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Andrew's Tips: Finding the Right Bagpipe InstructorBy Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2003-2010
For years, you've heard the bagpipes live at different venues: weddings, parades, perhaps a few funerals. You've bought a few CDs of Celtic piping and the idea of playing the bagpipes yourself has brewed in your mind. You have decided to take the leap and wisely realized that to succeed you need to get a piping teacher. Here's a short guide on where to find one and what to do once you've found one.
Before I tell you how to locate a teacher, here's some advice.
What not to do before you talk with your instructor.
Whatever you do, don't run out and buy a practice chanter (it's like a whistle or a recorder, which you learning fingering on) and set of pipes before you discuss these things with your teacher. It can make life easier if you and your instructor have matching practice chanters—not a huge issue really, but a nice little convenience. As for the bagpipes themselves, it's good to have an experienced person around from whom seek advice and get opinions regarding makes of pipes.
Evaluating your instructor.
If there are a number of instructors in your area, you have the luxury of being choosy.
If a potential instructor is involved with a band, you may want to see if that band fits your plans for the future. If you want to be involved with a competing band and the instructor you pick is involved with a "street band," you may—due to loyalty—find yourself obligated to a non-competing band. (On the other hand, you may find their repertoire more creative.) Or if you don't like the pressure of competing, you may want to find an instructor associated with a street band.
Beware the instructor trying to get you out and marching with his or her band as quickly as possible, the finer details of your playing are usually sacrificed. On the other hand, free good quality lessons are a bargain you can't beat. Another instructor may want to mold you into a solo piobaireachd (called "the classical music" of the pipes, unlike marches, jigs, reels, etc.) player, maybe this is what you want, or maybe it isn't. Depending on what your goals are, your instructor's methods may or may not be a good fit, also depending on how accommodating your instructor is. It may be beneficial to you to let your instructor know exactly what you want from him/her, both initially and if at any point you feel your instructor is not meeting your expectations in any way. It's natural to become at least somewhat attached to your instructor (and he/she to you), so if there comes a point where he/she can no longer help you grow as a piper (or in the direction that you wish to grow) it's easier to move on if you've already told him/her repeatedly what your long terms goals are and it's not a surprise.
You may wish to inquire what grade level your possible instructor is (or was)—if he/she ever competed—how long he/she has been piping, how long he/she has been teaching, how many students he/she currently has, and if he/she can provide you a list of references of his/her students. And perhaps the most telling, who they would recommend you move on to should your playing exceed their teaching skills. Since you won't know the difference between a crushed grip and an overlapping doubling, references can give you experienced insight into your instructor. The more advanced these references are, the more valuable they will be. (A list of students all with less than a year of experience is useless.) Sometimes pipers decide they are going to become instructors when they are not ready—some will never be ready, whether it's lack of patience, experience, skill level, or whatever.
The most important thing is to get an instructor. To head into the open sea of piping with no navigator is asking for trouble no matter how sturdy you think your boat is. An experienced navigator has been there before and can see potential problems before they arise and will aid you to steer clear—or at least, get you back on course after you unknowingly drift.
And finally: How to find that instructor.
One thing to keep in mind is one piper will often lead to another. While you may not immediately find an instructor, if you find a performing piper, he/she sometimes can refer you to an instructor or two.
Reception facility. If you know of any local reception places—hotel, fancy church hall, auditorium, big formal restaurant—they may be able to help you find a local piper, who may or may not be an instructor.
Funeral home/Mortuary. Another common contact for a piper reference.
Cemetery. Related to the funeral home folks, of course.
Church. Churches are a common performance venue for pipers. If you call up the office of a local church, they might be able to give you a referral. If the church you call doesn't know—some churches are more piper-friendly than others—ask them if they can recommend another church that they'd think would likely use a piper.
Pipe band. An obvious place to find an instructor is a pipe band. Some pipe bands may even give free instruction, again, they may be interested in getting a body in their parade at the expense of the quality of your playing, so be careful.
There's a number of web sites that list bands.
Bagpipe association. Your bagpipe association may have a list of instructors in their territory. Not all instructors may belong to the association, and this doesn't mean that they are bad. (There's a former world level piper that I know who teaches and is not in his regional association's teachers list.)
Your association can also help you find a band that may be close—but again, not all bands are going to belong to your association. Many associations require membership fees (sometimes hundreds of dollars) and some bands can't afford it or don't need it if competition is something they don't do for whatever reason.
Highland Games. If you are lucky enough to be looking at the right time of year, a Scottish festival or highland games may be held within driving distance. These are a fantastic places to get piping contacts.
Bagpipers.com. Not a complete reference by any stretch, but might be helpful.
The Music Teachers List. Lists of some instructors, sorted by location. Instructors are then shown in chronological order of posting, latest ones are on top.
At Ceolas, a celtic music resource site, there is The Bagpipe Teachers List. This listing is years out of date—and contains individuals known to be deceased—but may yet be helpful to you.
Bob Dunsire's Teacher's Links List. Doesn't list instructors, but provides some links to pages that do list bagpipe instructors in some shape or form. Bob has since passed on, but his friend Ken MacKenzie continues to maintain the site.
Bagpipe instructors list at Highlandnet.com. A little outdated here and there.
Local Irish/Celtic pub/bar. Another possible contact, but may be a stretch.
Musical Instrument Retailer. Check with your nearest instrument store. While they may not carry any specific bagpiping supplies, they should have at least some idea what's going on in the local music scene. If the first one is no help, try another.
High school. Some high schools have music programs that may encompass piping, particularly if they have a large marching band. Here in Santa Cruz, California, one of the high schools—at the time of this writing—has four student pipers.
Piping supplier. Check with your closest bagpipe supply. These are probably going to be of less help since they tend to cover a larger area, sometimes a whole state or group of states. But you never know.
Scottish/Celtic Goods. Sometimes an owner of a store that sells Scottish trinkets, clothing, jewelry, etc. knows bagpipers.
Search Engine. You can always go to your trusty search engine and type in a few search terms, like: piping instructor, bagpipe teacher, piping teacher, bagpipe instructor, and your city/town, county, etc. and see what comes up. The important thing is to have your locality as a required search term. You may want to use a search engine's "advance search" option, if available.
Internet Newsgroup or Forum. If you don't have any luck with the above, another possibility is one of the internet groups. There are several listed on my links page, though I'd try the BobDunsire.com bagpipe forums first.
(And if you just happen to be in the Santa Cruz, California area, I definitely recommend Jay Salter, my instructor who's been piping for over 35 years. Feel free to contact me for details.)
If you want more reading on this and related subjects another good reference recommended to me is the late Bob Dunsire's Teaching the Young Piper, based on his experiences with instruction and his two daughters.
If this page was useful to you (or you have comments), please contact me so I know and I'll be inspired post more pages.
This page last updated Saturday, September 25, 2010.