Throughout the last month, I have found myself sitting on my studio floor on numerous occasions, re-hemping pipes for my students. I hope they were watching.
The Great Highland Bagpipe is almost a living, breathing life form! It needs care to work properly. Often, my students come in complaining that their pipes are unplayable. They play one tune and feel like they're going to drop dead. I usually ask them if they've done any maintenance on them. The most frequent reply is "what maintenance?".
As a person who makes a living playing the pipes, I have a twice-per-month ritual that I perform to keep my pipes in shape. Here's what I do and what you should do, too:
Take your pipes apart at all of the hemp joints. I personally have been experimenting with different hemp methods. I personally like waxed yellow hemp on all of my "sealed joints". Those are the joints where the pipes are attached to the stocks. The stocks are attached to the bag. While you're at it, you might want to remove your bag cover and check to make sure that your stocks are tight. If you can turn them, you're in trouble. You might, at that point, need to re-tie or re tape your stocks. Most new bags have grommets and install with tape.
Again, I use waxed hemp on all of my sealed joints. I want them to be "hand tight". That means I need my hands to turn the two joints together. I mix waxed hemp and unwaxed hemp for my sliders. Sliders need to be "finger tight". If they rock back and forth, I then need to make sure that they are hemped evenly. Adding hemp to the joints make all of the difference in the world.
The last thing you should do before you blow them up is to make sure that the reeds are seated properly. That means that there is no chance of the reeds falling out of the seats and into the bag. That is a performing disaster when it happens.
In addition, if I know I have a gig coming up, I always go over my pipes the night before. There is nothing more embarrasing than having your pipes fall apart when you're playing someone's event.
Doing these things on a regular basis will keep you playing for a long time.
Bagpipe Maintenance Kit
This kit has all of the things that you need to maintain your Bagpipe. The kit includes
This product is shipped in a Medium Priority Mail Box that costs $14.00 to ship. You might want to add to your order as we can ship up to 70 lbs worth of merchandise in that box.
Practice Chanter Maintenance Kit
This is a practice chanter maintenance kit. I comes with a roll of waxed hemp to make sure that the cap of your chanter is air tight when blowing, two practice chanter replacement reeds so that you always have a working practice chanter and a soft case to store your precious instrument.
In the past I've written about the importance of a tune list and "plate spinning". Look, when we are bagpipers we are always excited about new tunes and different music. The problem is this: Every tune that we learn we are going to memorize at some point. Again the only qualification to being a bagpiper is to be able to play a list of tunes on the bagpipe. We get a new CD of solo bagpipe music, we hear a tune and the next thing you know we are looking for it on the internet. When we find it, we print it and drop everything else to learn this tune right now. I call this behaviour a "BTO" which is short for "Bagpipe Tune Orgasm". This kind of behaviour if not properly channeled can lead to being able to "kind of play the bagpipes" and years of non productivity.
Again, my job as a Bagpipe Teacher is to teach you how to practice this week. As every tune we learn we will probably be playing for the rest of our lives, we need a different strategy than the normal music learning strategys. As I've said in previous blog posts, learning to play the trumpet, clarinet, piano and guitar have "pass through" songs that are only used to teach a specific skill. That is not the case in bagpipe music. As we memorize bagpipe music we need to start with a different process from the beginning. I personally introduce tunes that have certain technical challenges in the course of my program and we build from there. I also encourage my students to buy CD's and listen to the end result of what they're hoping to achieve. This is where "BTO's" can become fatal to your bagpipe career.
The first thing that you need is a list. You need a list of tunes that you already play. When you have a "BTO" with any tune, you put that tune at the bottom of your list. There is a psychology to practicing which is very important. If you start your practice with a new tune, you will struggle for about 5 minutes, put your chanter down and walk away from the table. In most cases you will get involved in something else and not get back to it until the next day. So, what did you accomplish, five minutes of practicing? Instead, you should always start at the top of your tune list. Better yet, if you have some technical exercises to do, you should work on them for about 5 to 10 minutes. You should then play down your tune list. Every time you've played a tune, you've won. People like to win. If you are winning you are going to want to do more. As you work your way down the list the fact that you are reviewing the tune brings them another step closer to being memorized. I honestly believe that when you reach the point of a tune being memorized, it will take less time for the next tune to be memorized. It's like developing a muscle in your brain that you've never used before. As it gets stronger you will eventually be at a point where you eat tunes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After 40 years of doing this, it takes nothing for me personally to develop and memorize a tune. I believe that will eventually happen to you. Fear (false expectations appearing real) of not being able to memorize will limit this ability. This fear is caused by an unrealistic goal of memorizing a tune by a certain date. If you are new and want to compete in the spring and summer, you should start your new tunes in September. Again, warm up with your tune list first.
What you need to do today is to make your tune list. Start with the tunes that you play the best. If any two of those tunes are played in sets put them together. Control yourself and put your "BTO's" at the bottom. Hopefully you'll all live long enough to play all of the tunes that you want to play.
How do you handle failure? Do you take it personally or do you accept it as a reason to do more? I find that we have created a generation of people who expect a prize from every endeavor whether they've earned it or not. Everyone gets a trophy today for just showing up! What happens as you get closer to adulthood and now are given true results of your efforts. Can you handle the truth?
One of the things that I always liked about the bagpipe world was that you only received a medal or trophy if you earned it. No one running the competitions felt any guilt if you walked away with nothing. We used the competitions as a reason to practice and improve ourselves. If we really had the burn to improve, we made sure that the dates were on the calendar and that we took advantage of the competitions. We also went with an attitude that we wanted to win. Wanting to win motivates you to work harder, improving your skills and creating the passion needed to become a great performer. Accepting defeat was also healthy. It made us responsible for ourselves and gave us the perspective needed to improve for the next performance.
I believe that if you want to be great, you need to find something that pushes your buttons. Something that you can't wait to do on a daily basis. Do you have something like that in your life? I had dinner with someone recently who is out of job for the first time in their life. When I meet someone like this, I always ask them the same question: "If you won the lottery today, and you never had to go to work for money ever again, what would you do with your time?" The guy was totally stumped. No one had ever asked him anything like that before. He said that he's been working for as long as he remembers. Can you answer that question? The answer to this question may determine the true passion in life.
Your true passion will be the stability that you'll always have in good times and bad.
I find that a lot of my students have had a tough time with blowing and squeezing. I teach a lot of older students. They work very hard to get to the point where they have pipes and get totally frustrated with blowing, squeezing and playing the chanter all at the same time.
Recently, prompted by frustration on the part of both one particular student and myself, I removed the chanter from his pipes and replaced it with a rubber plug. He blew up his pipes, I tuned his drones and had him blow and squeeze for a couple of minutes. Then something hit me. I wonder if he could write a letter while blowing and squeezing. I took out a piece of paper and a pen and sat him down at my desk and told him to write a letter to someone. At that point, we had a transformational moment.
He realized when he completed the letter what blowing and squeezing on the Great Highland Bagpipe was truly about. Our instrument is one of few in the world where the breath has absolutely nothing to do with the music. It's almost like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.
If blowing and squeezing is a problem for you, you should go back and read my first article called "blowing and squeezing" to make sure that you are doing it right and then apply this technique or any other activity that you can do with one hand while blowing and squeezing. Just keep it clean!
In addition to being musical, playing the bagpipe is all about precision. We play an instrument that is very loud. Because of that, it not only needs to be tuned to precision, but it needs to be played to precision to the best of our abilities. We memorize all of the music that we play. We also play 99% of our music as bands in unison. If you play in a jazz band and you make a mistake, you can claim that as "improvising". Most listeners aren't going to hear that as you are playing with other people playing different parts of the song. That's not the case for us.
In bagpipe music, we play everying in unison which means that all of the notes need to be played by all players exactly the same way by memory. The question is this: How do you learn and memorize tunes effectively and efficiently? I'm going to explain that using the "Tune Pyramid".
It all starts at the bottom with fingering. If you want to be a good bagpiper one of the strongest parts of your playing should be fingering. You need to practice and master playing not only the melodies but all of the ornamentation that goes with that. When you are learning a new tune, you should strive to play every single note, period. Don't move to the next position until you have thought about it first. The first reading is very critical. I believe that if you play a tune 10 times exactly the same way in a row you will have it memorized.
Analyzing the rhythm before you start your fingering will certainly help you master the tune sooner than later. The problems happen when you race your way sloppily through the initial readings. It's like a document in Word. Everytime you make a change and save that document it is a different document. Working in this manner makes you have to go back and fix problems that you created because you were hasty, taking even longer to learn the tune and memorize it.
In the pyramid, you can't have rhythm, expression or a memorized tune if you can't finger it. You can't have musical expression unless you have fingering and rhythm. Every layer of the Tune Pyramid is dependent on the layer underneath.
Make it a habit to learn your tunes as slowly as possible so that you aren't correcting yourself. More importantly, you should isolate and practice technique in warm ups before learning your tunes.
Just some food for thought...
In recent days, I have taken a lot of flack on the Bob Dunsire forums, standing up for a brand that I believe in. I feel that it is unprofessional and improper for people to voice their negative opinions about a product or company and not allow the vendor to redeem himself. The string started with someone wanting to know about the Dunfion Bagpipes. As a vendor that carries Dunfion as one of a dozen brands that I represent, I figured that I could answer the question. I deal with the product all of the time and in fact play the product myself. Needless to say that has started a long, drawn-out discussion about business ethics.
First, let me say that I have been in the sales profession now since I was a teenager, almost 40 years total. I personally believe that a "sale" is only a sale if both the buyer and the seller wins in the transaction. I also believe that the best and most credible way to sell anything is to already be a user of that product. One of the aspects of my business is that I pay bagpipe teachers to sell bagpipes. In my experience, the teacher is already being paid by the student to guide that student through the bagpipe world. I also tell my "affiliate teachers" that the best way to sell products is to sell those that they are currently using. Why? Because they are experts on those products. I personally sell a lot of Dunfion Bagpipes. Why? Because I play Dunfions, I play the Ross Bag, I play the Kinnaird Drone Reeds etc. I know how these products work and how they react to different situations. What I do is no different than the College of Piping selling their own book to their own students and anyone else who will buy it. The College of Piping isn't a benevolent association, it is a business!
I am a business. I buy products at wholesale and sell them at retail. My prices are competitive in the market place. I pay my teachers from the profit that I make just like any other business that employs sales people. I have seen comments that this is unethical. Is it unethical for any business to employ or subcontract people to sell its products? If that were true, we wouldn't have an economy. There isn't anything sacred about bagpipes and bagpipe products. I think that the people making such statesments have no idea how a business works.
I also charge people tuition to teach them how to play the pipes. Why? Because I then have a vested interest in making them successful playing the pipes. If you teach lessons for free, good for you. The problem with that approach is that you will only take students who are 1000% committed to the project. When they stop practicing, you can dump them because it's no skin off of your nose. I have a 22 year old bagpipe student who I have had for 12 years. He is severly autistic. If I wasn't being paid to teach him, I could have just told his parents that he "doesn't have what it takes" to play the pipes. Because I was being paid, I had to come up with a method to not only communicate with him, as he doesn't hold a conversation, but also a method by which to teach him. Today, he has been playing in pipe bands for 7 years.
Over the years I have posted hundreds of posts on the Bob Dunsire Forums. My intent was to help people learn about bagpipes and how to use the products that have come into the market place. When I started playing back in the 70's, we played this instrument the same way with the same set up as it had been played for hundreds of years. Bagpipe inovation and products have developed tremendously over the last 30 years. As a vendor, I have seen, installed and used most those products. I think that I know the business. I think that I am a pretty credible source for most new bagpipers seeking information about products and their use. I speak not only as a vendor but also as a bagpiper with 40 years of knowledge. What's wrong with that? By the way, I haven't included a link to my PayPal button or anything unethical, as some are suggesting.
Again, a sale is a transaction where both parties win. The buyer gets a good product at a fair price and the seller makes a profit on the sale. I would also like to point out that a "full mark-up" in most retail businesses is twice the cost of the wholesale. That's not so for the bagpipe business. We're lucky if we get half of that! As I said before, I represent a lot of vendors and products. I will sell to you what ever you want to buy, however, if you ask my opinion, I will probably steer you not towards the products from which I make the most profit but towards the products that I currently use and play. That is ethical and credible!
What if it only took you 10 times playing through a tune for you to memorize it? Would that interest you? Learning to play a new tune is a process. The problem is that if you start playing the tune quickly with a lot of bumps and snags, it will take you forever to learn and memorize the tune.
Playing the bagpipe is about precision, largely because we play all of our music by memory and, hopefully, with other people that are playing exactly the same thing at the same time. That being said, I have devised a process for developing a new tune that will not only help you learn it faster, but improve your sight reading at the same time.
As this is a process, I am going to list the sequence of practice steps:
1) Define and say the rhythm. You do this first because the main reason pipers don't learn new tunes that are out of their comfort zone is because they don't understand the rhythm. If that is a problem for you, I have some tools to help you learn and understand rhythm.
2) Say all of the melody notes (the notes with the stems down) out loud. When you can name them at a decent rate (1 per second) then you can go to step 3.
3) Finger all of the melody notes (position changes, not repeated notes) while nameing them out loud. Start slowly so that you don't make any mistakes. When you get to one note per second you can graduate to the next step.
4) Finger the tune including the ornamentation while saying them out loud. Again the goal is one movement per second.
5) Now you can stick the mouthpiece in your mouth and blow. The goal is to go from one melody note through the ornamentation to the next melody note position. You want to crawl through this step. The goal is to get from the beginning to the end of the tune without a mistake. That means that if you have to sit there on the melody note pondering the ornament coming up that is fine.
6) Step 5 was the first pass through the tune. If you didn't make any mistakes the next time will be easier. Remember step 1, the rhythm? Because you have an idea how the rhythm goes, your tune will gradually take shape as you become more accustom to the fingering through the repetitions.
Finally, playing a tune 10 times in a row won't result in memorization if you play it 10 different ways. The goal is to play it exactly the same way 10 times in a row. The secret word here is patience!
Crossing noises are a common problem in playing the bagpipe. They are false notes created between top hand notes and bottom hand notes when the hands open and close in the wrong sequence. For example: The first and most popular crossing noise happens between D and E. It happens because we start on D, we close the bottom hand playing a low G and then open our pinky and our E finger to finally play the E.
Years ago, Bruce Gandy published a series of exercises in the EUSPBA magazine, "Voice". These were exercises meant to help eliminate crossing noises. However, the exercises themselves will not solve the problem unless you know why crossing noises exist.
Let's go back to the D & E positions. There are two transition choices available to you, the player. One choice, as shown below, is the right choice and the other is the wrong choice. As a crossing noise is a "false note", the wrong choice will insert a low G between the two positions. Choosing the right transition as shown below will solve this problem.
Because this is about coordination, I have found that it is helpful to talk your way through the positions until you are fluent in their execution. Sometimes the fingers don't do what they are supposed to do unless your brain understands why. As you move from one interval to the next, the common thread through all of these is to lead with the hand in the direction which you are going. For example: If you are going up, the top hand opens first followed by the bottom hand closing. If you are coming down, the bottom hand opens first followed by the top hand closing. If you apply this formula between intervals and talk your way through the coordination, you will not have a crossing noise problem. Some people might just have perfect synchronization, most people don't. There will always be some delay between hands opening and closing. It is better to side on the right sequence. It just takes practice.
When you progress from the practice chanter to the pipes, players face quite a transition, simply because the pipe chanter is larger and feels different. Over the course of time, I have had students complain that they weren't happy with their bagpipe technique. To which I ask them, have you practiced technique on the pipes? There response is something like: "What do you mean?". In my book I have quite a few pages devoted to developing technique; however, one of the first things that I would do is practice playing and holding the positions so that your fingers are properly closing the holes all of the way. I would then practice playing the scale with each of the grace notes. I would also march while doing any and all of this. If you are going to practice doublings, the doublings are actually played in sixteen note time. If you are counting "1 e & uh" for sixteenth notes, the doublings are played 1 e at walking pace. When you start practicing you should march in place. Your feet going left-right-left-right are in quarter note time. Take the doublings apart and play the G gracenote on the left foot and the D gracenote on the right. The rhythm is 1 2 1 2 1 2 etc. When you can do that well, then you will change the rhythm pattern to "1 & 1 &" holding the second note over the 2nd beat. Finally you do it at sixteenth note time. Practicing in this manner will help you develop your doublings evenly. Better yet, you could order James McGilvray's "Rhythmic Fingerwork" below and play every page on the pipes.
I would encourage you to warm up each "practice session" with some technique. I would also practice "Big, Slow & Open" while marching in place. The important thing is to get your feet moving! Bagpipers march and play at the same time. Just playing the pipes with no plan is not practicing!
"Rhythmic Fingerwork" and "Piobareachd Fingerwork" by James McGillivray are incredible books about developing good bagpipe technique. These books are full of exercises designed to improve your playing. These books are not beginners books. Every instrument has one if not many of these types of books written for it. I believe that these books are the first if not the only great technique books for the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland. They sell for $46.00 each.
Practicing, as I've said before, isn't just about playing through the tunes. You need to have a goal and purpose in mind when you practice. For instance: The first goal that I think you should have with any tune is to know the rhythm. Take out your pencil and write in the rhythm syllables. Then see if you can say them in a string. When you can do that, then you tap your feet left, right, left, right and say those syllables to the beat. Here we're talking about only three steps to develop the rhythm. Each one has to be completed before you go to the next.
Let's talk about the tunes. I think that your first goal should be to be able to play each and every note "big, slow and open" period. When you can do that and play while tapping your feet to the eighth note, then your goal is to be able to play at "parade speed." Remember, att some point you DO need to play at parade speed. Let's say that you start out at parade speed but find that you flub on the Grip on C. Just like "Stop, Drop and Roll" you need to "stop, isolate the problem and drill". You want to do that with every problem that you encounter.
By practicing in this manner, you can make more of the limited time you have for practicing.
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".