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The Practice Chanter & Tutorials:
What's Needed & Why
Catalog Index Page.
If you are serious about learning to play the Great Highland Bagpipe there are some things you should know before you start. During the past several years we have helped a great many people get started who knew nothing more about pipes than that they want to play them. We have heard from many, many people that it was because of what they found here that they learned what to expect, what's necessary, and what to avoid. So, we've expanded the following commentary. It's a bit lengthy, but it may save you a great deal of time and trouble. Please read it carefully.
Practice Chanter & Tutorials Review & Purchasing Page
If you simply pick up a Highland (or most any other) bagpipe and attempt to play it, you will get nowhere. Playing a bagpipe is a complex task with a lot happening at once and a lot to do at the same time. Once you inflate the bag and the four reeds start sounding, you're committed. You can't just stop to think about this or that when things get hectic. Get behind the curve and you're in deep trouble ... the wedding guests may run screaming from the church, your dog might bite you, or the neighbors might start shooting.
Learning to play the Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) requires a measured, systematic approach. The conventional well-proven method begins with a good quality practice chanter, an instruction book (called a "tutor" with audio accompaniment (a CD), and formal lessons with a teacher. When the student has mastered the practice chanter, he or she is ready to approach the bagpipe itself. Attempts to start right out on a bagpipe - skipping the practice chanter - are almost certain to fail completely, regardless of previous musical experience, for reasons that will be explained shortly.
A practice chanter is an instrument in its own right, but its primary purpose is to provide a path to playing the bagpipe itself. Later it provides a convenient way to practice new tunes, complex fingering and so on, especially at times when practicing on a full pipe is impractical. So, a practice chanter will always be kept at hand, no matter how expert a piper becomes. Practice chanters are available in a wide variety, but all perform the same functions. Good quality and proper design, and a good reed, are critically important, because the student has more than enough to do without trying to work around an inferior and/or unreliable instrument. Further information about practice chanters follows below.
Click on the image to hear a scale
and a short tune played on a
Dunbar practice chanter (RealAudio format).
The standard practice chanter tutor, recognized and used by just about every teacher, is the College of Piping "Green Book " with (now) accompanying audio CD. This tutor presumes no prior knowledge or musical experience by the student, who can thus start in on it alone. However, at least occasional help from a teacher (or perhaps a competent piper) is eventually essential, even if regular lessons are not available.
There is also now available an excellent new tutorial system by world-class piper John Cairns called "Bagpipe Solutions." The six highly detailed volumes, each with accompanying audio CD, will carry a student all the way to becoming a competent piper without the absolute necessity of a teacher. The first three volumes cover the practice chanter. More about both tutorial systems follows below.
Once a student has mastered the practice chanter, he or she is ready to begin on a bagpipe, at least in theory. But it's still a big jump from a tidy little practice chanter to a great big bagpipe. To make this transition, a traditional approach is to use a "Goose." This is essentially nothing more than a bagpipe minus the three drones, to allow the new piper to concentrate on developing breathing and bag-control technique. A smallpipe, such the "Kitchen Pipe" we offer, can also be very helpful in making the transition to the GHB and may be used instead of a Goose. (See our catalog index page, linked near the top and bottom of this page, for detailed information about the Goose and the Kitchen Pipe.)
The bagpipe itself offers numerous challenges aside from the actual playing. Setting up a pipe and its reeds, and the all-important tuning processes, involve techniques that can take years to learn in bits and pieces. There is now an outstanding two-volume video tutorial (in DVD or VHS) that covers these matters and is unprecedented in quality and usefulness. Titled "Pipes Up" and "Pipes Ready," these videos by master teacher and world-champion piper Jim McGillivray are, we think, essential for anyone - regardless of their experience - who plays the bagpipe. (See our catalog index page, linked near the top and bottom of this page, for detailed information about these videos.)
Rounding out our collection of learning material is a highly acclaimed and unique tutorial book with CD for intermediate (and above) pipers, also by Jim McGillivray, titled “Rhythmic Fingerwork.” The exercises and techniques covered will improve any piper's playing, and are especially helpful for those who feel they've hit a wall in their piping. (See our catalog index page, linked near the top and bottom of this page, for detailed information about this tutorial.)
The above is a brief look at what's involved in learning how to play the Great Highland Bagpipe, and at some of the tools that are available. Below is a more detailed look at what's to be considered in choosing a practice chanter and a tutorial.
The above and the following might seem pretty scary - but the good news is that individually all of the things that must be learned are not terribly difficult. The bagpipe, for all of the hidden complexity, yields well to steady, methodical application and patience - it doesn't require any great hidden talent to become a decent piper.
At a glance, a bagpipe doesn't appear to be a very complicated instrument, notwithstanding its unique appearance. The chanter (the melody pipe), with its simple open fingerholes, might remind you of the recorder you played in third grade. The drones look like simple, if decorated, tubes. Compared to, say, a clarinet or a guitar, there's nothing visible that looks particularly intimidating. Perhaps you've spent some casual time with a wind or string instrument and soon found yourself playing a little bit of music without having spent all that much effort. Why, then, should it be so necessary to approach learning the bagpipe in ways usually reserved for training brain surgeons? Why does only the bagpipe require a "practice" instrument? Here are some - but not all - of the reasons:
Because the reeds of the chanter (the melody pipe) and the three drones are sounding all the time; thus there are no silences available between notes during which to get fingers in the right spots for the next note, or during which to make other adjustments. Thus fingering is always critical, even when playing a simple slow tune - if you miss, or don't completely cover a fingerhole, all sorts of nasty sounds result. All other instruments allow you to move along slowly as you learn fingering, pausing between notes as you arrange your fingers while thinking (or reading) about what comes next.
Because this unique absence of available silence makes it impossible to play the same note more than once in succession; for example, in order to play LA LA LA, the piper must provide something other than a silence to define the separate notes. This is accomplished by inserting short notes or groups of notes between each pair of LAs. Such inserted notes are called "grace notes." Grace notes are also very often used in bagpipe music as embellishments, more so than on other instruments, and they are essential to the character and expressiveness of bagpipe music. Learning to play them is a whole phase of the piper's education, and one in which the practice chanter is, again, essential.
Because the reeds, and especially the chanter reed, are not under direct control; they're at the bottom of their respective pipes, not between the lips as in almost all other reed instruments, and thus can't be directly influenced while playing. When a bagpipe reed goes sour as the bride walks up the aisle, the piper has no options other than to stop...
Because the air supplied to the reeds comes alternately from two places; air comes directly from the players lungs, using diaphragm and chest muscles, and then from the bag, using the left arm & shoulder muscles, then again the lungs, then again the bag, and so on.
Because it is necessary that the air supplied to the reeds is of steady and unvarying pressure as the continuous transitions from bag to lungs to bag to lungs are made; if the pressure is allowed to vary, the four reeds will go in and out of tune with one another, with the result sounding like a cat fight rather than music.
Because the necessity of providing unvarying continuous air pressure leaves no control over volume; a pipe can be set up with softer or louder reeds, but during play the volume remains constant. This deprives the piper of a major method of musical expression employed by just about every other instrument. The compensation for this again lies in the use of grace notes, and certain rhythmic & melodic techniques.
Because the pitch of a modern Great Highland Bagpipe is not standard concert pitch; thus conventional tuning aids such as tuning forks or a nearby piano are of limited use. There are electronic tuners that can be set to the correct pitches, but they have limitations. An out-of-tune bagpipe, with the chanter fighting the drones, is a truly horrible thing. Fortunately there are well-developed methods of teaching the student how to tune the pipe. But again, this would overload a beginning piper, and it is not so important that the solo practice chanter be absolutely spot-on.
Because the fingering patterns (and even the parts of the fingers used) to play the notes on the GHB are unique to the instrument; previous experience on other woodwinds won't help much in this regard.
Because the very powerful nature of a GHB chanter and chanter reed also makes them very touchy; little things can have big effects, just as with any high-performance equipment.
Because environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and barometric pressure (altitude) can cause tuning problems for a particular chanter and its particular reed; the chanter might be in tune with itself (that is, sounding a correct scale) on one day (or one minute) and off the next.
Because the GHB is more physically demanding than most other instruments; while not overwhelming, it calls for some muscles to be used in unaccustomed ways and it is thus is necessary to build up strength and endurance.
Because no other woodwind instrument employs more than a single reed; reeds are in general cantankerous and difficult devices, as any clarinet, oboe or bassoon player will tell you (at great length, if you're not careful). Multiply such a lament by four and you'll have an idea of what pipers go through.
Because the GHB, like most bagpipes, is in essence a solo instrument and is very often played without accompaniment in public settings; there's nowhere to hide when things go bad.
Because the GHB is a loud instrument, if not the loudest, and because the fairly high pitch makes the listener perceive it as even louder than it is; there's perhaps a certain charm in walking past a house and hearing someone awkwardly running scales on a tuba, but blundering into earshot of a neophyte honking away on a GHB might cause nose-bleeds, shattered eyeglasses and could lead to convulsions and death (including the piper's). The quiet, low-pitched practice chanter, on the other hand, will probably not even scare the cat.
This list could go on and each of the above items has sub-sets of complications, and some pipers would order it differently, but the point is made: A bagpipe presents a unique series of challenges to the fledgling piper, and most of them are less than obvious and have less than obvious solutions. For these reasons it is considered essential that to be successful, the beginning piper must start with the relatively tame practice chanter (of good quality) and must have some form of measured, logically organized instruction.
A practice chanter consists of three parts: (1) the chanter proper, which in outside shape, size and fingerhole location closely matches a regular pipe chanter but which has a narrow bore which lowers both the pitch (one octave) and the volume compared to a bagpipe chanter; (2) a reed, similar to a regular chanter reed but much softer and today usually made of a synthetic (and thus stable) material; (3) a reed-cap and blowpipe, which attaches to the chanter and is long enough to place the chanter (and thus the hands) in roughly the same position that a bagpipe chanter is in when played.
The practice chanter is a quiet, low-pitched instrument and thus can be played just about anywhere without drawing small-arms fire. Though quiet, it is designed to require a moderate amount of air pressure and thus helps get the fledgling piper into shape for a full set of pipes. Silence between notes is of course available, so one can position fingers and think about things without an overlay of horrible screechings.
There are a lot of available choices in practice chanters. First of all, there are differences in size. It is essential, for obvious reasons, that a practice chanter's fingerholes closely match the spacing of the fingerholes on a full bagpipe chanter. The size of the practice chanter's holes should approximate those found on a pipe chanter, so that the feel is similar (this is accomplished on better practice chanters by countersinking the necessarily small holes). The overall length of the practice chanter should place the hands in a position near where they will be on a bagpipe. Finally, a bit of extra length at the bottom of the practice chanter, with the bore enlarged there to form a sort of chamber, greatly improves the tone of the instrument.
The next issue concerns materials. Practice chanters themselves are found made of wood, synthetics or both. Wood is nice if it's of very high quality and thoroughly seasoned (read expensive), but most often it's not. The practice chanter is an instrument that takes a terrific beating, not only mechanically (being hauled & tossed around, etc.) but because it is subjected to unavoidable sudden extremes of humidity & temperature from the piper's breath. The cap/blowpipe is especially vulnerable and even quality wooden practice chanters often crack there from the extreme moisture. To deal with this pervasive problem, at least one quality maker provides plastic blowpipe/cap tops mounted on wooden chanter bodies - this on the premise that "wood sounds better than anything else," an idea that has never been objectively verified and against which, in fact, a strong argument can be raised. Nevertheless, fine all-wood practice chanters are on the market, some of which may be up to the stresses, but they tend to be pricey, selling for from $150 to over $300. Lesser makers' wooden practice chanters are another matter, with "mid-range" priced wooden ones being a hit-and-miss proposition. At the lower end, many practice chanters retailing for around $30 can be found; these are, to put it bluntly, junk - not only are they likely to disintegrate quickly, but they are usually hopelessly out of tune. We can purchase such horrors for as little as $2 each from the factories in Pakistan
Several makers have addressed these problems by designing practice chanters entirely of synthetics. The worst of these are cheap molded affairs, made of brittle cast plastic in the fashion of a child's toy. The best are individually machined to extremely close tolerances out of high-end structural synthetics, for example Delrin (also called polypenco), by firms that make full sets of bagpipes in both wood and synthetic materials (in other words, by people who know what this is all about). Delrin is particularly suitable for practice chanters; in dead black it looks great finished to a satin surface, it is so strong that one maker will replace the practice chanter if it ever breaks and it has a very good feel - solid, and not cold or slippery. It is of course utterly stable and impervious to any ordinary environmental factors.
From among the dozen or so available quality practice chanters, we have picked the extra-long "Millennium 2000" machined (not molded) in Delrin (polypenco) by J. Dunbar Ltd., a highly respected Canadian pipemaking firm, as the all-around best for both aspiring and established pipers. Further details and ordering information are on the "Practice Chanter & Tutorials Review & Purchasing Page" .
We've been providing Dunbar practice chanters - a lot of them - to new and old pipers since the last millennium (well, yes...). We have had exactly one returned because the buyer just didn't like it. We understand that the same fellow also didn't like the color of his new Ferrari and returned that too, but unfortunately not to us....
Traditionally, playing the bagpipe has always been learned directly, face to face, from piper to student. The very beginnings of piping can be approached alone, through use of a good quality practice chanter and a proven conventional tutorial such as the College of Piping "Green Book" and audio CD. Some of the mysteries and complexities of the instrument - especially the more mechanical elements such as setting up reeds and tuning the pipe - can also be learned without a "live" teacher through specialized productions, such as Jim McGillvary's marvelous set of videos. It is perhaps just barely possible using such methods for a particularly gifted and determined student to bring him or herself to a point of actually being able to play some simple tunes moderately well on the pipes, but at best it will involve a lot of frustration and wasted time and effort - and, to put it bluntly, the majority of people who have tried to go all the way alone have failed.
But a major problem today for many would-be pipers (aside from the sea of junk, fit only for use as kindling, being hawked on eBay and elsewhere by unscrupulous or ignorant dealers) is the lack of a nearby teacher (or even another piper). This is a modern difficulty - in days past, a student of the pipes was, by definition, likely living in Scotland where finding instruction required only the desire. Today, interest in the Great Highland Bagpipe has spread all over the world. Students living in or near major North American metropolitan centers usually have access to instructors but we have many customers in places like Alaska, rural Alabama, Singapore, Spain, Japan and Chile - to name a few - where there might not be another piper, let alone a teacher, within a day's drive. And even if a teacher is at hand, the demands of modern life often make committing to a regime that fits both the student's and the instructor's schedules difficult or impossible.
Many people in the piping community have long been keenly aware of this situation and it's a matter of concern. If the tradition of Highland piping is to continue to flourish, it is essential that widespread learning opportunities exist. It is also not of benefit to the piping world to have people playing the instrument incompetently (few things are as noisome as a badly played and/or out of tune bagpipe).
Some attempts have been made to create video-based teaching systems, but a comprehensive stand-alone video tutorial is not practical, mainly because of the vast amount of material that must be covered. Problems involving pacing and repetition arise - the student is either forced to move at the speed of the video, or must constantly stop and rewind while wrestling with the instrument. Then there's the matter of where this is going to take place - family harmony will likely not be improved by a fledgling piper's taking over the living room TV for months! Good old-fashioned print, augmented by recorded audio demonstrations, remains the only practical option as a starting point for learning to play the practice chanter and thus the bagpipe.
The College of Piping tutorial book (the "Green Book”" and audio CD (formerly cassette) have long been the standard. This tutorial assumes no prior musical experience. Anyone can make good progress using the Green Book with steady, patient effort. But it is emphatically recommended that at some point - and the sooner the better - the student gets together with an instructor for at least occasional help, to avoid developing any bad habits that may later cause trouble on the pipes.
One of the advantages of the Green Book is that it is universally recognized by instructors, and so the student who has spent a lot of time working with it and then finds a teacher won't suddenly be asked to switch to a different system.
We'll now look at a new and much more comprehensive tutorial and then review the factors that should be considered in making a choice between the two.
With the proven success of the Green Book/CD in at least starting the student off right, it would seem a natural thing for an expanded tutorial to be developed that carries on until the student becomes an actual piper, and that goes into enough detail to minimize or perhaps altogether eliminate the absolute necessity for a teacher. This has been talked about for a long time but is much easier said than done - it's a huge and very difficult proposition:
It must begin with no assumption of any prior knowledge by the student of either the mechanics of the instrument or of music;
It must encompass literally every detail and nuance of the art of playing the practice chanter and the bagpipe;
It must be very clearly written and utilize drawings and photographs wherever necessary;
It must be visually convenient and easy to handle physically;
It must follow a logical and systematic path, constantly making clear what the student's exact task is at every point;
It must provide accurate gauges by which a student can see goals ahead, measure progress, and identify problem areas;
It must maintain a sympathetic, encouraging tone to help the student over inevitable tough spots;
It must produce results that are not just self-gratifying but that are verifiable, if desired, by the piper's meeting the formal standards of recognized piping associations.
A world-class piper and teacher, John Cairns, of Canada, has tackled this formidable task and the results are spectacular. His "Bagpipe Solutions" multi -volume (each with accompanying CD) tutorial may well be the most significant contribution ever to those wishing to learn to play the Great Highland Bagpipe.
To get an idea of the degree of detail in the Cairns system, consider that the first three volumes, which deal with learning the practice chanter, consist of 306 pages, plus the accompanying three CDs, while the Green Book contains 72 pages and the one CD. The first three Cairns volumes contain about 200 drawings, diagrams and photographs; the Green Book carries about 25. Here's a rundown of what each of the twelve volumes (levels) cover. Note that at this time, early 2006, the first six volumes are in print. As seen from the below, these six bring the student to the point of being a piper.
Above: A Synopsis of the Twelve Volume Tutorial "Bagpipe Solutions"
by John Cairns
(Volumes 1 through 6 are published and available.)
Copyright 2002, 2006, Bagpipe Solutions by John Cairns
For further details and ordering information for each of these tutorials, go to our Practice Chanter & Tutorials Review & Purchasing Page . But first please read on (just for a bit longer, I promise...).
The John Cairns Bagpipe Solutions tutorial system's first three volumes, each with accompanying CD, cover the same ground overall as the single-volume College of Piping's Green Book. On completion of either, you will be (or should be) ready to move beyond playing just the practice chanter.
The choice between the basic College of Piping practice chanter "Green Book" tutorial/CD and the John Cairns Bagpipe Solutions tutorial system should, ideally, be based on one thing - the availability of a teacher. But there are some other factors and "gray areas" to consider:
If you have, or expect to have, a teacher, or if you intend to join a pipe band that offers instruction or another such learning group, then you should be OK with the College of Piping tutor/CD. This is by far the most common beginning route, and so when you eventually hook up with an instructor he or she will have a good picture of what you've been doing, and you won't be asked to purchase a different beginning text. However, there is another factor: Because the College of Piping practice chanter tutorial is so widespread, John Cairns has followed the same sequence found therein. Thus a potential instructor can easily tell what material you've already covered by relating the point you're at to the corresponding point in the Green Book.
If you aren't completely sure that you really want to take up the bagpipe, or you perhaps just want to get a feel for what's involved, then again you should get the College of Piping material. The cost is not high and if you decide to switch to the Cairns system, then what you've learned working with the green book certainly won't have done you any harm.
If you're getting a practice chanter outfit as a surprise gift for someone and don't know their exact plans, you should probably get the College of Piping tutor/CD. (If the recipient wishes to return that to us and get the Cairns system, we will accommodate him or her.)
If you know that you will essentially be "going it alone," or that you will likely only have sporadic or informal instruction (such as occasional help from a piping friend), you should consider the Cairns system.
If you already have an instructor and are working with the Green Book, but wish to be able to independently evaluate your progress and also have a source of guidance between lessons, then the Cairns system should be considered. Likewise, it will give you a way to evaluate your teacher - though it must be remembered that every instructor has his or her own style, and that there is more than one "right" way to approach most elements of piping.
If you have been working alone with the Green Book, and think that you are pretty much through with it, you will want to consider Volume 4 (and the rest) of the Cairns series.
If the financial implications of learning to play the pipes are of concern, consider that while the Cairns tutorial is considerably more costly than the Green Book you will not need nearly as much time with an instructor, if you need one at all. Overall, the Cairns system should, in the end, be a significantly less expensive path than the traditional route. On the other hand, the initial outlay is greater (for the first three Cairns volumes with CDs, versus the Green Book), and if you're not really sure of your commitment, or if your budget is tight, then the less expensive Green Book might be best for a start.
Learning to play the bagpipe cannot be taken lightly and isn't easy. But with the right tools - starting with a good practice chanter and tutorial along with a systematic approach - it is something that can be achieved by steady application, patience and perseverance. It requires care and attention, but gobs of raw talent or related experience are not necessary. If you want to become a piper, you can do it.
Choosing a practice chanter after what you've learned above shouldn't be a problem - we of course hope that you'll follow our suggestion and purchase the J. Dunbar Ltd. practice chanter that we offer, but other high-quality PCs will also do the job.
In choosing a tutorial, you'll have to make a decision between the two systems described above. (By the way, there are others but none that we currently can recommend.) We hope that we have provided enough information to make the choice - if not, feel free to contact us with any questions.
The page linked immediately below provides a very brief (really!) review and purchasing options regarding the practice chanter and tutorials, along with general ordering, availability and contact information.
We hope to hear from you and that you've found this commentary useful. In in any event, thanks for your interest. ~ Oliver Seeler