There is no question that the bagpipes are a challenging instrument. They are challenging to learn and difficult to master, as well.
The question is just how difficult is it to play the bagpipe?
I’ll put it like this: playing the bagpipes is difficult enough to pull you entirely out of your comfort zone, but not so hard that it could make you cry!
Then again, that can be said for any musical instrument, no?
The bagpipes aren’t exactly a complex instrument when it comes to how it looks and how it’s played.
The difficulty of playing the Great Highland bagpipes is based on the fact that this instrument is physically exerting and extremely technically challenging.
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what these physical and technical challenges entail.
How Hard Is It to Play the Bagpipes?
You’ll first have to be familiar with the skills required to play this instrument to understand why playing the bagpipes is considered such a hard venture.
1. Blowing Steady
The inability to blow steady is why most beginners find it hard to play the bagpipes for more than a few minutes at a time.
Because there is no embouchure, the sound produced by bagpipes is not made by the lips. Instead, the sound results from the reeds: a double reed in the chanter and single reed in each of the drones.
There is no link between the blowing and the individual notes produced. You just want to maintain a steady, regular blow.
Some reeds are easy to blow, some are hard. As you progress, you would want to blow harder and harder reeds because they sound better and last longer.
Whether your reeds are easy or hard to blow, the point is that you have to keep all four sets of reeds going simultaneously, and this is no easy feat.
Unless otherwise instructed, playing the bagpipes will generally require that the piper provides the chanter and drones with a steady supply of air as well as consistent pressure.
Sounds simple enough, but you will find that this requires excellent lung/diaphragm strength, and you will also need to develop a strong lip.
Why a strong lip?
Well, because keeping all four sets of reeds going simultaneously is going to create considerable pressure on your lips. As a result, you would need to strengthen those muscles to ensure that you can keep a seal on the chanter as you blow.
Contrary to what might be expected, most people actually have less trouble with lung power than with the muscles around the lips.
The solution is to slowly build up the required stamina, either by first playing a practice chanter or by playing with some or all of the drones plugged off.
You can’t tune if you can’t blow steady.
Mastering the art of steady blowing takes a great deal of time, effort, and practice. Even then, you might still not fully achieve this technique.
It takes about 2-3 weeks of constant practice to be able to keep up the airflow needed. It takes much longer to do so without any conscious effort.
2. Blowing / Squeezing Coordination
Providing the chanter and drones with a steady supply of air at constant pressure is one aspect that’s paramount to ensuring a steady tone on the bagpipes.
This needs proper coordination whereby you not only blow steady but also apply the correct amount of pressure to the bag using your arm (to smoothly distribute the air as required).
As air is blown into the bag, the amount of pressure applied by the player’s arm against the bag needs to be proportionately and smoothly diminished.
Conversely, when you stop blowing into the bag, squeezing pressure will need to be increased to ensure a constant air pressure through the bag.
Failure to maintain this constant pressure will lead to a change in the pitch of the various pipes, causing the bagpipes to sound out of tune.
Now, this is where the challenging part comes in: when playing the bagpipes, it is tempting to match the movement of the squeezing arm to the tempo of the music.
This should be avoided.
The air supply to the chanter and drones must be consistent and steady, and not linked to a particular tune that might be occupying the player’s mind.
3. Tuning the Bagpipes
Tuning the pipes and performing reed manipulation to get the desired sound is an entire art in itself.
On the bagpipes, the pipes aren’t a single instrument. Essentially, they are four different instruments; a chanter and three drones.
The chanter reed needs to be in tune with itself (low A and high A are an octave apart); whereas drone reeds need to be in tune with the chanter’s A.
Also, all sets of reeds on the bagpipe need to be sounding at the same pressure. One common tuning problem is that the chanter reed needs so much air pressure that the drone reeds cut off.
As the following video explains, mouth-blown bagpipes will need to be tuned frequently because the reeds’ moisture and temperature keep changing.
The sensitivity of a particular reed will depend on the type of reed as well as the type of bagpipe.
A Chanter Reed may need to be flattened or sharpened so that you can bring out the top or bottom notes as desired. One way you can accomplish this kind of tuning is by setting the reed deeper or shallower into the reed seat.
At times, the top and bottom scales may sound okay, but you find that some of the middle notes sound off. One of the most common methods of dealing with this is by taping or applying wax to the finger holes on the chanter.
The idea is not to close up the holes entirely. Instead, the aim is to cover the edges of the hole just slightly. This effectively changes a hole’s location and consequently slightly alters the tone of each note.
Besides these two methods, the chanter may also be tuned by squeezing and shaving the reed if needed.
When it comes to the chanter, many of the problems with tuning come from the red not being controlled correctly by the piper.
In addition to that, the player is also in a bind in that it’s impossible to change the chanter’s tone through air pressure without impacting the drones and making the pipes sound out of tune.
Dealing with the tuning of the chanter reed will take quite some time to master, and this is one of the challenging things about playing the bagpipes.
The Drone Reeds do not have as many demands on them, which makes them much easier to deal with.
When all sets of reeds on the bagpipes are working correctly (i.e., chanter reed and drone reeds), you’ll need to tune the drones to the chanter.
Keep in mind that you are dealing with three drones, and so will have to handle these one at a time.
Tuning a drone can be done by tinkering with the reed then adjusting the drone’s length using the tuning pin.
The reason why tuning bagpipes can be such a headache is because firstly, you are dealing with four pipes, not just one.
Secondly, bagpipes are tuned to a pentatonic scale that doesn’t match up easily with the classical scale used for instruments that play modern western music (such as the piano and guitar, for instance).
For this reason, one cannot use those instruments to help tune a bagpipe. Instead, an audible beat is used.
Therefore, a piper has to develop an ear for the unique scale of a bagpipe, then learn the tricks of tuning the chanter and drones together.
4. Fingering the Chanter
Fingering a chanter isn’t so much about the basic scale, as it is about the ornamentations.
A bagpipe has a limited scale, consisting of only 9 notes. If you were to compare the fingering of a chanter to that of a saxophone, the former would be much simpler.
The challenge comes in whereby bagpipes generally play a continuous sound meaning that there is no silence or articulation between notes.
Embellishment / Ornamentation Techniques have to be used if a player wishes to break up a sequence of identical notes.
As a result, playing music on the bagpipes involves a lot of grace notes, trills, and rolls that are inserted over the straight melody.
If you want to play the same note twice, you would have to play another short grace note between the two melody notes.
You have basic grace notes (whereby single notes are played as accents), then you have the combinations (incredibly complex sequences of notes).
The intricate grace notes are the hardest part, and they are very formally defined:
- Three Grace Notes squeezed between two melody notes, give rise to several ornamentations: the grip, the doubles, the strikes, and the birl.
- Four Grace Notes squeezed between the two melody notes gives you the taorluath.
- Seven Grace Notes in between the two melody notes is a monster ornamentation known as the crunluath.
Mastering all of these ornamentation techniques is the mark of a very good piper. For many players, getting the basic ones right, and keeping to the tempo will be extremely challenging.
The art of embellishment is a gradual process, though.
You start by using a grace note to move between notes. Then you learn a collection of grace notes that can sit on the same note or that can be used to move from notes that vary in complexity.
Essentially, getting it right involves playing a lot of very little notes, pretty fast, with precision and up to tempo so that the grace notes sit within the overall rhythm of the tune.
It generally takes 6 months to a year of constant practice to be able to learn all the different ornamentation techniques, before the player can now start learning the tunes.
Can you imagine playing an instrument for an entire year and not being able to play a song? This is one aspect of the bagpipes that can cause a lot of frustration for novices.
Ornamentation is, by far, the hardest part of learning the pipes.
Practice Chanters for Bagpipe Beginners
A practice chanter is a simplified version of the Great Highland bagpipes.
There is a blowpipe and a chanter, but no bag and no drone. A practice chanter actually looks pretty much like a recorder.
The purpose of this implement is for a beginner to learn the right piping techniques, and practice new tunes before playing them on the bagpipes.
Sounds a little odd, no?
Well, the bagpipes are a bit obscure, and probably the only musical instrument where a beginner learns to play on an entirely different instrument.
Why Do I Need to Start on A Practice Chanter?
As explained above, playing the bagpipes involves a lot of mechanics, and all those can get overwhelming when you have to learn everything at a go.
A practice chanter makes life a little easier for you in that you can learn one thing at a time, without having to focus on anything else.
Being a simplified version of the bagpipes makes it easier and faster to learn basic piping techniques such as fingering.
Hones Steady Blowing and Tuning
Many tutors and pro players actually consider the practice chanter to be the basis for steady blowing and tuning.
You can focus purely on steady blowing without having to deal with squeezing a bag. You can also learn how to correctly tune a single pipe before you have to deal with tuning four pipes.
Develops A Sense of Bagpipe Musicality
All pipers have to develop a sense of the artistic style of bagpipe music.
Bagpipe music isn’t quite expressed the same as other styles, and so you need to train your ear to listen out for particular aspects of the notes being produced.
This sense of bagpipe musicality is what also makes a practice chanter great for learning how to tune a bagpipe because it accustoms your ear to listen for the audible beat.
Practice chanters and less noisy compared to full bagpipes.
This means that you can conveniently practice playing at home, without the fear of making too much noise that will be a nuisance to others.
Bagpipes are pretty expensive. So, what’s the point of investing all that money only to realize you do not enjoy piping and have no interest perusing it further?
Starting on a practice chanter will give you time to see whether this is something you are heavily invested in, before spending money on a costly set of bagpipes.
Wood or Plastic Practice Chanters?
Wood Practice Chanters are made using African Blackwood – the same wood used on most high-quality bagpipes.
The chanters produce a richer sound with more harmonics, but they are also quite expensive.
Plastic Practice Chanters are made from tough plastic that’s commercially known as polypenco – a material also used to manufacture bagpipes.
These chanters are studier, less expensive, and less prone to breakage, compared to wooden practice chanters.
Also, the sound produced would be sufficiently rich for the overall purpose of a practice chanter.
Hybrid Practice Chanters have a plastic blowpipe and a wood chanter to give you the best of both worlds.
The plastic blowpipe would resist most of the wear and tear (moisture, biting, expanding of the chanter’s joints), and the wood chanter would give that rich sound quality.
How Long Does It Take to Learn the Bagpipes?
It takes years of dedicated practice to be able to play the bagpipes really well.
Often players usually spend between 6 months to a year on a practice chanter before ever touching a set of bagpipes!
Ideally, how far you will go and how fast you get there will depend on your dedication.
What Are the Best Bagpipes for Beginners?
For adults, consider getting the AC Kilts Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe.
These bagpipes have a charming antique look, not to mention they are incredibly lightweight, weighing just 5.6 lbs.
What I also love about this set is that it comes with a high-quality hard case, which is pretty amazing.
For kids, I would vouch for the I Luv LTD Miniature Kids Bagpipe.
The sound quality of these pipes will surprise you. Also, the set comes with a Royal Stewart tartan bag cover that’s sure to excite your little one.
Another thing you’ll love is the quality craftsmanship and the fact that these pipes are incredibly easy to play.
FAQs About How Hard It Is Play the Bagpipes
Can You Teach Yourself Bagpipes?
You can, but I wouldn’t advise it because you would never know if you are doing it right or not.
How do you know your fingers are correctly placed? Are you using the right ornamentation techniques? Are you breathing and blowing correctly?
Not to mention that when you are teaching yourself, you don’t have the much-needed guidance from an experienced tutor and so your progress can be incredibly slow and extremely frustrating.
It’s much better to get an instructor who will steer you in the right direction right from the get-go.
They will teach the proper techniques, and guide and pace your progress, letting you know when it’s time for you to move on to the next stage of learning.
How Many Notes Can A Bagpipe Play?
A bagpipe can only play 9 notes.
What Practice Chanter Should I Buy?
The best practice chanter is that which feels comfortable in your hands and sounds great to you.
If you fall in love with the sound produced by a particular chanter, you will fall in love with the process of learning how to play on it so the better for your progress.
Where Can I Practice Bagpipes?
Practice limitations are one of the challenges that come with playing the bagpipes.
Full sets are pretty loud and can easily be a nuisance to those around you, especially if you live in an apartment building.
The ideal place to practice on full bagpipes would be an open space where there aren’t many people that you will end up annoying with your playing.
If playing at home is not an option, you’ll find that a lot of people might be willing to let you use certain spaces as long as you do so before or after hours.
You may play outdoors (backyard, park, cemetery, athletic field), at school (theatre, gymnasium, empty classroom, band room), at work (empty office, storeroom, conference room, basement parking), at church (sanctuary room, meeting room), library, community center, etc.
Obviously, talk to the relevant authorities beforehand before using any space where you might need to ask for permission.
Also, aim to make use of these spaces before or after hours when there aren’t any or many people around.
Another tip might be rotating your practice spots so that you don’t subject the same people to your constant practicing every day of the week.
Primarily, the bagpipe is not a “beginner-friendly” instrument.
Most instruments allow you to master the basics with little difficulty, but bagpipes don’t give you the satisfaction of being able to play a tune in a matter of minutes.
Playing this instrument, even half-decently will require considerable patience, diligence, and years of dedicated practice.
Once you get the basics down, though, you will come to find that playing the bagpipes is a very fulfilling and rewarding venture.
I hope you stick with it long enough to realize just that.