How strong are you? When I ask people that question, they flex their muscles. If I ask that of bagpipers, it’s all about lungs. Let’s face it: Playing the bagpipes is a physical challenge. It takes not only lung power, but lip and arm power as well. My job as a bagpiper is to make it look easy for my audience. If I look like I’m killing myself, no one would ever want to do this.
We build strength over a period of time. The advantage of starting on a practice chanter is that while we are learning the music we'll eventually play on the pipes, we are developing our lungs and our lips. I tell my students that the average person walking down the street neither inhales nor exhales completely. I tell them that one of the goals of playing the practice chanter is to be able to play 1 part (eight measures) in one breath. Keep in mind that that is an eventual goal. With that in mind, they will develop lung power. I also tell them to play until their lip gives out and then resume playing when their lip is relaxed. This will build lip power over a period of time.
Now let's address the pipes. How strong are you when it comes to playing the pipes? When we add squeezing to the mix we then need a strong arm/shoulder joint. Your bagpipe is a great diagnostic tool in determining how strong you are: remove the chanter from the stock and seal it with a stock cork. Blow up your drones so hard that it makes the drone reeds stop. Can you do it? Repeat the process adding a drone cork to one of the tenors. How about now? If you can’t do that add another cork to the other tenor drone. Can you blow out the bass? If you can’t do that, then this is where you start to build strength. You need to practice blowing until you can blow out one, then two and eventually all three drones. As you get stronger and add a drone to the mix, practice tuning the 2nd drone to the first one. This will help you develop your lungs and lip some more.
How about the arm? Blow up the bag and see how long you can keep a drone going by squeezing. The game is to keep the sound going. Before your arm becomes weak, take a deep breath and replace the air in the bag. This exercise will develop the strength in your arm needed to blow and squeeze a steady bag.
One more thing: How full should the bag be? The bag should be in between what you think is 100% capacity and where you blow out the drones. Think of the bag as a tire. If I fill the tire to 100% capacity it may be full, but not enough to lift a car. PSI happens after 100%. Most people think that they blow up to 100% and squeeze down to 75%. That’s a lot of work. Let’s say your drones go out at 115%. I would work on blowing up to 110% and squeeze down to 105%. At that rate, I can play for an hour and not break a sweat.
These are just ideas to help you get used to blowing and squeezing. When you have done these things, remove your drones, insert stock corks, and insert the chanter. If your blowing and squeezing is going well, you can now work on playing the pipe chanter in the bag. (That’s a topic for another day.)
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".