Learning to Play the Pipes

by Dave McKenzie

“…To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning, and seven generations before… At the end of seven years, he will stand at the start of knowledge... and leaning a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs…” -Neil Munro.

This is a classic quote that I remember from the inside of my first tutor book when I was a piping student many years ago. My take on it is that a piper who puts forth the effort might be able to communicate with his ancestors, more poetically than literally, as he attains a sort of enlightenment in his pursuit to play the pipes. I’m not sure about the “seven generations” bit, but I agree with “seven years” as a true number to reckon the process by. Learning the art form of the Highland Bagpipe could easily take a lifetime to master.

The Highland Bagpipe is probably the only instrument that you begin by learning how to play another instrument first. This is for several reasons. Playing the Highland Bagpipe successfully, even if only simply and for very short periods of time in the beginning, is the result of coordinating and bring to bear several skills at once: steady blowing (an art in itself), strong playing endurance, good technique, musicality, tuning and troubleshooting, and even marching later on. This is simply too much and too overwhelming a task for a beginner to ever tackle not to mention all the loud noise that would be created in the process.

In the spirit of the ever frugal Scot, an inexpensive investment in a Practice Chanter and a book or two are all that is required for the first 6 months with the quickest learners, usually those under the age of 21 or so, to often a year or more with most adult beginners. If a student doesn’t progress beyond the Practice Chanter, then they don’t have their money tied up in a huge investment as is the case with just about every other musical instrument. The Practice Chanter is not the “training wheels” of the bagpipe, however. You do not outgrow it. It is the primary vehicle for improving technique and learning new music as long as one is actively playing the bagpipe. Even learning the most advanced techniques, like circular breathing for example, is a skill taught less often these days and even more rarely used by pipers of all skill levels on the Practice Chanter. One must achieve a certain level of competency on the P.C. before even considering moving on to the greater physical challenges of the bagpipe like strength, endurance, and coordination.

The Practice Chanter is the starting point for every piper. This is a smaller, much quieter, bag less version of the larger, louder pipe chanter of the bagpipe. This allows the piper to concentrate exclusively on rudimentary blowing control and steadiness and, more importantly, the fingering technique, so as to get the brain-to-finger synaptic wiring together without all of the other distractions and more advanced skills to be acquired later. The most important factor in the beginning is to get with a good teacher as guidance and discipline are key to developing good fingering habits. Being even the least little bit “self-taught” before seeking out a teacher can lead to a lifetime of bad habits and poor playing skills that may be all but impossible to unlearn. The instrument is complicated enough without compounding the matter.

A set of bagpipes should not even be purchased at the outset. Myth No.4! This is also for several reasons. Firstly, most beginners and initiates to the world of the bagpipe have no idea what makes a good set of pipes, or even what price range is to be expected. I have had too many people buy a set of pipes in advance of taking lessons with me only to find out that they don’t need them right away and that they have in many cases bought a cheap, inherently inferior instrument of questionable materials and workmanship. Second, the temptation to play with the bagpipe- the “goal,” is often too great to resist and a lot of critical practice time, focus, and diligence are lost with the ever-present distraction of the “goal” within arms’ reach. I have had many a student, more often adults than children, who never got very far or quit because they were always fooling around with the reeds, or the bag, or the individual pipes themselves, to see how it all operates or is put together at the great expense of time better spent on the Practice Chanter focusing on playing the instrument well. “Playing the bagpipe” ceases to be the goal and the bagpipe itself, that is, focusing in “the thing,” becomes the goal. Students who are new to the bagpipe often set themselves up for failure by making one or more of these most common mistakes at the outset of learning to play. It is unfortunate that even with the best of intentions, desire, and initial motivation, too many people go about it all wrong.

And now for some frank honesty: “The Conventional Wisdom.”

The bagpipe is not an easy instrument to play, I think. If it were, more people would be doing it and doing it well. “Nothing’s difficult if you enjoy it,” I used to say, or maybe, “you get out of it what you put into it.” The ultimate “trick” in piping is making it appear easy. Playing the bagpipe might be easy in theory but, in practice, playing it well is difficult for most. A novice makes it look just as hard as it is- difficult to coordinate, strenuous to blow, clumsy and awkward to finger, squeaks, squawks, howling, roaring, and certain look of desperation, if not frustration. A good player makes all these growing pains looked “tamed” and the art “learned.” The great players make the bagpipe seem effortless. Most of them have tremendous natural musical ability and are natural pipers. The bagpipe is an extension of them. Some of them are truly exceptional, “gifted” players. Lucky fellas…

For many, the matter is a simple one of having started later in life after all of the other priorities have been taken care of: career, marriage, home, family, pet, other interests and pursuits, etc…only to find out that to ever be any good at all on this instrument really requires a good introduction and education from a reputable teacher and a pipe band early in life. The United States in particular, leads the world in adult beginners. It is also a simple fact of age. Bagpipe music could be effectively equated as the gymnastics for the fingers. Gymnastics are learned and pursued early in life when the body is at its most supple. The same holds true for piping since the technique requires a high degree of dexterity, nimbleness, agility, and fleetness of finger. This is why it has always been agreed upon that the best time to learn the pipes is between about age 10-16. It is often the complexity and sophisticated mechanism of the “finger-technique” that proves to be the most daunting task, referring to both its written representation as much as its physical challenges. Reading music is a challenge for many but it is a must for learning and memorizing new concepts and music. Memorization often proves to be a tremendous obstacle in learning the pipes as all music must be memorized. This involves coordinating rhythm, good reading skills, clean technique, and listening to oneself. In spite of this, I have had the privilege of teaching, knowing, and even competing against adult exceptions to this conventional wisdom. Take it for what it’s worth. Most of the exceptional adult learners out there have usually had some previous musical experience, or untapped, latent, dormant, but all-natural musical ability. As for what kind of results to expect from yourself and a go at learning the pipes: only a year or two of persistence, patience, time, and hard work are the ingredients for potential success for most of us. Everyone learns differently, everyone progresses at different rates; musical hurdles, obstacles involving physical movement of the fingers, and skill plateaus are common. Time is often the most difficult commodity to come by with these days. We’re all so busy running around with cell phones, voice mail, email, and faxes, trying to cram it all into an impossibly tight schedule. Very busy multi-taskers rarely succeed at something like this: a process that can’t be rushed. These are often the hardest-to-live-with realities in this world of instant, downloadable everything. The skills involved must be learned the old fashioned way: one at a time, building upon a solid foundation. You cannot compress experience or time with this or any instrument. Playing the bagpipe well is a highly dexterous skill that is only acquired after many years of practice. It is a journey of 10,000 miles that begins with one step, and it is all on foot. At least it has been with me. I’ve learned to enjoy the scenery and even made a few leaps and bounds along the way.

Practice Chanters can be purchased from Everything Scottish in Linville, NC. Ask for the proprietor, Harvey Ritch, 828-733-1399. Ask for a Long Practice Chanter, 2 practice chanter reeds and 2 books: “The College of Piping: Tutor Book I” and "Beginning the Bagpipe” by P/M Sandy Jones.