Here’s a hot topic! Do I buy a domestically made bagpipe...
For The Adult (and youthful) Learner!
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 block progress.
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
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 any 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 muscle 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 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. Blow too hard and the chanter will squeal. Blow too lightly and the chanter will cut out. Once the drones are introduced, it become critical to listen to the chanter as the notes blend and harmonize with the drones. Two critical elements are blowing at the proper pitch and blowing steadily.
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.
If one 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?
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 also advocating this teaching method for younger students. Too often youngsters lose interest and abandon the instrument due to a prolonged period of technical training. The methods taught in The Hal Leonard Bagpipe Method have produced pipers with significant talent, achievement, and potential. These methods create a strong foundation upon which all else rests.