Do you offer bagpipe lessons?
Yes, I can teach you to play the bagpipes, or if not me, someone else in our band. Individual or group lessons can be arranged.
How much do lessons cost?
It depends. I have a fee schedule that varies according to how many lessons you are willing to pay for in advance, and there is an option for 30 or 60 minute lessons. Group classes are more economical, if money is an issue. My current rate for individual lessons is $24 per hour if you pay for one lesson at a time. (This is substantially less than many other music teachers charge; my objective is not to get rich teaching bagpipe lessons, but rather, to recruit and train members for my pipe band. I donate all of the lesson fees to the band, The Henry´s Fork Pipes and Drums, which is a recognized non-profit organization). I normally charge for lessons until the student reaches a point where they´ve proven their interest and can begin making a contribution to the pipe band. Once a student becomes a productive member of the band, instruction is free from then on for as long as the student is a productive member. Plan on a year or more of paid lessons before you´ll earn the right to free instruction.
What is meant by the term, "Great Highland Bagpipe"?
The bagpipe most Americans are familiar with originated in the Highlands of Scotland, although there are many varieties indigenous to other countries. Even in Scotland there is more than one kind of bagpipe. The pipe I play and teach is correctly designated the Great Highland Bagpipe to distinguish it from smaller instruments of similar design, also developed in the Scottish Highlands, as well as other types native to other regions, i.e., the Northumbrian smallpipe, Uillean pipe, etc.
Is the bagpipe difficult to play? I´ve heard it´s one of the hardest instruments to learn.
In some respects bagpipe music is quite simple compared to other instruments. There are only nine notes, no sharps or flats, and you can only play one note at a time, which means there is only one scale to learn, no key signatures to memorize, and no chords. Bagpipe tunes are usually short and fairly easy to memorize. In some respects, however, the bagpipe is more difficult than other instruments. The bagpipe is a reed instrument and is quite temperamental; it requires frequent maintenance and a fair amount of expertise to set it up and tune it properly. Also, compared to other instruments, the Highland bagpipe requires a greater amount of physical exertion to play. You should know, however, that even children and elderly men and women are usually quite capable of playing a full set of pipes, provided that the instrument is set up properly. Finger dexterity can be a problem if you suffer from arthritis, but if you choose your music carefully or write easier arrangements you can avoid some of the trickier embellishments.
Where can I buy bagpipes and related supplies?
Traditionally, the majority of good quality bagpipes were produced in Scotland, and this is still true, although nowadays some very good pipes are being made in Canada and right here in the United States as well. Most domestic music stores do not sell bagpipes. Unless you´re lucky enough to have a Scottish import shop or bagpipe dealer in your area, you will probably have to order your instrument by mail.
There is a surprisingly large number of bagpipe dealers in the United States. Many of them offer bagpipes in addition to a wide range of Scottish attire and other assorted knick-knacks. If you can, try to find a dealer who actually plays the instrument - preferably an expert. A good dealer will not only sell you a good bagpipe; he will also set it up properly, package it carefully, and offer good advice and customer support before and after the sale. Here are a few dealers that have given me good service in recent years:
3879 Bush Creek Drive
Frederick, MD 21704
Comment: In addition to offering a good range of first-rate instruments and reeds, Chris Hamilton is an expert piper - a professional level solo competitor as well as a certified EUSPBA piping adjudicator. His service is fast and friendly. He does a better than average job of preparing a new bagpipe to be in playable condition before sending it out. Bagpipes and bagpipe stuff only; no kilts, no drumming supplies, no tartan tea-cozies or "Kiss me, I´m Scottish" bumber stickers.
2584 Garfield Road North, Suite #44
Traverse City, MI 49686
Comment: Henderson Imports is a well-established company with a good track record of excellent customer service. They offer an unusually broad range of bagpipes, including smallpipes and Highland attire as well as pipe band drumming supplies. Their service is very prompt - if the item is in stock it will usually be in the mail the next day. The proprietor, James Moore, once sent three different brands of chanter to a student of mine who couldn´t decide what to buy, with instructions to "play them all, keep the one you like and send the rest back."
Yellowstone Highland Supply (Chuck Bushey, proprietor)
1333 Colton Blvd.
Billings, MT 59102-2436
Comment: YHS is a small operation with low overhead and competitive prices on a select range of good quality bagpipes and Scottish imports. The service is prompt and friendly. This is a primary source of uniform components for The Henry´s Fork Pipes and Drums.
How much does a good set of pipes cost?
A good instrument in the median price range will cost about $1,000 - $2,000. There are a lot of cheap ($100 - $300) bagpipes out there. These "instruments" are mass produced to low standards, and knowledgeable practitioners universally shun them. For the sake of comparison, consider that these cheap bagpipes are the equivalent of a $20 guitar, or a $5 pair of shoes. I strongly recommend that you get an instrument that will do justice to your best efforts. Plan on owning only one set, and get the best you can afford.
In addition to the instrument itself, you will also need to buy a carrying case and various maintenance items, which will add another $100 - $150 dollars to the total cost.
Do I have to buy a bagpipe before I can begin taking lessons?
No, you do not have to run out and buy a set of pipes right away. In fact, please don´t. You must first master the "practice chanter."
What is a practice chanter?
The practice chanter is a small instrument similar to a recorder in appearance, but with a double reed. The practice chanter has the same fingering as the bagpipe, but it´s much simpler to play and much quieter. The practice chanter operates on the same principle as the pipe chanter, although the reed is a bit different (plastic instead of cane) and there is no bag; rather, it is blown directly from the mouth.
How long will I be on the practice chanter?
Forever. The practice chanter is not just for beginners. All pipers use the practice chanter regularly throughout their career to learn new tunes and to practice conveniently without waking the neighbors, much as a drummer uses a practice pad. One advantage to the practice chanter is its moderate cost ($50 - $85); consequently, you can begin taking lessons immediately and won´t need to buy a set of pipes for several months, possibly even a year or two. Start saving now, and by the time you can afford a bagpipe maybe you´ll be ready to begin playing it!
How long will it be before I´m ready for an actual set of pipes?
Six months to a year, more or less. Variable factors include frequency of lessons, amount of practice time, talent and motivation, and financial circumstances. By the time you have learned the basic embellishments (usually takes 4-6 months), you will have memorized a few tunes, and at that point you might as well begin applying what you know to the bagpipe. This transition cannot take place all at once, however. Before you can play a tune on the bagpipe, you must first learn to blow steadily and build up your strength and endurance. The bagpipe is A LOT harder to play than the practice chanter, and it would be counterproductive to attempt to master the various aspects of blowing and squeezing, pipe maintenance and tuning, basic fingering and learning tunes all at the same time. There are no shortcuts, and the fact of the matter is, most students quit before they ever get to the bagpipe. So don´t be in too big of a hurry to run out and buy a set. And by the way, don´t purchase a set of pipes without first seeking advice from your instructor.
What kind of practice chanter should I buy?
- What size?
Practice chanters come in three basic sizes: standard, full-sized, and child-sized. The full-sized practice chanter, usually with counter-sunk holes, is designed to simulate the feel of an actual pipe chanter. While this may be an advantage, some pipers prefer the convenience and relative portability of the standard-sized practice chanter. In my opinion, switching back and forth between the standard practice chanter and the full-sized pipe chanter does not present much of a problem, if any. Many of the world´s greatest pipers learned just fine on a standard practice chanter. One significant advantage of a full-sized chanter is that the longer length enables a normal sized adult to prop the end on a leg and sit in a comfortable upright position while playing. With a standard-sized chanter you´ll have to hunch forward a bit, or prop it on a table or desk, which is not much of a problem.
- Wood or plastic?
Traditionally, practice chanters have been made of dense hardwoods, with African blackwood being the most popular for good-quality instruments (the same as with bagpipes). Nowadays, plastic (Delrin or polypenco) chanters are widely used. I personally recommend a poly practice chanter such as those produced by Dunbar or Walsh (both Canadian manufacturers.). These offer the advantages of excellent durability, tonal consistency, and moderate cost. The Dunbar practice chanter, with an O-ring seal, is virtually maintenance free and retails for $50 - $60 (more for the full-sized version).
Blackwood practice chanters are considerably more expensive, and these don´t really offer any significant advantage over poly, in my opinion. Less expensive wooden practice chanter are also fairly common, most notably those of Pakistani origin. While I would never recommend cheap Pakistani bagpipes to anyone, some Pakistani practice chanters can be quite adequate (tone is less critical with the practice chanter, since it´s not a performance instrument), and I sometimes supply these to beginning students at a very low cost--about $30 or even less. The difference in quality is quite obvious, but if carefully selected, and considering its intended purpose, a Pakistani practice chanter should do the job.
Let me be completely clear on this: Don´t get a Pakistani chanter if you really want and can afford something better. Chances are, if you continue with your bagpipe lessons for any length of time you will eventually upgrade anyway. But don´t throw away your cheap starter chanter; it never hurts to have a spare or two lying around. Keep one at home, one at the office, and yet another in your bagpipe case. Always have a chanter. within arm´s reach and you can practice birls while waiting for your date to arrive. Teach your kids to play the cheap one, or take it along on your next camping trip. Or throw it and see if the dog will bring it back to you.
What about electronic chanters?
I would definitely NOT begin on an electronic chanter. The electronic chanter has electrical contact points rather than finger holes. One must learn to cover actual holes, which is more difficult than merely completing an electrical circuit. In other words, a barely-touched contact point registers a complete, clear note which on a "real" chanter might sound garbled or mushy. Electronic chanters have their role, but they are definitely not the best way to train proper technique.
What else will I need to get started?
- A tutor book. The instruction manuals I am most familiar with are the College of Piping Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe Part 1 by Seumas MacNeill and Thomas Pearston, and Beginning the Bagpipe by Sandy Jones. A couple of other good books have come out in recent years, but I have not had occasion to teach from them. The College of Piping Tutor has been around for more than 50 years and is considered the industry standard. It´s the book I learned from when I began taking lessons. The C.O.P. Tutor has the advantage (and disadvantage) of getting into the tunes very quickly, and the level of difficulty increases fairly abruptly. Generally I like the tune selection quite a bit. Lately, however, I´ve been starting my own students with the Sandy Jones book, primarily because it provides a better foundation of simple note sequence and timing/rhythm exercises before jumping into actual tunes. One advantage of the Sandy Jones book is that the first tune presented is the popular "Amazing Grace" as opposed to the somewhat obscure and rather bland first tune in the C.O.P. Tutor, "Scots Wha Hae."
- A notebook for your instructor to write comments and instructions for practice.
- A tape recorder (bring a tape to every lesson so your instructor can demonstrate the tunes for you).
- A metronome.