraulics and moves in a parallel motion.
Again, the ultimate goal of these exercises is to make playing the bagpipes look easy for your audience. People who love bagpipe music will not consider learning the instrument if it looks difficutl. The aforementioned exercises and proper instrument maintenance will accomplish these goals. (More about maintenance at a later time.) Good luck and keep playing!
One of the goals of being a music teacher is getting students to become musicians. At 54, I am a “Professional Musician”. I am a musician first and make money second. The question is: what is a musician? In my mind a “musician” is a person who has dedicated a portion of their daily life to music. So, what does it take to become a “musician” as apposed to a “player”.
I think the first step is to become musically literate. You should listen to all types of music. Have you ever been moved to tears by a performance? Think about that for a minute. The goal as a performer is to “emotionally move” people. People who are moved by your performance remember you, creating possible opportunities for you in the future. If we are trying to connect to other people’s souls through music, how could you do that if you haven’t made that connection before? You should listen to a variety of music until you find the music that touches your soul.
Learning to be a musician is a lifestyle. That means that you need to do something musical on a daily basis. The first thing you should do is to make sure that you practice daily. Actively listen to music. Study with someone who has the skills that you desire. How’s your technique? Practicing isn’t playing through the music the same way hoping that it gets better. It’s about finding and isolating problems to be worked out. If they are technical problems, then you improve those through slow to fast repetition. The ‘musical line” improves by education as stated above and your ability to become vulnerable to the music.
The greatest and the worst thing about teaching bagpipes is the amount of music written for the instrument. I personally love the amount and variety of music for our instrument. The problem is with new people. Because of the great variety of not only printed music but recorded music, I find that I am dealing with people who are in a constant state of “bagpipe music ecstasy”. That means that every time they hear a new tune, they think they need to learn it right now. The problem is that they have 20 to 30 tunes that they can “kind of” play, but not very well.
The problem with this is that in order to play the pipes well, the music needs to be memorized. Don’t get me wrong, I am a bagpipe tune junkie too, except that I have created a process for myself to process and digest this music. I have a solution to this problem that I’m eager to share with you.
The first thing you need to do is make a list of tunes. You should all have a list from which you work. I personally would suggest that you put your local Pipe Band Association Tunes on that list first. This gives you the ability to have tunes in common with most of your fellow bagpipers. From that point, you should put the tunes on the list in a sequence of variety. I personally like a list that builds in tempo and excitement. My list consists of: 4/4 marches, 6/8 marches, 2/4 marches, Strathspeys, Reels, Jigs and Hornpipes. This variety will keep you and your future audiences entertained. Every time you hear a tune that you think that you want to learn, put it at the end of your list. That means your list will always be growing.
When practicing your list, you should always practice from the top down until those tunes are memorized. It’s sort of like a train moving from one town to the next. Your “engine” may be on tune number 6 and your “caboose” may be on tune number one. When your caboose passes number 1 and goes to number 2, tune number 1 is now memorized. Over a period of time, your tune train will gradually work down the list. At some point your caboose will pass tune number 50 meaning that you have 50 tunes ready to play at any time. You should go back and review your memorized tunes with music just to keep them fresh and in shape.
What kind of plan do you have now? Is your plan working? If it is, continue what you’re doing. If it isn’t, you might try my approach. The worst thing, in my opinion, is to be practice chanter bound for 5 years. That sort of defeats the whole purpose of playing the pipes, doesn’t it? If you are teaching yourself, and have been for some time, are you getting the results that you want? You might find that an investment in instruction might get you on track to accomplishing your musical dreams sooner rather than later later.
After 6 years of playing my Gibson Fireside Pipes, I decided to sell them and get something new and different. I went back to my favorite bagpipe maker: Henry Murdo of Dunfion Bagpipes. I wanted a small pipe that played in Bb so that I could play it with the small pipes that most of my students own. The Dunfion AB Small Pipes are gorgeous and sound amazing. I hope you like them to. I have been playing them now for 3 years. They are especially nice when play for viewings as I can actually play in the same room as the event and I am “background” music because the instrument is soft and sweet. Take a listen in the following video:
As they are custom ordered as you can get a variety of set ups: Tenor, Baritone & Bass Drones or 2 Tenors and a Bass. I personally prefer the 2 tenors and bass as I can move from a tune in one key and go to the next key without any problems. As this is a custom ordered product, call me at 215-968-9542 in the USA. I am in Pennsylvania on East Coast Time.