As if it weren't hard enough to play the bagpipe, keeping your instrument in top working shape is a job in itself! I play a lot of gigs so, therefore, when someone is paying me to play and play well, I don't have the luxury of an instrument breakdown. I need to know that my instrument is going to last for that performance.
Last week at band practice, a few of the pipers had instruments in bad need of regular maintenance. This is never acceptable. First, you need to be sure that your instrument is "air tight" so that you do not fall over from exaustion while playing. To accomplish this, take the instrument apart and remove the bag cover. Start with the chanter stock. Hold the neck of the bag with one hand and the stock with the other and see if you can twist it. If you can then you need to re-secure that joint. In most cases, it requires being tied. Go around and check all of the other stocks. Again, if any of them move, then you need to secure them. If you own "stock corks", insert your blow stick and cork the other stocks and do a pressure test. Blow up the bag and see how long it holds the air. Some leaks happen on the bag level. This is the time to find out.
After your bag is secure, we move to the instrument itself. All of the joints going into the stocks should be wound in either a waxed or rosined hemp. As there is moisture in the bag (even with moisture control), your hemp will last longer if it isn't wet. The stocks need to be "hand tight", meaning that you need both hands to turn the drones, blow stick and chanter in the stock. This insures that they will be airtight as well. The drone slides need to be "finger tight" so that you can move them with little effort while tuning. I recommend winding on waxed and unwaxed hemp at the same time until your drone tops are relatively secure and don't rock back and forth. They need to be tight enough so that they don't fall down while you are moving, such as when marching.
All of your drone reeds should be properly seated in the drone seats. If you insert the reed in to the seat of the bottom section of each drone, the reed should be able to hold and support the weight of the bottom drone section. Having this kind of seal insures that you are not wasting precious air because it doesn't go through the reeds.
Every bagpiper has a setup that they like. I personally try different products when they are released into the marketplace. I have found that I like the Ross Red Suede Pipe Bag, the Kinnaird Drone Reeds, the Gibson Universal Moisture Control System and a good cane chanter reed. My preference on that is either McCann or Shepherd. These are my preferences at this stage of my life. The best place for you to get product recommendations is from your Pipe Major or instructor as they can demonstrate their use and tell you what they like about their products of choice.
Finally, in spite of moisture control, your pipes may still get wet. If you have a day where you have played your pipes a lot, I have found that by taking them all apart and airing them out over night, I can put them back together in the morning and have an instrument that is like new. I also find that sometimes this is the right time to add more hemp to different joints as the hemp has settled a little bit.
There's nothing worse than tuning a bandsman's pipe only to have it fall apart at band practice due to negligent maintenance. Doing regular maintenance will be much appreciated by you the player, your listeners and your Pipe Major!
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".