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~ Some Notes on the Playing of Bagpipes ~

A Piper's Hands

Note: This section is at an early stage of development - more material will be added soon.
New! See the recently added section Learning to Play.

A question pipers are often asked is, "How hard is it to learn to play bagpipes?" It's a tough question - below is a list of things that set bagpipes apart from other instruments and that will perhaps give those considering the instrument some help.
  • Wind - Some mouth-blown pipes require higher air pressure and/or greater air volume than others. Most persons, contrary to what might be expected, have less trouble with lung-power than with the muscles around their lips. (Trumpet and other horn players will well understand this.) Beginners find that many bagpipes are either impossible to play for more than a few moments, or at all. The solution is to build up the necessary stamina slowly, either, in the case of some bagpipes, by first playing a practice chanter or by playing with some or all of the drones plugged off. There is also a beginners' version of some sorts of bagpipes, called a goose, that is useful in this and other early development.

  • Steadiness - During ordinary playing, and with certain exceptions, it is essential that the chanter and drone(s) receive air at a steady and constant pressure. This requires that as air is blown into the bag, via the blowpipe and player's mouth, that the amount of pressure applied by the player's arm against the bag be proportionately and smoothly diminished. Likewise, as the airflow through the blowpipe ceases, arm pressure must be increased to keep air pressure constant. Failure to maintain constant air pressure results in the pitch of the various pipes changing, and worse yet changing relative to one another - in other words, the bagpipe will sound out of tune.

    The same thing applies to bellows-blown bagpipes - the arm squeezing the bag must be relaxed a bit as the other arm compresses the bellows, and vice versa. There is a tendency to try to time all this arm movement to the tempo of the music being played; this must be avoided from the outset - the air supply, whether by mouth or bellows, must be steady and automatic, and not occupy the piper consciously or be somehow linked to the particular tune being played.

  • Tuning - Once a piper has mastered providing steady air pressure to the instrument without his or her mouth falling off after thirty seconds, the tuning of the chanter and drones becomes the next task. Mouth blown bagpipes in particular require frequent tuning, because the temperature and especially the moisture content of the reeds is always changing. Chanter reeds are more or less sensitive, depending, among many factors, on the individual reed and the type of bagpipe. It is sometimes, but hopefully not too often, necessary to either sharpen or flatten a chanter reed to bring the top and bottom notes of the scale into proper relative tune. One way to accomplish this is by setting the reed more or less deeply in its seat. Sometimes the top and bottom of the scale will sound fine, but one or more notes in the middle of the scale will be off; applying wax to fingerholes, effectively changing their location, is one time-honored method of dealing deal with this. Much of this sort of trouble is due to the reed not being under the direct control of the piper, that is, in the mouth as are the reeds of most other woodwinds. Compounding the problem, a piper cannot adjust the pitch of the chanter reed by varying air pressure, because any change will also affect the pitch of the drone reed(s), thus again throwing the pipe out of tune. The upshot of all of this is that considerable fussing with chanter reeds is a part of playing bagpipes, and the skills involved take time to master.

    Drone reeds, with fewer demands on them, are usually easier to live with although they can give their share of trouble. Once a bagpipe's chanter and drone reeds are working properly, a remaining chore is to tune the drone(s) to the chanter. In the case of most Western European bagpipes, this is accomplished by changing the length of the drone, via sliding joints, while the chanter is sounding a single note. The player, unless blessed with perfect pitch, uses the audible "beat" - a pulsing sound - that occurs when two notes are close to, but not quite exactly, in tune. Hearing this "beat" is easier for some than others, but most people can learn to hear it. Meanwhile, if the pipe has more than one drone, it may be necessary to silence the others that have not yet been tuned. This can be accomplished on many pipes by briefly clapping a hand over a drone outlet; the drone can be restarted by popping a finger out of the outlet (this creates a momentary negative pressure in the drone bore). All of this can be troublesome at times.

  • Fingerings - Superficially, most bagpipes might seem rather simple in regard to fingerings and indeed many other wind instruments require more contortions than most bagpipes when playing a simple scale. However, with some exceptions, a bagpipe chanter is always producing sound. Thus there are no silences available between notes. In order to play the same note twice in a row, at least one other short note, called a grace note, must be interjected between. Grace notes, singly or in groups, are also used to add color and character to the music - there being limited other options (for example, there is no control whatsoever over the volume of a note). Also, because most bagpipes have no keys, some available notes may require awkward finger positions, half-covered holes and so on. These moves may be tricky, there not being even a split second of silence available during which to get situated.

  • Learning Tunes - the inability to stop and start a bagpipe quickly can make learning a new tune more difficult than on other instruments. It can be difficult to concentrate on remembering (or reading) a tune while the pipe is blaring away, and it is easier to get "lost" than with most other instruments.
Overall, bagpipes are far from easy instruments to play, let alone master. However, the complex components of decent piping can be more or less learned one by one, and there is no single overwhelming demand made or genius required. Thus most bagpipes respond well to diligence and patience, and if these are applied the rewards can be great, regardless of "talent."

To be continued...

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Text Copyright 1999 - 2004, Oliver Seeler