Gary Guth is a professional bagpiper with over 45 years of playing experience and has been teaching bagpipes full time for the last 20 years. He has written "Bagpipes For Beginners", "the Bagpipe Hymnal", and " A Piper's Christmas". Follow this blog to learn more about the bagpipe music education.
If you were like most bagpipers during the St. Patrick’s holiday, you spent a lot of time blowing your instrument. In spite of having a moisture control system, your bagpipes are probably water logged at this point. I tried tuning a fellow bagpipers drones over the weekend and thought I was going to split the wood.
That means it’s time to do a “hard reset”. The first thing that you should do is find a place where no one or thing is going to touch your pipes while they are out of the case. I have an extra table top that I use. Take your pipes apart. You don’t need to remove the cords. Take all of the reeds out of their seats and put a chanter cap on your chanter reed. Unzip the bag and remove the moisture control system. (It probably needs to be cleaned anyway.) If you use a bottle water trap, it probably needs a bleach bath. Leave everything exposed overnight with the bag unzipped.
When you return to them in the morning or after work, you’ll need to check all of your hemp joints. I use waxed hemp on the sealed joints which go into the stocks. I want them to be “hand tight” . If your hemp moves on the spindles, then you need to remove the hemp and rewrap it. When doing the drone slides, I personally mix regular hemp and wax hemp together as I wind it on the spindle. I want my drone slides to be finger tight so that I can fine tune them with one hand. While you’re at it, make sure that you check and see if your cords are tight. You might keep a bag of wire ties in your kit.
I have found that if I perform this operation after a long play like a wedding, parade, or any other lengthy event, my pipes are ready to go for the next performance. If you’re worried about getting the “bagpipe lung disease” doing this on a regular basis will make sure that you’re never a statistic!
Over the years, there have been groups that have formed on Facebook looking for free bagpipe sheet music. Most people wouldn’t think anything of that. It’s free so it can’t be bad, right? Not necessarily! I’d like to take a moment to explain to you why those groups could be detrimental to your bagpipe music education.
If you want to become good at the English language, you read good books and good novels written by people who know how to speak and write English properly. You can tell as you meet people how educated and well-read they are by the way they speak and use language. The same is true with bagpipe music. The best bagpipe music arrangements make you a better player, because they teach you the proper use and placement of grace notes, doublings and other ornamentation.
The best investment that any bagpiper could make, in my opinion, is the Scots Guards Books, especially Volume 1. These tunes were written by well-seasoned pipe majors and bagpipers. This is the same reason why other instrumental teachers teach music of “Classical Composers” so that you learn proper notation and phrasing.
The problem with the free sheet music is that the arrangements have been dumbed down so as to make the music playable to everyone in the band, instead of pulling that newest person up to the next level. Being able to play all genres of bagpipe music in all meters make you an accomplished bagpiper and playing music that is altered is not to your benefit musically.
If you think about other hobbies people have, they are willing to spend whatever it takes to support that hobby. Why wouldn’t it be important for you as a bagpiper to have spent some money on good quality music arrangements? I have purchased a lot of books in the last 45 years. They are an investment, not an expense. I know that I have benefitted from playing from these books.
Take the high road and invest in books. There ain’t no free lunch. You get what you pay for in sheet music. If you feel this argument has validity, and you don't have a Scots Guards Book in your library, Because I believe so much in the value of this book, I'll save you some money any of these books to help you establish a new leaf.
A lot of people think they want to play the bagpipe. How about you? How long have you been thinking about playing this instrument? Are you concerned that you won’t have time to devote to instruction? Are you worried about commitment?
Indeed, the biggest concern for a new student is how to fit playing the bagpipe into their lives.
Playing any instrument is a habit. A habit is something that you do every day. Do you have 15 minutes per day to devote to playing the bagpipe? Most people do. If you can find that 15 minutes every day (and not the last 15 minutes before you go to bed), you could learn to play anything, including the bagpipe.
I suggest that if you carry a phone and you use it for scheduling that you access the calendar feature and make an appointment with yourself so that you can practice each day and get off to a good start.
Do you have $100 to spend on the materials? For $100, you can buy a practice chanter and a book with audio. These are the only tools needed to get started. Don’t buy a set of pipes! You don’t need them yet. These are an educated purchase. Find someone that you know that already plays the bagpipe and let them help you with that when the time comes. The best person to ask is your instructor.
You can teach yourself via various educational materials if you have an unlimited amount of time each week and can’t fit in lessons, or you could hire an instructor. Most instructors will meet with you once per week and teach you how to proceed in your daily practice so that you meet the goals of your teacher as well as your goals.
When hiring an instructor, you usually have the option of making a week-to-week commitment or a monthly commitment. I personally favor the monthly commitment as you can’t bail immediately if you hit a snag. Continuity and consistency will result in solid learning.
Therefore, the secret to playing the bagpipe is that there is really no secret! You simply need to get started! By following the advice above, you’ll be playing your first tune in no time at all.
I find that in teaching bagpipers how to play the bagpipe, I need to remind them of what a bagpiper is.
“A bagpiper is person who can play a list of bagpipe tunes on the bagpipe by memory, who can develop their own music, and who can maintain their own bagpipe,” I tell them.
Can you do that? I think that the most important thing that a bagpiper can have is a list of tunes. This list needs to have the tunes in playing order. There are certain tunes like “Scotland the Brave” and “The Rowan Tree”, “The Green Hills of Tyrol” and “When the Battle’s Over” that are played in sets. You need to have your list in sets.
Can you learn a new tune without hearing it first? There are more than 500 tunes in the Scots Guards Volume 1 edition. Can you drop open a page and play it? That should be every bagpiper’s goal. The goal is to become an accomplished bagpipe musician. I honestly believe that a bagpiper’s life in this area is dependent on how much music they can produce. I think that a lot of bagpipers drop out when they get sick of playing the 12-tune repertoire most bands promote.
Memorizing music is the next part of this equation. I have found that if I play a tune enough times, I’ll know it by memory. I also know that if I can sing it, I can play it. When you practice, you need to play down your list on a daily basis. At some point the tunes will pop starting at the top. When they pop you will have them memorized. At that point you won't need to play them every day, however you should play them at least once per week.
The final qualification to being a bagpiper is to know how to maintain your own instrument. Do you know how to hemp, change a bag, and regulate your drone and chanter reeds? These are all necessary skills to being a successful bagpiper. Do you really want to pay someone else to do your maintenance?
All of these skills you can probably learn on your own. The question is how much time do you have? Having someone to help you with these problems will save you a lot of time and money and get you to the goal of being a bagpiper faster.
Today while perusing the "Old Geezer's Bagpipe Page" someone mentioned "Orange and Blue" played as a 6/8 march. Funny thing the tune in 6/8 that they were talking about was "Hot Punch". I've played both of the tunes for years and never really thought about the fact that they were related. In looking around for a tune to arrange, I found one called "The Duke of Gordon" which I know as a Strathspey. In fooling around with it, I found that I could make this tune a better jig than a march. See what you think. Here is the picture and below is the file to download.
What are your dreams concerning your bagpipe project for this coming year? Do you want to be a better bagpiper? Would you like to be able to play more and different music?
After 21 years spent teaching bagpipers via private lessons, I have found a direct correlation between their actual bagpipe life and their ability to produce new music. I find that the average bagpiper life is about 7 years. A bagpiper comes into our hobby, learns the 10 tunes that his band plays and dies of boredom within that 7 year period.
The only thing that keeps a bagpiper from learning more tunes and a larger variety of tunes is his/her ability to read and process rhythm.
About 10 years ago, I introduced a product called “A Piper’s Christmas”. This book includes 42 Christmas hymns, songs and carols arranged to play on our Great Highland Bagpipe. I introduced this book to my students in October. I told them that they needed to define the rhythm for each selection by writing it in with pencil, practice singing each (since they already knew many or most of the songs) and then learn to play each one. When January came around and we went back to the traditional music, I found that their ability to sight read music had vastly improved, simply by carrying out those three steps with the Christmas music.
I’d like to invite you to first take my Rhythm Program (it’s free) and consider buying my book. It is the beginning of November. If you were to learn one Christmas song per day (it doesn’t have to be memorized), you may be able to play the whole book by the time Christmas Day arrives.
If you have a band that struggles to learn new music, I’ll offer the book at a discounted rate if you buy 10 or more copies. There is practice chanter audio available for each tune. The book is available in both hard copy and digital format.
As a bagpiper for more than 45 years, I have learned one thing that I deem the most important: “A bagpiper is a person who can play a list of tunes on the bagpipe by memory”. It’s just that simple.
The first question that I ask you as a bagpiper: Do you have a list of tunes to play? Think about this. If you are asked to play for someone’s event, do you have a list or do you wing it? Personally, I think that “winging it” won’t keep you in the market for long. You need to prepare a list. These tunes should be in small sets by meter. The small sets can be combined with other small sets to create 10 to 12 minute medleys. If someone needs you to play for 30 minutes, you only need 3 – 10 minute medleys to do the job.
I like to change up the small sets so that I don’t have two duple sets back to back. For instance, I’ll take a set of 4/4’s and put a set of 6/8’s followed by a 2/4 set. The 2/4 set goes into a set of 2-part Strathspeys and Reels followed by a Jig, a Hornpipe and a set of Retreats. This set takes about 10 minutes to play. Your audience will stay engaged as the music is always changing.
So, how do you develop this kind of set. I think that you need to write it down. You then need to learn the tunes in that order and when you practice you always play them in that order. You want one tune going into the next and then the next. As you learn these tunes, the goal is to get from one melody note to the next without making a mistake. You need to play slowly on your first read-through. If you played the same tune 10 times exactly the same way, you might have it memorized by the 11th pass through. If you play it sloppily and different each of the 10 times, you may never have it memorized. The bagpipe is all about precision. As most bands competing are playing in unison, you want everyone playing the exact same thing at the exact same time.
To recap, if you want to be a bagpiper, make a list of tunes and build them one at a time and practice them in the same order.