Letting youngsters squeeze the bag at gigs is always fun, but no—this isn’t where things truly start when one wants to get going in learning bagpipes.
Photo: Liquid Lindy Photography
Where to begin?
This, quite understandably, is one of the most frequent things I’m asked about playing the bagpipes—though it’s certainly a distant second from “what do you wear under your kilt?”
As I’ll get into more in depth on the Thing’s We’ll Cover page, the process is a little different for the bagpipes compared to other instruments like say, the trumpet or the violin. With a trumpet, you buy a trumpet, and you learn on it. Same with the violin.
This isn’t so with the bagpipes. It’s a complicated instrument, requiring one to learn in stages. Almost no one can successfully go immediately to a set of pipes, and start “having at it.” That’s a good thing too, because like most instruments, a full set of pipes can be very expensive (Read more @ How Much Things Cost).
Rather, all one needs is a small and relatively inexpensive instrument called a “practice chanter.”
Introducing: The Practice Chanter
The practice chanter is aptly named. On the full bagpipes, the fingering portion of them is called a “chanter,” and it’s generally the loudest part of the instrument. Also, anything attached to the bagpipe will require proper use of the bag in order to enjoy any degree of success—this is a whole additional skill one has to learn.
So enter the practice chanter. It’s much quieter than a standard Highland pipe chanter, and there’s no bag involved. There’s simply a pointed end where one can blow into it to make the sound. Admittedly, it looks more like a snake charmer than something that’s a derivative of the bagpipe (and in some ways sounds like a snake charmer as well).
This makes things much easier for the learner when they’re starting out—not to mention for anyone else close by!
And the value of a practice chanter doesn’t end there. It’s highly useful for experienced pipers who are just “working on things,” such as new/difficult tunes, fingering exercises, and so on. Let’s face it, “practice makes perfect” and when stuff is nowhere near perfect, things can sound pretty rough.
That’s fine, as nothing with music sounds good until we work on it—but wouldn’t it be nice if we could do so without the volume of a chainsaw beneath our fingers? Well, we can … and the practice chanter serves this purpose well. Thus, the practice chanter remains an essential item in a piper’s life.
So whether taking up the Highland pipes, or even a bellows-blown pipe such as smallpipes or border pipes, people enjoy the most success by focusing their efforts on the practice chanter for a while—in most cases, a good six months to a year is advisable.
This works well for a few reasons. For one, again, bagpipes are loud—practice chanters let you get going whilst taking the sanity of your neighbors into account. Second, it’s really helpful to not have to worry about operating a bag for a while. By focusing on just the fingering first, you allow yourself to get those aspects of playing to be more second nature before attempting others.
And thirdly (as mentioned above), there’s cost to consider. With very few exceptions, any set of Highland pipes worth buying are not going to cost you less than about $700-$800 (see How Much Things Cost for more information), and that’s what you’d be looking to pay for a quality set of plastic pipes. If considering a quality set made of wood, things tend to start around the $1,200 mark or so and up, depending on a variety of factors such as material, maker, and sometimes age (say, with vintage sets). Again, there’s lots more info on this over at How Much Things Cost.
So really, besides lessons from a qualified instructor, all you really need to get going for a good while is a practice chanter.
Ok, so where do I find one?
Just about any practice chanter will do, though for good marriage of both price and quality, I tend to find Gibson‘s to be excellent options. I have had many different practice chanters, and I have yet to find one that sounds better than Gibson, particularly for the price.
There’s a standard (short) form and a long form when it comes to practice chanters … you can take your pick. The short form will be the cheaper option, though the long form will tend to resonate a bit more, and tends to feel a bit more comfortable for adults.
In most cases, long form practice chanters are intended to more closely mimic the feel of an actual pipe chanter that would be on a full set of Highland pipes. In my experience though, the effective similarity of any practice chanter to a pipe chanter is minimal at best.
For very young children with short fingers, there are also child-size practice chanters out there. If at all possible, first I try to see if kids can manage their way around a standard short form chanter. Sometimes though, a child’s enthusiasm doesn’t quite match the length of their fingers.
In this case, I recommend finding the cheapest functioning option available (so far, it’s the ABC Junior Length Chanter @ ~$40, with shipping)*. Reason being, it probably won’t be too long before your child outgrows the chanter and you’ll then need to pick up a standard-sized one. Also, with the child ones being sooooo small, they tend to be really high in pitch—so they won’t sound the same when playing along with anyone else’s.
*Please note, I do NOT represent or work for/with Gibson or ABC. Rather, I’m a cheapskate who is happy a good deal when I find one … let’s face it, bagpipe stuff costs enough as it is.