Learn the Tricks Every Bagpiper Should Know
The focus of this article is Scottish bagpipes, rather than Irish or the numerous other fascinating versions that exist throughout the world. I choose Scottish bagpipes because they are the most familiar, and because I believe true bagpipers should have to inflate the bag with the sheer force of their lungs and stand up while doing so, even if they are drunk (often the case).
You’ve got a lot of nerve, learning to play the bagpipes… you’re about to embark along a path that will make you the object of admiration and ridicule. Pay no attention to the mockery and the occasional detractors – they’re just jealous of your kilt and probably a little threatened by your thick, tree-trunk legs, furry sporran and that sharp little sgian dhu tucked inconspicuously into your sock. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before you even consider buying the Highland garb and accessories, you’ve got to begin learning the Scottish bagpipe music, right? Here’s how.
- Buy a practice chanter.
Bagpipe practice starts with the basic, unromantic practice chanter. On it, you will learn the scale of notes accessible on Scottish bagpipes (minus the pipe drones, of course) and will master the intricacies of fingering. This is the first step for any bagpiper. You’ll feel a kind of connection with the entire bagpiping world as you listen to the nasal, whining sound you’re producing. Don’t worry – it gets much better!
You’ll become familiar with the scale of notes available on a bagpipe chanter. From lowest to highest, they are low G, low A, B, C, D, E, F, high G and high A. The C and F are technically sharp.
- Buy a book and learn exercises.
As you’re becoming familiar with how the chanter is held and how a scale is played from lowest to highest note (and back down again), you’ll want to start performing some exercises. You really ought to invest in a bagpipe practice booklet. It will contain valuable learning exercises and songs for you to ultimately learn, as well as helpful diagrams and pictures of proper form for playing bagpipes. You must learn to read bagpipe sheet music and recognize the little dots on the page for their corresponding notes on the chanter.
Just remember to breathe. Don’t make the same mistake I did when I passed out and gave myself a minor concussion from impact on the floor. It can be tempting to try forcing yourself to finish a large chunk of a song in one breath, but the primary purpose of the practice chanter is to polish your fingering, not your breathing strength. Breathing skills for bagpiping can’t be captured any other way than by picking up the actual bagpipes.
One of the trickiest aspects of fingering on the bagpipe chanter is the presence of grace notes. On paper, they appear as individual or clustered notes that are smaller and floating above regular notes. Grace notes serve to emphasize and embellish key notes, but they don’t affect the time signature of the song since the time they take is considered zero. Clusters of grace notes are numerous and creative, providing great challenge when learning a piece. One of the most challenging for beginners is often the birl, which involves rapidly moving your pinky finger over its hole to produce a warbling sound of G-A-G-A, both low.
- Find a teacher and start to learn songs.
One article can’t really do justice to the subject of playing the bagpipes – if it could, plenty of bagpipe teachers would probably have been out of a job long ago. The best investment you can make toward learning the bagpipes, aside from your own time to practice, is taking bagpipe lessons. Find a teacher in your area. You can ask a Scottish store that sells bagpipes (they often have recommendations and are a great place to start your search). You can also visit local bagpipe bands where they meet or even just search for local bagpipers online. If you live in a remote area where there are no bagpipe teachers, you can access free instructive advice online at such sites as Lindsay Davidson’s Teach Yourself Bagpipes.
The next step is learning songs. Start off slowly; regardless of your skill level, it’s always best to play a new song slower than it’s normally played. It’s vital that you learn the tune correctly before speeding up the pace. Otherwise you’ll be promoting sloppy mistakes and poor habits.
Two of the first tunes you’ll likely learn are “Amazing Grace” and “Scotland the Brave.” Eventually, you may come to hate these tunes, because so many people will want to hear them! But notice the looks of appreciation you get from those who made the request. For whatever reason, these songs might compel a few of those aforementioned detractors to take a second look and be moved by your music. So learn these bagpipe tunes and don’t let yourself completely hate them! Mild disdain is acceptable.
- Buy your bagpipes.
By this time you’ve learned the fingering of a chanter through exercise and practice, and have mastered some tunes as well. Hopefully, you haven’t tried to do all of this on your own, but have sought the guidance of an experienced bagpiper and have purchased a bagpipe book laden with exercises and songs. Now it’s time to invest in the bagpipes. This is the moment you’ve been anticipating! When picking out your first bagpipes, you don’t need to buy the most expensive model available. Find some well-made used bagpipes (they don’t have to be pretty) and be sure to get good-quality reeds. You can always purchase shiny, expensive bagpipes once you are certain that you’ve fallen in love with playing the instrument.
Don’t worry or feel overwhelmed when reading this, though; purchase your bagpipes from a Scottish store where the shopkeeper can guide you. And get advice from your instructor (another benefit of taking lessons!) – if possible, ask the old piper to accompany you on your shopping excursion. Your teacher will be able to help you not only pick out a good set of bagpipes, but also the necessary items that don’t immediately spring to mind, like string, wax, tape and bag seasoning (you’re in for a treat).
In terms of bagpipe reeds, you’ll need a chanter reed and three drone reeds. The reed you currently have in you practice chanter won’t work in your bagpipes – they require a much stronger reed than that!
- Get acquainted with your bagpipes – a tender and occasionally disturbing process.
Now comes the joy of getting to know your new instrument. Look at your bagpipes. Beautiful, aren’t they?
You’ll see a bag with five sticks coming out of it. The shortest is for you to breathe air into the bag. The three longest and thickest are your drones (two tenor and one bass), and the other stick is recognizably a chanter (unlike the practice version, you won’t be breathing directly into this one, but rather merely fingering on it).
Holes on the bagpipe chanter correspond to the same notes as on the practice chanter. All drones are tuned to A; your bass drone is an octave lower than the two tenors.
Yellow hemp string and beeswax are used to provide a snug, airtight seal where pipes connect to the bag and where drones are segmented. Use care when applying the string – wax the string to stick to the wood at the lowest layer and wax heavily on the upper layers of string as well. Don’t use too much string, as this could damage the wood. The goal of stringing the drone segments is to prevent them from slipping on their own, but also allow you to still adjust them with relative ease. Teflon tape is optional; some bagpipers cover the string with it.
If your bag is made of traditional animal hide, as opposed to plastic, then you’ll have to season the bag occasionally. Yay! When you notice that the bag seems to be leaking too much air, it’s time to take all of your sticks out of that bag. Once you’ve removed the drones, chanter and mouth-pipe, plug all but one of the holes with corks. Heat up some bag seasoning in a pan, and then pour it into your open hole. Cork that remaining hole, rub the seasoning into the bag and then drain thoroughly, letting the bag dry for about a day. Don’t worry – there will be instructions on the seasoning container.
- Learn the basics of playing bagpipes, and develop skills through practice.
How a bagpipe works is fairly simple. You supply air to the bag through your blowpipe, and the reservoir of air in the bag allows you to take breaths without interrupting the music from your reeds. But the bagpipes are a physically demanding instrument – playing them is like a full-body workout that nevertheless requires your fingers to remain totally nimble.
One of the greatest challenges to a bagpiper is maintaining consistent, non-fluctuating air pressure through the reeds. Your ability to achieve this pressure will improve with practice, but don’t be discouraged at first when your bag is deflating and inflating uncontrollably and the tone of your music pulses and fluctuates awkwardly with the change in pressure on the reeds. There’s a rhythm that you will find through practice; basically, you must press harder on the bag when you’re not breathing into it, and ease your arm off the bag more when you are blowing air into it. Let the bag become an extension of your body – get to know it and feel the tightening and loosening of it! Over time, you’ll build up your lung capacity significantly and also build some upper body strength, both of which help you achieve consistency with air pressure.
The good news, if you spent an unhurried period of time practicing on a practice chanter, is that you have a solid foundation of fingering experience and technique on which to build your skill level. This makes the jump to the actual instrument much less stressful. But don’t expect fingering to be as easy on the bagpipes, where you face multiple challenges at the same time.
Once you have developed consistent quality in your play of the bagpipes, you can incorporate marching into your practices. But be patient and don’t jump to the marching too quickly, or else you’re likely to just frustrate yourself and diminish the benefit of practice.
- I recommend earplugs.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, these bagpipes are to be played standing up. If you have an open area in which to play them, that will be much better for your ears (though probably much more frustrating for your neighbors as you learn). I strongly suggest that you buy some earplugs – there’s a reason why so many armies have kept bagpipers in their ranks. The sound will carry a great distance and earplugs will certainly not prevent you from hearing your music. The only thing it can prevent is deafness.
Now you can become a bagpipe player!