The Bagpiper Blog
When we start a new project, we are excited about it because it is new. As we get further into the project, we forget why we are doing it and often lose interest. As a person who teaches people to play the bagpipes, I find that part of my job is keeping the student focused on the task at hand. My job is to “teach you how to practice this week”, period.
The only qualification to being a bagpiper is to be able to play a list of tunes on the bagpipe. As I’ve said before, this is a different process than playing the piano. Every tune that we learn on the bagpipes will be part of our repertoire. That being said, it is important to pass through those tunes on a regular basis to keep them alive and growing.
I relate this to a tract of houses being built in a subdivision. The builder usually builds the model and then builds next door and then next door to that and so on. As you go down the street, the houses go from being nearly completed to nothing. That is like a typical tune list. I would tell you that if you are waiting for each tune to be perfect, you will burn out quickly.
You should also be listening to bagpipe music regularly. Why not listen to it on the way to work and back?
After listening, add the names of the tunes that get your attention to your list. You should
Every once in a while I go through stages where I think that I want to do something else other than what I am currently doing. In September, I thought that I wanted to play with a top grade pipe band. I went to practice for a month. I loved playing with those people at that level, however I didn’t want to spend every weekend from May to November with them at a bagpipe event. I wrote to the Pipe Major and told him that, at 58, playing at that level with that much commitment was more than I wanted.
In January, I thought that maybe I wanted to compete again. I hired a high level instructor and met with him a few times at his house (an hour and a half away) and in between those visits we met on Skype. I learned a lot from him and refined my playing to the next level. I even thought about playing with another pipe band (at a lower level than the first).
However, while playing at a funeral about a month ago, I had this feeling come over me. I was in the right place! I was supposed to be there. This was my calling. I love playing gigs. I love teaching students and selling bagpipe stuff. I have even pulled out my Chopin, Gershwin and Debussy and am playing the piano again, which I haven’t really done in years. (I was a piano major in college.)
So, what do you want to do? What do you want to be when you “grow up”? I talk to people all the time who are just “stuck”. They’re in jobs that they don’t like, with people they don’t respect, and are in a profession that doesn’t pay enough money for their needs and wants. They pick hobbies for the wrong reason. They also pick their life’s work for the wrong reason.
I was having a conversation with a high school aged student a few months ago. He said that the reason that he wasn’t practicing a lot was because he was doing college visitations. I asked him what he was thinking of as a major. He told me that his goal was to be a doctor. Just the way he said it, it made me believe that it wasn’t his goal but someone else’s. I told him that I didn’t sound convinced. I asked him: “What do you really want to do?”. He told me that he loved computer science and code. I told him that people make pretty good livings in the computer industry. That was the end of our last conversation. A week later, I was fired from teaching him. (I gather the parents didn’t like my advice.) It’s too bad, because he was a great kid.
I know that this is a “Bagpiper Blog”; however, learning to play the bagpipes is hard work. Knowing why you are doing it is half the battle of learning anything. Knowing what you want your life to be helps you win the battle.
So...what do you want to be when you grow up?
Today, while playing at a funeral, I met the son of the one of the limo drivers, a man who I’ve come to know over the years since I’ve been playing for particular funeral home. The son is 41 and was just let go from his job and has moved back in with Dad. Dad was telling me that he’s concerned about his son and the need for his son to get a job.
Before it was time to play, I was talking with the son. I asked him what kind of work he had done up to that point. He told me that the majority of his jobs were in sales. His most previous job was with an insurance company. I asked him the same question that I ask most people who are in a transition: If you won the lottery tomorrow and all of your financial obligations were taken care of, what would you do with your time? At first he told me that he didn’t know. I then asked him what he liked to do as a kid. He told me that he used to draw and sketch. I asked him if he had done any sketching recently. He said no.
Men who’ve reached the age of 40 are an interesting breed. As I’ve said in previous posts, these men are suddenly concerned about their mortality, are trying to squeeze in everything they’ve always wanted to do, and – hence - make incredible students. They now have an urgency to do something amazing. I told this gentleman that what he needed to do was to make an appointment with himself on a daily basis to draw and sketch. As his skills come back they could be marketable. He needed to develop a portfolio that he could post on the internet. The internet has made getting a job as an artist today a lot easier than before. Posting his portfolio on Facebook could eventually land him in his life’s work.
So what does that have to do with playing the bagpipes? If your dream is to play the bagpipes, be an artist, or something else, 40 isn’t too old; it’s a good age to get started. You need to do the same things that I talked about above. You need to make an appointment with yourself on a daily basis to practice.
If you work in a job that you hate, for people that you don’t like, and/or for not enough money, it may be your fault...unless you do something after work to change it. I personally have the greatest job in the world as a bagpiper. I started this business when I was 40, teaching and performing after work. What could you do? You won’t know until you try something. Just do it!
I hear a lot of funny stories from my students about practicing. Here’s one of them.
One of the hardest parts of learning to play the pipes is getting the hand position “right”. The hands need to be flat and straight and slightly angled downward almost in a 45-degree angle. I had a new student who was working on his hand position. I told him to get a “make up” mirror that he could set on the table in front of him so that he could watch his hand position as he moved up and down the scale. One day, while practicing, he was sitting on his couch with the mirror placed on the coffee table in front of him. After a while of this, he got up and went out to do some errands. When he came back, he noticed that he had a burn line on his couch. He told me that behind the couch is a window. While he was away, the sun was shining through his window. It hit the mirror and reflected on the couch. Because the mirror was magnified, the sun burned the line in the couch with it’s movement in the sky. I don’t think that he was laughing at the time, however, when he told me the story, we both thought that it was funny.
That certainly shouldn’t discourage you from using a mirror. Seeing is still better than trying to imagine good position. We want to do everything we can to make the process easier and more efficient.
I get a kick out of people who say that “winning isn’t everything”, though we as a society spend a bloody fortune following things having to do with winning and losing. We go to sporting events of all kinds, we watch competitions on TV, and are glued to the current presidential race because we are concerned about winning and losing.
Today I see people walking around with their heads down, feeling sorry for themselves. Do I need to remind you that this is still the greatest country in the World with the most opportunity? You can still do and be anything that you want to be if you’re willing to think and dream bigger. Maybe you should just go for it! You can be a winner!
I bring this subject up because when my students show up on a weekly basis, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is: “I have worked this piece to death and still can’t do it!”. One of my students is a former girls’ volleyball coach. I asked him if he talks about technique right before the big game. He said; no, it’s usually time for a pep talk”. I told him that music is also about winning and losing. Every new piece of music is a challenge to overcome. How we feel about it and how we talk about it creates the result. It’s the “self-fulfilling prophesy.” One guy says: “I always screw it up in this measure”, and, sure enough, he does.
We need to change our attitude and how we think about things. Everything in life is about winning and losing or success and failure. Losing and failing aren’t death sentences, they are learning experiences and places to make us accountable when we’re not.
I want to win and succeed, don’t you?
Do you have 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience 10 times? Interesting question, isn’t it? I have found in the music world that there is a difference between people who play instruments. In the bagpipe world there are people who have been playing 10 years and sound like they are relatively new at playing the bagpipe. There are also people who have been playing for 10 years who sound like they have been playing that long. How did these people end up at a different destination?
I teach and have taught a lot of people to play The Great Highland Bagpipe. Everyone learns differently and has different reasons for wanting to play. The first reason is the goal. Are you doing this for musicality or culture? Are you into the music or wearing the kilt? Frankly, you don’t need to play the pipes to wear a kilt, all you have to do is buy a kilt. I would say this: If you are interested in playing The Great Highland Bagpipe, then why don’t you make an effort to be great at it.
A person that has 1 year of experience over a 10 year period of time made a decision not to grow. They learned enough to learn a new tune, but decided never to play anything slow again. You hear a lot of bagpipers at parades, on You Tube playing tune melodies with no technique. The truth is that technique is built on patience. In order to have good to great technique, you need to practice “big, slow and open”. That means that you need to play every single note written on the page. It takes a great deal of patience to be able to play in this manner.
A person’s technique usually disintegrates when they get their pipes. I tell all of my students that, at that point, the practice chanter becomes the lab. The practice chanter is where you go to play “big, slow and open”. You need to make an agreement with yourself that you are going to do this. Also, when you switch to the bagpipe, you should play “big, slow and open” as well while you are practicing alone. Half the battle is getting all of the holes closed properly so that you get the right tone out of each note. If you did that, every time you went to play the tune at parade speed, it would be that much better. Developing technique is about developing control. If you can’t play it right at a slow speed, you’ll never play it right at parade speed.
If you are a bagpiper with pipes, I would suggest that you practice every day. You should do 30 minutes each on the practice chanter and the pipes. Do big, slow and open on both until you achieve the result you seek. If you need help, you should hire a teacher to help you learn how to “stop, isolate and drill” your music until you achieve the desired result. If you don’t know your destination, there are a quite a few world renowned pipers on You Tube that you can aspire to match.
You could be great too. It’s just a decision.
A student came in last week with his new set of pipes. He had had them for only a few weeks. I asked him: “Well? How did it go?” He told me that he hadn’t done anything with them. After speaking with him for a few minutes I realized that he, like most people who get their pipes, was overwhelmed.
When you go from the practice chanter to the pipes there is a slight learning curve. I’m pretty specific with my instructions. What I find is this: when the new person gets their pipes, they put everything together and try to blow them up. When they realize that they can’t, they put them in the case to stay until the next lesson. I can tell this is the case as they come in with a guilty look on their faces.
Here is what I would prescribe: Cork everything except a tenor drone. Blow up that drone and practice blowing and squeezing it until the sound is steady and until you can blow enough pressure to seize the reed and make it stop sounding. When you can do that, you can open the next tenor. While you’re at it, you can practice tuning the two of them together. When you can blow both of them out, then you can open the bass and practice tuning that to the tenors.
When you can blow all 3 of the drones out, cork all 3 of them and insert the chanter. Again, you should start at the top of the scale and blow and squeeze until each note, as you come down the scale, is steady. At that point, I would suggest that you play without the drones temporarily and practice playing tunes “big, slow and open”. You’ll want to play every single note written so that you get used to the “span” of the pipe chanter, as it does feel a little different. You also want to make sure that you use the same hand position on the pipe chanter as you use on the practice chanter. The goal is to make sure that you can close all of the holes.
As you get better with the chanter, you can start opening the drones. Start with one and practice tuning it to the chanter. I personally like using a “D” and I tune a tenor drone harmonically with that. The sound of the “D” doesn’t change when you put your bottom hand on the chanter. You can also check it with your low A when you think you are close. Sometimes the middle of the scale needs to be adjusted with chanter tape. That is a whole topic in itself.
The point is: if you do everything all at once, you will definitely be frustrated. I’m here to save you time, money and aggravation. Sometimes I wonder if I am charging enough money when people don’t listen. I want you to get a return on your investment. Following a pattern is definitely better than trying to reinvent the wheel.
I had an instant message conversation with a fellow bagpiper this morning about a particular person who had inquired about instruction through Facebook. He told me that he thought that this person was autistic and he was concerned. It’s interesting that he said that to me in particular as I have been teaching an autistic student for the past 13 years.
A little history: The phone rang back then with a father inquiring about bagpipe lessons for his son. I told the father that I was accepting students and that I did teach kids. We made an appointment to meet that week. On the given night, the father and his son, Alex. showed up. I noticed that there was something unusual about Alex. He was a little hyper and didn’t speak and wasn’t able to hold a conversation. I asked the father what was his condition. His father told me that he was autistic. To that point in my life, I had never met anyone that was autistic. I had no idea what to do and how to do it, but I told the father that I would give it a try.
Alex and I sat on the floor “Indian style” for the first 3 years. If he was sitting on my floor, then he wasn’t wandering around my house. What I did notice about Alex was that he had a photographic memory and remembered just about everything he saw and heard. I also discovered early in our relationship that he didn’t like to be left behind. Whenever he had a “moment” where I was losing his attention, the only thing I had to do was start playing my practice chanter and he would fall right back into the activity we were doing. We started the process by imitation. Because of his photographic memory ability, I had him imitate the fingering. As he developed, we related the fingering to the notes on the page and, over a period of time, we were able to relate the rhythm to the notation on the page. Today, he can sight read just about anything. Alex made the transition to pipes without any problem at all.
When he was ready to play in a band, I invited him out for band practice. After all, he could play most of our parade tunes. He fit in wonderfully. Because he was incapable of having a conversation with anyone, he came to band practice to WORK. He was a great band member. He played most, if not all, of our gigs. When the band broke up, I sent him to another pipe band, where he has been ever since.
Since that time, Alex has learned to play all of his band music and a variety of 4pt 2/4 marches, some Strathspey and Reel sets, some Jigs and some Hornpipes. He has also competed in solo competitions with the EUSPBA. Though he likes the harder music, he has decided that competition isn’t for him as he gets stressed out too much. (All of this is related to me by his “one-on-one”, named Fran. Fran is a nanny who has been to just about every lesson in the last 15 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if she plays undercover!)
For any of you who believe that an autistic student isn’t capable of learning to play the bagpipes, you might need to rethink that. As I said, I had no experience before Alex. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably do the same. I truly believe that Alex’s life has been enhanced by his bagpipe playing.
In the bagpipe world, I’m an advocate for teaching sight reading skills. As the bagpipe plays at one volume, it could almost be described as a rhythm instrument. When playing the bagpipe, all of the musical expression is accomplished by manipulating the rhythm patterns between the beats, making rhythm skills essential to good playing.
I’ve said before that the purpose of any music lessons isn’t to become a lifetime student. Rather, the purpose of any kind of music lessons is to become an accomplished player. There are many benefits as a result of becoming accomplished at rhythm:
There has been a lot of talk recently about the “bagpipe lung” illness. The story circulating through the internet involves a person who contracted a fatal lung disease from playing the bagpipe. I read it with interest and ascertained that a lot of his problem could have been solved a long time ago with consistent bagpipe maintenance.
When I started playing the bagpipe in the early 70’s, we were playing the instrument the same way it had been played for years. We were using hide pipe bags, cane drone reeds, seasoning that consisted of “Neatfoot Oil” or some other caustic substance, and our blow stick valves were shoe tongues that we cut to fit the bottom of the blow stick. I remember chewing on that valve to make it nice and soppy. It was something that we changed a lot as it got pretty gross very quickly. This is where someone could contract an illness as that valve did indeed get moldy.
Today, things are different. We have synthetic pipe bags as well as hide pipe bags. Most of them have zippers on them so that you can access the stuff inside. We are also using moisture control systems (that can develop mold without the proper care). Our blow sticks have mechanical valves that don’t require us to chew on them. We’ve come a long way!
If you’re worried about “bagpipe lung disease” and you’d like to have a bagpipe that always works and is reliable whenever you need it, you should consider the “hard reset”.
As I play the bagpipes for a living, I play for long amounts of time. I happen to use the Gibson Universal Moisture Control System (MCS), which I believe is the best and simplest product on the market. I get a good 4 hours out of that system before I need to do anything with it.
If I know that I have a gig the next day, I do a “hard reset” on my pipes. I take them all apart with the bag unzipped on a table. I remove the components of the MCS and if it is moldy, it goes into a bleach bath. I might even start this process 2 days before so that the absorbent cloth that is inside the MCS can soak overnight and then dry. On the morning of the gig, competition, or concert, I assemble my dry instrument. At this time I take the opportunity to make sure that all of the joints going into the bag are hand- tight. I also make sure that my drone slides are finger tight, don’t wobble, and don’t fall out of position on their own. When I am done assembling my instrument, it is brand new.
If you do regular maintenance on your bagpipe, you won’t ever have to worry about dying of “bagpipe lung disease”. Your friends and family will be thankful!
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".