Leaning bagpipes is an extremely broad topic. Most of what is learned is done so by rote without fully
understanding what the finished product is supposed to be. Most of the attention is focused on specific
tasks. Once mastered, specific skills are linked together and woven into complex musical melodies.
It has been said that the Great Highland Bagpipe is the most difficult musical instrument to learn.
As with no other musical instrument, its music is a total and complete expression of the musician; physically,
mentally, and emotionally. |
It has been said that seven years go to the making of a piper, and
seven generations go before the seven years. I wish that is was that simple.
Shifting gears slightly,
adults are blessed with higher powers of reasoning and greater physical strength, however, in terms of
the Great Highland Bagpipe, they are disadvantaged in just about every other respect. Fingers lack the
accuracy and dexterity of younger hands. Musical concepts form slowly and years of negative programming
The challenges of learning bagpipes as an adult are only partly the fault of the
adult. Traditional teaching methods handed down generation after generation are biased towards youthful
students. These methods applied to adult learners impede progress, deny the pleasure and reward of accomplishment,
and ultimately arrest individuals far beneath their potential. What we will present herein are concepts
and strategies that are intended to accelerate, if not revolutionize, adult learning.
The music of the Great Highland Bagpipe is broken down into two primary components|
Sound is all about the production of complimentary sounds that remain perfectly in tune
with each other throughout the musical performance. A piper must understand his or her instrument in
a way that no other musician can comprehend. A piper must understand and eventually master every aspect
of the production of correct bagpipe sound.
Melody is all about the presentation of musical notes
arranged in a rhymic and pleasing manner.
Understanding this will strip away many false pretenses
and allow adults to progress to the point where they are a credit to the instrument, the music and themselves.
One might assume that since everyone starts learning on a practice chanter that the melody is the initial
primary focus. Not so!
We will assume that the adult learner has procured a decent practice chanter
and reed and that they have mastered placement of the fingers and playing of the scale. I immediately
start students blowing the bagpipe. With an adult student it is never too early to start learning how
to create the proper sound. With most students it takes perhaps 6 months to a year to learn how to produce
the correct sound. This is why it is critical to start students blowing bagpipes early. The sooner
they start the sooner they learn. Now, from this point forward everything that is learned on the practice
chanter is practiced both on the practice chanter and on the bagpipe.
Playing the bagpipe
involves strength, endurance, and technique. This does not come quickly or easily. It comes with time
and with hard work. It also comes with the right instruction. I typically start my students blowing
just the bagpipe chanter. I dislike the old “goose” as it does not give the student the “feel” of the
GHB. I use rubber stoppers on the drones and get the adult student to blow the chanter. This will strengthen
the lip muscles, arm and back muscles, and diaphragm muscles. These muscles groups are all critical
to playing the GHB. The first task is to increase their strength. The next task is to increase their
endurance. Every day the adult student should stretch their bagpipe practice time to the point where
they can play simple notes or melodies for upwards to 5 minutes.
I teach my students to find
the “middle” of the reed, neither under blowing nor over blowing. Teach this skill early and it stays
with the piper forever. How does one learn to blow tone? By playing very simple note arrangements very
slowly and listening to both chanter and drones.
After the student becomes comfortable blowing
the chanter I introduce one drone at a time, generally tenor, bass, and finally the second tenor. All
of the same principles apply. Listen, listen, listen. Teach your students how to hear the sounds that
their instrument is producing. Later you will teach them how to tune drones, how to fix the sound, and
finally how to build the sound from scratch.
As I said earlier, the music of the GHB is sound and melody. A melody is an arrangement of notes that
is rhythmic and pleasing. If your imagination will allow it, a melody tells a story, or sings a song.
A good melody will invite, accommodate, and generate emotion, both within the piper and within the audience.|
Soon after the adult student learns the scale, most teachers will now spend months or years teaching
embellishments. Embellishments are grace notes, doublings, grips, and other complicated note couplings.
None of these are necessary in order to present the melody of a tune. The sole purpose of embellishments
is to enhance the melody by adding rhythmic differences to a melodic line.
I wanted to break
up this paragraph because we are about to jump on a thin spot on the pond.
The essence of good
music is a careful and heartfelt expression/interpretation of the music combining accurate finger placement,
correct tempo, playing in time, and rhythmically supporting the melodic line with correct embellishments.
This sounds so easy. Of the above, playing in time might be the most important and therefore embellishments
not played in the correct rhythm will hurt rather than help or enhance the melodic line.
accepts this premise, one must wonder why so many adult learners and their teachers persist at grinding
embellishments into their playing to the detriment of all else. I believe that in many instances the
focus is so great on embellishments that both sound and melody suffer incomprehensibly. Yet, this archaic
method of teaching adults continues.
By no means am I minimizing the importance of embellishments
or suggesting that they should not be taught or learned by adult students. They should however be placed
in context with the student and his or her abilities. And they should not be placed in a position of
importance higher than either sound or melody.
A proper melody is played at a steady tempo.
Note placement is respectful of “the beat” and this is maintained throughout the tune. Once you teach
this, embellishments can be added in and bolted on within the abilities of the student without sacrificing
either sound or melody!
So, adult learners! If I told you that if you start today and practice
1/2 hour each day for the next 6 months you’ll be able to play simple street tunes with your band on
parade and be absolutely rock solid in sound, playing the melody “on the beat” what would you say? Here
are the tunes that I’d start you out on.
1) Auld Lang Syne - This traditional Scottish song
is universally recognized and enjoyed. As a bagpipe tune it is very straightforward with only gracenote
embellishments and strikes.
2) Star of County Down - This traditional Irish tune is as beautiful
as it is haunting. Again, its very simple with gracenote and strike embellishments only.
City Police Pipers - This 6/8 jig is one of the most useful tunes for teaching timing and the discipline
of playing to a metronome. It is strong in GDE technique.
4) Scot's Wha Hae celebrates Scotland's
fight for independence and is a remarkable slow march. Important new embellishments are introduced as
well as some timing challenges.
5) Robin Adair is a lovely traditional Scottish song turned
into a bagpipe tune. This is a "tone tune" as it has big fat quarter notes that follow the chanter up
and down. We learn this tune first without and later a birl.
6) Will ye no come back again
introduces more important embellishments within a beautiful melody.
7) High Road to Gairlock
is an excellent bottom-hand tune. You can't help but improve D throws and both B and C doublings.
8) Bonnie Galloway and The Blue Bells of Scotland are essential tunes and extremely useful when
teamed with Robin Adair. These are great tone-tunes and very appropriate at the beginner level.
9) We're no awa tae bide awa is a great drinking tune! It's also nice with the counter-melody taught
The key to everything is to set SMART goals. What are SMART goals?
This approach to teaching adults is based on my personal experience. If you would indulge me for just
a minute further I have witnessed many adults who have been piping for many years who are not capable
of producing the right sound nor playing a simple melody to a steady beat or to a pleasing tempo. Such
is their effort to put in every doubling and every grip that they completely lose the feeling of the
tune and the music of their instrument. They do not impress me at all.|
On the other hand I have
taken these same adults and explained the concepts written herein. At first there is shock and disbelief.
This soons gives way to relief and renewed enthusiasm. Soon they are playing simple tunes on the beat
and up to tempo. Embellishments are added in keeping with the student's ability to maintain timing,
tempo, and focus on producing the correct sound.
In closing, I am not advocating this teaching method for younger students. With youngsters the traditional
teaching methods produce the best results. A strong foundation must be built upon which all else rests.|
I consider the following tools essential for adult learners: