In the 30 years that I have been teaching I have seen one of two things happen to most students. They come in all excited to learn to play the bagpipes. The come weekly, practice daily, and progress to the point where they buy pipes. At that point, they come to a fork in the road. Some continue and some quit. The question is why?
I have a theory about this situation. I have found that the people who quit are those whose only connection is coming to lessons. As I have said in previous posts, you need to have something bigger than just playing the bagpipes. A person can consider themselves “done” when they can play Amazing Grace on the pipes. Personally, I don’t consider that done, or medium rare. I would call that “thawed”.
When I was progressing through the bagpipe world, I had two types of bagpipe activities. I liken them to college courses. For most of you who have some college training, many of the courses consisted of “seminar” and “lab”. I would consider lessons to be the seminar. Practicing is at the beginning of the lab. For the people who have gone on to be successful players, I have found that their lab morphed into playing in a pipe band. As bagpiper, I think one of the most important things that you can do is play in a pipe band as you’re growing in this skill.
Pipe Bands make you accountable. They give you a deadline to learn your music and a minimal requirement in regards to bagpipe maintenance. I remember as a kid going to band practice and having my drones fall because of the compressed hemp. I was told to sit it out that night. I made sure that that was the last time that ever happened. If I was to play in the band I had to assume responsibility for my instrument. I needed to make sure that it was “hemped” properly and that everything worked. If I had a reed problem, it was my responsibility to make sure it was fixed before band practice.
I think that another good “lab” for bagpipers is competition. The idea initially isn’t to go out and beat the kilt off of your competitor, the idea is that it gives you a reason to practice more and learn new music. It also makes you accountable in that you have a target date to get things done like learning the tunes and making sure that your pipes work. A little trepidation is good for people and will ultimately make you a stronger performer.
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".