As a bagpiper for more than 45 years, I have learned one thing that I deem the most important: “A bagpiper is a person who can play a list of tunes on the bagpipe by memory”. It’s just that simple.
The first question that I ask you as a bagpiper: Do you have a list of tunes to play? Think about this. If you are asked to play for someone’s event, do you have a list or do you wing it? Personally, I think that “winging it” won’t keep you in the market for long. You need to prepare a list. These tunes should be in small sets by meter. The small sets can be combined with other small sets to create 10 to 12 minute medleys. If someone needs you to play for 30 minutes, you only need 3 – 10 minute medleys to do the job.
I like to change up the small sets so that I don’t have two duple sets back to back. For instance, I’ll take a set of 4/4’s and put a set of 6/8’s followed by a 2/4 set. The 2/4 set goes into a set of 2-part Strathspeys and Reels followed by a Jig, a Hornpipe and a set of Retreats. This set takes about 10 minutes to play. Your audience will stay engaged as the music is always changing.
So, how do you develop this kind of set. I think that you need to write it down. You then need to learn the tunes in that order and when you practice you always play them in that order. You want one tune going into the next and then the next. As you learn these tunes, the goal is to get from one melody note to the next without making a mistake. You need to play slowly on your first read-through. If you played the same tune 10 times exactly the same way, you might have it memorized by the 11th pass through. If you play it sloppily and different each of the 10 times, you may never have it memorized. The bagpipe is all about precision. As most bands competing are playing in unison, you want everyone playing the exact same thing at the exact same time.
To recap, if you want to be a bagpiper, make a list of tunes and build them one at a time and practice them in the same order.
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".