Requirements to Learn the Pipes
Almost anyone can learn to play the bagpipes.There are only a few basic requirements. You have to have some sense of rhythm–if you can dance then you are probably OK. You must want it bad enough. The bagpipes are a demanding instrument but are very rewarding. Your motivation must be there. If you want to play pipes you have to have a very basic level of fitness.
All bagpipers start to learn on the practice chanter (PC). This is a small plastic reeded instrument similar to a recorder. It is very easy to blow and is tuned to the same scale as the bagpipe. You learn all tunes on the practice chanter first before taking them to the pipes. The PC will be your friend as long as you play the pipes. Over half and probably over 80% of your practice time will be spent on the PC. The practice chanter is relatively inexpensive too. A good plastic PC will cost around $50-$75. A wood PC will cost up to $200 or so.
Notes & Scales
There are only 9 notes in the bagpipe scale. The common joke is “it’s only 9 notes- how hard can it be?”. It can be challenging for sure. It is very important that you start with a good instructor. Spending some time with an instructor will start you with the correct form and prevent a lot of bad habits from forming early on. I know quite a few guys interested in recruiting members for new bands to world class players who teach students in person or via Skype.
Initially you will learn the scale, and then you will move onto some of the common “movements” performed on the bagpipe. These are rhythmic combinations of notes played on the bagpipe to accentuate notes in a tune. Each has it’s own pattern and learning the bagpipe involves mastering these movements. They go by gaelic names: the Lemluath, Taorluath, Crunluath, Darado etc…. As you progress you will encounter these as well as other movements like throws, grips and doublings to name a few more.
Getting Started on the Pipes
Once you have demonstrated some proficiency on the practice chanter you should get started on pipes.Always seek the advice of a seasoned player before buying bagpipes. There are many bagpipes that are out there that are garbage. You won’t be able to tune or play them, the wood warps, cracks, etc. Many people have been taken. So buyer beware!!
So you order your pipes. They come nice and shiny in a box. You have to assemble them, hemp all the joints, tie on a bag, etc. A big part of bagpiping is pipe maintenance. As with all things there is a right way to do things that produces what you want- an airtight bagpipe that requires the minimum effort to play and sounds wonderful. Don’t do this step well and you will struggle with your pipes and they will sound like a cat with its tail caught in a grinder.
The first time you try your pipes, two of the drones will be corked. You won’t have the air to keep three going at one time. Once you get used to the demand of one drone, then another gets uncorked, and finally a third and then the chanter as well. When you play the bagpipes you are actually playing four reeds at once- that’s what gives you this full sound with all the harmonics that we love. The time to get a full set of pipes going can take from 4-8 weeks or so depending on your fitness level. Don’t give up at this stage as you are so close!
How to play
After you’ve got all drones going then you learn to control your squeezing. A steady pressure is required to keep the drones sounding at one pitch- no ups and downs. Then you learn to march and do all those other things while maintaining your pressure and playing the correct notes with the correct embellishments and timing.
It sounds more difficult than it is. Learning the bagpipes is certainly challenging but it is a wonderful instrument and the learning always continues with it. I’ve been playing for over 16 years and almost everyday I learn something new or improve a little. It’s a game of inches, Sometimes progress is slow but every now and then you have a breakthrough and it is always rewarding. This race is a marathon – not a sprint.
The music of the bagpipe is like no other. The history is proud and glorious and the sound of the bagpipe grips your heart like nothing else. It’s my great pleasure and honor to play the bagpipes. It’s fun and it gives you a great excuse to wear a kilt too.
Here in Southern California you can even get world class instruction from some of the best pipers in the world. So if you are ready to get started on an adventure that will be very rewarding please drop me a line and I will connect you with a great instructor. Also I have no commercial interest in this at all- I only connect people so that the great art of bagpiping can continue to grow and flourish here in the USA.