Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson

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Transition to Bagpipes

When you have bought a bagpipe, the most important thing to check is that the bag is airtight. Put corks in all the drones and the chanter stock, blow the bag up and see if it stays under pressure. If your bag is not airtight, you will have serious problems.

Many makers now supply pipes with plastic drone reeds set up and ready to go, however the chanter reeds can often be too hard for complete beginners, so I would suggest when you order your pipes, ask for a very easy reed.

The biggest difference between a chanter and a bagpipe is the postion of your hands. Instead of being in front of your face, your hands are now out of sight near your waist.

To prepare for this, make sure that when you practice on the chanter you do not look at your hands at all.

The basic principles....

'Let the tools do the job'

The bag is a reservoir of air which keeps the sound going when you need to take a breath. If you blow the bag up so that it stretches under the pressure of the air inside, then its natural contraction will sustain the sound whilst you get your next breath ready. The pitch will drop slightly as this happens (typically), and when you have mastered this basic technique you will need to learn to use your arm to correct this change in sound.

Exercise - with someone else holding the bag by the bass drone stock (the bit that joins the big drone to the bag), or holding it yourself, blow to make a continuous sound for 2 minutes. This is called the 'Two Minute Trick' - if you can do this, you have got the basics done. You will be light headed, dizzy and faint to begin with. But you will adapt very quickly. You can cork off the drones if you find this too difficult to begin with. This is easier with a traditional skin bag than a synthetic bag and I always recommend for beginners using a skin bag. Once the basics are firmly in place it is easy to change over.

The Two Minute Trick is useful to anyone with problems with their blowing. Try this and see.

The logic is easy to understand - if the bag acts as a reservoir of air it needs to be full to function properly. If you are always refilling a bag that has been squeezed and is half empty, then very little energy/strength/air is left over to drive the reeds. Squeezing makes bagpipes harder to blow, and harder to control. 'Blow and Squeeze' is a myth and a mistake practised or aimed at by a huge percentage of pipers in the world.

Blowing into a full bag under pressure will give a sensation of resistance - this is the sensation that tells you your blowing is good. Doing the two minute trick, getting a continuous sound for two minutes without your arm touching the bag will give you this resistance. Try to remember this feeling. The only squeezing that is needed is not to empty the bag or to give air to the reeds, but to replace the pressure being applied by blowing with pressure from your arm to stabilise the pressure when you take a breath.

When you have mastered the two minute trick and can also correct the wobble in tone with gentle pressure from your arm, then you should ideally go on and do all of the basic exercises again, making sure that your technique is firmly established before trying to play tunes.

It is worth taking a few weeks at this stage to make life easier in the future.

Bullet points to help (suggestions invited):

  • Shoulders should never go up and down when blowing a bagpipe - use your tummy. Fill your lungs from the bottom up.
  • Never breath with your nose, always your mouth.
  • Try to get used to holding your bagpipes by 'wearing' them around the house - put them on your shoulder and walk around with them as normal until they feel natural there.

This is a short chapter - playing a bagpipe is not rocket science -it needs patience, but the principles are genuinely this simple.

Once you have got the basic blowing technique under control, you should, if you have the patience, go through all of the exercises again, with the 5-steps practise method.
This can be tiring, and might need quite a long time, but you will feel the benefit forever, from building on rock solid foundations.

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