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.
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".