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.
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".