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Lessons: Things we’ll cover

Learning to train/tame the Scottish Octopus

Well, you don’t actually need eight limbs to do everything a bagpipe requires, but I’m sure an extra arm or two could come in handy.
(Image: octopodalmotion.com)

If you didn’t catch onto this already, the bagpipes are a pretty complicated instrument. It requires the player to do/think about many things at once. At the least, most competent players are thinking about the following every time they strike up their pipes:

  • The fingering of the chanter
  • Finding a good air pressure that produces a good sound
  • Maintaining the above pressure with steadiness
  • Tuning the drones
  • The sound/tuning of individual notes on the chanter
  • … and of course, the music itself

If that sounds like a lot, well, you’re absolutely right. That’s why we learn the pipes in stages. As much as possible, we try to focus on one thing at a time.

As mentioned on the How To Get Started page, pretty much everyone gets their start with a practice chanter. This allows you to get going in learning the basics of how the fingering works. As with pretty much any instrument, we start with becoming familiar with the scale.

After learning to play the scale cleanly, we then move on to learning basic ornaments used in Scottish piping to add flavor to the notes such as gracenotes, strikes/hits, throws, and heavier embellishments (e.g., grips, taorluaths, etc.). I discuss why these sorts of things are used over in Getting To Know: Highland Pipes.

Along the way in learning the various ornaments, simple tunes are introduced. We’ll also discuss and begin touching upon learning both reading music and learning by ear, as both are essential skills for any well-rounded musician.

Showing my good friend and fellow performer Sam Nolte how to “strike in” the pipes … not the easiest of tasks for any learner. Photo: Wandering Stag, LLC

Ok, so what about the rest of the bagpipe?

Separately (usually) about a month into lessons, students will also be encouraged to try borrowing a set of pipes from me for the purposes of experiencing what it’s like to operate a pipe chanter that’s attached to a bag. The main focus remains working on fingering with the practice chanter, but I find it helpful for students to have a notion of where things are going to end up. No drones are open at this time. The main goals here are simply learning to breathe with the bag, and trying to get sustained notes from the pipe chanter.

After a few months of regular lessons and adequate practice time at home, most students are able to play some basic tunes on the practice chanter and execute most of the basic ornaments.

Also after a few months, on the pipes themselves (again, usually borrowed from me initially) it’s hopeful that the student can start to do a scale or two on the pipe chanter without drones.

Further from there, more complicated tunes are introduced on the practice chanter. On pipes, if all is going well with operating the chanter, drones will begin to be opened gradually. Tuning will start to be talked about, but students won’t be expected to tune themselves effectively for quite some time.

At this point, if all’s been going well, then it’s time to think about how/when the student will be getting their own set of pipes. There are lots of options out there, and we can figure out a solution that works for the student as lessons continue with more tunes, and further work on learning how to control the pipes as a whole.

Once a student has all drones going on the full pipes and has learned to roughly tune the drones themselves, there will be a more critical focus paid toward blowing/bag control. Maintaining steady pressure is essential to producing a pleasant-sounding performance on bagpipes.

Of equal importance is the condition/working order of the instrument. There’s no such thing as a maintenance-free bagpipe, sadly.

A rather humorous tale prompted the creation of this graphic. Moral of the story is that it behooves one to take proper care of their pipes. This absolutely includes good maintenance.

We’ll extensively go over hemping of joints, testing the bag/blowpipe for airtightness, care of reeds, and moisture concerns (namely, spit).

Further from this, there’s working on getting your more difficult tunes from the practice chanter going on the pipes. The harder the tunes are, the more difficult it is to be able to keep a mind on pressure control and tuning. And eventually, there’s the tuning of the individual chanter notes. If you’re executing all of the tunes properly, then there’s expression to think about. Perhaps even some piobaireachd tunes to delve into.

Again, one thing at a time

Yes, there’s really a lot. All of this takes time, and that’s what lessons are all about. All of this stuff can’t be thrown out and about in some sort of crash course. As I like to say about piping:

“This isn’t checkers … it’s an everlasting game of chess.”

So there’s a lot to it, no doubt about it. But it should be (and must be) a labor of love. So long as you love the instrument and the pursuit of it, ALL of this stuff will come.

Yes, it will be difficult, but let’s face it—nothing worth doing comes without difficulty … and of course, practice.

The trick with anything is not to let yourself feel overwhelmed. =)
Image: Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson