Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson

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Starting your own pipe band

Every situation is different and original and as such needs an original set of tactics to create a pipe band.

However, if you say 'Pipe Band' to a 'piper in Scotland, they know what to expect, why that is the case and who does what.

The pipe band consists of pipers, snare drummers, tenor drummers and one (sometimes more) bass drummers.

In the meantime, you can always join the Clan Davidson Virtual Pipe Band. Contact Lindsay to discuss this.

The people and their functions in the band are as follows:

Pipe Major In effect the musical director of the band and the main teacher of the pipers. The Pipe Major decides what the band will play (often in consultation with the Drum Sergeant) and when to teach it. If there is no Drum Major, the Pipe Major makes all decisions on parade and at events. The Pipe Major also makes all musical decisions at events. The Pipe Major makes all musical decisions such as when to tune, what to tune and how to tune.

Pipe Sergeant In effect, the depute Pipe Major. The Pipe Sergeant steps in when the Pipe Major is not available, or when requested to do so. Also the Pipe Sergeant may have specific tasks delegated, such as tuning. Sometimes the Pipe Sergeant will be involved in teaching small groups of pipers at the same time as the Pipe Major teaches other groups during practice time. This all depends on the mix and balance of skills between the two, and the mix of needs in a band.

Pipe Corporal In effect, the depute Pipe Sergeant. On a day to day basis the Pipe Corporal doesn't do anything special, but steps into the PS's shoes when the PS steps into the PM's shoes. Not all bands have a pipe corporal.

Drum Sergeant Makes all the musical decisions regarding the Drum Corp – in effect the Leading Drummer (and this title is also often used meaning the same thing). The DS will arrange the drum music, occasionally in consultation with the PM and then teach it to the drummers.

Drum Major Almost entirely a ceremonial role except during parades. The Drum Major is the person who marches in front of the band and tosses his/her mace to the delight of the public, and typically the absolute and unbounded terror of the pipers marching behind. The Drum Major has no musical role, purely organisational on parade. The mace, when not being used to terrorise the pipers, is used to give indications on parade while the band is playing (and also when it is not). The DM will point where to go (left wheel or right wheel) and should tell everyone to counter march (turn around as a band), or mark time (march on the spot and stop going forwards). Not all bands have a DM.

Millions of years ago bands had a 'boy piper'. This was in effect a trainee pipe major for the future. This person did all the running for the PM, holding reeds, drone tuning machines, hemp, etc. and watched what the PM was doing. In the rare situation of the PM not being bad tempered (pipe bands are famous for this) he or she would also explain the what ever they were doing.

The drummers can be normal orchestrally trained drummers, but the traditional pipe band style is quite distinctive. Listen around on youtube for ideas. You can also very often buy pipe band drum scores.

What is the band's formation when marching and where do you put the strongest and weakest players?

Drum Major

Pipe Sergeant



Pipe Major

Weaker piper

Weaker piper

Weaker piper

Weaker piper

Strongest piper

Weaker piper

Weaker piper

Strongest piper

Tenor drummer

Bass drummer

Tenor drummer

Snare drummer

Snare drummer

Snare drummer

Snare drummer

Snare drummer

Snare drummer

Snare drummer

Drum Sergeant

What does a pipe band traditionally do?

The oldest function of a band is ceremonial – parades, and welcoming guests at special events, particularly civic events, but things like weddings are also common places to see pipe bands.

A band will also give short presentations during events such as a highland games.

For over a hundred years it has been common for pipe bands to compete against each other. This has served to help raise standards of playing tremendously. Competitions are organised by special organisations (RSPBA and affiliated associations around the world) and are a major activity today. There are several leagues, or 'GRADES' for pipe bands to compete in to make sure that bands have a fair chance of winning prizes. Different countries have different systems.

Typically there are two types of groups of tunes for competitions. MSR is a March, Strathspey and Reel set. Either the RSPBA has given you a direct instruction on which tunes to choose from  (called MAP tunes by them) or you are a stronger band with a free choice (see 6 MSR section for materials). This is where the main technical challenge and accomplishment is displayed and choices of tunes are typically conservative and highly traditional, played in unison and with an emphasis on getting tricky technique (doublings, birls, taorluaths etc.) to sound together.

The other type of request made for competitions is a “medley”. This is where bands show off their creativity and imagination and often play in harmony, two or even three part harmony. The first tune should always be something the band can march to, and is often only two parts long. This could be a march or a hornpipe, and it is very rare to use anything in a triple time. It is also very common to finish with a Jig or a Hornpipe. The emphasis is on playing together, musical effect and wowing the audience and the judges Technically the tunes used here are typically easier to play than in the MSR. However, having said that, all rules are suspended – you do what you want to show off what you can do and be distinctive and original and memorable. Bands will typically prepare one such medley per year and spend the entire ear perfecting it. It is not unusual for bands to keep some tunes in the medley for two years and change only some of it.

It is common for pipe bands to travel to festivals and parade and present tunes elsewhere.

More recently pipe bands have started to give concerts. This is a recent development as bands always play from memory and creating and preparing a full concert repertoire to a high standard is a substantial undertaking. The world is your oyster and you simply have to be creative to make up such a repertoire.

In concerts it is common to mix solo playing and performances on smallpipes and borderpipes and also a special type of piece known as a drum salute. This is where the drum section plays by itself to show off how great they are.

Concerts also form a platform for mixing your pipes with other instruments.

How does the band start together?

There are conventions it is worth knowing about. The PM or DM (if there is one) will get the tempo organised in his or her mind, start marching on the spot to indicate to everyone what tempo to expect and then call out the instruction “Band, Pipes and Drums, By the Right, Quick March” in time to his or her feet. In particular, “Quick - March” should be in tempo, with “Quick” being called out on the left foot. 'By the right' actually means dress from the right, or keep in line with the people on the right of the formation.

The band now starts marching. The drums give two long rolls, each one lasting two full beats, with a full beat rest between them. The drones are brought in at the start of the second roll (which is five beats after the instructions were called out), then at the end of the second roll the chanters bring in an E. The tune starts on the ninth beat after the instruction was called. If there is something before the first beat in the bar, then you should know the first beat of the bar is the ninth beat after the instruction was given to play. You can watch youtube videos to be doubly sure what to do.

There are other ways of starting strathspeys and jigs and concert sets. You can make this up as you see fit.

How does the band end together on parade?

The bass drum gives a signal, known as the 'double tap' exactly two bars from the end. This is two eighth notes repeated with a single beat rest between them. The bass drummer knows when to do this because he or she is given a signal by the pipe major four bars from the end. The PM will turn around and march backwards, catching the drummer's eye to indicate the double taps should be given. If there is a Drum Major, then he or she will give this signal by raising the mace high up and vertical, four bars from the end, kinking it to the right in the rhythm of the double tap at the appropriate place together with the bass drummer, two bars from the end.

If the band is standing in a circle playing, then the PM indicates then ending by stepping into the circle, in the same timing as on parade.

I am a beginner myself. How do I start a band?

This website has all the information you need to get people playing. You can contact any number of teachers through the internet (including Lindsay Davidson, creator of this site and writer), send videos (or post them on youtube for private viewing only) and recordings, learn together, help each other and have fun. Eventually when you have enough people together to be able to afford to bring in a guest teacher to give you a workshop, do so. Very often guest teachers will also agree to give a concert to help promote your band idea.

Contact Lindsay to discuss this. This will help you discover ways to organise you own practice sessions so that everyone can have fun and get better.

I can't get enough people together in my area yet. What do I do?

Gather together as many people as you can and be a pipe group. Drummers take less time to train than pipers do so you should focus on pipers first. You can also use beginner pipers who can't play well enough on a pipe yet as bass drummers – it gets them out there and it gets them involved and keeps them engaged.

You can always set up a virtual pipe band, or have Lindsay help you virtually with your group, based on the Clan Davidson Virtual Pipe Band. Contact Lindsay to discuss this.

What about uniforms?

Traditionally, orchestras wear tails and shiny shoes. Traditionally, pipe bands wear kilts. If your model is not a Scottish pipe band (it could be a Breton 'bagad' for example) then dress according to your model. However, a Scottish model wears kilts.

It is typical for all to have the same kilt, marking membership of the band. This is not always the case, but by far the vast majority of bands follow this convention.

A kilt outfit is traditionally:

Ghillie brogues (shoes with long laces)

Hose (long socks, traditionally cream or white)

Flashes (little flags that hold your hose up)

Kilt (Davidson have very attractive tartans...) usually in tartan of a clan somehow related to the band's history or to the area(you can have your own designed and registered)

Sporran (a small leather pouch hanging from a chain around the waist)

Belt (special kilt belts – extra wide)


Band tie (your logo is important)

Kilt jacket – usually Argyll style

Glengarry – a small hat

Looking at any kilt shop will show you what your options are.

It is worth noting that although kilts are very expensive (and thy last twenty years easily) the age of globalisation has brought ultra cheap kilts onto the market. These are typically made in Pakistan, and not from wool. If you live in a hot place, or a place less rich than the UK, you might want to consider such kilts – they are perfectly practical and can help get you on your feet as a band quickly and relatively cheaply.

Please note, such kilts are not advisable in windy or very cold places. Furthermore, kilts from Pakistan are fine, but instruments made there are still not yet of a reliable enough quality to recommend. Pakistan also produces sporrans and belts at a low cost – and it should be said of an excellent quality (particularly the belts are impressive). The pipes are not yet at a useful quality.

A little piece of advice to help motivate your band.

As a consultant who often goes into a band on a workshop basis, the writer (Lindsay Davidson) has noticed a few general issues that reoccur across the piping world.

Not every can practice pipes at home – if you live in a block of flats, noise might be an issue. Sometimes the band practice is the only place these people can get their pipes out and play. You need to recognise this – don't rage because their reeds are dry and they haven't played since last band practice, and don't make demands on them in practice which don't take this into account.

Every person should learn something during every band practice. This should be the key to getting people to turn up. If people don't come to learn, they come to socialise. If this is your band objective, don't play in public – meet for your own pleasure. If you intend to play in public, your rehearsals/practice need to feature change and progress. Like being a school teacher, teaching a pipe band means you need to have a plan regarding what you want to achieve in each practice and how you are going to do this, and critically, how you will recognise and tell the band that this has been achieved. Send everyone home with a specific learning objective for next practice – personal to them.

Don't rage or swear...Pipe bands have an historical military model and many members have grown up in a rather militaristic paradigm, which inevitably involves turn of phrase and linguistic decisions more appropriate for the battlefield, or the inside of a noisy tank, than a learning environment. Your band practice should be a pleasure, not a foul language competition or a form of verbal torture. If it is not a productive pleasure then your members will stop coming.

Have a strategic vision of what tunes and medleys you need to learn and when. A band that meets only to play together gets smaller with time. An annual plan is typically good enough and the occasional project on to of this is also good.

Annual plans lend themselves to workshop organisation with guest teachers if you don't feel confident to run by yourself yet. Keep your street music the same for several years. It helps introduce beginners too (and can be used for tuning - see below).

Tuning a band is the hardest thing of all. Reed behaviour depends on atmospheric conditions and also on how people blow. Inexperienced pipers tend to blow erratically, which means you can be out of tune one minute and perfect the next, depending (literally) on who you look at or who you stand next to. The two minute trick minimises these problems, but particularly in start up bands this is a nightmare. Recognising this, you need to tune tactically and not constantly. Learn a simple slow tune ('Drummond' is ideal for this) to teach the band how to blow a steady tone. Make this a learning objective, and come back to it periodically. You can then check how the sound really is (as can the band) and also limit the time you spend tuning through this exercise.

Group learning

This is a big subject. Please note, that each and every group will have different needs and will respond in different ways, and this is only a simple set of very general guidelines.

Simple rules:
  • Structure your meetings carefully and be strict about timekeeping.
  • Set goals and give reasons why they are chosen
  • Explain how to achieve each goal
  • Break each step into deliverables
  • Check everyone understands and is willing to try
  • Agree deadlines (at the very least with yourself)
  • Go get!
Don't forget t use the 5 steps in learning - it applies to groups too!
Each and every tune and/or ‘set’ of tunes is a goal in itself. Each tune should seek only to teach one thing to everyone. It is suggested that a band learns from the big picture down to the finer details.

Suggested goals in tunes:
  • Playing the melody together
  • Listening to each other
  • Changing and controlling tempo (speed)
  • Getting the louder gracings together (throws, taorluaths, grips)
  • Getting doublings together
  • Memory techniques
General Programme

For a new group or a group dealing with beginners and inexperienced pipers (even for some groups dealing with more experienced pipers) the plans should include some time on securing common, group, technique, both fingering and blowing, and some time learning tunes, to apply this technique.

A break for tea/coffee and chatting is also advised, although this should be timed with discipline.

A group should learn with the ‘five steps’ and generally speaking apply the method explained in how to practice. As they get better, the amount of time spent on basic X+O programming will decrease but this is never-the-less important. The pressure of group learning doing every step seven times in a row correctly is important as this motivates everyone to practice and gives measurable deliverables, or results. Think SMART goals...

Specific areas

Exercises in listening to each other, in changing speed together and in managing mistakes are important. The finger exercises are ideal for use in a band. Not too much time should be spent on them each session, but enough to allow real progress.  Perhaps one exercise per meeting is enough. This can be repeated throughout the night as a mental break from other tasks. At times, more may be needed and sometimes less.

For beginner groups, the two minute trick will be needed – get a buddy to hold the pipes and time each attempt until this is achieved. Everyone at the beginning will be light-headed and will appreciate the break. This also establishes a good common basis for tuning and tone production.

When playing basic exercises, everyone will be aware of their own mistakes. It is usually enough to make sure they understand how to fix them. Doing the five steps on the pipes is a surprisingly effective and thorough way to make progress. If an exercise is not working, take it back to the five steps of programming each action - grouping the instructions, assigning the groups time, making the time regular and finally speeding up. The leader should give foot or hand signals to show when to make an action, and this should be irregular to begin with – this is important as it helps the group learn to follow instructions and listen to each other.

When everyone is tired of exercises, move on to a simple tune, which should have no more than two learning goals set for it. These should be of the type ‘playing the basic tune together’ or ’playing all throws together’. After each time playing through a tune, there should always be some advice on something to improve. That is to say, every single time something is played, it should be used as a chance to improve. If it is at an acceptable standard (seven times…), tell the group and move on to a new task (or make a new, higher, goal).

People will want to come to practices if they get something out of them – that is every time they play, they find something to improve, and have the time to do so.

The format can be the same for chanter and bagpipe practice.

In fun bands, it is usually wise to spend some time each session on pipes. Many people can’t play at home (neighbours aren’t always enthusiasts...) and will want this, whether or not the group leader wants this.

The general purpose of meetings in this scenario is to enjoy oneself whilst improving. Therefore set small enough steps as goals for each session, and small enough jumps in what is expected of technique improvement at each level to allow everyone to feel comfortable, but not so low as to de-motivate. Common sense will show, and tea breaks will give the groups members ease to express their thoughts.

Groups, especially new ones, often can behave in bizarre ways. Think of a young group as a young entity, or a young person – it will go through a childish stage, a teenage troublesome stage, a growing up and coming to terms with itself stage, and a stage of delivering. You need to recognise this and change your style of leadership accordingly.

A group leader need not be a dictator, but should manage the groups and motivate the members carefully. The ‘One Minute Manager’ series of books, intended for company managers is actually a great guide to becoming a good ‘Pipe Major’. It is more a teaching and motivating role than a musical one. If you have a good attitude towards your members and their group, then everyone will have a good attitude towards you. The exact style of how you should behave and why will change as the group dynamic changes.

Playing bagpipes together in a group is not easy, but is very rewarding. Do not set impossible goals to begin with, and be very, very patient. Simple marches and slow airs are a fine way to get started.

These are small suggestions and can never cover everything you need. Comments are very welcome.  


Every member should leave every rehearsal feeling they have made some kind of progress.

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