by Andy Douglas, Pipe Major 2011-2013
Steps to Learning the Bagpipes
- Purchase a practice chanter. We recommend the Gibson Long practice chanter for its quality construction and value. You can buy this practice chanter from the Celtic Corner Store located near the Eastgate Mall in Cincinnati, or from online bagpipe retailers.
- Find high-quality, in-person bagpipe instruction. Not all bagpipers should provide instruction to students. Generally, the best players make the best teachers, and a quick way to determine a player’s ability is to ask him or her whether he or she competes in solo competitions and if so, what grade level the piper has achieved (with “professional” and “grade 1” being the highest achievement levels and “grade 4” being the lowest). You can also simply ask other bagpipers their opinions of an instructor prior to starting lessons. The Cincinnati Caledonian Pipes and Drums Band provides free, weekly group lessons taught by accomplished pipers/teachers, but we also recommend that every student seek out private instruction in order to provide individualized attention. Students taking advantage of free CCP&D lessons are asked to purchase an instructional book written by John Cairns called Bagpipe Solutions Volume 2 (note the volume 2 instead of 1). This book is available for purchase at the Celtic Corner Store and other online bagpipe retailers.
- Practice, practice, practice. We recommend daily short practices of 30 minutes. It’s better to practice for short durations like 30 minutes but to practice daily than to have one or two longer practice sessions during the week. Frequent practices help to reinforce memory. You should start with learning the proper grip and correct fingering for the 9 main notes we play on the pipes. Next, you will need to be able to comfortably and cleanly move between any of these notes. Once you have established this foundation, you will learn the proper execution of grace notes and embellishments and start working on tunes. After you have memorized several tunes and demonstrated your competency to your instructor, you should start transitioning from the practice chanter to the bagpipes.
- Transition to the bagpipe. When your instructor(s) are satisfied that you’re ready, you will start transitioning from the practice chanter to the bagpipe. Common first tunes include Amazing Grace and Scots Wha Hae. As you transition to the bagpipe, you will focus on learning to control the flow of air through the instrument. Air pressure must be kept constant in order to produce quality tone. The fingerings and chanter techniques that you learned on the practice chanter are promoted to the pipe chanter. Stamina is a hurdle at this stage. An instructor should be engaged in order to ensure that the instrument is set up correctly and is operating at peak efficiency. Drones should initially remain corked while you acclimate to the bagpipe. As you become more competent, one drone at a time can be uncorked as stamina improves until you’re playing the full set.
- Master your bagpipe. The bagpipe, if played poorly, sounds terrible. You must learn to consistently start up (strike-in) and stop (cut-off) your pipes precisely on time in order to play with other pipers. While playing, you must learn to precisely control the air pressure, keeping it as steady as possible especially while transitioning from blowing to squeezing the bag and back again. You must learn how to tune your drones to match your chanter, play with clean execution and expression. If you and your fellow pipers can say that you’ve achieved these things, you have indeed mastered your bagpipe!
Things to Avoid
- Buying a full set of bagpipes immediately. This can be a costly mistake. There are plenty of low-quality cheap bagpipes for sale online that should be avoided. We recommend that all students first purchase a practice chanter and establish a solid foundation in their playing before buying a set of pipes.
- Attempting to learn by yourself. Even if you are an experienced musician, learning to play the bagpipe correctly is extremely difficult without having some level of in-person lessons.
- Running before walking. It’s tempting to try to dive right into learning embellishments and tunes before building a solid foundation in proper fingering and technique. Defer to your piping instructor to determine when you are ready to advance to more challenging aspects of piping.
- Gripping the practice chanter tightly. It’s natural to want to grip the PC tightly, however this is a very bad habit to establish. A tight grip inhibits your ability to quickly move around the chanter and hastens fatigue.
- Ignoring mistakes during practice. It’s critical during the early stages of learning that you develop an “ear” for your mistakes. It’s important that both you and your teacher identify mistakes and that you seek to correct these mistakes through your practice. If you can’t hear your mistakes while playing the practice chanter or bagpipe, you will not be a good player. One way to aid in the process of identifying your own mistakes is to record your playing and critically listening back to yourself.