Calling The Tune :: Bagpipe Tuition & Performance

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I began teaching while still at university. When I settled down with a pipe band, I began teaching in earnest, and formed many ideas about how teaching is best done. Over the years, I have come to the view that the teacher merely provides a framework through which the pupil learns for herself. In particular, I talk a great deal about practice and how it should be structured and approached. And of course, tailoring what needs to be learnt to how the pupil actually learns is a vital part of the process.

My other areas of expertise are in remedial work and music theory. Remedial work is often necessary with pipers who have been badly, or more often, negligently taught. Often it is necessary to break down a piper's technique and rebuild it. Music theory is an area many pipers do not cover: largely because of the nature of the instrument, not much theory knowledge is needed to be able to learn the basics, but a deeper understanding can be extremely helpful in analysing tunes and when working with other musicians.

As a beginner, you'll spend some time, perhaps a few months, on learning basic scales and techniques on the practice chanter (an inexpensive instrument which mimics the fingering, but not the volume, of the bagpipe). At this stage, we are laying the foundations of a piping career, and it is very important to progress slowly and carefully. Lack of care at this stage often translates into frustration later on.

Once the basic scales and embellishments have been mastered, we introduce some simple tunes. Again, care and attention is needed, and we introduce a new requirement - memorisation. Pipers very rarely perform using sheet music, and so all the music to be performed must be memorised. Like most things, memorisation is itself a skill and although it may be slow to start out with, it soon becomes a thing of habit.

Once we have learned a few tunes and have good control of them, it will be time to introduce the learner to the bagpipe itself. Again, time and patience are the keys to building good skills in controlling the bagpipe. Generally speaking, it takes perhaps a few months to be able to control the pipe enough to be able to play through a tune, and a year or so to really master the control of the instrument.

Once we have the pipes up and running, we start to look at simple dance tunes - jigs, hornpipes, strathspeys and reels. I believe it is important to build up a good foundation of these tunes, both for their own sake and because they are an excellent preparation for the next stage of playing: the so-called 'competition' music. Competition tunes are relatively longer pieces, technically demanding test pieces that show off the piper's skill and stamina. We also start at this time to study piobaireachd, or ceol mor, the classical music of the highland bagpipes and one of the most developed forms of traditional music anywhere in the world. By the time you reach this stage, you should be able to perform in public, have a good knowledge both of the instrument and its surrounding history and culture, and be ready to begin playing competitively.

If you reach this stage, you'll be a competent, independent learner. Where you go from here is up to you; you might be happy playing for your own pleasure, or you might want to earn back some of those lesson fees by doing some gigging yourself. You might want to try your hand on the solo competition circuit, or join a band. You might take up the folk-friendly smallpipes and start playing pub sessions with friends. At this stage, whether you want or need to continue lessons depend very much on you, what you want to achieve and how you feel about your playing. Even pipers at the very top of the profession will regularly seek feedback from their peers; others are more than happy with their own playing and are happy to monitor their own progress.

If you'd like to know more, then get in touch and I'll be happy to answer your questions and demonstrate what's involved.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it cost?

Getting started is inexpensive. All you need to get started is a practice chanter (around £30-40), seven fingers, and a thumb. I can supply a practice chanter with reed for £30 or you can obtain your own (do check with me before buying, as not all chanters are made to an adequate standard). Later on (usually from 6-18 months of learning), you will need a reasonable quality set of pipes, which will cost around £800-900 fully set up with bag, reeds and all required accessories.

I tend to recommend a half hour for younger children up to about 14-15, usually until they get on the pipes. Adults can start with a full hour straight away.

For my current rates, please see my tuition policies page for my current rates and terms.

Where do you teach?

I teach from home, near Elephant & Castle. I have sympathetic (or deaf!) neighbours and have access to my library and can produce material as required. I'm a few minutes walk from the Elephant & Castle tube stop. I don't travel to pupils as I find it is extremely time-consuming and subject to disruption.

How much do I have to practice?

One answer, of course, is as much as you can. My advice, though, is a little different. I always say that at some point, habit has to take over from motivation. And when that happens, the habit you have has to be sustainable. Some people start off and try to practice for an hour a day, every day. And of course, pretty soon life gets in the way. You don't always have an hour, or sometimes you can't play for a few days. I find a lot of people who try to do this get discouraged that they can't live up to their own expectations and become demotivated.

My advice, then, is to practice for ten minutes a day and to plan to take take two or three days off a week. If on that day off, you fancy doing a little practice anyway, great. If you do your ten minutes practice and want to keep going, great. But you should aim to build up a habit of practising little and often, and arrange your life so that it's never a struggle to find time.

Can I take fortnightly or longer lessons?

I don't recommend it on pedagogical grounds; I have found that a fortnight is just a little bit too long. I am occasionally able to take on a few casual lessons where I know I have a free slot, but this would only really be suitable for people who need a few hours tuition in total.

How long does it take?

You might have heard of the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master any particular skillset. Pipers have a similar saying, that it takes 21 years - seven years learning, seven years practising, seven years playing. Regardless of what the research actually says, there is a grain of truth in this - the best, most rounded musicians are those who have spent longest studying their craft.

However, with regular, structured practice, in my experience it will normally take about a year to start on the bagpipe and perhaps 3-5 years to learn to play the full range of traditional pipe music.

What age can a child start?

Children can and do start as young as 4-5. Progress does tend to be slow until around 8-9 when they tend to grow an attention span! In addition, children of this age do need a fair bit of parental shepherding. I don't discourage teaching children younger than 8, but I do suggest that it may be just as good to regularly expose them to all kinds of Scottish music - folk bands, singing, ceilidhs, etc - in preparation for a slightly later start.

I personally like to teach young children to play the tin whistle - it is easy to blow, requires little technical ability, and can be taught largely by ear. Once a degree of fluency has been achieved they will be ready to transfer to the practice chanter.

What if I have no talent?

Talent is a bit of a cultural myth. At the very top level, there may (or may not) be a slight edge which is natural. Down here in the real world, most of what we think of as talent is just things we learnt (or didn't learn) early in life, reinforced by praise (or dispraise). By the time a student comes to music lessons, he may be all over the map in terms of ability, but this is nothing to do with talent. In other parts of the world, learners are taught that their ability is down to the amount of effort that they put in - and it shows.