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Learning to play the bagpipes.
The Irish Air Corps pipe band in 2010
The piping tradition in the Irish military.
When most people think of the bagpipes they automatically think about Scotland, however piping is a Celtic tradition that has been alive in Ireland since the Celts first arrived. There are many different types of bagpipes that exist throughout Europe which all stem from a Celtic tradition in those countries. The most popular pipes today that are used for military ceremonial and in pipe bands world wide are the Great Highland pipes.
When Ireland was ruled by Britain there were many Irish regiments that existed and each one had their own pipe band to lead them on parades etc. The use of pipes in the British army was embraced as it is still today. The Scottish guard and royal Irish regiment of the British army have their own pipe bands as do many others. When the republic of Ireland was formed they kept alive the traditions that the British had in the army and thus the piping tradition and uniform still exists today within the Irish Defence Forces.
As a serving member i was privileged with the opportunity to do a six month beginners course in piping and now a year later i absolutely love playing the pipes not just at work but any chance i get. I recently joined a civilian pipe band which has greatly improved my piping.
Starting out. The practice chanter
Before even touching a set of bagpipes you must start with learning the music and fingerwork on a practice chanter. It is almost like a separate instrument in itself and to most people does not sound very musical to the ear, but it is essential in learning the technique and exercises required to play the pipes effectively. For the first few months at least you must work on and perfect a number of exercises which incorporate certain techniques which are unique to the pipes such as grace notes, the grip and the throw. You will be at a slight advantage if you can already read music but even at that, the embellishments are tricky even for an experienced musician.
Before i began my course on the pipes i could already read music and play the guitar, piano, banjo, tin whistle and sing, so i thought i would pick them up quite easily. There are only 9 musical notes on the pipes incorporating 2 octaves which makes it deceiving in its difficulty. Now, i have no doubt that the bagpipes are by far the hardest instrument i have ever had a go at.
Moving on to the pipes.
When you first move on to the pipes you will have to block out the drones and only play the chanter. We began by holding a single note on the chanter and focusing on our blowing and keeping the right pressure with your arm on the bag. It is very difficult because if you over blow you can sharpen the note but if you under blow or don't have enough pressure then you can flatten the note. Finding this balance to get the perfect note is, in my mind, the hardest part about playing the pipes and it just seemed to get more difficult when we started to add in the drones. It takes time to get used to and build up the stamina to keep playing. At first the best of our class could only play two songs before being all blown out but come the end of the course we were all confident enough to play a few sets with ease and got sent back to our units to keep it up.
I like to take my pipes with me everywhere i go and i enjoy playing for people. Be it a slow air in remembrance of a loved one who has passed away or a jig or two while having a few drinks, the pipes never fail to make the moment just that bit more memorable.
You either like them or hate them.
What do you think of the bagpipes?
My advice for beginners
Even after a year of playing i would still be considered a beginner piper so i am definitely in no place to give a step by step guide on how to learn to play. There are many sources online for learning to play the pipes if you have an interest. The bagpipes are certainly not like any other instrument i have ever played and it takes much determination to get good at it.
A few points to note for beginners;
- Don't just jump into buying a set of pipes. Get a practice chanter first and work from there.
- Any piper will tell you to join a band if you have the option. You will get free tuition and it is the best way to learn.
- Have patience and practice the technique on the chanter often to keep up the quality of your playing.
- Playing the pipes could be compared to running. If you don't keep it up, you will slowly lose it so it is essential to keep up the playing and blowing.
The bagpipes have the power to touch a person in a way that many other instruments cannot. From just hearing a single piper play a lament at a funeral or hearing a pipe band playing a marching set on St. Patrick's day there is no doubt that they are a powerful and effective instrument. I love playing the pipes and at this stage i don't think i will ever put them down. As hard as they are it gives me great satisfaction to put a smile peoples faces when i play.
Thank you for reading.
- The Scottish Piper Club | A World of Piping
This is an excellent website that provides free information and lessons on piping and is a very good source to get sheet music etc from beginners to intermediate.