I seem to be working with a lot of people right now on “blowing and squeezing”. The Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is one of the few wind instruments in the world where “the breath” has nothing to do with the musical line. The job of the breath on our instrument is to keep the bag full. The bag acts as a reservoir for the air so that when we do breathe, nothing happens to the sound. The problem is that it takes a lot of strength to be able to blow steady.
There are three facets to blowing the pipes: the breath, the lip and the arm. The lip begins developing the minute a new bagpiper blows on the practice chanter. (That is the downside of electronic chanters.) The lip improves in the process of playing the practice chanter. Developing the breath and the arm are like a pendulum. On one side of the pendulum is the breath and on the other side is the arm. The goal is to start at the extremes of the pendulum and work toward the middle.
The goal to ultimate “blowing and squeezing” is to make it look easy to our audience. Let’s face it, if we look like we are struggling when we play the pipes, no one would ever want to do it.
In order to develop the breath to its ultimate strength, we have to set a goal and break it down. The average person walking the face of the earth has this much breath /----------------------/; however on a daily basis they only use this much: /-----/. People neither inhale completely nor exhale completely in the course of a day. The exception might be athletes, wind and brass musicians, and singers. On the bagpipes, I would say that your ultimate goal is to be able to blow out all three of your drones.
Test your strength: Put a rubber stopper in your chanter stock and blow up your pipes with all three drones open and see if you can make all of them stop by blowing hard. If you can, then you have enough breath. If you cannot do this, you should put in 2 drone corks and see if you can blow out 1 drone. If you can then try blowing out 2 drones. The goal is three. In order to blow a steady tone, your bag should be full right before the point that your drones go out. At that point, the bag should feel like a volley ball. At this point, the bag is above capacity to where you are now working in “psi” or “pounds per square inch”.
Most people believe that you blow the bag up to 100% and squeeze down to 75%. If you blow over 100%, you now develop “psi”. I would say that the best place to be is blowing up to 110% and squeezing down to 105%. It’s less work and enables you to play for a longer period of time. Blowing harder to get to this point also develops your lip so that it lasts longer. When blowing into the bag, some people make the mistake of “bottoming out” their air when they squeeze. You inhale from the point that you finish blowing; you don’t exhale the rest of the air and then inhale all of the way to blow. This takes too much time and your bag is severely lacking in air and tone at this point.
The other side of the pendulum is the arm. Most people that don’t blow steady have arms that are undeveloped. You want to go to the far side of the pendulum to exercise your arm as well. The way you do this is to keep the chanter stock plugged. Blow up the three drones and squeeze for as long as you can. When you feel like your arm is going to fall off, take the deepest possible breath you can take and replenish all of the air back in the bag. The goal of this exercise is to squeeze for as long as you can and keep the tone of the drones steady. If you practice this exercise enough times on a regular basis, you will develop an arm needed to play the pipes well. You will always have some pressure on the bag even when you are blowing into it. Blowing and squeezing is like hydraulics and moves in a parallel motion.
Again, the ultimate goal of these exercises is to make playing the bagpipes look easy for your audience. People who love bagpipe music will not consider learning the instrument if it looks difficutl. The aforementioned exercises and proper instrument maintenance will accomplish these goals. (More about maintenance at a later time.) Good luck and keep playing!
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".