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How Hard Is It to Play Bagpipes?

I can’t quite remember when I first saw someone playing the bagpipes. However, I can remember watching and thinking that something wasn’t right. When you play an instrument that you blow, then the action is to blow, and the fingers move on keys to produce the tune. Here it seemed different.

They were blowing, but not in time with the sounds coming out. Very strange. And they didn’t seem to be blowing into the pipes; they were blowing into a bag to inflate it. Even more strange? It made me wonder, how hard is it to play bagpipes?

A Fascinating Instrument

A fascinating instrument with an even more fascinating history. Although it is considered the national instrument of Scotland, its roots lie elsewhere.

The first bagpipes were documented in the Middle East in about 1000 BC. They were prevalent in Roman times, with depictions on Roman coins of bagpipes being played by Emperor Nero.

An early instrument… 

…called the “Dudel-Sack” was popular and spread throughout Asia and Europe. These were very much what might be called ‘Folk’ bagpipes. 

The design often reflected local traditions and customs. Examples of them may be seen today in an extensive collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Big Developments

Major changes to the instrument occurred with the introduction of the French ‘Musette.’ And in the North East of England and Ireland, the bagpipe became commonplace. Evidence tells us that bagpipes were a common instrument all over Britain before they were adopted by the Scots.

What Evidence?

  • Middle Age churches in England, before the Reformation, reveal drawings and carvings of bagpipes.
  • Chaucer makes mention of “playing the pipes” in the “Miller’s Tale.”
  • The “drone of the Lincolnshire Bagpipe” is mentioned by Shakespeare in his play “Henry IV.”
  • King Henry VII and Henry VIII both enjoyed their bagpipes.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment when they first became a part of the Scottish landscape. It is believed that the Irish played the pipes for Edward the First in 1297 in Calais, France. And at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298.

Maybe It Isn’t Important

Important

But maybe when they arrived in Scotland might not be the important thing. What is important is that they have developed into a cultural property all of their own. They have come to be a part of Scotland, the country, and its heritage.

You may have been fortunate to stand near the castle in the evening in Edinburgh. The sound of the pipes drifting over the city. The piper plays an emotional lament commemorating a young man lost forever.

Even to an observer from ‘south of the border,’ that is an emotional and great thing to witness. Almost a stirring of the soul. Perhaps it was that stirring that inspired men in the First World War. Rising from their trenches, to follow the pipers into ‘no man’s land’ to battle, and for some, certain death.

Today’s Legacy

Today, they are as much a part of Scotland as are Haggis and shortbread. And the pomp, ceremony, and dress are quite a spectacle to behold. And now you think you might like to play and join this elite group of musicians that exist all around the world.

But don’t know how much time it will take to learn the bagpipes. And how hard it might be to learn. We are going to have a look at exactly that, and at the end, you might just rush out to get some ‘pipes.’

How Hard Is It to Play Bagpipes?

We are going to look at how hard they are to learn and to play. And how long it might take you. Bagpipes, you will find, are quite a bit harder to learn than most instruments. 

There are notes to worry about, but you have to learn how to blow to fill the bag with air. As well as how to keep the flow of the air constant and at the right amount.

We will look at all those things. But before we do, as with most things musical, there are some specialized words which you need to understand their meaning. Let’s look first at what a bagpipe is and then at the ‘Chanter’ and the ‘Drone.’

The Bagpipe

Bagpipes are categorized as woodwind instruments. Even though they bear little resemblance to other instruments in this classification, they are played using reeds that are enclosed and supplied with a constant flow of air from a bag.

The Chanter

The Chanter is also sometimes known as the ‘melody pipe.’ It is played with two hands, and all bagpipes have at least one. In some locations, such as North Africa, you will find bagpipes with two.

There are variations with the internal design as it can be bored with parallel walls. Also known as a cylindrical chanter. Or, in some cases, it can be tapered. 

They are given an open-ended design, so when you are playing it, there is not an easy way to stop the sound. That is one reason you will find bagpipe music does not have rests.

Highly Technical

There are some movements you can use to create what sounds like articulation and accents in the music. These ornaments, as they are known, are highly technical actions that often take many years to master.

You can find the chanter designed with a closed-end. Normally used on other variations of the bagpipe like the French ‘Musette De Cour.’ But that is not what we are discussing here. The chanter for the bagpipe you will find in Scotland and elsewhere is open-ended.

Notes From The Chanter

This is produced by either one reed with a vibrating tongue or two reeds that vibrate together. It is inserted at the top of the chanter.

A Practice Chanter

This chanter does not have a bag or drones attached. It allows the player to just learn and practice melodies without anything else to worry about. Most bagpipers will practice like this.

The Drone

The majority of bagpipes will be fitted with at least one drone. This is a pipe that is not played like the chanter. Instead, it provides that familiar droning harmonized note throughout the piece you are playing. The drone will usually play the tonic note of the chanter.

The drone is a tube with a cylindrical bore that has one reed, although you can get drones with two reeds. Part of the design is a sliding fixture with which you can adjust the pitch of the drone note.

How The Drone Is Positioned

This will depend on the type of bagpipe you are playing. They can lie over the shoulder, over your arm, or can sit parallel with the chanter. Some drones have an adjusting screw that alters their length. With this attachment, you can set two pitches to the drone.

The Pitch

The pitch is set at two octaves lower than the tonic note of the chanter. It is possible to have extra drones that add a further octave below.

Having looked at those terminologies associated with the bagpipe, let’s move on to what you need to know about playing bagpipes. These are the principal points. We will consider each of them individually as we go on.

  • Air Supply.
  • Ensuring a Constant, Steady Flow of Air.
  • Tuning the Bagpipes.
  • Fingering Used.
  • Learning to play music.

Five things to consider for all those wishing to learn. So let’s look at them all.

Air Supply

Air Supply

The Bagpipes make a sound on the principle that the supply of air passing through the instrument is provided by the bag. 

Therefore, the bag needs to be kept inflated; otherwise, the bagpipe just won’t play. You will, I am sure, have seen bagpipers continually blowing air into the bag through the blowpipe.

These days the bagpipes are fitted with a non-return valve which prevents the air from escaping. In days gone by, this did not exist, and the piper had to use his tongue to stop letting air escape from the bag. That made the bagpipes much harder to play.

Bellows

Some bagpipes were, and in some cases, still are fitted with bellows to keep the level of the air constant. This is commonly seen on the following bagpipes:

  • Uilleann Pipes in Ireland.
  • Pastoral Pipes in the UK.
  • The ‘Musette Bechonnet’ in France.

Ensuring a Constant, Steady Flow of Air

This is where playing the bagpipes takes on a much more technical operation. I always considered playing clarinet, or especially the Flute, to be a difficult technique to master. The bagpipes are something else.

Not Just About Blowing Air Into a Bag

Blowing air into the bag is only part of the procedure. It has to be the right amount of air. And it has to be delivered in a steady, consistent manner. If you don’t learn how to do that, you will not get the sound you want.

Air Distribution

There is another complication. The inflation of the bag at the desired level will last about 25 seconds. While the bag is inflated, you must make sure the equal distribution of the air is available to both chanter and drones.

To do this, the bag always has to have the correct level of pressure. If you fail to do this, then the pitch of the notes will be affected, and you will sound out of tune.

Blowing With The Tempo Of The Music

That is quite a natural thing to want to do. I mentioned in the beginning that it is the natural thing to blow and then use the right fingerings to get the notes. On the bagpipes, this is a big no. Blowing with the tempo will mean that the right amount of air is not being distributed evenly. 

That is essential, as we have just discussed, to make sure all parts of the bagpipe are supplied with the air required. It takes skill to get your mind to perform that operation when you are doing other things at the same time.

Tuning the Bagpipes

With some instruments, you can sit down and just start to play. With others, you need to get it in tune first. And with some of those, you don’t necessarily need to know how to play to tune it. 

With the bagpipes, there are certain disciplines you need to learn and master before you can even tune them.

One of those essential elements involved in tuning bagpipes is the distribution of air and maintaining a steady pressure. That needs to be practiced and achieved before you can start to tune the bagpipes.

Musicians Tune-Up Before Performances, Do Bagpipers?

Yes, they do. They are not excluded from tuning up first because of the complexities of the instrument. The reeds can be affected by temperature and moisture and may need to be adjusted.

The sensitivity of the reed will depend on two things. The type of bagpipes and the type of bagpipe reed. Learning how to adjust and alter the chanter reed is one of those things that needs to be mastered. You may need to flatten or sharpen the reed to get the notes right.

Another technique that some players utilize is to apply some wax around the finger holes. That can help to control the notes.

Don’t Get Frustrated

It sometimes feels like you are getting nowhere. But it takes some time to learn how to deal with the tuning. The chanter reed especially is where the initial problems occur. 

You should experience fewer problems with drone reeds, even though some minor issues might arise from time to time. But once you have mastered both, you are ready to get the drones and the chanter in tune.

Fingering Used

You now know that you need the correct amount of air in the bag to produce the notes. This has its own problems in that the sound doesn’t stop when you stop playing. It only stops when the air is gone.

Therefore, it is difficult to play two notes that are almost the same consecutively. This is accomplished by what they call ‘grace’ notes. That is a skill that needs to be learned as you learn the finger positions.

Finger positions apply to the bagpipes to create tones… 

Just as they do on the clarinet or the flute or other woodwind instruments, you need to learn where to position everything.

The only difference is that with those instruments, the sound stops when you stop blowing. With the bagpipes, as I have said, it doesn’t.

Learning to Play Music

Play MusicOne skill you need to acquire is something I touched on earlier, and that is your ‘presence of mind’. I mentioned it before in the context of not blowing into the bag in time with the tempo of the music. 

But in this case, it refers to not being distracted by the constant sound. Remember, you can’t just turn it off. If the bag has air in it, then you will get sound.  

Don’t Be Distracted

New players can become very easily distracted by that, but you have to gain a presence of mind. And that means not letting this constant sound interrupt your concentration on playing the song.

It is a skill to master that some find difficult. A bit like the old ‘rubbing the tummy and patting the head’ trick. It takes practice to hear the continuous sound, which you need to do, but not be distracted by it.

Practicing

Let’s just take a minute to discuss practice. You don’t need the complete instrument; you just need the chanter or the ‘melody pipe.’ This is even what the pros practice with to learn the music before transferring it to the full instrument. They only do that once the notation has been thoroughly mastered.

So, here are a few things to remember about your practice chanter:

  • Keep it perfectly tuned.
  • Have good reeds.
  • Get a chanter with a good sound projection.
  • Make sure you can achieve pitch without forcing.

You will find that the finger spacing on the practice chanter is the same as on the instrument chanter. Therefore, you will have no problems transferring from one to the other.

How Hard Is It To Play?

Well, you can see it will not be easy. But perseverance wins the day when you want to know how hard is it to play bagpipes. It will take about six months up to about a year to learn some easy songs. More complex material after about two years.

Are You Ready? 

If so, there are some things you are going to need. A well-made Bagpipe made with rosewood and brass is this Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe. You will also need a practice chanter, such as this RG Hardie Bagpipe Twist Trap Practice Chanter.

An alternative practice chanter is the Frazer Warnock Standard Bagpipe Practice Chanter. And you will certainly be needing some reeds, and a good choice is these Great Highland Bagpipe Cane Reed/Scottish Pipe Chanter Reeds.

Interested in the Bagpipes or Other Woodwinds?

We have you covered. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Bagpipes, the Best Flute, the Best Tin Whistles, the Best Melodica, the Best Ocarinas, the Best Clarinet Brands, and the Best Blues Harmonicas you can buy in 2023.

And don’t miss our handy articles on The Difference Between Brass and Woodwind InstrumentsWhat Are Double Reed InstrumentsHow to Choose a Clarinet Reed, and A Guide to Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period for more useful musical information.

How Hard Is It to Play Bagpipes – Conclusion

Dedication and commitment. That is what you will need to learn this instrument. By now, you will know it is not going to be easy. A long road lies ahead. But once you have mastered it, you will join an elite group of musicians. And no other instrument boasts such a proud history.

And then, you too, might one day march through the streets of Edinburgh playing “Scotland the Brave.” You, along with maybe one hundred others. That will be an experience you will never forget, which will make every minute of practice worthwhile.

Until next time, let the music play.

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