Learn to Play Bagpipes

Painting of Masque for the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane

Bagpipe Goals — Using the seasons to get better at bagpiping

Forgive me for not writing a blog in a while, March was one of the busiest months in my bagpipe career—if not, the busiest. Now that I’ve had a bit of a break I want to share some reflections regarding life after St. Patrick’s season, and about seasons in general.

As mentioned before I like to ask new students about their bagpipe goals. Do they have bagpipe goals? What are they? And if they don’t, then maybe they want to start thinking about them. These goals can align with the seasons of the year—or the bagpipe year, if you will.

In life we have holidays and seasons to look forward to. The major holidays of the winter can be a time for still reflection; spring, a new start; summer, a time for relaxation and fun; the fall is a time for harvesting one’s work. All of the seasons can also evoke moods within us.

Similarly, in the bagpipe year, we have times, even seasons, to look forward to. If you are more active there will be different seasons of the year where you can focus on certain things. This can aid in our development and keep things interesting.

Perhaps if you are in a busier pipe band you play multiple parades and functions for various holidays throughout the year. This helps keep the band practicing (hopefully) so they can regularly rehearse their repertoire. If you are in a competition band, the band will typically focus on different activities throughout the year.

For many of us, especially in America, March is “the” busy season. The year 2022 was special since this was the first full St. Patrick’s season since 2019. If you were like many, you also looked forward to getting back out there.

During this busy period most bands participate in many parades, which is important not only for cultural reasons, but also because it yields money for the band. The more organized the band is, the more important it is for the band to raise money. St. Patrick’s is usually the big chance to generate revenue for the band’s maintenance (uniform and supplies). Such a time, not only fun, festive, and busy, is also of high importance for a functioning band.

Now that it’s April there is some time to breathe. One of the things that I have been doing lately is resetting myself with some healthier habits: eating healthier, drinking less, and cutting back on the festivities—something I was looking forward to from the end of St.Patrick’s season. I am now also preparing myself for a slew of upcoming solo competitions, so that means lots of practice, especially on the bagpipes (not just on the practice chanter).

Before March, I had 2 competitions in February that I had to prepare for. Coincidentally, my sheepskin bag had finally punctured (it was on its way out), so it needed to be replaced. I also decided to do a complete overhaul of my setup and realized it was the perfect time to upgrade my main bagpipe set. I browsed a few websites online (on facebook, Jim McGillivray’s vintage bagpipes' web page, and this new site) and ended up purchasing a set from my friend, one I ended up liking a lot. They are set of of Lawries from the 40’s (so far, so good). The replacement bag was recently (and finally) tied in (I had to use my friend’s bag in the interim). I seasoned the new bag a few times.

After almost 2 months of doing this overhaul, I finally feel like the set is where I want it to be. It WAS a bit of a pain in the butt, but I appreciate the fruit of the efforts. These are the sorts of things one ideally wants to get straightened out BEFORE the competitions (Winter / early Spring is ideal for this sort of stuff), so that you have a great bagpipe ready to go for the rest of the season (March, of course, wouldn’t be ideal).

If you compete, whether it be in solos, a band, or both, you know that the Spring is when competitions start to pick up. It’s a time for fixing your tunes and getting yourself prepared. If you are a serious competitor, then you probably know that the early bird gets the worm. Those who start early can get a head start by receiving useful feedback from judges to see where they are and what they need to clean up.

In the Summer, the bulk of competition is already happening. Perhaps there’s even a Memorial Day parade to kick off things. Hopefully by then, you are somewhat comfortable playing the tunes and not struggling to memorize them.

The Fall (usually commencing around a Labor Day parade) is when you can really perfect the season’s competitions, since you have had several months to perform. Hopefully by then you’ll be getting some prizes; you may be considering requesting an upgrade if you did well throughout the season. Perhaps you or the band will be planning ahead for what new tunes you’d like to learn for the new season. This is a fantastic time to start memorizing new tunes so that you don’t have to worry about that for next year. You will have the benefit of having time to get comfortable playing the tunes before competition season starts in Spring. It’s generally around this time that the cycle starts to end and re-begin.

By the Winter you may want to take a breather, especially with the holidays. Resting is a benefit, so don’t burn yourself out. You’ll still have time to do all the great work all over again.

These cycles keep you going and keep things interesting, while also showing a greater pattern that rules over all of nature—even bagpiping.

If you are not “busy” outside of the St. Patrick’s season, perhaps you may consider other ways of how to keep your development going as the bagpipe year and seasons progress. This may be more of a solo development. And if you’re in a pipe band that is going nowhere, perhaps you may start exploring other bands who like to keep themselves busy. I personally find bagpiping throughout the year fun and rewarding.

Published: April 29th, 2022

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