About Bagpipes and Learning to Play

How Do You Learn to Play the Bagpipe?

I am often asked this question. The simple answer: Years and years and years of practice.

For the Great Highland Bagpipe

First of all, one does not start with the highland bagpipe itself. The learning instrument is known as the practice chanter. The practice chanter is smaller, simpler, quieter and much less expensive. The practice chanter is mouth-blown and resembles a recorder, but it actually incorporates a plastic reed. Novice and experienced pipers alike use this instrument to learn tunes and excercises. Only when a piper has completely learnt a tune and committed it to memory by playing the practice chanter, then a piper can begin to play the tune on the great pipes. New pipers usually work with the practice chanter for one to two years, learning the scale, the grace note figures and doublings, and their first few tunes. After laying that important groundwork a piper is ready to take on the larger instrument.

There are many sources for practice chanters and tutor books, especially with internet shopping. It is quite common now to see them packaged together along with a CD or DVD so you can "teach yourself the bagpipes". These are great tools, but nothing can take the place of real one-on-one instruction from a knowledgeable teacher. The easiest way to begin a piper's journey is to hook up with a band. Most areas of the US, and especially Canada, have at least one pipe band somewhere nearby. In fact, as the Scots have spread (and/or been kicked out of) most parts of the world, pipe bands can be found throughout the world. The internet is an invaluable tool in finding them. Most bands have websites of their own and a simple web search should provide a number of contacts. Check out the Links section of this website.

For Uilleann or Other Varieties of Bagpipe

The philosophy for learning and playing all bagpipes can be much the same, though the mechanics vary. Most notably, in trying to learn the instrument, other types of bagpipe don't allow for the option of just joining a band. For uilleann pipes, a great place to start is the local Gaelic League or Irish heritage organization. In larger cities, these groups often host classes and sessions. At the very least these groups can provide other contacts. One low-cost learning approach for uilleann pipes is to acquire a penny whistle and begin to learn tunes that way. Whistle fingerings are not precisely the same and uilleann chanter fingerings, but they translate with minimal adjustment. Again, the internet is a useful research tool.

How Do You Get a Set of Bagpipes?

This is the corollary question to "How do you learn the bagpipes?".

Traditionally bagpipes of all varieties were made in and exported from their traditional countries of origin: Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, etc. But in the Gaelic diaspora, emmigrants took their skills and traditions with them. Today there are many makers throughout the world for all bagpipe varieties. Over the years pipe makers in "the colonies" have grown to rival their British counterparts in quality and esteem. But of course, opinions vary and prospective buyers should pursue due research. Search websites, internet newsgroups, and ask other pipers for recommendations. If you go to a maker whose name is known and well regarded in that research, it's hard to go wrong.

The highland bagpipe is traditionally made of African blackwood, often with silver or ivory (now imitation) mounts and fittings. US prices start around $1000 for a new set of pipes. Of course you can spend as much you like depending on extras. In the last decade or so, some makers have crafted pipes out of poly-plastic materials. They have the same look from a small distance as traditional wood pipes, but can be had for well under $1000. These pipes actually produce a very good quality sound and shouldn't be dismissed in terms of quality. Purists will alway prefer wood, to be sure, but many accomplished players use poly pipes and rest easier on concerns of damaging thier pipes in inclement weather, bustling crowds, or on airplanes.

Uilleann pipes may be made of blackwood, but are also made in a variety of other wood species. Generally, uilleann pipers don't acquire a full set to begin with. Uilleann pipes can be had in stages. A quarter set or practice set is comprised of a bag, a bellows, and a chanter. A half set adds bass, tenor, and alto drones in an additional stock. Three-quarter and full sets add one or more regulators to the drone stock. The regulators are essentially additional chanters that are keyed so they can be played using the wrist to accompany the main chanter. The term practice set is a bit misleading, as it is still a proper instrument in its own right. Experienced pipers often play on a quarter set when in a very loud room or an other venue where the sound of drones or regulators would only be lost. A quarter set of uilleann pipes can be had for a little under or a little over $1000 US. Each additonal stage adds $1000 or more, so a full set can cost from $4000 to $5000. And of course you can spend more. Silver or imitiation ivory mountings, silver or gold plating on keyes, etc.

For additional information and research check out the Links section of this website.

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Last update 21 January 2011
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