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 indoor-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.