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Andrew's Tips: Learning Bagpipes without an Instructor

By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2003-2012

What exactly does it take to learn the bagpipes on your own? This article lets you know the ins and outs of self-instruction, offers some advice and suggests some resources to help you.

Is it possible to teach yourself bagpipes?

Yes—to a point—but it is a road fraught with peril, unfortunately.

What's going for you.

The bagpipe chanter—the bagpipe part with which you play notes with your fingers—only sounds one note at a time, so there are no chords to worry about. There are only 9 possible notes to sound (not counting a few special somewhat rarely played notes). This means that reading bagpipe music is relatively easy. And learning the basic fingering is simple.

What's going against you and why you should get an instructor.

You're going to get a lot of commentary in this section!

I have to say that the idea of a person teaching themselves bagpiping sets off warning bells in my head as it does most pipers. While sometimes it is a necessity due to a very remote location or poverty, in others it's a case of people thinking that somehow the bagpipes are a "teach yourself" kind of instrument.

It's not.

If you are even half-way serious about learning the pipes, I strongly recommend that you find yourself an instructor.

The bagpipes come with about as much in the way of instructions as a piano comes with instructions on tuning it, or a guitar on how to play chords. Next to uilleann pipes, the Great Highland Bagpipes are the most complex wind instrument on the planet—four reeds!—this is a real instrument requiring real lessons. Bagpipes are exceedingly easy to play incredibly poorly and can be quite temperamental at an inexperienced hand. Maintenance is complex compared to most instruments. Tuning the instrument proves be quite a challenge to most new pipers—heck, even many experienced ones! That's one of the reasons the pipes get such little respect sometimes. Too many people try to teach themselves bagpipes, fail, and now here we are with a slice of the general public with a strong dislike for the pipes, oblivious to the fact that they were exposed to very poor piping.

The following may sound harsh. If you want to just doodle with them, in my opinion, you should avoid playing public as you will be representing all the truly dedicated bagpipers that have gone before you, world-class and otherwise. Friends and family fine—tell them you are a beginner—but not the general public. If you think you're getting good enough to play in public, play in front of an experienced piper or better yet, compete at a highland games to get a truly objective appraisal of your piping skills.

There are no world level pipers that I 'm aware of who were self-taught. Not that competing at that level is your goal necessarily, but it goes to prove a point. I've heard of one Grade I piper (the highest amateur grade) who was self-taught—David Daye, a link to his site is below—so it's possible to do well on your own if you have a disciplined perfectionist personality with a very good ear for picking out minute sound problems and figuring out how to correct them…it's very rare.

Anyone learning an instrument on their own can be their own worst enemy, with bad posture, poor fingering techniques, bad tuning, etc. If you are self-taught, try as you might, there's a good chance you won't know any better. You might get used to playing a chanter that's out of tune and think nothing of it. Having an instructor set up the tuning on your practice chanter as well as your bagpipe chanter will have you developing a sense for a true bagpiping scale while you are practicing.

Another thing is self-taught pipers tend to be impatient, as are probably most learners, so without an instructor to hold you back from techniques that you are not ready for, you may press ahead anyway. For example, you could try to learn complex embellishments (series of notes) without even having basic grace notes down correctly. It's much harder to unlearn a technique then relearn it correctly than to simply learn correctly the first time. To quote one formerly self-taught piper: "Like others, I found what I was doing was a misinterpretation of what I thought I was seeing and hearing."

If you decide to learn piobaireachd—prounced "pee-brock" and is called the "classical music of the pipes"—you'll discover that relatively huge departures are taken from existing sheet music. As an example, you may find three notes to be shown to be played even, when in fact the last should be played 2-3 times the length of the others. Granted, you can pick up a lot of this timing from recordings, but an instructor can help you pull every last bit of expression out a tune. This also applies to "light music" (marches, jigs, reels, etc.) though those are played much closer to the printed page. Commenting on his early unsuccessful competition experiences, PM Jim Harrington had this to say: "The problem was simply not knowing how to express the music—but that's a problem with just about every tune when you're a beginner with no instructor."

Having had a bagpipes teacher for years, I can testify to their value. I'm not alone in having an instructor tell me that a bad habit has snuck in, such as my wrists are in the wrong position or an embellishment has a subtle fingering error. Even with an instructor showing you in-person how to do something, you can often go home and practice an embellishment incorrectly. It may sound right to your untrained ear, but at least it'll be caught and corrected by your instructor as soon as your next lesson.

"No matter how many times you say it… No matter how much you may try to drill it into folks' heads… A person learning on their own is not going to realize they need an instructor, until after they find an instructor… A slurred D-Throw sounds perfectly fine to someone who has never had it played slowly and correctly for him."
Andrew MacTao, after 18 months of learning, having starting on his own.

If I've convinced you that an bagpipe teacher is a good idea, you'll probably want to read my article How to Find the Right Bagpipe Instructor.

These's a saying that goes "Seven generations and seven years to make a piper." Your instructor will be your link to those past seven generations. The seven years is up to you.

"I already play a wind instrument, I don't think I really need an instructor."

I'm going to let someone's quote answer this one.

"I was classically trained in both trumpet and clarinet in college. Learning bagpipes has been a dream of mine since I was little, and there's no instrument comparable to pipes in a technical or musical sense. If you want to learn bagpipes at a high level, you need high quality instruction from someone who has learned from a high quality teacher. If I used my classical training on bagpipe music, none of the gracenotes, or even the beats, would be in the right place. Even bagpipe tuning is radically different. I could go on for pages about the differences, but I can't do anything right without my instructor. Each time I think I understand a new piece, nope, it's different than I thought."
B. Hunter, band director in Houston, Texas.

"I can't afford an instructor."

Trust me, you can't afford to not have an instructor. Some bands even give instruction for free. But even if you can't find lessons at no charge, you are talking about an investment in your future. There are numerous cases where a self-taught "piper" cannot discard bad habits and learn the proper way to play and a frustrated instructor simply gives up on that individual. Often not the case, but it does happen. Get as much personalized instruction as you can afford as early in your piping career as you can manage.

"I don't live near an instructor."

Gregg Heath of Belgrade, Montana had this to say after a year and a half of learning: "I realized early on that self teaching was a non-starter. I did it long enough to pick up some bad habits that my instructor is gently helping me correct. I now travel 200 miles round trip once a week for instruction and band practice and it's well worth it. If you want to play the pipes bad enough you'll find away to get to an instructor."

Gregg isn't that unsual. I've heard of numerous students driving over three to four hours to get personal interaction with an instructor, it was so desired. Some cities have several piping teachers. Some counties have none. Maybe not "fair" but that's the way life is.

"The nearest instructor is really far away!"

Assuming that you've looked correctly and there truly isn't a piper around to instruct you face-to-face, then consider any personalized instruction very valuable. There are ways around not having an instructor within a reasonable distance. And you don't have to meet with an instructor in-person to get individualized attention.

A tried and true method of remote but individualized instruction is sending audio cassette tapes of your playing to a teacher who then records comments and lessons for your playing. Improvements in technology has lead to newer methods such as swapping video tapes, e-mailing sound files, interactive Internet video conferencing. Another method is to simply use the telephone to engage in a live two-way lesson. What's important is to get feedback specific to you so that you can concentrate your practice on your weaknesses.

Other opportunities for instruction are various piping seminars, workshops, summer schools, and the like which may be within your means to attend.

"I'm moving near a teacher soon, what can I do to get a head start?"

Probably the best thing to do is to simply wait and spend your free time listening to lots of bagpiping recordings. This will help develop your ear.

But if you know who your teacher is going to be, then ask him/her as to what practice chanter he/she prefers and with his/her permission, puchase that brand—but be careful, he/she may want you working on nothing! (Or if you have a practice chanter already, ask if him/her if it will suffice.)

If you don't know your instructor, purchase a good quality practice chanter made in an industrialized nation (Scotland, USA, Canada, etc.). Buy a rank beginner's tutorial book—check with your bagpipe supply shop. Learn the basic finger positions then learn to read bagpipe music and correlate the two. (Avoid learning combinations of notes, i.e. embellishments.) Avoid playing tunes, but if you can't control yourself, please ignore the gracenotes for the time being. Playing tunes can introduce the possibility of changing notes incorrectly resulting in "crossing noises"—most common are in changes from a lower hand note to a higher hand note or vice versa—which an instructor will then have to go back and spend time correcting!

Remember: the more you push ahead wihout a teacher, the more risk that you'll learn something that you'll have to undo later.

Things to do to accelerate your learning

Listen to a lot of professional solo bagpipe recordings. Get as many CDs as you can get your hands on and listen closely and critically.

Go to highland games and piping performances/competitions. Given the choice, listen to the more advanced pipers. Though it may be inspirational to hear lower grade pipers competing also—"I can do that!"

Read my article on How to Become a Rotten Piper then do the opposite!

Instructional materials

Here are a few recommended items for teaching yourself bagpiping (there are other good ones).

John Cairns' Multi-volume learning program:

For bagpipe maintenance and tuning, Jim McGillivray's "Pipes Ready" and "Pipes Up"
videos and for detailed excersizes for embellishments, there's his "Rhythmic Fingerwork":

Archie Cairns' books and CDs on learning piobaireachd:

Pipe Major Bill Robertson's Bagpipe Tutorials (Light music and piobaireachd):

Online Instructors

A number of excellent pipers make themselves available for instruction remotely. The following are internationally respected pipers:

Jori Chisholm (Washington State, USA):

Lorne Cousin (California, USA):

Adrian Melvin (Illinois, USA):

Ken Eller (Ontario, Canada):

John Cairns (Ontario, Canada):

PM Bill Robertson (Auckland, New Zealand):

Other web resources.

Oliver Seeler has some information on what a new student of piping is up against and some tutorials:

David Daye has a page on the best methods if you wish to brave teaching yourself:

If you are having a hard time—for whatever reason—getting personalized instruction, to quote Andrew MacTao again: "Don't Quit! When [it's time], you will find an instructor. Or, an instructor may find you…"

The pipes are a beautiful instrument and can bring about strong wonderful feelings from people. It can make them cry, dance, march into battle—or make them run in fear. An amazing musical instrument!

If you have comments or suggestions for this page, please contact me.

This page last updated Tuesday, March 6, 2012.
Page first created in September 17, 2003.

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