The Bagpiper Blog
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:
1) Don't leave your pipes anywhere you wouldn't leave your dog.
2) If you get your pipes wet, take them apart and let them dry out slowly.
3) Don't be impatient and use a hair drying to speed up the process.
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 $79.99 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, click here: Gibson Universal Moisture Control System. Just scroll down to the Moisture Control Systems to choose your item.
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
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".