So You Want to know How to Play Bagpipes? An Introduction to Piping
When I started playing the pipes I was 15 years old. I remember how big of a world it felt like I was entering, and how daunting of a task it seemed I had in front of me. In this article I would like to give some very beginning pointers to those who are considering entering the piping world; what to look for, what to avoid, and some practicing tips that would have really helped me in my beginning. This article will focus primarily on the Great Highland Bagpipe
Lets start with the bagpipes themselves. Bagpipes are some of the oldest instruments in existence. For thousands of years they have been a staple in cultures across the world...from Russia to Spain, Southern Africa to Scotland and Ireland.
The basic design of any set of pipes is 4 parts:
Bag- The bag serves as a reservoir for air. In the past these bags were made from some sort of animal part. Bladder, skin, stomach...whatever was airtight. My first set of pipes were made from cow hide and required this awful concoction that we called "seasoning" in order to be airtight. It was horrifying. Luckily, even the piping industry has progressed and is using more modern materials than before. My current set have a bag made from GORE-TEX, and even include high-tech anti-moisture devices inside the bag themselves.
Air Input - There is always some mechanism for putting air into the bag. This can vary widely, but in most instances it will either be a blow stick that you can blow through (it has a valve to prevent losing air), or a bellows system that use your arms, leaving your mouth free to do things like sing or drink.
Drone(s) - These, generally, play a single note and won't (well...shouldn't) vary in pitch while one is playing. The chosen pitch depends on the type of pipes, which we will get into later.
Chanter - This is the main part of the pipes that is actually used to produce a tune of one sort or another. While some chanters from different types of pipes may have the same fingerings...most will not. In other words, learning how to play the Shuttle Pipes of Scotland will not help you on the Gaitas of Spain.
Now on to what you are here for.
As mentioned earlier, we will be only talking about the Great Highland Bagpipes (GHP). These are the pipes that the majority of Westerners will think of when they hear someone say "bagpipes". You see them in parades...on street corners...parades...and Scottish festivals.
I am a very (VERY) firm believer that anyone who says they don't like the bagpipes has never heard them played properly. Like any instrument, there is a serious learning curve, and anyone at the beginning of that curve will not be very proficient. Have you ever heard someone learning to play the violin?
I rest my case.
The guitar or piano, unlike the pipes, have the ability to play as many or as few notes as one wants. There are chords, scales, arpeggios, slurs etc. Learning all of those things on those instruments takes a lot of time and practice. The bagpipes only have 9 notes. That's it. But, here is my warning to you; Heed it well.
Do not think that because there are only 9 notes in the scale, that playing the pipes is easy. While I will admit that learning the notes themselves is not the most complicated of tasks, learning to play correctly is probably one of the most challenging things I have done. And I have played a lot of instruments.
If that hasn't scared you off then here we go.
The pipes are an interesting instrument, in that one does not actually start learning now to play them immediately. The first thing you will be doing is learning to play on what is called a "practice chanter". It's nothing more than a smaller version of the chanter that is on the pipes themselves, but not attached to any bag or drones. The practice chanter has three distinct advantages;
1. Compared to the price of pipes, a practice chanter is very cheap 2. Compared to playing a full set of pipes, the practice chanter is easy 3. Most importantly to a new player (and their family), a practice chanter is quiet.
Selecting a practice chanter is where most people go wrong in the first place. I want you to repeat the following to yourself 5 times.
Quality is really important for many reasons:
1. The notes on the the pipes is not 100% accurate from a physics/pitch standpoint when compared to the scales and tones you are used to hearing in your music. These tones need to be reproduced accurately for a beginner to have any chance of getting good at hearing their playing should sound like.
2. Poor workmanship makes it very difficult to play a bad practice chanter. The holes wont be cut correctly, and it will leak air, and more than likely it will sound like a duck that is in heat. Not only that, but it's just plain not fun to play on the bad practice chanters.
3. Quality chanters, when properly cared for, will last indefinitely. They are an instrument in and of themselves, and you should never need to replace one.
4. A bad quality practice chanter will in no way prepare you to actually be able to play the bagpipes. In other words; A bad practice chanter is as good as having no practice chanter.
I do not joke when I say this. When you start searching for a practice chanter, you will find many options out there. Some as cheap as 15 dollars (that also include a book too!). If you buy those, you will have a much higher likelihood of failure. Some of the brands that I would recommend for a practice chanter are J. Dunbar Ltd and David Naill & Company. Also, let's not be ridiculous here. You don't need to get fancy engravings or anything too pompous. Just find something that is put together well and has good reviews. My practice chanter was purchased 13 years ago from David Naill & Co, and cost somewhere in the 140 dollar range. Anything that is going for around 60 or more will do the trick though.
Yes...I know that's a lot. Piping is an expensive life...but purchasing a good practice chanter is worth it.
Now that you have a practice chanter in hand, you will need some guidance. The keys to learning to play the practice chanter successfully are;
1. Patience - whether or not you are a musician, at first you will have trouble even getting notes to sound properly. You will feel clumsy, and awkward...a lot of the initial learning that must be done is pure muscle memory. Teaching your fingers where to sit on the chanter, spacing, and the actual positions to put your fingers for each note will take some time. Add to it that some of the fingerings for the notes are not intuitive at all.
2. Practice - you will need to practice a great deal before you even start playing your first song. Unlike the piano, which many can walk up to and plunk out the notes to a song, the chanter will not sound the proper note unless your fingers are positioned perfectly. Practice each note, one at a time. Work on doublings too.
3. Instruction - you need an instructor. Someone with a lot of experience both playing and teaching is preferable. You want to find someone who has played with pipe bands, and competed both in the band circuit, as well as the solo circuit. There are different grade levels given to pipers who compete. Grade One/Professional is the highest level, and Grade Four is the lowest. Your instructor should have at the very least competed at a grade 2 level as a soloist. If they haven't, then I would be weary of their ability to really get you to where you want to be.
4. Listen - nothing opened my eyes to what piping should be more than when I went to a competition in Pleasanton, California. I had the great honor and privilege of watching that year's world champion pipeband, the Simon Fraser University Pipeband, in person as they prepared for the world championships. That moment when they struck up, and marched into their medley for warm ups, is one of my most treasured memories. It changed my life. I strongly recommend that when you are not playing the chanter, that you listen to piping. You will start to hear subtle differences in how different bands play. You will start to get a feel for what this is all about. I recommend you start listening to the recordings of The World Pipe Band Championships. They are available at all the major music outlets online (iTunes, Amazon, etc).
As you progress with your instructor, you will be guided towards your first time playing an actual set of bagpipes. When that moment comes, don't panic. You will feel almost as clumsy as the first time you picked up a practice chanter. If you are able to even get a good note out the first time you try playing the bagpipes, then you have succeeded. I will tell you, however, that once you can play on a practice chanter, moving onto a full set of pipes is not as difficult as you will fear.
You will get it.
Being a piper has been one of the most important things in my life. I have played at friend's weddings. I have played at the funerals of loved ones. I've marched in world famous parades, and flown around the world to learn and teach. All the while carrying a badge of pride, that I am one of the few who can call themselves a piper.
Unfortunately I have only been able to scratch the very outer surface of piping; if even that. There are many more things to learn about, and I encourage you to do so. Learn about reeds, about waxed hemp (yes, I said hemp). Learn about the culture behind the Great Highland Bagpipes...
This final word of advice is important; Once you start down this beautiful road, you may never turn back. You won't want to at least.
Once a piper, always a piper. Practice hard.