Piper's Path

A blog describing my journey into bagpiping, from barely being able to blow a note to . . . well, still at that stage really, but hopefully I'll progress to proper piping.

Location: Dunbar, W. Va., United States

Friday, July 28, 2006

Crossing Noise

I'm practicing more and more frequently, and I'm starting to learn how I'm making mistakes instead of just what they are. At first, I was having trouble with my fingers not going back to where they were when I picked them up to make a note, or sliding down below a hole while I was busy trying to make another note. I was playing with my elbows too close to my sides, which significantly reduced my wrist flexibility. Also, I was tending to rotate my wrist on my right hand as I moved up the scale, rather than just lifting the fingers straight up from the knuckle.

"Crossing noises" are extra note sounds heard between the note you were last playing and the next note you play, caused by lifting or lowering your fingers in the wrong order. I have trouble lifting my right ring finger independently of the others, so I get them when skipping notes, say from an A to a C.

Plus, I'm still having trouble sight-reading, trying to get my fingers to move to match the note I see, but I think that will just take practice to instill the muscle memory.

I've been playing with Bagpipe Music Writer some to make my own practice exercises, and I'll post those soon. Mostly they involve jumping around on the scale on each hand and then both hands. Still haven't learned any gracenotes yet, but that will come soon, I hope. In a fit of overenthusiasm, I'm also working on an arrangement of Ashokan Farewell for BMW. Yeah, that should be good.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Bagpipes & Asthma

Just as I was hoping, playing bagpipes is helpful for asthmatics. While far from a scientific study, it makes perfect sense. I've seen some breathing exercisers on eBay that resemble the ones used to condition and develop the lungs of people with asthma. I'll do some actual research on this later, because I have asthma and I believed this would be the case. This post is, again, just a reminder to me to add more on the subject. I also plan to do something on physical conditioning and exercises for pipers.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Kanawha Valley Pipes and Drums

Kanawha Valley Pipes and Drums, an old website last updated in 2002. This is the band I'm learning from. I'm just putting the link here now so I'll remember to add more on this subject later.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Actual Content

My practice is about to surpass my native ability to raise my fingers up in sequence. Right now I'm trying to learn to coordinate:
  1. Listening to a note to hear which one it is;
  2. See a note and know which one it is;
  3. See a note and know what combination of up and down fingers it goes with; and
  4. Do all this even though the next note doesn't come right after the next note on the scale.
It's been 20 years since I last had to read music in high school band, and even then I was a drummer and at most had to know 4 notes per song in order to tune my tympani. Fortunately, I have good tone discrimination. When I first tried out for band they wanted me to play trombone, because I was good at hearing when I was on or off pitch. My exercises up til now involved going up the scale and back down -- pretty easy and I think I finally have my muscle-memory somewhat trained to where the fingers go when they come back down. I wrapped a bit of electrical tape around my chanter above and below the C hole, so that finger could more easily find its "groove," and I think my stretching exercises allow my fingers to be a bit more limber.
But now my exercises involve going all over the scale, albeit only on one hand, and I'm not thinking fast enough to see, hear and move all at once. I guess that's the point of practice, to make it habitual rather than thoughtful.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Some new useful sites and random thoughts

First the sites I recently added to my bookmarks list. Actually, this blog is my bookmarks list, since the whole reason I started it was just so I could access my bookmarks from anwhere, plu annotate them so I'd remember why I wanted to keep them.
  • Scottish piper.net. This site has some beginning piper lessons and links to free sheet music.
  • Scottish piper group on smartgroups. Some pretty good Sheet music selections including beginner exercises. This is the sheet music linked to from the above site.
  • Free Bagpipe Music writing software. I just downloaded it, but it looks good and I think it's needed to get music in standard sheet music formats from other sites.
  • Free sheet music links. Various sites.
  • Ebay search string that filters out most of the crap that comes up when you earch for bagpipes
  • Bagpipe web directory. This seems to be the site that every other bagpipe site links to, and it seems to link to them as well. A great starting point.
  • How to Become a Rotten Piper. This article was given to me at my first lesson, and then I found it online. Check out the rest of the site.
  • Piper's dictionary from the writer of the above article. Wonder no more at hour to pronounce sgian dubh, piobaireachd, taorluath, and ceòl mór.
That's enough for now.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Practice, practice, practice

The pitfalls of staying in a hotel for several days are more than just an inability to practice with a reed in the chanter - last night I had this whole post written out, and it was scuttled by a slow hotel Internet connection. Anyway, today's topic is practice.
They say you don't need a talent for music to master an instrument, you need a talent for practice. The first week after I started this, I practiced every day for 15-20 minutes. Which doesn't sound like a lot, but you'll be surprised how cramped your fingers get, especially (for me) the right thumb. You stretch ligaments and tendons you didn't know you had, and it seems everyone starts out holding on too tightly.
The second week, I practiced less, mostly because I had a cold and it was hard to breathe, and also because we were travelling, and it's hard to practice in a hotel room. This week wil lbe about the same, but the hotel room next door is full of noisy kids, so I'm thinking they'll have no room to complain if I honk a bit.
At my last lesson, I got a new book, Beginning the Bagpipe, by Pipe Major Sandy Jones. We went through all the exercises for the bottom hand and the top hand, and stopped just before combining hands or switching hands. Since my instructor will be out for the next two weeks (to go to piping school and then because the group has a performance at the Greenbrier), I'm going to have to show siginificant improvement when we meet again in 3 weeks.
But since we're travelling (In Columbus - we went to the zoo yesterday), this week is pretty much shot, but at least I'll get to go to the Piper's Hut and the Brewery District. I'm also going to look at some used bookstores, because last week while we were here I found a very basic bagpipe instruction book, The Eric Bailey Bagpipe Methods, vol. 1. It was $3, so I got it, and now I want to look for more books on the subject, since accumulating books is my other vice.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Getting Started

A bit of prehistory:
I'm not from a very ethnic family, but I've always loved bagpipe music and things Scottish in general. Without a valid claim to any of that heritage, I just watched, basically. But in dong some genealogy, I discovered a direct Scottish link on both my father's and mother's sides to a Campbell who emigrated to Randolph County, West Virginia from Scotland, and a McConkey that ended up in Braxton County, West Virginia. Ok, that legitimizing things somewhat, I bought a few plaid shirts. Then on a trip to Annapolis a few years ago, in a Scottish shop, I found a practice chanter kit made by Bagpipes of Caledonia (save your money). It came with a genuine rosewood practice chanter, a small how-to booklet and a casette tape. So I bought that and proceeded not to learn to play them. Blaming my tools, I bought new practice chanter reeds and was at least able to make consistent noises, and eventually was able not to play them better.
Fast forward. At a recent outing here in Charleston on "Symphony Sunday," I saw the Kanawha Valley Pipes and Drums perform. I commented to my wife, "I really ought to learn to do that." The drum major announced, "If you like this, come learn how to do it." I said to my wife, "That's probably too expensive." The drum major announced, "Lessons are almost free and the instructor is excellent."
"It's been too long since I last tried to read music."
"You don't have to be able to read music."
"I wonder if it's really as much fun as it looks."
"It's really fun."
"I wonder if they just say that."
"We really want you to come, we're having a recruiting drive."
. . .
So I showed up promptly at 6:00 on the following Tuesday with my practice chanter.
  • Don't buy a practice chanter until you've talked to an instructor.
  • Don't buy a rosewood practice chanter that comes in a kit.
I learned to play a basic, nine-note scale. The following week, after regular practice, I got a legitimate practice chanter, and had to learn where to put my fingers all over again.
  • Real bagpiping stuff is either African Blackwood or Polypenco ( a music instrument-grade plastic).
  • Practice chanters (not to be confused with bagpipe chanters) are either short or long. Long chanters are proportioned the same as the chanter on the bagpipes, so transition should be easier.
  • Get a metronome.
I did some Google homework, and here are some links I found to be helpful.

The Piper's Hut
Henderson Supply
EZ Piper
Free Sheet Music for Bagpipes
Online Metronome
Free Metronome App for Palm PDAs
A different Free Metronome App for Palm PDAs

More later.

The First Post

I just started to learn to play the great highland bagpipes. This will be my journal of that effort and storehouse of useful information I find as I progress.