Learn to Play Bagpipes

How to Learn the Bagpipes

How to learn the bagpipes

  1. Purchase a good quality practice chanter
  2. Consider hiring a qualified instructor
  3. Join a local band that offers instruction to beginners
  4. Practice regularly on the practice chanter
  5. Practice the bagpipes regularly.
  6. Join a band
  7. Perform publicly
  8. Compete in competitions
  9. Keep learning
  10. Become a teacher

Short Term Goals for Learning to Play the Bagpipes

Purchase a good quality practice chanter

So obviously in order to play an instrument, you need to have an instrument. And in this post-pandemic world, you may want to buy a brand new chanter. Unlike other musical instruments, you can get a high quality practice chanter for around $100 or under. I own this bagpipe practice chanter, the R.G. Hardie Twist Trap, and it does just fine. It is a “long” chanter, which quite simply means that it matches the length of an actual bagpipe chanter. I would strongly suggest NOT to skimp out; buy a long one (instead of the regular. They also make junior sizes for children under 10). These can last a lifetime since most are made from a strong plastic called polypenco. If you want to order one, email me to find out where you can order from. You'll also save on the overseas shipping costs.

So going back, you may be wondering, why a practice chanter? Or even better… you play the saxophone and don’t need to play on a wimpy practice chanter. You’re already ready for the bagpipes. (I’ve had someone tell me this). The thing about the bagpipes is that it is unlike many instruments (believe it or not). One of the main reasons for this is that it’s hard as hell to play. Well, not in the way you may think. It is a physically demanding instrument, but don’t worry, that gets better with time. The point is that you ONLY want to focus on the basics of learning to play notes, rhythm, technique, etc. before trying to squeak out your first note on the pipes, because for many people squeaking out your very first note is VERY challenging for the beginner even if you are John Coltrane.

Consider hiring a qualified instructor

As already mentioned, the bagpipes are a challenging instrument. If I could go back in time, I would have hired a qualified instructor over 20 years ago. You will go much farther and appreciate the instrument more. Other musical instruments, like the guitar, you can get by learning on your own. There’s a billion guitar players and online resources, but bagpiping is way more niche. There’s a lot of nuances and transitioning to the bagpipes without help is very difficult. Furthermore, many bagpipers have not received adequate instruction. I’m not saying this because I’m a hot shot. However the majority of players receive limited training and only reach a small percentage of their true potential. There was even a VERY well known U.S. senator's funeral, where a bagpiper gave a poor performance- for a high profile event. So consider hiring a qualified instructor. I say this, too, with a twinkle in my eye as I’d love to be the one you hire.

Join a local band that offers instruction to beginners

This has pros and cons. This is actually the route that I had begun with. I learned in a high school band. But you will be limited by the skills in whoever is teaching you. If you are in certain areas, like NYC, Scotland, New Zealand, there are no shortages of pipe bands, and many of them offer free instruction to beginning bagpipe players. Free isn’t always necessarily a good thing, particularly if the quality of instruction is poor. However, some of the perks may include learning with others and, if you progress, you may end up playing with the band. I would suggest if you want to go this route to find a band that sounds good. If you are going to hire an instructor, then they can help you with that. If you live in the NYC tri-state area, contact me.

Practice regularly on the chanter

This should be obvious but then again some people are lazy and expect good results. Bagpiping is a skill, and a skill takes time to learn. So try to set some time in your day to practice 20 minutes minimum. 30 minutes is better; 60 minutes and you’ll be flying. The beauty of it is is that practicing reaps rewards and it is a nurturing process. Furthermore, you’d be wasting your money or instructor’s time if you didn’t reinforce your lessons with adequate practice. Even the most patient instructors may break and tell you that it just isn’t working out, if you don’t put any effort at all into practicing.

Mid Term Goals for Learning to Play the Bagpipes

Practice the bagpipes regularly

This goes hand in hand with the above but this can also get more complicated. You can’t just practice on the practice chanter and magically get good on the bagpipes. Perhaps you’ll develop amazing fingerwork on the practice chanter, but that won’t fill in all the holes (no pun intended) of being able to play on actual bagpipes. As mentioned before, the bagpipes are physically demanding so it requires the development of fitness and endurance. This will build up but it too is a skill that must be developed. Blowing the bagpipe and squeezing it requires coordination to get any sound out of it. The better you get, the better the tonal quality will get. These are very important steps that can only be reached by regular practice of the bagpipes. Don’t be like some guys in bands who only pull out their bagpipes in March to play in the St. Patrick’s parade, never to play again after the beer runs out on March 17th. They are poor players.

That being said, playing on the bagpipes regularly can pose difficulty. As my sister likes to remind me: it sounded like a dying cow when I was learning to play. Do you have a partner who is going to be sympathetic to your new and very loud hobby? Do you have a newborn baby who won’t mind? If you rent a rehearsal place to practice, will you commit time? Will your neighbors kill you? I live in a multifamily home in New York City with upstairs neighbors. For this reason, I practice in a basement. Because I am a serious piper, it has often been a large factor in me not choosing to move to a new location. And thankfully, my upstairs neighbor who can be sometimes annoying, is at least a fan of the bagpipes. At the very least, if you have a band that meets up weekly for practice, hopefully you can get some practice there.

Join a Band

Joining a band is a great way to learn. The social aspect is awesome and there’s great revelry. If the band competes against other bands (which adds a very unique dynamic) in competitions, it’s super fun. However some bagpipe bands just play in local parades, and that can be just fine. You’ll learn new tunes and learn from people who are more experienced. Just try to join a good quality band that actually cares about the music, so you don’t pick up any bad habits.

Perform Publicly

I’ve met many bagpipe players who are afraid to play publicly without a band, aka solo. It’s understandable; it’s like public speaking; some people are just afraid of it. However to really learn the pipes, you don’t want to only play for yourself. What good is that? Being able to play as a soloist will develop your confidence, help you build a repertoire, and adds a new dimension to learning--that is, learning how to play in front of others.

Long Term / More Ambitious Goals for Learning to Play the Bagpipes

Compete in Competitions

The real salt of the earth pipers compete. There is nothing like competition bagpiping. However only a small percentage do this because many never get past many of the above steps. To me competing is very exciting and it’s motivating. It drives me to get better. I compete as a soloist and a band player. I have been told that the older pipe band leaders used to encourage all the members of the band to compete as soloists to truly develop themselves.

Keep Learning

Bagpiping is a journey. There are so many things to learn. I’m not saying this to discourage you; in fact I’m saying this to encourage you because it keeps things interesting!

Become a Teacher

They say you don’t know anything until you can teach it. When a student asks a question, an instructor’s knowledge is put to the test. Perhaps one day your knowledge will be put to the test too.

Happy Piping. Have any questions? Shoot me an email.