I read somewhere that the bagpipes are a much more complex instrument than many non-players or listeners imagine or comprehend. I think that is a fair assessment. There are many challenges to playing but also many benefits.
The bagpipes have the reputation as being the hardest instrument in the world to play. They are challenging for sure, but the hardest? Who knows, but one thing is certain- the effort is worth it. Nothing sounds like a bagpipe and all that effort is worth it.
Physically the bagpipes are demanding. I am usually sweating after playing the pipes. It’s a workout. If you are marching up a hill in the summer in a parade you are sure working hard. I have heard from other musicians that playing the pipes is akin to playing the tuba- the demand for air is equivalent. However when you are playing the pipes you have four separate reeds to power and keep in tune simultaneously. (J).
Often non players think that a bagpiper has good lungs and that is the area of his/her body that requires the strength to play the pipes but it is a little more complex than that. Usually the part of the body that fatigues when playing the pipes for an extended period is the lips. If you play to exhaustion the lips give out first- I describe it as blowing on a pencil as you would a straw. You are trying to blow but the air just isn’t going into the bag. The other main thing that bagpipers strengthen is the diaphragm. Pipers have great diaphragms and perform very well on lung function tests even into old age. There is certainly some effort from the arm that has to squeeze the bag as well. Your fingers get a workout too. I know many guys, when they get older, they start to have finger pain but bagpiping keeps your hands limber and pain free. If you march you get a workout with your legs- so the pipes can sometimes be a full body workout.
The bagpipes themselves sound better and better the more you play them. You can’t sit the bagpipes in the corner and pull them out every now and then with any decent results, like you might do with a guitar. Firstly your conditioning falls off fast and when you can’t squeeze evenly, and with control, they do not sound good at all. Secondly the pipes are an organic instrument that is constantly changing in temperature and humidity. The more you play the less these variables affect the pitch and tone of the instrument. Some, if not all, of the reeds are cane- it’s a natural material that is affected by temperature and moisture. Some players use plastic reeds but the heart of the instrument is the chanter reed and this can only be cane, plastic has never equaled the tone of the natural fibers of cane. And with cane comes the sensitivity to temperature and humidity.
Many bagpipers also connect emotionally to playing the pipes. There are times when you can zone out and just get lost in the sound of the pipes. I’ve done it and it is almost an out of body experience. Bagpipers treasure those times and remember them well. It’s those very special times when everything is in sync and the pipes are singing. The sound has lovely harmonics and tone that transports you. I’ve even heard it described as an umbella of sound- it’s overhead and just humming. I experienced this in 2011 when I was part of the UCR Pipeband and we were getting ready to take first in the Pipeband competition and seal up the title for the Western Regional Champs for the third year in a row in our grade. Yeah bagpipes are very special..
Bagpipers also get to play piobaireachd. That’s pronounced PEE-BROCK. It’s a gaelic term that describes the ancient classical music written for the bagpipe. This music is for the true bagpipe music lover. Tunes written before the Scots had paper were handed down from generation to generation by singing an ancient language called Canntaireachd (CAN’T TER RACK). This music to the casual listener might sound boring as it is repetitive but to the bagpiper it’s the soul of the instrument. It’s when you can really soar with the music. If you have a bagpiper for an event ask him/her to play some piobaireachd for you. It is something unique and only played on the bagpipes.
There are many benefits to playing the Great Highland Bagpipes but for me it’s the sound and the music. Nothing I’ve ever played or experienced can equal the pull on our hearts and emotions as the bagpipe can. Till next time keep watching and listening. 🙂