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!
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".