Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson

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How to Practise

Franz Liszt was said to be the greatest pianist ever. He had a method of practising, which we can use for 'piping. By adding a few extra steps we can develop individual high performance methods. The more effective one's practise, the faster one learns and the greater the motivation.

This page is where you will find some secrets of how to be a better 'piper.  

Truthfully, we can see learning bagpipes as a philosophy and schema for successful learning in al domains of life, if you want to.

Please note

Many issues arise during individual practice for which there are often quick and simple answers. Please get in touch to ask about your particular problem.

Not every single issue can be predicted, nor can this list of suggestions ever be complete.

Finding the magic explanation which helps the student grasp what they are seeking is the art of teaching. What to say often depends on when it is to be said and to whom. For this, unfortunately, a teach yourself method will never suffice.


When we experience something, the brain makes connections between neurons. These connections are either reinforced by being refreshed, or replaced with new but very similar patterns. When we play something nearly correctly, in fact what we do is create a new set of competing connections between neurons which then need to be dismissed when playing next time. We can liken this to making a map and drawing new junctions every time we make a mistake. If we don't delete the mistakes, we will soon get lost...

Changing our mistakes, mentally comparing the thing we played with that which we aimed at playing or wanted to play, will make our learning much more effective and efficient.

By breaking playing down into its smallest elements, we can perfect every small element and then (re)assemble these elements to make strong 'pipers. In some other instruments we would call this learning rudiments and then putting them into practise.

Finger control

When just starting to play, the fingers are not very well disciplined and don't necessarily respond correctly to instructions. Often instructions to move a finger on the left hand will be sent to the right hand. This is a cyclical problem - as we break through different stages of development, the hands decide for themselves that they know better and then the 'lefts and rights' problem appears.

 There is a simple exercise for this.
  1. Place your hands flat on the table
  2. Raise your index and ring fingers together, wthout moving any other fingers
  3. Moving all four fingers at once, put down your index and ring fingers and raise instead your little finger (pinky) and middle finger.
  4. Repeat quickly, with your eyes closed, with arms crossed, with hands following alternate positions (ring finger up in left hand, down in right etc), move in various rhythms and so on.
Please note, thumbs are not used in this exercise, and this is something which will need to be repeated frequently. To begin with it will be terrible, but the hands will learn amazingly quickly.
Doing this at the beginning will give as much progress as all other practise.

'Good' Technique

Good technique is the ability to control one's fingers, to make them do what one wants them to do when one wants it done. It is not playing fancy things very quickly.

Good technique must be combined with musical understanding to decide when things will be done, to know exactly the rhythm of each and every gracenote, why it should be thus, and how to make it happen.


There is no such thing as more or less difficult in 'piping – only more or less intense….

Stepping up to an intermediate/advanced level of 'piping should be a challenge. A new tune at a new new level should take some work and you should feel mentally tired, but not de-motivated.

 How does one eat an elephant?

 Not in one bite, and not all in one session.

 Just the same is true for pushing your 'piping to a higher level.

It is also important that when you start to learn new material, and push to a new level, the first few tunes you do will be ‘disposable’, that is, there will be mistakes caused by stretching your technique. Do not waste effort going back over the same things for years – simply learn a new tune and concentrate on fixing that which has gone wrong. That is, do not try and drag your technique to a higher level using your favourite tunes, as you will end up either being put off them, or spending an immense amount of time needlessly unprogramming the process of getting better (rather than the result of having got better) from your hands later.

The 'Piping Muscle

There is such a thing! Like building any muscle, one should work away until the muscle fails (everything goes wrong) and then rest and allow it to recover. Identifying when finger control has gone beyond mental capacity is an art for teachers to master, and is important as a change in tactics will be needed to develop mental capacity for 'piping to keep a student motivated. Teaching yourself, you must know that there is such a thing as a 'piping muscle and that you need to keep tiring it, from one or another angle, but let it recover too.

Exact method

Playing any instrument is pretty well based on the same principles;  moving the fngers up and down in a certain order in a certain time - the order is technique and the time (rhythm) is music. By corrupting the time we make personal musical interpretations.

Thus, technique can be programmed and guaranteed like programming a computer. Like with a computer actions are very close together in time but not simultaneous. By doing this programming effectively, we can guarantee our technique and use the spare energy on controlling our music.

Liszt played one note, seven times in a row corectly, and when he had achieved this, he added the next note and started again at the beginning, and so on until the entire piece was done.

There are five stages in learning to play something:

  1. Basic programming of fingers (X+O from how to play chapters)
  2. Grouping the instructions (mark which things go together)
  3. Assigning time markers (beats and smaller units) to the groups of instructions
  4. Making the time (tempo) even, steady
  5. Speeding up

Each and every step should be practised seven times in a row correctly. This is very hard at the beginning but gets easier with time. The early stages of learning with this method seem to take forever, but the result is vastly accelerated learning later on.

Band/Group Learning

Any individual in a group can have a problem at any one of the steps outlined above. Often, just pulling a band all back to basic programming in a small problem area will solve the problem, and can often be highly motivational - everyone can discover an area they were weak on.

The teacher has the responsibility to quickly and discreetly identify exactly who has a problem with which step, and either tell that person individually what is going wrong, or find a collective exercise which can avoid embarrasment, but solve the targeted issue.

A band is only as strong as its weakest player. Periodically the leader/teacher should individually assess each member and generate individual exercises for that person to solve their biggest chalenges whilst at the same time finding exercises which can benefit the whole group.

Choice of repertoire should have two goals - to highlight a group's strengths, but also to develop (improve) areas of weakness.

Every rehearsal should feel like a lesson for every individual. Every time a tune is played, someone in the group should be given something to improve, preferablly two or three people. Everyone should get the same number of elements to improve in an evening so that no-one feels either too good, or picked on/singled out. This way, a fairly wide range of playing accomplishment and experience can be served in one group (within reason).

A good band plays the same thing at the same time using the same techniques. In the 'good old days', 'grunt and slap' was a norm in teaching, especially in pipe bands. That is, the pipe major would growl 'not this way, not that way, but something else', then play something similar, and call it a lesson. The student would firstly be expected to not ask, and secondly, to copy like a monkey.

The above method does away with the need to be perpetually negative in a lesson. It is possible to examine more carefully what a student is playing, and test it against what is being aimed for. This allows us to establish positive goals, and identify which tools we need, and what we don't have, in order to achieve our goals.

The magic maxim goes thus:

"If you can play slowly, you can play quickly, but the converse isn't necessarily true"

In 'piping at the highest level, you will need to be able to decide minutiae of when to open and close every single gracenote, and exactly how much time to give to it. To program this exactly, you will need to be able to play very slowly indeed, and bluffing will not be possible.

Using playback files/videos at different speeds
The magic maxim means exactly what it says - the better you become the more exactly you should be able to control what you are doing, and so to test ourselves, we shouldn't practice more quickly, but more slowly.

To think again like computers - a sampling rate for a recording is a measure of how many times a second the computer will measure what is happening in the sound. A higher sampling rate makes for a higher quality of recording, up to a point beyond which it doesn't make much difference. It is the same with 'piping - the more times in a beat you can say exactly what is happening, the better your 'piping, up to a point.. This also gives you more capacity to manage your performance when unexpected things happen.

By remembering the five steps in learning, we can see that at the point when we assign time to our actions we can get better by increasing our sampling rate. We do this simply by dividing by two, and playing at half speed, with awareness of twice as many points in the beat. When we succeed at this level, we half our speed again, and double the number of places in the bar we try to feel and be aware of what is happening. We keep doing this until every gracenote can be measured opening and closing. If you know the 'New French Method' of rhythm, this helps dramatically, as it automatically gives us a sampling rate of four points per beat by saying the word 'tafatifi' all the time in our heads.

To use the playback videos and files, start with a quick one (or a medium one) and when you feel you are playing with this nicely, go to a slower one, and try to feel more detail. First listen carefully, bearing in mind that most things are divided by two, to find where the actions occur. Obviously, when you accomplish this, go to the next slower file.

Once you have gone to the slowest file and played along correctly, start to go through the faster ones again to see how much more precisely you are playing, and hearing what you are playing.

Playing exactly with the playback files at a quarter speed is a fairly good test for a group, and this extra secret can dramatically affect the strength of playing within a band, and the confidence. It is true that using this approach, you can bring about a positive revolution in your band's playing and attitude.

If you know the New French Method, great. If not, you will need to' feel' the rhythm (until we can figure out how to explain the method via internet...).

Please note, that between X+O, the five steps and practising more slowly and increasing your sampling rate, all with seven repetitions, you can genuinely guarantee your band can play technically perfectly. It can be mind-numbingly difficult and very challenging, but remember, no-one wants to be the person do make the mistake on repetition six...especially at low speed.
It's a simple set of tasks, the trick is in disciplining yourself to do it.

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