I find that my students come in on a regular basis and say “this is what I did this week”. If you have been reading my blog, you know that I ascribe to the premise that my job is to teach my students how to practice this week. The growth happens between lessons. I once wrote about how investing enough practice time can make all of the difference in the world. This week, I want to say again, that if you come into my studio and tell me “this is what I did this week, you missed the point.
Because bagpipe music is played by memory, we need to invest our practice time with a plan. The goal is to be able to play a list of tunes on the bagpipe. If you’re a bagpiper or another type of musician, have you taken inventory of your repertoire? Do you know what you are capable of playing? This week I had a number of my students make a list of their bagpipe tunes. One of them had over 200 tunes on their list! I am a firm believer that if you play a tune enough times, it will “pop”. When it pops it is memorized and at that point you won’t have to spend as much time on it.
Next, take your list of tunes and sort them into sets. Put them in order and mix up the meters. When you perform, especially for weddings and long gigs, your brain remembers the tunes in a sequence (at least, mine does). When you practice you should always start with the tunes that are most familiar to you. People who feel like they are winning practice longer. I have students that come in saying that they only practiced one tune for the whole week! When I asked them how much they practiced every day, they said it was no more than 15 minutes. Heck, if I only had one tune to play, I probably wouldn’t practice any more than that either! You always start with familiar tunes and sets and work your way down the list. If you are learning new tunes, you add them to the bottom. It’s sort of like a developer building a housing development. They build the models first, and then build away from them going down the street. As you progress down the street you see houses in less completed stages of construction. That’s what your tune list should look like. When the tunes at the top of the list “pop” and are memorized you can start practicing down past those tunes as you will only need to review them occasionally.
If you work in this fashion, you will develop a long and interesting tune repertoire. With this process and the right amount of time (a minimum of 60 minutes per day) you will accomplish a lot and win “the bagpipe game”. (This process could also apply to other instruments and other areas of your life!)"
In my last blog post I told you about my student (the flight attendant) who was having a problem trying to find time to practice her bagpipe. We went back and forth on that for some time, trying to find her a solution. Just to recap: My flight attendant student travels 4 days a week in her job. Her practice chanter playing is excellent. However, because she is away for long stretches, she doesn’t get the benefit of blowing and squeezing her bagpipe. We talked about using a drone valve, but then something hit me that I thought would be better.
When you buy a maintenance kit for your bagpipe, you usually get stock corks, drone corks, hemp, a mandril and some other tools to help maintain your bagpipe. I always thought that it was funny that you got 5 stock corks in the set. You probably would never use more than 4 in one sitting. Anyway, I told her to take one of those stock corks and drill a small hole in it. When she travels, I suggested she take the bag and blow stick only with corks in the drone stocks. In the chanter stock she can insert the cork with the hole in it. The idea is that when she is in her hotel room on her trips, she can blow and squeeze the bagpipe and her neighbors won’t hear a peep. The hole creates enough resistance as the air escapes, similar in force to blowing all of the reeds.
Another student from way back came around again after 10 years. She complained that although she started her bagpipe project 12 years ago, she still isn’t able to blow her pipes for any length of time. I asked her how often she blows her pipes. She said maybe twice a week. I told her that we would both be dead by the time she is able to play for any length of time at that rate. This situation might be perfect for her also, and anyone like her. You can blow and squeeze while watching TV or any time you want as it will be quiet practicing.
The question is this: Does your lifestyle inhibit your bagpipe career? If so, this might be for you.
Well, does it? I have spent the last 22 years teaching (mostly) adults how to play the bagpipe. Most of my adult students work 9 to 5 Monday thru Friday. The students who succeed are the students who blow their pipes regularly (at least 3 to 4 time per week). If you only blow your pipes once a week, you and I will both have given up by the time you get any results. That’s the truth!
I have been teaching a woman who is a flight attendant for a major airline. She flies on the average of 4 days a week, all around the globe. It’s a challenge for her to find time to blow her pipes.
The biggest challenge that we all have playing the bagpipe is building the strength to play the instrument. We need to be blowing and squeezing that bagpipe regularly to develop our lungs, lip and arm. The question is: What do you do with someone like this who is often either in the air or at a hotel?
She and I have gone back and forth with a lot of ideas. Using the fitting from a split stock that connects to the blow stick to the tube, we have found that she can blow up balloons with that. This gives her the resistance needed when blowing to develop her lips and lungs. But what about the blowing and squeezing?
Years ago someone was starting to think about the moisture problem created by blowing into the bagpipe. This is when we played “wet”: hide bags and seasoning, and cane reeds. I remember seeing a stock cork with a copper tube in it. That was supposed to mount to the inside of the blow stick stock, trapping the water in the stock. Maybe it was the older version of the Moose Valve. What if she took her bag and blow stick only, all stocks corked with that feature in the chanter stock on the outside? She could be sitting inside her hotel room, watching TV while blowing and squeezing. She would get the needed exercise and wouldn’t be keeping her hotel neighbors awake.
I then realized that when I put her bagpipe together the first time that I had installed a drone valve in the bass drone. We can adjust the tension by inserting a screwdriver down the bass drone stock from the top. What if we used that instead to regulate the air? I called her back and asked to have her husband close that valve a little tighter to create resistance while corking the tenor and chanter stocks. I did this experiment here and it worked!
Does your job affect your bagpipe habit? If it does, this might be a way for you to continue building your strength to become a bagpiper. What do you have to lose? Give it a try!
After starting my bagpipe career at Helix High School in La Mesa, California in 1972, my family moved north to Newport Beach. The month before Helix had just put on their Highland Games.
As I was licking my wounds from the move and looking at the games brochure that had been published, there was a list of all of the bagpipers who had competed in those games. On the list was a fellow bagpiper who it turned out lived less than a mile away from my new house. This bagpiper played in a band called the Caledonian Pipe Band. They were an hour away by freeway in West Covina. I was excited when I realized I may have another opportunity to play.
Pipe Bands back in the 70’s were listed as Grade A, B & C. The Caledonian Pipe Band was an A Band and their skills were way over my head as I had less than a year of playing experience. I walked in to practice at 7pm on the first night and only a couple of pipers were there. The rest of the band didn’t show up until 8pm. The oldest member greeted me. His name was Bill Lumsden. He told me that the only qualification to being in his band was to be able to play tunes on the tune list. He didn’t say “You stink. Come back in a few years.” Instead, he gave me a tune list and said “get to work”.
Needless to say, I did. Bill was there every week as I produced one tune after another. He also corrected my technical issues. By the end of the school year, I could play all of their parade music, both of their MSR’s and medleys. I got a great education from Bill. I still wasn’t ready to play with them technically, and being the impatient teenager that I was at the time, I felt I needed to move to another band more at my level.
After playing in a Stage Show at school I met Mark, who was on the football team. The only thing we had in common as it turned out was the bagpipe. He played with a band called the Andersons Highlanders. They were a B band and more at my level. After I joined, we played a lot of gigs like the Hollywood Christmas Parade and our monthly gig at the Loch Ness Monster Pub in Pasadena. That was a great place to grow as a band player and solo competitor. I also learned a lot more music.
For the last 22 years I have been teaching beginners how to play the bagpipe. I have started 3 groups as a result. My goal was to have a graduated pipe band program. The only qualification needed to play in my group is to be able to play the tunes on the tune list. Sound familiar? I have one rule and that is “no faking”. You can sit at my table and stand in my circle as long as you can play the tunes. When you reach your limit, you simply excuse yourself and go home. The goal is to be able to stay longer. By the end of the night, I have my key people in place who can play the harder music.
I have had local students who have gone to local bands when I didn’t have a group program going. They would come back to lessons and tell me that they were completely lost. The bands didn’t have a tune list and weren’t consistent in how they practiced. Every week they practiced something completely different. They couldn’t see a clear path to membership.
Most of my students today are remote. They live all over the world as I teach them on Skype or Google Hangouts. One woman that I teach wants to take it to the next level and join a band. I told her that if no one greets her after she’s been in the door for 10 minutes that she is probably in the wrong place. Hopefully, there will be someone like Bill who will welcome her and give her the same opportunity that I received
Recently, I read an article talking about the lack of community bands. We know that not every band is going to be a competition band. I’m happy teaching beginners to intermediates. There has to be someone bringing new people into the pipe band fold. I also know that as my people grow they will move on. I don’t have a problem with that and neither should the piper who is moving on. If I do my job, they will become accomplished players and be able to play in any band.
So, community band leaders, a few questions? Do you welcome new people into your groups? Do you have a tune list? Do you have a track for new people to follow to become members? If you don’t and your group isn’t growing, that might be the reason. Playing the bagpipe is one of the greatest things that I have done with my life. If it is for you as well, we want it to become perpetual, right? A bagpiper is a person who can play a list of tunes on the bagpipe by memory. Shouldn’t that apply to pipe band members?
My door is always open, is yours?
After 22 years of teaching bagpipe students of various ages, I am now teaching mostly adults. One of the characteristics of being an adult student is that a lot them think that learning to play the bagpipe will be an easy task…until they get started.
I always tell them that my job as a bagpipe teacher is to teach them how to practice during the coming week. That’s because we only have 30 minutes per week to meet and work together. That being said, the activities that I have created for them to work on in the meantime are designed to promote growth between lessons, which is why I want them to follow my program. We will correct and fix any problems at the next lesson. I tell them that there isn’t anything they can do in one week to screw this up permanently, so even if it’s not quite right when they arrive the following week, it’s not a big deal. But following any program set out for them – and not making up their own program - is paramount!
Here are some points to keep in mind as a new (or existing) adult student:
Practice daily and get help when needed. Consistency is the key!
If you were like most bagpipers during the St. Patrick’s holiday, you spent a lot of time blowing your instrument. In spite of having a moisture control system, your bagpipes are probably water logged at this point. I tried tuning a fellow bagpipers drones over the weekend and thought I was going to split the wood.
That means it’s time to do a “hard reset”. The first thing that you should do is find a place where no one or thing is going to touch your pipes while they are out of the case. I have an extra table top that I use. Take your pipes apart. You don’t need to remove the cords. Take all of the reeds out of their seats and put a chanter cap on your chanter reed. Unzip the bag and remove the moisture control system. (It probably needs to be cleaned anyway.) If you use a bottle water trap, it probably needs a bleach bath. Leave everything exposed overnight with the bag unzipped.
When you return to them in the morning or after work, you’ll need to check all of your hemp joints. I use waxed hemp on the sealed joints which go into the stocks. I want them to be “hand tight” . If your hemp moves on the spindles, then you need to remove the hemp and rewrap it. When doing the drone slides, I personally mix regular hemp and wax hemp together as I wind it on the spindle. I want my drone slides to be finger tight so that I can fine tune them with one hand. While you’re at it, make sure that you check and see if your cords are tight. You might keep a bag of wire ties in your kit.
I have found that if I perform this operation after a long play like a wedding, parade, or any other lengthy event, my pipes are ready to go for the next performance. If you’re worried about getting the “bagpipe lung disease” doing this on a regular basis will make sure that you’re never a statistic!
Over the years, there have been groups that have formed on Facebook looking for free bagpipe sheet music. Most people wouldn’t think anything of that. It’s free so it can’t be bad, right? Not necessarily! I’d like to take a moment to explain to you why those groups could be detrimental to your bagpipe music education.
If you want to become good at the English language, you read good books and good novels written by people who know how to speak and write English properly. You can tell as you meet people how educated and well-read they are by the way they speak and use language. The same is true with bagpipe music. The best bagpipe music arrangements make you a better player, because they teach you the proper use and placement of grace notes, doublings and other ornamentation.
The best investment that any bagpiper could make, in my opinion, is the Scots Guards Books, especially Volume 1. These tunes were written by well-seasoned pipe majors and bagpipers. This is the same reason why other instrumental teachers teach music of “Classical Composers” so that you learn proper notation and phrasing.
The problem with the free sheet music is that the arrangements have been dumbed down so as to make the music playable to everyone in the band, instead of pulling that newest person up to the next level. Being able to play all genres of bagpipe music in all meters make you an accomplished bagpiper and playing music that is altered is not to your benefit musically.
If you think about other hobbies people have, they are willing to spend whatever it takes to support that hobby. Why wouldn’t it be important for you as a bagpiper to have spent some money on good quality music arrangements? I have purchased a lot of books in the last 45 years. They are an investment, not an expense. I know that I have benefitted from playing from these books.
Take the high road and invest in books. There ain’t no free lunch. You get what you pay for in sheet music. If you feel this argument has validity, and you don't have a Scots Guards Book in your library, Because I believe so much in the value of this book, I'll save you some money any of these books to help you establish a new leaf.
A lot of people think they want to play the bagpipe. How about you? How long have you been thinking about playing this instrument? Are you concerned that you won’t have time to devote to instruction? Are you worried about commitment?
Indeed, the biggest concern for a new student is how to fit playing the bagpipe into their lives.
Playing any instrument is a habit. A habit is something that you do every day. Do you have 15 minutes per day to devote to playing the bagpipe? Most people do. If you can find that 15 minutes every day (and not the last 15 minutes before you go to bed), you could learn to play anything, including the bagpipe.
I suggest that if you carry a phone and you use it for scheduling that you access the calendar feature and make an appointment with yourself so that you can practice each day and get off to a good start.
Do you have $100 to spend on the materials? For $100, you can buy a practice chanter and a book with audio. These are the only tools needed to get started. Don’t buy a set of pipes! You don’t need them yet. These are an educated purchase. Find someone that you know that already plays the bagpipe and let them help you with that when the time comes. The best person to ask is your instructor.
You can teach yourself via various educational materials if you have an unlimited amount of time each week and can’t fit in lessons, or you could hire an instructor. Most instructors will meet with you once per week and teach you how to proceed in your daily practice so that you meet the goals of your teacher as well as your goals.
When hiring an instructor, you usually have the option of making a week-to-week commitment or a monthly commitment. I personally favor the monthly commitment as you can’t bail immediately if you hit a snag. Continuity and consistency will result in solid learning.
Therefore, the secret to playing the bagpipe is that there is really no secret! You simply need to get started! By following the advice above, you’ll be playing your first tune in no time at all.
I find that in teaching bagpipers how to play the bagpipe, I need to remind them of what a bagpiper is.
“A bagpiper is person who can play a list of bagpipe tunes on the bagpipe by memory, who can develop their own music, and who can maintain their own bagpipe,” I tell them.
Can you do that? I think that the most important thing that a bagpiper can have is a list of tunes. This list needs to have the tunes in playing order. There are certain tunes like “Scotland the Brave” and “The Rowan Tree”, “The Green Hills of Tyrol” and “When the Battle’s Over” that are played in sets. You need to have your list in sets.
Can you learn a new tune without hearing it first? There are more than 500 tunes in the Scots Guards Volume 1 edition. Can you drop open a page and play it? That should be every bagpiper’s goal. The goal is to become an accomplished bagpipe musician. I honestly believe that a bagpiper’s life in this area is dependent on how much music they can produce. I think that a lot of bagpipers drop out when they get sick of playing the 12-tune repertoire most bands promote.
Memorizing music is the next part of this equation. I have found that if I play a tune enough times, I’ll know it by memory. I also know that if I can sing it, I can play it. When you practice, you need to play down your list on a daily basis. At some point the tunes will pop starting at the top. When they pop you will have them memorized. At that point you won't need to play them every day, however you should play them at least once per week.
The final qualification to being a bagpiper is to know how to maintain your own instrument. Do you know how to hemp, change a bag, and regulate your drone and chanter reeds? These are all necessary skills to being a successful bagpiper. Do you really want to pay someone else to do your maintenance?
All of these skills you can probably learn on your own. The question is how much time do you have? Having someone to help you with these problems will save you a lot of time and money and get you to the goal of being a bagpiper faster.
Let me know if I can help you.
Today while perusing the "Old Geezer's Bagpipe Page" someone mentioned "Orange and Blue" played as a 6/8 march. Funny thing the tune in 6/8 that they were talking about was "Hot Punch". I've played both of the tunes for years and never really thought about the fact that they were related. In looking around for a tune to arrange, I found one called "The Duke of Gordon" which I know as a Strathspey. In fooling around with it, I found that I could make this tune a better jig than a march. See what you think. Here is the picture and below is the file to download.
Gary Guth is a professional bagpiper with over 45 years of playing experience and has been teaching bagpipes full time for the last 20 years. He has written "Bagpipes For Beginners", "the Bagpipe Hymnal", and " A Piper's Christmas".