Hopefully you've read Part 1 which focuses on the actual decision to start learning to play the pipes whilst this Part 2 is all about the journey now that you've decided to be a piper.
So, following on from my last blog and vlog, it looks like you’re pretty serious about becoming a piper.
Clearly, the last write up was more focused on my journey, but perhaps I can help you with a few more general nuts and bolts now that you’ve decided or think you definitely want to become a piper.
Well, what’s this going to take. Firstly, you will be somewhat confused about the ‘roadmap’ you are likely to be following. i.e., practice chanter, pipes, practice lessons, individual practice, solo piping, competition piping, kilts, playing out at e.g. weddings etc.
However, this is again where the need for a tutor or joining a pipe band is essential since the pipe major and others will start to take you on a journey of understanding and possible directions that you can travel along. For example, you might after a while see pipers in the Edinburgh Tattoo and think ‘I want to be in that’ alternatively you might see a wedding piper and want to do that and not go down the tattoo type route. However, I strongly believe that if you are going to take up this instrument, you probably want to do it properly and when I say properly, I mean be able to play in a fashion that is acceptable and pleasing to both yourself and to those around you that might hear you playing.
You might not want to be top of the tree e.g. Stuart Liddell, but likewise you really don’t want to travel down a route that sees you out and about playing where your performance is ‘scrappy’ or tuning is out and displeasing to the ear. Moreover, the reason I say this is because if you are going to be a piper at all, then it is going to take at least 1 maybe two years to be in a position of your own self confidence and ability to be able to play them and so with that, you might as well use those same precious hours of your life travelling this ‘journey’ and doing it right first time and being a ‘piper’ as opposed to doing the very same ‘time’ journey and being ‘arrggh a piper’ - either way you’re about to spend a significant amount of time in your life to get to an acceptable and plausible ‘play out’ standard and the amount of effort to play something poorly e.g. with poor embellishments, is ironically the same time you would spend to get it right and ultimately feel proud and confident with your accomplishment and see that reflected in the response from those that watch you or indeed book you.
Well, here you go, first day with the pipers (your mum has sent you off with clean vest and pants and some sandwiches to prep you for this life changing journey you’re about to embark on – only joking of course)
The first golden rule you will be told is that whatever you play on the pipes will always be practiced on the chanter first. The practice chanter is a direct copy of the bagpipe chanter (i.e. the recorder looking bit that sticks out of the bottom of the bag – this isn’t used for practice, so an exact replica is made with a different reed inside to make it less noisy and more acceptable to use for practice). This also means that if you happen to already have a set of bagpipes, you probably aren’t going to be touching those at all for a good few months – perhaps 6 months or so.
With either a private tutor or in a pipe band, you are going to be sat with a more experienced piper who will probably get a few practice sheets ready with general finger exercises for you to keep with you which you will start to tackle over the forthcoming months.
So, armed with chanter in hand, the tutor will show you and play the 9 notes that are available on the chanter. There are no other notes on a standard pipe chanter and so all songs are written or modified in such a way as to fit within the 9 notes you have.
Now it’s time to ‘Tame the Beast’ so you will be taught how to hold the chanter with your fingers of both hands (apart from the little finger of the left hand which floats in space and is never used and then the right thumb is placed on the underside purely for balance while the left thumb will be used to cover a tone hole on the upper underside.)
Now, for anyone that has played a recorder in the past, you would generally lift your fingers one after the other in succession eh voila notes are being sounded. Not so for the chanter, you will now start a journey where your mind starts to blur with the control of your fingers. The initial start off is very much the same as the recorder in that all fingers are covering every hole (except the left little finger of course – he didn’t pay the rent so he’s been booted out ) Now with all in place you blow gently and you will hear the first and lowest note which is low G and then you start to rise from G to A to B and then it goes pop as you get to C, now your little finger of the right hand has to come back into action and cover that G tonehole (the lowest hole and furthest down the chanter – while the third and fourth fingers are off the tone holes and just the forefinger in place sounding a C, and then D follows and after that, the lower three fingers go back over the holes and the little finger lifts up again – now I’m not going to go into every tone whole note here, your teacher will do that for you or look on line at the likes of Matt Willis and Neil Clark (Falkirk Piping) but suffice it to say that your mind on day one is now a complete mush and already you’re looking on your phone for the local taxi company to get you out of there. But this is where you will now be given clear simple instructions to work the lower part of the chanter to get that sequence and muscle memory in place.
Then over the coming weeks, you will be taught the other finger placements until such time as you can start to run up and down the chanter in a smooth steady fashion with correct finger placement and lifts. Get this bit right and you’ve gone from 0 to 90% a piper in a few weeks. The remaining 10% builds on the 90% you’ve worked so diligently on to get to this standard.
The remaining 10% is of course all the tunes, the embellishments and the rest of the journey – no sweat there then.
By this time, you will have also heard the various tones now of each tone hole/note not forgetting that you have literally an octave + 1 i.e. rising from bottom of the chanter to the top as G,A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A within this time you might well find your mind picking up tunes in your mind e.g. happy birthday and amazing Grace. Note that if you can hum it, you can play it. And importantly if you can’t hum it, then it’s very unlikely you can play it (without the music in front of you)
Remember, as I mentioned in part 1, pipers don’t have any manuscript or music in front of them when out playing - the only time they see the actual music is when they are practicing on the chanter and then committing the music to memory.
So, at this stage, by all means have a little play around making a tune of Amazing Grace etc since it all helps with finger dexterity and hearing the various notes, but don’t be surprised if your granny or partner aren’t massively enamoured at this stage
Another important point to know is that no one is going to steal your chanter. So don’t hold onto it as though they are. Learners grip on for dear life and could pull an elephant out of a swamp with that grip. Relax, let your fingers rest over the tone holes and let them flutter. We’ve all see the tipsy dad (or perhaps that’s just me) at the family party, on comes Baker street and he’s up playing the ‘air sax’, thumb in mouth and all fingers flapping in the breeze - in the same fashion relax your fingers, don’t get the imprinted little tone hole tattoos on your fingers - you’ll find it so much easier to achieve that coveted bubbling sound and remember, the hole covering is with the fleshy pads as opposed to the finger tips like you would place on a clarinet.
So, just when you thought you’d mastered all the notes and can flute up and down the chanter like a pro, your tutor is going to start introducing you to the wonderful world of embellishments and back down the happy slide you go again.
Still, hang in there chum, this is where you start to add colour and interest to the pieces.
Ironically, you could actually jump off the tutor bus now and start to play the tunes you have in your memory e.g. amazing grace – they will sound on the chanter just like the amazing grace you know from songs being sung etc, but for the pipes, this is where It will lack colour, soul and life and so my recommendation at this stage is to view it as the next chapter in your personal piping book. Remember, your tutor and colleagues will be extremely keen and excited to see you progress and reach the next stages.
Additionally, bear in mind that many of the pipe bands and tutors therein don’t actually charge you a penny for their time; there might be a relatively small annual fee in the pipe band which goes towards learning materials, spare kit etc but essentially you are effectively having folks give of their time to teach you to enjoy the very same rewards they have received from their own respective piping journeys. Having said that private piping sessions can be from £25 to 100 per hour depending on the tutor etc, but you will be taught to the exact same standards via your local pipe band - however, should you wish and are super keen then by all means blend the sessions as both with the pipe band and private sessions.
Interestingly, I don’t believe there is a fast-track process to make you a competent piper in a short time frame. Yes, you might learn to play amazing grace with embellishments after perhaps 8 months and a colleague takes 11 months, but there is no 6 weeks course and off you go to the Scots Dragoon Guards - so with that in mind this is a long but rewarding journey.
So, back to embellishments, your tutor can see that you are making good progress and you can be assured that they won’t push you any faster than your own capabilities since they won’t want you to fail and know only too well with their own experience that if you don’t progress at your own pace, (i.e. get pushed on too fast) you are likely to develop bad habits and poor shortcuts which will all need to be re corrected in time. So again, get it right first time in your time.
Now, the various embellishments are on the menu eg GDE’s, doublings, throws, grips, Taorluaths, lems, crems and other wizardly bits and bobs.
These are the cement and colour that sit pretty much between the notes of every tune you learn to play - remember, there are no rests or pauses or gaps like you might have in the saxophone for example, so the air from the bagpipes continues constantly and the note continues to sound and so we often break up a run of the same note with these embellishments and they provide an animation to the music and allow it to continue.
Now, I’m not going to go into every embellishment here since this is where your tutor and online video lessons will show you the way. However, what I will say and this is probably the most important message you will hear ‘Take your time, play each part of the embellishment properly and clearly at a very steady pace and build your muscle memory so that you don’t think about that movement when you have progressed.
The above message is sacrosanct to any piper on their respective journey - this makes the difference between ‘a piper’ and ‘eeeww a piper’
As you learn the embellishments on the exercise sheet, you will start to see them in the tunes you will be taught to play and they are very repeatable and often become instinctive over time. E,g. you’ll play a new piece perhaps and even if you don’t look at the next notes coming up, you would probably almost feel that there is a doubling or grip on the next note – not always the case of course, but very often and again vitally important that they are pronounced correctly.
There is a funny statement in the learner piping world ‘I want to get that bubble’. As you listen more and more to competent pipers playing, there is a kind of bubbling sound that resounds through the tune they are playing and these are the embellishments being brought to life and again overly stressing the point here to really take your time whilst learning to play these and get each note of the particular embellishment eg C doubling - as a footnote note to that name C doubling – the clue is in the name C doubling i.e. two x C notes should be heard.
There are so many pipers that feel they need to be faster because they’ve heard someone else play quicker and they feel as if they are a nuisance or hinderance to the tutor because they are slower, and their sense is to rush it through. The contrary applies since you will hear the tutor constantly singing this lullaby to you ‘slow it down and take your time . Any tutor worth their salt will want you to play the embellishment slowly but accurately and then you can start to shift into a higher gear. The upside of course is that you will have developed such great muscle memory that no matter how fast you play the C doubling, you will always hear the 2 x C’s and if you were to record the skilled piper playing and then slowed down the play back, you would hear those respective C’s and not just a blurred mush.
If you’re playing tunes or exercises and making mistakes of the birls aren’t coming through how you want them, what do you do!! Well, put them down, go and have a cuppa, do something else to et the frustration slide and either have another go later or tomorrow, this is fine, remember this is a progressive journey and there are no excessive demands, only those you place on yourself and more importantly there is no end to the journey, just like a long road trip you choose, either 80mph all the way or 55mph - either way get there safely when you do.
Progressing at a rate of knots and getting the positive feedback means you are on the right track. Incidentally, if you are sitting with another ‘tutor’ and playing a new tune and don’t feel you are playing the embellishments properly and ask for feedback, but get an answer like ‘you’re doing fine, nothing to worry about’ but in your own heart of hearts feel that something isn’t right, then don’t just accept that answer as defacto, Afterall, said tutor might be thinking of something else and is distracted etc and so rather than believe that all is now good, seek guidance from another ‘good’ player and demonstrate and explain your playing concern – if they are a good player they will pick up on it immediately and set you right, and at that point, you will feel that blanket of comfort and understanding wrap around you. I.e. if in doubt seek it out.
Lastly, consider recording yourself on video especially in the early days and then after perhaps a year, play the same tune again and you’ll see the progress you’ve made. In fact I have a video of myself playing Auld Lang syne on the Kintail pipes I bought at the outset. I hope that video never gets aired anywhere ‘cos I think I might get reported to the RSPCA and whatever the human equivalent is-
In order to build that proficiency, you need to practice and I would recommend little and often e.g. at least 10 mins per day – if you’re needing to go out, then at least squeeze in that 10 mins if you can, other times play longer, but don’t do an hour in one go and nothing for two weeks. The 10 mins a day will be sure and steadfast muscle memory and repetition. Then under the guidance of your tutor, look to increasing the speed of your action whilst maintaining accuracy. In addition, you have chosen this route which will see you assimilate a vast array of tunes and melodies which you take on one by one, having said that, most pipers and even beginners will naturally gravitate to probably having at least 3 or 4 tunes on the go at any one time, if not more and each of them will be going into the grey matter at different rates eg one song just happens to be stuck in your head almost from the get go and another one just will not find a seat in your brain. Don’t get despondent, just keep doing your 10 mins a day and eventually you’ll be humming that tune to point of getting sick of it, but it’s in your head for ever now.
So now the bagpipes. You’ve just spent the last few months chantering yourself to death and have learnt some tunes’ which incidentally takes the form of a book called the Minor place list (not all pipe bands use this of course, but herein, you’ll focus on an array of the more popular and regularly played tunes like Amazing Grace, Highland Cathedral, Scotland the Brave, Flower of Scotland, Green Hills of Tyrol, When the Battle’s O’er etc. These tunes are very regularly played by many pipers and are well known to the public of course especially at events such as funerals, weddings etc and again, re stressing the point about taking your time to learn the tune to play it without music and will very articulate embellishments. This way you don’t need to know hundreds of tunes, but what you do play is very well played and appreciated by those around you and also because you now play it accurately means that if you are two or more pipers together, you will all sound like one.
The pipes and what to buy is equally important as the learning process. You want your pipes to be as easy and comfortable to play as possible. Ask your colleagues, research the web, talk to other pipe band members - plenty of bands are on facebook, Instagram and I’ve made contact with numerous of them and never once received a rebuke or cut off, on the contrary, everyone in the piping world is keen to encourage and support newbies and fellow players. You will always find the odd one or two prima donnas’ but just smile at them and choose your guiding light carefully plenty of genuinely lovely helpful and respectful pipers in the world - and when you think, many give their time for free to help you must tell you something – There ain’t such a thing as a free lunch – well in the piping world, you’re pretty close with some of these kind hearted souls.
The choice of pipes is a minefield and again, fellow pipers will help and guide you. You need to consider a budget and I would personally look at anything less that £500 as a minimum and if you have spied a set that you fancy, then get a good piper to take a look. What you don’t want is a set of painted black ordinary wood pipes with some fancy silver/tin and all the trappings of a carry case, reeds, drone reeds, instruction book, drone bungs, pipes cord, kitchen sink and cuddly toy all thrown in for £105. These kind of gimmicks are often referred to as ‘Paki’ pipes since they are made in Sialkot in Pakistan and whilst they might look very presentable, they are relatively quickly produced and not good quality wood such as African blackwood, and so they end up being more trouble that they are worth and can be extremely frustrating for a new piper since all that chanter effort will be lost on the poor design quality of said pipes. Many of them end up hanging on the wall as decoration.
Pipes of pedigree is what you are seeking, quality names that have stood the test of time and will see you through your lifetime and will fetch the same price if ever you decided to sell them or upgrade. You need to consider whether you would like a brand new set or vintage set and whether you want them in wood or acetal (kind of plastic)
Both sets (wood or ‘plastic’ produce equally great sounds when set up properly, but once you decide which you prefer, you then choose the style eg chalice tops which are a bowl style at the top of the drones or a range of other styles to suit. Some pipes are made of African blackwood or Cocobolo wood and use various materials for the ‘additional parts such as the ferrules (in between the drones) the projecting mounts (the round spaceship bits in between the drones) and the ring caps on the very top) These were originally (the rings caps and projecting mounts) made of genuine ivory and should be protected wherever possible to preserve them as such – you may also need a government licence if you are looking to sell abroad. Others are made of Delrin plastic and made to look old and then some of these parts are made of antler, boxwood, brass, nickel silver and 925 sterling silver – whilst the pipes themselves can of course be acetal or wood.
The plastic acetal pipes are pretty much maintenance free and once set up, are good to go whereas the wooden pipes will require some maintenance in the form of oiling and outside waxing which is a relatively simple process and only required a couple of times per annum – however, this does give you a good chance to closely inspect the pipes for hairline cracks/splits, which can happen especially if you play in areas of the world with wide temperature and humidity changes.
Interesting, on that subject, the battle pipes were originally developed for going into war and of course it might have been freezing and so as mentioned earlier, the tone holes are covered by the fleshy pads of the finders rather that the fingertips. This works so well when in the freezing cold when it’s almost nigh on impossible to bend your fingers like you would on a clarinet or sax and so your fingers just move up and down in an almost straight but not rigid fashion and hence you can play in the cold as well as the warm.
I once played at a funeral near Luton and it was January 10th at a gravesite on a hillside with one heck of a blowing wind. I played Going home and Oh Danny boy and I tell you what, I think my fingers are still there now. When I got in the car, I nearly cried with the pain in my hands, but ironically, I was still able to play the tunes for the very reason above.
Back to the pipes, as after you have chosen wooden or plastic, the next is price and this is where is ranges widely depending on whether you want eg £500 for a set of ‘plain’ acetal pipes which will work very well indeed, or spending upwards of £7000 for a set of full silver or silver and real ivory vintage or even new pipes and of course a wide range of prices in between.
Some people buy a few sets of pipes and vow to use them on a cyclical basis i.e. this week will be these and next week it’s those.
We can easily get attracted to a set of pipes and then see another set and of course money allowing, go ahead and find yourself with a few sets of masterpieces. The truth of the fact is that when you have your pipes set up and working as you would want, you probably won’t use the other set and they’ll sit there looking at you all forlorn asking for a trip out.
Of course, some pipers will have their ‘beauts’ which they will use for weddings and special events and might well have a sacrificial set used for rain or winter events etc.
As with everything in life, ‘you pays your money and ya takes ya choice’ – just choose wisely and don’t choose alone – do your research, ask questions, show fellow pipers what you like and be prepared for constructive feedback on your choice, but take the feedback in the spirit it is intended – no one wants you to bag a duffer.
When it comes to the bag itself, of course there are primarily 3 sizes small, medium and large – again, don’t just buy the big bag cos I’m a big fella’ try and have a go on a fellow pipers pipes to see what sits comfortably and also, you aren’t really at the stage to know what will suit you, but in the main, the names small, medium and large give you a good clue.
It’s playtime, get the pipes out, here we go. Armed with your compendium of tunes locked in your brain, you’re now ready to let loose on the pipes and everything is brilliant on your first day on the pipes and they all lived happily ever after!!! (we all wish)
The sudden reality hits you that you are now learning to play a completely ‘different’ instrument – you can blow the bag up, you can’t keep it inflated, your mouth is completely out of sync with your arm which should be squeezing the bag but is actually doing naff all. Your fingers are pulling the elephant out of the swamp again – Hang on a minute I’ve just done 6 months on the chanter surely it should just be a case of new batteries in the bagpipes and off we go to Edinburgh Castle or the Royal mile.
Now you’ve hit a crossroads and your motivation is through the floor.
Don’t fret, we’ve all been there. Firstly, get an experienced piper to play your pipes and set up the drone reeds properly (i.e. the close off point) then make sure your chanter reed is easy enough for you to blow so you aren’t blowing out of your backside after 4 bars into amazing Grace, then get them to fit your pipes under your arm properly with the bass drone up near the side of your head and the other two tenor drones each a hand span width apart. At this stage all three drones should be ‘bunged’ off (but you know they are all set up because the piper has done so) and now you are going to try to inflate the bag with three breaths and then gently squeeze the bag to push the air into the chanter whilst your fingers are ‘crushing’ the chanter on the E note. The aim now is to try to create a rhythmical motion of one breath in, to join the two breaths in the bag keeping it inflated, whilst you squeeze one breath load into the chanter. This will take time and the E note will waiver up and down all over the place. You will also start to feel muscles aching in areas where you’ve never really knew and this can be all over the body because you’re tense, concentrating, confused, frustrated and all the rest of the adjectives. However, the rhythmic motion will begin to relax and eventually you’ll start to get the long held sweet sounding E and using your arm in sync with your breathing. Remember not to play your pipes by your breathing force, your breath is to simply fill the bag, it’s your arm that delivers the air to the chanter.
In addition, from a blowing perspective, where possible you should always try to position the blowpipe in the centre of your mouth for breath delivery and should look to avoid blowing your cheeks wide out – maintain a tension in your face and develop your blowpipe embouchure. Then, as you progress, you won’t look like you’re trying to launch apollo 13 and your arms will look as though they are simply holding the bag and not actually doing anything.
As you progress, remove one of the drone corks to see how you manage with air flowing out of the drone and the chanter at the same time and this will gradually take you to the next level of your rhythmic breathing technique and so on until all three drones are in action.
Incidentally, if you are conscious of seeing the drone corks in the top and would rather they didn’t show, you can also take the tops of the drones off, then remove the drone reeds and squeeze foam ear plugs into a point shape and place them in the drone hole where the reeds were and they will expand to fill the gap. Clearly, this can be done for experienced pipers as well who perhaps don’t want an orange or black bung sticking out of the top.
As mentioned in part 1, the next thing is to make sure the instrument is in tune and it is a good idea to start early on in your piping career to learn how to set the drones up and in tune with each other and the chanter itself. Remember, in most cases this tuning is the make or break of someone falling in love with the pipes and you as well actually for playing them or will set them off running to the hills
Where possible, you should always try to play the pipes for at least 15 mins prior to properly tuning, or indeed retuning since they do take a time to settle and become acclimatised to the warm air running through them. Then, when ready to join the other pipers you’re probably at 480Hz on the pipe chanter (thereabouts) and the three drones all humming nicely behind.
As a practice for tuning, cork off the middle drone and bass drone and pull the one remaining active drone as far apart as possible without it falling off (and ensure the chanter drone is on 480Hz (plenty of frequency meter apps available on line) remember we are playing to a frequency, not a note. A note is only a letter given to a frequency to make it easier to communicate, it is the frequency of air blowing through the drone or chanter that dictates what we all play against i.e. 480Hz, 240, 120Hz etc
Always check with the Pipe major what frequency they want so you can aim to at least initially match and then you’ll adjust your reed to get as close as possible – might even need tape over the edge of the tone hole if a particular note is slightly out – to do a more detailed note tuning analysis you can do each frequency with your meter if you wish or use a Braw tuner which is doing essentially that per each tone hole.
So now, you’ve pulled the tenor top as loose as possible, play the low A and listen to the drone - unless the drone reed has been set to make the drone top sit at that height (which would be uncommon) the sound is probably going to wobble like crazy and be really discordant. The key is to listen to both and by moving the drone top down the drone pin until the two notes sound in tune. i.e., the higher note of the chanter (low A) and the lower note of the tenor Chanter, with no more wobble sound – just a blended sound.
Generally, a good rule of thumb is to have the drone top pushed onto the drone pin to where it covers the yellow waxed hemp but just shows that very last part of it. If you can’t get that alignment, then you may need to tune the drone reed inside the drone by either screwing in or undoing the screw on the drone reed. However, don’t start this battle on your own if you haven’t done this before, seek assistance from your tutor.
Then, simply do the same for the other two drones eh voila sweet sounding pipes – then one last point is to ensure e.g. the chanter is in tune i.e. 480Hz on low A and the at least 960Hz on high A with all the other notes in between sounding sweet and in tune.
When you tune the bass drone, keep the very top on much like the two tenors where it covers the yellow hemp but only shows a thin line of yellow and use the middle section to tune up or down.
In a similar fashion to the chanter, try to practice the pipes themselves for around 10 mins per day where possible and longer if you wish. Make sure your reed is the correct strength, there are no prizes for trying to play a lollipop stick reed, just get the type of reed that makes your work easier and allows you to concentrate on your technique and maintain a smooth steady sound.
If you are struggling to keep the bag inflated, check a few parts such as the drone reeds to ensure they are at ‘cut off’ then check the bag for leaks and also the zip to make sure that is fully closed. Lastly, if you use drone enhancers (little plugs that sit in the stocks into the bag to help with shutting off a note) when you finish playing, make sure one of these hasn’t popped out and sitting in the bottom of the bag.
When adjusting your drones and inserting the blowpipe and the chanter, make sure they are well fitting with respect to either the black unwaxed or yellow waxed hemp and ensure the various pieces all slide along without too much force needed – or adjust the hemp levels accordingly.
Some pipers will use a bottle water trap, others will use a 3 pipe piece silica cartridge device and some will use a very simple bottom of the blow pipe water trap. Each one of these works and depends on if you are a ‘wet’ player or dry player – ie produce a lot of spit when playing.
You don’t want a heavily saturated chanter reed since this can start to introduce crowing sounds, stoppages etc so again, check with your piper colleagues.
When you have finished playing, most pipers will put their pipes away in a carry case. Some pipers will dismantle the drones and chanter and blow pipe and use small humidifiers to protect the reed and keep it at constant humidity, others will simply remove the blowpipe and chanter and fit protective covers, but make sure you do tilt the stocks (bit attached to the bag to ensure all spit is out of there and allow them to air dry where possible.
You will soon be out and about on parade in your pipe band or playing solo events e.g. Burns nights. Remember the fundamentals of what you’ve been taught e.g. the embellishments, taking your time, easy grip, getting in tune. Never be too proud to go back to your practice charts e.g. the G,D,E’s etc they are the platform upon which you’ve built your presence and will always help reinforce the progress you have and continue to make. Interestingly, try going back to those exercises and be honest with yourself and play them and see just how fluent you are now especially when you’ve been piling through tunes etc, you might be surprised to see that you aren’t quite as smooth as you’d thought you might be.
When you’re eventually playing tunes and even out with a band for example, learn to hear and feel the beat or rhythm of the drums or even just tapping your foot (if you aren’t playing in a band). It is vitally important that you learn to feel the rhythm to play your music to. Remember, it’s a melody with a beat, if there is no beat, then it’s a poem or a story. You need to play so that if the note is aligned to be on the beat, make it sound exactly on that beat, not before or after, then, you’ll always be in with the band or fellow pipers, or even keeping great time even if on your own.
Some tunes have various time signatures i.e., the number of beats in a bar and what value each note is. Now I won’t go into that here, but you will hear and see 2/4 or 4/4 or 3/4 or 6/8 each of which is used to create a specific feel to the music eg a March, or a ballad or jig or reel. Very importantly, hold each note for its full value and especially when playing where there are dotted notes (your tutor will go through this) and the dotted note versus a shorter note creates a kind of skipping feeling and so by playing or sounding each note to its max value will really reinforce that skipping feeling and essentially bring the tune to life.
So now you’re out at an event or going solo – first and foremost where possible, blow the pipes for at least 15-20 mins if not longer at home to get them set and then off you go. Avoid going from your warm house to the back of a warm car to straight outside in the cold, this will really wreck the tuning as the pipes etc contract. Put the pipes, already set up if possible, into the boot and get to your venue, this way, they are cooler and nearer to the outside temp and have had time to settle, then if possible try to play them to get the tuning finely adjusted. If you are near your venue and need to blow them try blowing the chanter into the side open door or open boot of your car to try to reduce the sound travel (if you have to reduce it of course) Clearly, this won’t stop the sound travelling, but will go some way to limiting the wider reach of the sound.
Assuming all is set and the hope is that all the drones are sweet and well matched in with the chanter and away you go. However, if the worst happens and the drones start to play up, you can either pop your finger over the drone to stop the air, or shut it down, but well knowing that as soon as you finish and begin to play another tune, said drone will spring back into life again. If this is really a nuisance, then get a cork out and block either that, or all three drones off since the melody comes out of the chanter and you can still play your tune.
If all goes berserk and your chanter is crowing and screaming and not behaving, you’ve got essentially two options – continue to play and everyone including yourself will endure the torture, or simply stop – nod your head and gently announce there is a problem and if needed take yourself off somewhere for a few mins to try to make adjustments and re-join the event if that works, but if your head tells you something isn’t right, remember you play the pipes and know the quirks etc, the general public don’t and they will soon feel their teeth curling up
Lastly, if you’re in the pipe band and your pipes start playing up or you’ve suddenly lost your place in the tune, don’t battle on, simply stop blowing and continue to mime playing the chanter – no one in the audience will know and at least you won’t cause your own little maelstrom in the midst of the fine music.
If your drones start ‘roaring’ or the chanter is out, experienced pipers like Steve Bozon, Bryon Brotherton, Tony Varley, Stu Gullen, Conal Kelly, Bob Orridge will know this is happening and can find the needle in the haystack in terms of where the ‘bad sound’ is coming from – if they give you the nod to back off, do it straight away and mime it out until the next song.
So, once again, I hope this helps with your understanding of where and how this journey unfolds and I’ve no doubts that once you are on the ‘bagpiping train’ it will take a lot to get you to leave.
All the best and by all means drop me a line if you want to catch up or just want to share thoughts.
Adios amigos - 480Hz over and out
The Derbyshire piper