The bagpipes can be a tricky instrument to pick up, but anyone can learn with regular practice. Simple songs can be learned in approximately 6 to 12 months, and more complex songs could take 2 to 3 years or longer. Learning any musical instrument, however, is a lifelong journey that requires time and dedication.
The bagpipes are a woodwind instrument often associated with the music of Scotland. The bag – or “third lung” – is typically inflated using a blowing pipe. Air collects within the bag, and the player applies pressure, providing a constant air supply to power the sound from the drone pipes. The bottom pipe, known as the chanter, lets the player control the melody over the sound from the other pipes, creating that signature sound.
There are several types of bagpipes, the most well-known being the Great Highland Bagpipes and the Uilleann Bagpipes. Other types originate from other parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The differences between these variations typically have to do with the number of drones. Another key difference is whether the bag is inflated with the mouth or with bellows.
Because of all of the nuances with the instrument itself, the bagpipes are considered fairly difficult to learn. The fingerings are complex, especially for grace notes, so players need to be accurate and quick with their movements. Consistent practice is essential to mastering this unique and fascinating instrument.
Are Bagpipes Hard to Play?
The bagpipes are typically considered one of the most difficult instruments to learn, but many have successfully picked it up as adults. Although the bagpipes are limited in their range and constrained to the key of the drones, the fingerings are complex and need to be very precise.
Because of the way the instrument is set up, the tongue cannot access the reed, so the player also cannot tongue notes the way one can with other wind instruments.
Another consideration when learning bagpipes are the physical requirements needed to play. The instrument requires a lot of air in order to fill the bag and begin the song. This can be tricky for beginners to get the hang of, so it will take consistent practice just to get a clean sound.
Many pipers will also memorize their music due to the physical requirements of holding and playing the instrument, which adds an additional step to the learning process.
Play the Bagpipes
Playing the bagpipes requires several different skill sets. Breath support is one of the most important factors in successful bagpipe playing, but being able to memorize the fingerings and music is essential as well. Understanding the instrument itself is also necessary – knowing how to hold it, set it up, and keep it in tune will make it much easier to play.
The bagpipes also don’t have any volume control, so being confident in your playing – even before you’ve mastered the sound – is the key to continuing to improve.
The most imperative skill, however, is the ability to stay dedicated and consistent in practice. This is not an easy instrument to pick up, so spending time with them every day is the only way to successfully learn how to play bagpipes.
The bag part of the instrument, often referred to as the “third lung”, needs to stay inflated throughout the duration of a bagpipe’s song. The air from the third lung powers several pipes, creating the unique sound of the instrument. Before the song begins, the bagpipe player must first inflate the bag. This is done using either a blowing pipe or bellows, depending on the type of instrument being used.
If using a blowing pipe, bagpipe players should work to improve their breath control to keep the bag inflated. Although the kinds of bagpipes with bellows won’t require breath at all, it will still be physically challenging to work the bellows under the arm while playing the notes.
In addition to keeping the air flowing to the bag, the bagpipe player will also need to apply considerable pressure to the bag to ensure there’s a steady supply of air to create the continuous sound the pipes are known for.
Steady Supply of Air
The muscle memory it takes to keep the air supply steady while also fingering the notes will take a lot of practice. Players will need to work on simultaneously supplying the air, squeezing the bag, and fingering the notes throughout the duration of each song. Bagpipe players refer to this as “handling the bag”, and it’s a skill that players will continue to build upon over time.
Posture is extremely important when learning how to handle the bag. Positioning yourself so you can steadily supply air and finger notes can be physically demanding at first, but practice and adjustment over time will perfect your stance and ensure easy handling.
You may want to try different types of bagpipes to figure out what works best for you – maybe you’re better at using the blowing pipe than the bellows, or the other way around. Trying out different variations can help you produce your desired sound.
Both the chanter and the drones will need to be tuned to ensure your bagpipes are creating a unified sound. Tuning each pipe one at a time will make the whole process easier, so many decide to start with the chanter (although the exact order doesn’t matter).
To tune the chanter, first, remove it from the rest of the instrument. Use a tuner to identify what adjustments will need to be made in order for the pipe to be on the pitch. The reed at the end of the chanter can be adjusted further out or into the throat of the pipe to flatten or sharpen the pitch, respectively.
Once the chanter is in tune, it can be reattached to the rest of the instrument and used as a reference point to tune the drones. If you don’t have a good ear for tuning, a tuner can be used in this step as well.
If the drone is flat, the pipe should be pushed in to sharpen. If the drone is sharp, it should be pulled out to flatten. Shorten or lengthen as needed to adjust the pitch for each of the pipes. Tape can also be placed over parts of holes in order to tune individual notes.
One of the things that make bagpipes so unique is the fact that they include the lower notes from the drones behind the melodic line. Because of this, however, the instrument is largely confined to just one musical key. This means that there aren’t a ton of notes that one can play on the bagpipes, but mastering each finger position is a must.
Unlike some other instruments, the bagpipes do not give the player the ability to tongue notes. Because of this, quick and precise fingerings are essential in giving the song the proper melody and rhythm, especially for grace notes.
Use two hands to grasp the bagpipe chanter – the only fingers that will not be used in note patterns are the left pinky and the right thumb. Use the pads of the fingers to cover the holes instead of fingertips, which is a common mistake with most beginners. Keep the fingers mostly straight without locking the joints and ensure you can move your fingers on and off the holes comfortably as you play.
Learn Simple Tunes
A great way to get started with bagpipe music and fingerings is by learning a basic scale. Get a feel for each of the finger positions and how best to switch between them. Next, try learning basic children’s tunes. There are also tons of free resources with basic sheet music for beginners learning the bagpipes.
It typically takes 6 to 12 months for beginners to learn simple songs, so don’t get discouraged. Starting out with these simple scales and tunes – especially using a practice chanter – can help new bagpipe players produce sound and master the fingerings before adding in the other elements that make up the bagpipes.
Although there are typically only 9 common fingerings for the bagpipes, building muscle memory for all the notes is critical to mastering the instrument. Movements need to be quick and precise, so practice switching between them as fast as possible while avoiding mistakes. Once you have the finger positions nailed down, making the transition from practice chanter to real bagpipes will be much smoother and less overwhelming.
Learn Complex Tunes
Once you’ve graduated from the practice chanter to the actual bagpipes, you’ll want to master getting a steady sound from the drones. Work on breath support and muscle memory to keep the bag inflated and steady pressure on the bag itself.
Becoming comfortable with constant multitasking is an important step in learning the instrument. It may sound rough at first, but regular practice will result in a consistent sound to set the tone of the song. With the drones and simple melodies mastered, you can begin learning more complex tunes.
Complex tunes could take 2 to 3 years or longer to master, so you’ll want to stay diligent with practicing. Choose a song that interests you, and spend at least 20 minutes a day on it. Going back to the practice chanter to learn the fingerings may be helpful before you add back in other elements. The more complex songs you’re able to learn, the better you’ll get over time.
Do I Need an Instructor to Learn the Bagpipes?
While an instructor is not essential to learning the bagpipes, many benefit from private tutelage when learning any instrument. The bagpipes are especially tricky to learn, so having someone who can give you techniques and individual feedback can help you catch on more quickly and overcome any obstacles along the way. Most teachers can also provide guidance on how to tune and maintain your instrument.
An instructor can also identify any struggles you may be having and help you adjust your posture or fingerings to resolve them. This is especially helpful when learning how to multitask the different elements of the bagpipes. Beginner players can become easily frustrated with the complex structure of the instrument, so having an instructor pass on techniques can help expedite the learning process and avoid frustrations.
In addition to the instruction itself, having a bagpipe instructor can also hold you to a regular practice and lesson schedule. Learning an instrument requires practicing nearly every day, and being in lessons will hold you accountable to those commitments.
The journey to learning any instrument can be a long process, but the complexity of the bagpipes makes getting the hang of the instrument even longer. Many experienced musicians report that a person needs to spend 1 to 3 hours each day practicing in order to fully master an instrument. It can take a lot of self-discipline and commitment to stick to a regular schedule, and many give up before making any real progress.
You’re less likely to give up on an instrument if you’re enrolled in lessons and seeing the progress associated with regular instruction. And by creating a strict practice routine, you’re likely to learn faster and more efficiently as well.
What is a Practice Chanter?
A practice chanter is built similarly to an actual chanter on bagpipes, but it is designed to help beginners learn the finger positions and play tunes before adding in the other elements of the bagpipes. The practice chanter includes a single chanter reed where a player can blow air, creating a sound similar to the melody line in traditional bagpipe music.
The fingerings on a practice chanter are identical in most cases to regular bagpipes (usually designed to mirror Scottish bagpipes), so it’s the perfect stepping stone for beginners to start learning the fingering techniques of their new instrument.
Practice chanters are typically made out of wood or plastic and can come in a variety of different sizes, depending on need. Regular-sized practice chanters and longer practice chanters are typically used by adults who play the bagpipes or are getting ready to learn the bagpipes. Shorter practice chanters are ideal for children taking up the instrument. Something else to consider when choosing a practice chanter is the space between the finger holes.
Although practice chanters are often thought of as only for beginners, even an experienced piper will use them in their regular practice schedules. Practice chanters are great to learn rhythmic fingerwork in new songs or even just brush up on scales or techniques. Additionally, practice chanters are significantly quieter than bagpipes, making them ideal for practicing in shared spaces or at odd hours.
How to Choose a Practice Chanter
It Must Be Properly Tuned
Similar to regular bagpipes, you’ll want to ensure your practice chanter is tuned correctly. Some cheaper practice chanters may naturally have sharper or flatter notes due to the quality of the instrument, so partially taping holes using electrical tape or adjusting reed placement can help keep your practice chanter on the proper pitch.
It Must Have High-Quality Reeds
Chanter reeds typically come in either a wide blade or a narrow blade. Wide blades are louder and require more air, whereas narrow blades take less air and are quieter. Once you’ve determined what size is right for you, you’ll want to select a high-quality chanter reed to achieve the best pitch and tone.
It Must Easily Achieve Perfect Pitch
Perfect pitch is essential to any musical instrument, and a practice chanter is no different. A good quality practice chanter is more likely to achieve perfect pitch than a cheaper practice chanter, which means less time spent keeping it in tune. If your practice chanter is constantly sharp or flat, you’ll have to add the tape over the holes or adjust the reed as needed to fix the pitch.
It Must Be Able To Produce Stable Notes
Stability can depend on the breath support of the player, but it could also be dependent on the quality of the practice chanter itself. How well the instrument was crafted and assembled could affect the stability of the notes as it’s played. A lower-quality practice chanter may work for beginners, but an upgrade will eventually be necessary to master complex songs and grace notes.
It Must Have Good Projection
A practice chanter’s ability to project typically correlates with the type of reed being used. A wider blade requires more air to play, but the sound will usually be stronger and project better. A narrow reed is typically quieter, but a high-quality one should still be able to project well with proper use.
Different Types of Bagpipes
Bagpipes can be found all over the world, but there are two types of modern bagpipes that are often used today. The first is the Great Highland bagpipe. This instrument has become synonymous with bagpipes, and it’s usually what people think of when listening to or talking about the instrument.
The Great Highland bagpipe is native to Scotland and is played using a blowpipe. This instrument is also louder than other kinds of bagpipes due to the structure of the instrument itself.
The other common type of bagpipes is the Uilleann pipes. Uilleann pipes come from Ireland, and their constant flow of air is created using bellows instead of a blowpipe. These are also sometimes called elbow pipes, referring to the motion of working the bellows under the player’s elbow.
Uilleann bagpipes also feature a double reed, as opposed to the single reed of the Great Highland bagpipe. These pipes are also typically played sitting down in order to produce the best sound.
Variations of bagpipes can be found in other European countries including France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland as well as parts of Asia and Africa. Each country’s instrument varies slightly from one another – Austrian bagpipes include horn bells, while Turkey includes a double chanter.
Many bagpipe variations in Southwest Asia don’t include drones at all, and several are considered to be the oldest kinds of bagpipes. North Africa also has several types of bagpipes, but it’s unclear whether these were inspired by European versions or if they were developed independently.
Which type of bagpipes is easiest to learn?
Although this is typically dependent on the player’s preferences, many beginners start with the Great Highland bagpipes. Because they’re the most common type of bagpipe, there are a lot more resources out there for one to self-learn or find an instructor. Additionally, Great Highland bagpipes are typically cheaper than other kinds.
What is a good bagpipe for beginners?
Before moving to traditional bagpipes, it’s a good idea for beginners to start with a practice chanter. You can even find bagpipe starter kits at music stores or online that include a practice chanter, basic bagpipes, a piece of practice music, and lessons book, and other accessories such as reeds that can help to get you started.
Can you teach yourself to play bagpipes?
Most instruments can often be self-taught, including bagpipes. However, many report that bagpipes can be a tricky instrument to learn by yourself since they are more complicated than other woodwind instruments. However, utilizing books or online tutorials can help you get started, and regular practice and dedication can help you one day become a master.
How much do bagpipe lessons cost?
The cost of bagpipe lessons depends on the instructor, but half-hour lessons typically average at just under $40 per session. However, these could become more or less expensive depending on the demand for lessons in your area and the availability of teachers. Additionally, lessons will need to be taken regularly in order to properly benefit from the tutelage.
Do you need good lungs to play bagpipes?
Some bagpipes that feature bellows don’t require the use of lungs at all. For bagpipes that are powered using a blowpipe, however, lung strength and breath support are essential in successfully playing the instrument due to the need for constant air supply to the pipes. For players without strong lungs, Irish bagpipes may be a better option since they typically don’t include a blowpipe.