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Piping- What you need to know

By David Spurlock.

As with any instrument it takes time and dedication to become proficient. Learning to play the bagpipes is no exception to this rule. In fact, the challenges that you undertake in learning this instrument are significant compared to many other instruments. The bagpipes are an archaic instrument handed down from the sheep herders of ancient times. Eventually they found their way to Scotland where they were modified to their present form. Having only 9 notes, the fingering is deceivingly difficult to master. The holes on the chanter must be covered and uncovered to reveal the melody all the while keeping a steady pressure on the bag to keep the 4 reeds of this instrument producing a pleasing sound.

Practice ChanterThe practice Chanter

To begin your adventure, you will need an instrument called a practice chanter. This is a smaller, quieter version of the pipes with only one reed. It has the fingering of the pipes but is more manageable to learn the fingering techniques needed for the pipes. The practice chanter will be a constant source of learning throughout your piping career. From basic fingering up to learning new tunes as an accomplished piper, you will depend on this practice chanter. Not only will you learn the fingering on the chanter, but it will build the lip strength you will need to keep the pipes going. The average student can expect to spend anywhere from 6 months to two years on this instrument before tackling the pipes. The variation in these times is attributable to several factors, age, previous musical experience and most of all, practice dedication.

BagpipesThe Pipes

Once on the pipes, your journey becomes more physical. The coordination it requires is the major factor in gaining control of this instrument. At first, you will swear that modern technology must have a better way of keeping this bag full of air than your lungs. Each new piper goes through this and with diligence emerges victorious. It requires more coordination and rhythm than lung power however it takes a while for you to get the hang of it.

We all lead busy full lives with many diversions to accomplishing our goals. The road to becoming a piper is long and arduous but the rewards are considerable, the excitement, the sound, the music and the pageantry add up to a life changing endeavor.

Buying Instruments

There are many practice chanters available from many different makers on the internet. Not all are the same. They come in two basic types, the standard chanter and the long chanter. The standard chanter has note holes of a smaller size and closer together. I would only suggest this for a child with small hands. However, the transition from the standard practice chanter to the larger pipe chanter is more difficult. The long chanter has larger inset holes spaced further apart which mimics the pipe chanter better, thus making the transition less difficult. The long chanter is the best choice if at all possible. Of the makers out there, I recommend the Gibson Poly Long Chanter, around ($100.00) available at Henderson’s.

Purchasing the actual bagpipe is something that should not be done until the instructor deems you are ready. A few used pipes come on the market, however used pipes purchased on the net are a pig in a poke at best. When the time comes, the instructor will point you to the best choices for buying a quality set of pipes. 

Caution!!!

At this time, I would give a word of caution. Learning to play the pipes is not doable on your own. Many have tried and all have failed. I have tried to re-teach people who have tried to teach themselves and it’s almost impossible. The lessons with the Space Coast Highlanders band are free, so take advantage of them.  There are also sites on the internet that will help you to visualize some of the basics we will teach you here. YouTube has several posted videos that take you through learning the basics up through learning tunes. Whereas these videos are a good source of reference, they do not take the place of actual instruction.  The beginning student is prone to mistakes, misunderstandings and not knowing that they are doing something wrong or misunderstanding the importance of a step along the way. No matter how clear you think you understand the instructions, there are pitfalls that only an instructor will catch. A mistake made early on can make it virtually impossible to progress. I cannot stress this enough. An instructor is absolutely necessary.

Lessons Time and Location

If you are interested in giving the bagpipes a try, check out our practice place and time on this web site.  Beginners and new students generally meet before regular band members arrive.

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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day – A Poem by David Carroll

St Patrick's DayIt’s Saint Patrick’s Day and
Everyone is Irish today
And we’ll have some fun along the way
 
Green shamrocks and a colourful rainbow
In the clear blue sky  
And the shiny pots of gold are in sight
And we’ll sing and dance
All through Saint Patrick’s night
 
From Sunny Florida
To New York and to
Old Wicklow town and on to 
Tokyo bay 
 
With classical Irish
Music fills the air
And all the little leprechauns
Are dancing and jumping 
Up in the air and the little children
Are having so much fun 
 
And I love Saint Patrick’s Day and
I’m playing the fiddle on
This special Irish day and
The people are matching through the
Streets celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day
 
And the little children
Are running up and down
And chanting Saint Patrick 
 
And we will sing
And dance
All through the night
 
So may the love and luck
Of the Irish be
With you all today on this very
special and loving
And peaceful happy Saint Patrick’s Day.
Irish Clover