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.
When I started playing the bagpipe, I had already been playing the piano for 4 years. I was terrible at rhythm. My piano teacher would yell “Count, Gary, count!” but I still struggled. The problem, in reality, was that my piano teachers never actually taught me the process of counting.
I have spent the last 20 years preaching that good rhythm is essential when playing the bagpipe. Here we have a “musical instrument” that most classical musicians say isn’t musical at all because it lacks the ability to crescendo and decrescendo. However, in most instances, those classical musicians have never heard a great bagpipe player. If they had, they would have heard the difference that good rhythm makes.
You can go to YouTube and listen to a vast number of bagpipers with varying skills playing Amazing Grace. (The desire to learn Amazing Grace happens to be the primary reason why most people want to play this instrument.) You don’t need a license to play the bagpipe. Anyone can give it a try, as is evidenced by those YouTube videos. The performances that aren’t so great are given by those not only with poor technique but also players who are lacking a beat. Musical expression on the Great Highland Bagpipe is created first by having a steady beat and then by learning to control the rhythm. It’s the way the player executes the rhythm when playing Amazing Grace that causes listeners to react positively.
When I first started playing the bagpipe years ago, my teacher – as well as the judges at the competitions where I played - would write on my score sheet; “for more musical expression, hold the dots and cut the cuts”. What does that mean? That means that if I have a steady beat, I am going to still execute those 2 notes within that period of time. However, I am going to hold the dot to its nth degree and put the cut in before I tap the next beat. I learned that, and as I rose through the ranks in competitions, I always got high scores in expression.
If you are hoping to be a more expressive player, the first thing you need to do is to master rhythm. I have many resources on my website to help you do just that. That’s because I believe that mastering rhythm will help you stick with the instrument. The reason people quit the Great Highland Bagpipe isn’t because they don’t like it anymore. They quit because they are tired of playing the same 12 tunes that their pipe bands play. Being able to master rhythm enables you to develop a new tune anytime you feel like you need one. If you have been playing for years, you should have a massive repertoire. I still love this instrument after 45 years, because I have always been able to learn a new tune if I was bored.
Again, rhythm is everything to the Great Highland Bagpipe!
For help with rhythm, take my free rhythm program.
"My kid wants to take bagpipe lessons." I get calls from time to time with that statement. I'm happy to take kids. The question is: If I take your kid for bagpipe lessons or for any music lessons; would you like a return on your investment?
The problem that I have teaching music is that the kids are doing a million activities all at one time an not very well. My next question is: "What are they good at now?" I find that the kids that I teach have never been committed long enough to be good at anything. Let's face it, I want to see people succeed. If your kid is 15 and says that he wants to take music lessons, then he shouldn't fool around with the project as he only has a limited amount of time to become successful doing it before he leaves home.
Bagpipe lessons shouldn't take 20 years for a student to become accomplished. I tell my adult students that they should get up 30 minutes earlier each day and practice for 30 minutes before getting in the car for work. At that point, the job is done for the day. The students who follow that program are on the 2 year plan instead of the 20 year plan. Anything they do at night is a bonus. The only way for your child to become anything and you're paying the money because they asked you to help them, is to help them set up a time on a daily basis to work on their project. Even a 15 year old still needs some guidance. Can you imagine what their life would be like if they treated their sacred project like that? No one will ever know until we get started."
Follow me through the process of sight reading and developing a new tune using "Glen Caladh Castle". This is a competition grade 2/4 march. A truly nice tune. This is a process that you can use to develop any tune. Fill out the form below to see video and get the music.
I hear a lot of bagpipers tell me that they have a hard time memorizing tunes. That’s a true struggle because a good bagpiper is a person who can play a list of tunes by memory. It’s pretty much essential.
The first question that I ask these people is; “Can you sing it?” Do you know how the tune goes or can you hear it in your head? If they say no, then they won’t be able to memorize it yet. I don’t believe that most people can actually visualize the music. I know that when I am playing something, I hear it in my head and my fingers correspond to the song I’m hearing.
I can tell you that if you play a tune 10 times and you play it exactly the same way each and every time, you might have it memorized by the 10th time. If you play that same tune 10 different ways, the you might just be confused by the 10th time.
Tune development has a process that includes: fingering, rhythm and expression. I’m going to break these down into bite-sized pieces.
1) Develop the fingering:
When learning a new piece, always start with fingering. Perhaps before you put your mouthpiece into your mouth and blow, you should talk your way through the fingering. Do that a few times. When you start blowing through the tune, don’t move until you know where you are going. Performing tunes well means performing them without any mistakes.
2) Define the rhythm:
Take a pencil and write in the rhythm syllables (1e&a 2 &a etc) under the melody notes. If you do this for a while, you’ll get to a point where you can read that rhythm without a problem. You have to do your due diligence!
3) Say the rhythm:
Read the syllables that you wrote under the melody notes. It’s all about inflection. If you have questions about the use of rhythm and need more of an explanation, go to my Rhythm Program.
4) Clap and say rhythm:
Clap the beat and say the syllables to the beat. Your claps will be on the numbers. It might take some time to get used to doing this but it will certainly be to your advantage.
5) Sing the rhythm:
Use the rhythm syllables like lyrics and sing them to the notes of the melody. If you don’t know how the tune goes, you might be able to find it on YouTube. All of my books have practice chanter audio for that purpose. After practicing in this manner, you should have the tune in your head before long.
6) Finger and sing the rhythm to the melody:
Now you are associating the song in your head with the fingering, while looking at the music. By now, you should be close to having this piece memorized.
You will find as you do this for a while that these will become habits. You might also find that when you play a tune enough times, you will also have it memorized. All of my books have practice chanter audio associated with the tunes in the book. You can find these books at: Gary’s Books.
Most new bagpipers ask: "What kind of pipes should I buy?" This is a question that all new bagpipers have. The first thing I would tell you is that Ebay is not the place for a new bagpiper to buy pipes. The pipes sold on Ebay are usually made of Rosewood, Sheesham Wood or Cocuswood and are usually made in Pakistan. The other kind of pipes sold on Ebay are used. I think that you need to be a well educated bagpipe consumer to buy a used anything in the bagpipe world.
As a new bagpipe student, the best resource available to you is your teacher. Your teacher will be able to recommend a brand and set up that he/she has experience with. As a bagpipe retailer myself I have a favorite brand and I am happy to sell that brand all day long. Your teacher though is the person that you will be involved with for hopefully a long time. If you don't have a teacher and you are new to all of this, my suggestion is for you to go find a teacher. If you can't find one, call me and I'll help you find one in your area. The bagpipe world needs a guide to get you through the vast choices of products and services available."
","In another bagpipe community, there is a lot of discussion about charging or not charging for bagpipe lessons. Let's be honest here: ""There ain't no free lunch"". When I started my program almost 20 years ago, I started a free lesson program. What I got was a lot of people that I had to push to make things happen. I admit that I was the unusual student. I was hungry and wanted to do this bad. I practiced an hour a day to make it happen sooner than later. What I have found in the last 20 years of doing this full time is that most people aren't like me. The average person that I teach is over 30 years of age. They are also curious about whether or not they can do this. Because I know that, I can tailor the program to fit that profile. Charging tuition makes people accountable. It reminds them that they need to do something to validate their investment. The consequence is that they do in fact learn to play. I would venture to say that the person who gives free lessons, doesn't give away hours and hours per week doing that. Let's face it. If I wanted to be rich, I'd be in Real Estate!"
","I think that one of the greatest things about playing the bagpipe is marching. I think most of our audience thinks so as well. I play a lot of weddings and funerals in the course of a year. When the bagpipe is allowed to play inside the church I always recommend a ""bagpipe recessional"". At the end of a wedding, I will march from the back of the church while playing the recessional to the front counter march in front of the couple and lead them out to their receiving line. I also do the same process in a funeral ceremony with different music of course. Performing for the public is more than just standing in place and playing tunes over other their heads or one type of tune. Again our job as performers is to initiate the public into the bagpiping world. From that experience comes not only future customers but also future pipers."
I was reading a post on a popular bagpipe chat room and ran across a string of messages about a certain type of pipe bag failure. As I was reading these messages, I thought they were funny because the people writing them had no real perspective on bagpipe parts.
When I starting playing back in the 70's we were playing a hide bags with seasoning and cane drone reeds. I've said it before that the people starting to play this instrument in the last 20 years have no idea what we had to do if we really loved playing this instrument. I compare it to an outhouse versus indoor plumbing.
Back then you bought a pipe bag with the expectation of changing it at least every 2 years. The most important reason being hygiene. A pipe bag with seasoning was a cesspool after that time. We didn't have synthetic bags. We also used cane drone reeds that we changed on a regular basis because they wore out faster. I had to chuckle a little because one guy complained that his bag has worn out in a 2 year period of time. The bag at retail sells for $120.00. If he got 2 years out of that it cost him about $1.15 per week to use the bag. In my mind that's a bargain, though I think he would get more mileage out of a leather or hybrid bag as the material is more durable. Forget about drone reeds. I have had both my Scotian pipe band and Kinnaird Drone reeds for 3 1/2 years. The bag was 200.00 and the reeds were 120.00. $320.00 divided by 42 months is $1.76 per week to use both the bag and the reeds. That's still cheaper than owning a boat!"
I read a book once that dealt with ""success principals"". One of the discussions in the book had to do with talent. They defined the words as: ""an innate desire to achieve a goal"". I think most people think that talent is ability. This definition puts a new twist on the idea of talent. I teach a lot of people and have had a great deal of people come through my door. I have had some with incredible ability and some with absolutely nothing but desire. What I found was that the person that came in with ability (natural or god given) was harder to teach and didn't practice all that much. On the other hand, the person with an incredible desire created ability over a period of time and became a successful player. The ideal student is the person that has both ability and desire, however I'll take the people with desire all day long over the people with ability.
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".