Highland Pipe Self Instruction Page

Copyright 1995 David C. Daye

Latest update 2 January 1997, Notes on Practice Chanter Problems

Feel free to copy this work for desktop use and/or your individual study of piping. You may not republish all or portions of this work in any form, or distribute it in any form, without permission. You may establish electronic pointers or links to this page. Questions, problems, comments or requests for permission to reprint may be e-mailed to me at CLICK HERE

Contents, Highland Pipe Self Instruction

Credentials and Disclaimer

I am an advanced amateur piper. This means I can play any composition for the pipes cleanly, at proper tempo, with expression, and am able to manage all typical maintenance including making and adjusting (even growing!) reeds and doing minor repairs. I am not a professional-level player, which is judged by such factors as detailed control of execution and quality of musical expression.

You can hear a brief sample of my playing to judge for yourself. This selection is a few phrases of "Scotland the Brave" recorded in a professional studio with a folk band. The playing is traditional, the instrument is a bagpipe whose reed and chanter I modified to tune to A-440 (modern tuning being far higher, in the range of 475). This should give a good idea both of my playing abilities and of my understanding of reeds and pipe maintenance. CAUTION: large file, 384 kb size. Click here for the sound sample.

I have competed in traditional solo piping contests at the top amateur level in my region (Grade 1, Ohio USA), competed in an upper level pipe band, been a dance accompanist, recording studio musician and piper in an amplified folk band. I have trained a number of pipers, including some advanced pipers, specializing in technical fingering problems.

I began teaching myself traditional Highland piping as a teenager in 1966, using The College of Piping Tutor, Book 1, a 2-speed tape recorder and several band & solo records. I have been told by several reputable professional Scottish pipers that I am the only person they know who has become a competent piper through self-teaching.

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What to Expect

This work is not a detailed tutor. Neither does it contain novel information that would be very useful to the advanced or professional player, except perhaps to help understand how to deal with a student who is largely self-taught.

What I have tried to provide here is some of the information a live teacher would otherwise give. Most important of this are a more complete description of the reasons for traditional fingering and training methods, and a more detailed discussion of some hidden pitfalls of shortcuts common among self-teachers, than standard tutors usually offer. I also offer a guide to the use of technology for self-assessment so that any student can discover errors or problems before they become well-practiced bad habits.

I do not recommend self-instruction, due to the large amount of effort the student wastes making discoveries about technique or expression which could quickly be imparted by a teacher. However there are learners who do not have access to a teacher, and others who may be interested in hearing from a self-teacher who achieved some success as judged by traditional experts. For such people this work is dedicated.

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Drawbacks of Self-teaching Traditional Scottish Piping

There are 2 special issues facing the would-be self-teacher of the Scottish bagpipe. The obvious problem is the matter of setting-up, fine-tuning and maintaining the instrument in good playing condition. The lack of knowledgeable vendors and repair sites in most locations and the instrument's unusual nature create a popular expectation that this will be a significant difficulty in becoming a good piper.

The more serious problem, often a complete surprise to would-be pipers, is that of training the fingers to produce the distinctive "voice" of traditional piping. This voice is created with complex, high-speed embellishments which have evolved far beyond levels of difficulty and formality that most people expect in "folk" music. Unusually rigorous training and acute evaluation are necessary to developing these unique skills of piping.

This is compounded by the pipes' attraction of some learners who are not the typically ideal music students (young children below their mid teen ages). Adults, even those with previous musical training, will find the embellishments very difficult to acquire. Many adult learners do not play other instruments and are further hampered by a lack of experience making detailed judgements of musical sound.

All these factors combine to make self-teaching more treacherous in piping than in many other forms of traditional music. That being said, here are some suggestions.

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Steps for Learning Traditional Fingering

Tools For Learning

In this era any learner can and should begin by obtaining first-class reference materials. A tutor book is indispensable, but the self-teacher also needs detailed description of posture, muscle action and musicianship. Where possible an accompanying video tape is strongly recommended, because of the great need to see how the fingers should be held and moved. The novice can devise finger tricks that produce better initial results than some traditional methods but prove to be too limiting later on. A video will help avoid this trap.

Many top pipers have made periodic use of mirrors to study and improve their general hand and body posture and the motion of their fingers. This can be extremely useful in the earliest stages, and at any time later when attempting to advance. Naturally the student must also be able to play without watching the fingers, but periodic checking with a mirror will help to identify many fingering problems.

The sports world has long used slow-motion replay of films and video to train athletes. I myself used a 2-speed audio tape recorder to develop my competitive Highland piping during the 1960's and 70's. A 2- or variable-speed audio tape recorder-&-player is almost a necessity for teaching oneself piping. A significant slowing of the music allows the student to study masters' performances and more easily hear the timing and clarity of embellishments and fast melodic passages. If the audio runs as slowly as 1/2 speed, the student can play the practice-chanter along with the 1/2-speed playback and will be in tune.

More important is the use of slow replay of the student's own technique. At 1/2 speed, the student can hear unevenness, incorrect sequence or spurious noises in embellishments, or detect the mis-tuned sound of incorrect cross-fingering of short melody notes, which only the expert can discern at full speed. Many learners can eventually become able to detect and thus avoid tiny technical mistakes while playing. If the option exists, an external microphone, even a very inexpensive one, should be used instead of a built-in microphone. It will capture nuances of sound and subtle technical faults better.

A video camera with slow-motion replay can be extremely helpful to the pipe student. It allows the piper to play with full concentration on technique and music, and then study the video without the distraction of playing. Videos can also be made of expert players, live, at contests or (some) performances, and studied in slow motion to examine successful ways of holding & moving the fingers. Unfortunately with current equipment, when the video is slowed down, the audio signal cannot be heard.

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In the Beginning

Good piping looks easy because it is easy. Specifically, the fingering of top pipers appears to be nearly effortless. Actually there can be quite a bit of power in the fingers but it is narrowly confined to those muscles best adapted for long periods of high-speed motion. Contrary to the instincts of many beginners, the surest and fastest route to easy fingering is to play this way from the very beginning. On this point most teachers I've met seem to agree.

The greatest number of learners will become good pipers by starting with a "light touch" method, developing good coordination in the proper muscles before attempting to move forcefully. Some teachers pay little attention to this matter, and can produce fine pipers in the end. In my experience however this is more a "weeding out" process, selecting people with a natural talent in the hands, often losing students who could otherwise succeed if they were taught how to acquire the necessary coordination.

The self-teacher usually adopts a forceful grip right away in order to make the powerful, fast sounds of the professional. But most people instinctively make use of muscles that have already become strong in low-speed activities. In the very earliest phases of study, the tight grip will serve the student well. Only after months or years of piping can it be known whether this has created severe limitations to the piper's further advancement. If so, frustrating and time- consuming retraining will be necessary to undo inefficient habits.

Preferably, coordination is established with a gentle, easy grip and easy motions of the correct finger muscles. After this stage force can easily be added if and as desired without endangering speed, endurance and accuracy. The drawback is that a forceful grip disguises the true underlying level of un-coordination of the student. Playing the "easy" way forces the student to confront the awkward sensations of unfamiliar postures and motions.

The fingers must not grip the chanter any more firmly than is necessary to seal the holes. The full pipe chanter does not need to be gripped tightly because it hangs securely from the bag. The practice-chanter likewise is fixed in place with the sole set on the knee or a table and the mouthpiece held in the teeth. If the chanter is clutched tightly, the fingers will be under too much strain to move quickly for long periods of time.

Conversely, when lifted off the chanter, the fingers are passively "allowed" to be up rather than forcefully stretched aloft. Any effort expended in forcefully holding fingers up is simply wasted as it has no effect on sound and merely increases fatigue and error.

The fingers must lie across the chanter, extended nearly straight, not greatly curled, not covering the holes with the fingertip-ends as with a clarinet, yet not so straight as to be locked at any of the joints. Modest curvature is seen on the forefingers of some fine pipers; these fingers are our most nimble, and so many pipers sacrifice some efficiency with the forefingers in order to ensure that the weak lower fingers are in the best possible posture. Click here for finger-position diagram.

An excessively tight grip can be identified by noticeable marks from fingerholes, on the undersides of the fingers immediately after releasing the chanter; white areas on the knuckles or fingernails; joints which are bent backwards or locked into position; fingers in which only one joint is bent convex. These symptoms can and must be cured immediately, even though the student may feel less coordinated when using the light touch. Before long, coordination and strength will become established in the proper muscles, and the student will be learning faster than s/he ever could with an improper grip.

When moving, the fingers should pivot at the palm joint. This is slower and more awkward for beginners than moving them by uncurling, pointing or flexing the tips. However, it gives a clearer sound and later will prove to be faster than any other method. Click here for finger-motion diagram.

Fingers need move very little to produce the melody notes, lifting only 1-1/2 to 2 finger diameters off the chanter. Some beginners' instincts are to move them much farther, which makes fingering more tiring and more error-prone. The beginner often forcefully holds the fingers up in the air when they are not being forcefully held down against the chanter. They may be held very high aloft which makes it more difficult to replace accurately onto the holes when dropping them.

For gracenotes which involve brief single-finger lifts, many beginners with good ears try to squeeze the chanter tightly and then barely twitch the finger so as to achieve the fast sound of the professional piper. This may work very well on the practice chanter or various straight-bored smallpipes. However it gives muted embellishments on the conically-bored pipe chanter. This is due to the physics of the pipe itself. High gracenotes are louder than lower notes on straight- bored pipes, and need to be tightly controlled so that they do not overwhelm the melody notes. But they are usually quieter than lower notes on conically-bored pipes, and need to be emphasized by getting the fingers cleanly and quickly off the hole to a higher elevation than desirable for straight-bored pipes.

The finger should lift nearly one finger-diameter for gracenotes; if substantially less, the gracenotes will always be muted and may screech or squeak (if the reed is easy) when played on the full bagpipe chanter. This method demands more finger control than any beginner can have, and the self-teacher almost always takes the shortcut so as to have a feeling of control and a more professional sound right away. Unfortunately a fully professional sound requires the good lifts at high speed, which is vastly more difficult to develop after years of tight, low fingering than it would have been in the beginning. I have been told that ignorance of this fact was a major obstacle preventing me from playing to professional standards.

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The Absolute Rule of Fingering

On my first trip to Scotland I was impressed to discover that most every beginner sounded as clean and controlled as any teacher. I asked a bandmate of mine, who had learned in Scotland and had an easy posture and fine technique, how this could be. He replied that the good teachers never permit errors and bad habits to arise in the beginning, so there can be no other result. Good teachers waste virtually no time un-training bad or inefficient habits.

So if there is one absolute rule for learning traditional piping it is that any bit of music or embellishment must be learned--completely--at a given speed, before advancing to a higher speed and ultimately public performance. The finger motions are too fast and complex for errors or flaws to be corrected at full speed.

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Perfection and Recovery

A passage is considered "learned" at any given speed when upon demand it can be played:

  1. by memory with total, utter perfection;
  2. completely under control;
  3. with an easy, comfortable grip and finger motions;
  4. with complete freedom from stress and fatigue immediately upon finishing.

A "passage" may be a section of melody, from as much as an entire tune to as little as one awkward 2-note transition, or it may also be an embellishment. The same principles apply in all cases.

"Perfection" is meant quite literally. No mistakes, none whatsoever. Initially the student should review a musical passage by merely playing all the notes and embellishments in sequence, as though they were being read from a list, not part of a piece of music. Thus the very first attempt can be accomplished with technical perfection. A first attempt at an embellishment must be done the same way, slowly enough that there cannot possibly be a mistake or loss of control.

"Control" means that:

  1. no motions are occurring "automatically;"
  2. the player can make the motions correctly at any speed below the current speed;
  3. the player can determine the exact timing of each of the finger motions involved;
  4. each finger must move under its own power without assistance from the palms, from other fingers, from jerking motions of the limbs or body, or from blowing.

"Comfort" means that the fingers are basically relaxed whether down, up or in motion, and do not cramp or hurt during or after playing.

"Recovery" is judged at the end of the passage. The fingers and hands should end up as comfortable and relaxed after playing the passage as they were before.

Once the student follows these guidelines, s/he begins to learn faster because the feeling of complete control is exciting and unmistakable. Conversely the feeling of lack of control unmistakably points to rough passages that must be tamed before it is time to advance.

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1st Learning an Exercise or Tune Part

The criteria listed in the Perfection and Recovery section are followed as a sequence of the stages of learning. First attain technical perfection, next add good control, then add comfort, finally verify a complete recovery at the end of the passage. At this point, a higher speed can be attempted, repeating these same steps at the new speed.

The tune is first stepped-through at a slow speed as though reading from a list. This step will reveal trouble spots where fingering is awkward. The student should immediately concentrate on these in order to be ready to increase the speed of the passage at the earliest possible opportunity.

Once the tricky sections have become better, the student is ready for a first attempt at playing the passage musically. A slow speed should be picked, and maintained (even through the easy sections) so that a slow but musical presentation is made. Often the student will stumble in one or more places. These should be noted and studied in isolation, at as slow a speed as needed, to get them first correct and next comfortable at the chosen speed for the entire tune or exercise.

This is an ideal opportunity to double-check the hands visually, by watching while playing in front of a mirror, or by videotaping and later replaying. Look for exaggerated motions of the hands, tightening by one hand or finger(s) on the chanter when others are being moved, jerking of arms or body as though to assist the fingers. Look for correct fingering of all notes, even short notes, so that there is no "false fingering" caused by fingers below a note's uppermost open hole being incorrectly left open (for example, one or more of the top 3 bottom-hand fingers when playing E).

An audio tape recorder should be used at this point as well. Listen for wrong notes or crossing noises. If a very slow or 1/2 speed option is available, listen again in slow motion and make note of very subtle crossing noises or other errors. Listen to these points repeatedly at full and slow speeds to learn how to identify them during actual playing. Truly, there must be no errors in the playing, not even small ones, not even when studied in slow-motion speed.

A difficult type of error to identify on tape is false fingering. In fact most people cannot identify a note that is false-fingered through its entire duration, since the tone (on the practice-chanter) does not differ enough from a correctly-fingered note. But when the fingering changes during a note, as when fingers are correctly replaced some time after the note has begun, it is often possible to hear a subtle change in tone. This will be more obvious if an external microphone (even a very inexpensive one) is used in place of the microphone built-into the recorder. Motor noise is avoided, and telltale high frequencies are emphasized.

As soon as the trouble spots have been brought up to the desired speed, the entire piece should be tried again at the chosen speed. Most likely there will be a few slips, and several places where the fingers will tighten or feel awkward. If slips are only occasional in each spot, and if finger-tension is not great, it is probably acceptable to keep playing at this speed. But if many or most attempts produce errors, if there are certain sections in which slips always occur, or if a great forceful effort must be made in certain areas, the piece must be returned to a slower speed. Trouble spots are not yet ready for the attempted speed.

The piece should be kept at this initial speed until all the criteria stated in the Perfection and Recovery section are met. An excellent test is to play it 3 times in succession. If this can be done with zero errors, ending with the hands relaxed and comfortable, the piece is ready to be played at a greater speed. If there are errors or if the hands are tired from exertion, more time at the current speed is required.

The first few tunes and exercises will progress very slowly--agonizingly slowly for adult learners and students who are adept at other instruments. The student must take consolation in the knowledge that the fingers are learning a great deal at this stage which will not have to be repeated forever. If the rudiments are learned well during these earliest tunes and exercises, within a few months a young student will be able to attempt a first playing comfortably and error-free at a half or even 2/3 final speed.

One more time: The keys are perfection and comfort. Learn these at the outset, for the shortest and most productive period of study.

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How to Practice Music

Music teachers' lore says the student must practice an hour each day, 5 or more days per week, in order to advance. This is an excellent starting point, but a few further suggestions will help the learner who is isolated or lacks previous musical instrument training.

2 or 3 short sessions may be as useful, at times more useful, than one hour-long daily session. Probably 10 to 20 minutes is the lower limit for useful practice with the practice-chanter, to give the fingers time to become accustomed to playing music and still have time for study. Once the full pipes are involved however the lower limit jumps to at least 30 minutes, as the pipes themselves need considerable time to warm-up and stabilize.

A healthy practice session should consist of a variety of activities. The first few minutes' playing are for warming-up the hands. This is an excellent time for playing (boring!) exercises. It's also wise to play some tunes that have already been mastered (once the student has reached this stage) periodically during practice, "to feed the heart" as I have written elsewhere. Thereafter a balance of tune parts (verses), entire tunes, and exercises should be mixed with small excerpts where musical or mechanical difficulties occur.

Do not invariably play selections straight through, from front to back. Although this is appropriate for rehearsing a performance and for testing preparedness on an entire exercise or tune, it is an inefficient way to solve specific problems. Problem zones should be practiced in isolation, exclusively at first. Once they have been worked into a longer selection they should still receive extra attention so long as they are troublesome.

If music is always practiced front-to-back, the student typically becomes very adept at the beginnings of tunes and rather erratic towards the end. In both performances and contests, the final impression is nearly as important as the initial one (at times, more important), since a strong finish gives the impression that the performer has rallied in the face of adversity, so both judges and audiences tend to forgive some earlier slips.

Following this logic, it is not necessary to learn or memorize all the bits of a tune or exercise in the same order they will ultimately be played. Many tunes have bars or phrases which repeat frequently throughout; it is perfectly acceptable to study these first, or to learn in any sequence which is convenient or makes sense to the student.

Some types of problem-solving, especially fingering problems, are best done in short sequences, perhaps just a few minutes at a time. Even during a lengthy practice session, many excellent players work in spurts of 5 to 20 minutes. If errors are occurring repeatedly it is actually important to stop so that the chain of error can be broken. A suitable break will vary from one or two seconds to a few minutes' length. The presence or absence of errors and awkward feelings in subsequent attempts will show whether the break was long enough.

I have heard no hard rules about the final portions of a practice session, but again for the spirit it seems desirable to play something that is easily managed and enjoyable to hear.

Speeding Up an Exercise or Tune

If the 1st playing stage has been successful, the tune is now able to be played comfortably and perfectly at some slow speed. Very little further advice is needed for further advancement. A few suggestions:

Do not speed up embellishments. Only increase the speed of the melody. This means that the embellishments will occupy a greater fraction of the notes they displace but even quick marches and much dance music can be played very musically with surprisingly slow embellishments. Most of the complex embellishments take a long time to learn to play fast. Conversely many of the simpler march tunes and airs can be brought to full speed by pipers with a few months' experience. Leave the embellishments at a comfortable modest speed so that a more varied and interesting repertoire of tunes can be learned. This is the best compromise for eager ears and slow-learning fingers! More will be said later on the special problems of embellishments.

Increase the speed enough to feel a sense of progress. This will create some loss of control but it should not be total. Errors will occur, portions will be awkward and will create excess tension, but these must limited to a modest extent. The piece is hereafter being played as music, and the same principles must be followed when playing at each new speed as were followed on first playing in a musical fashion.

When working on troublesome passages, it may be necessary to break them down to extremely small sections, even pairs of notes. It can often be fastest to pick a troublesome few notes, step through them very slowly, and bring them to a desired speed within a few days or even minutes, rather than working on longer passages. As soon as the troubled notes are under control, back up and begin adding one or two notes in front of them, then a bar or more, until a long phrase containing the trouble spot is under control.

One more point should be made about working on troublesome small passages. Do not try to force the fingers into obedience by rapidly repeating difficult sequences when errors are recurring. If a short passage fails on 3 successive attempts, stop! Let the tension clear from the hands and the nervous system regain its composure. This may require just a few seconds. Reduce the speed slightly and try again. If after a modest speed reduction the passage is still out of contol, reduce the speed dramatically. As discouraging as this often seems, it is the true shortcut to gaining speed and control.

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Intermediate/Advanced Embellishment Tips

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Setting-up & Maintaining Bagpipes

New Bagpipe

The needs of the learner are sometimes opposite from those of the established performer. Many advanced soloists and most band players prefer strong reeds for their loudness and stability. The learner however needs to play rather easy reeds simply to endure a practice session in comfort.

If at all possible, an experienced player (perhaps a reedmaker or vendor) should be sought to select and set up the learner's first reeds, and to check them once or twice a few weeks thereafter as they are breaking-in.

These first reeds can be very easy but should tune accurately when blown with care. It is important that the tuning be good so that the student is rewarded with decent sound when controlling the pipes well. Tone can be quite inferior to that of a competition bagpipe so long as it is not excessively bright or harsh. Even a very dull chanter tone can be musical, and may be preferable to the novice practicing indoors in a small room. Although the pipe chanter will be noticeably harder to blow than the practice-chanter, a brand-new learner should be able to play short tunes and exercises for a period of at least 15 minutes using pipe chanter only (the drones corked shut and not leaking), remaining comfortable enough to practice seriously and productively.

It is normal for the blades of new chanter reeds to swell during the first minutes of playing, which causes the lips to open wider thereby making the reed harder to play as it warms up. The experienced piper copes with this by removing the chanter, very frequently at first, and pinching the middle of the blades together for a second or two to restore the desired amount of opening to the lips. After a few days' playing this is required much less often; within roughly 2 to 10 weeks (depending on the piece of cane used, the design of the reed, and the frequency of playing) it becomes unnecessary.

Within a few weeks, with daily or near-daily practice, the student should be able to complete a lengthy practice session without becoming tired. At this point, one or more drones can begin to be played along with the chanter.

Special Problems of the Adult Learner

The Big Picture

Traditional piping lore says that adults' fingers are "stiffer" than children's and that adults have great difficulty learning the pipes. There is some truth to the claim, but fortunately in many cases there are accommodations that can be made.

One issue must be faced by teacher and the adult student. Classic piping is not a "folk" art, nor is it a mere ornament to military exercises. Rather it is a highly demanding form of music which has been developed exclusively for performance by few percent of individuals with gifted hands. The rest of us who wish to participate must recognize that piping would have little if any of its distinct and powerful appeal if it had not been developed by such musicians.

As we participate in classic piping we must strive to meet these high standards, as far as we can progress, and to focus our activities on repertoire and venues appropriate to our degree of accomplishment. If we take care, we can recreate the proud sound of the instrument and its music, and maintain an honored place for those few gifted players whom we all envy and yet admire for their ability to make the music soar.

Many adults can learn to play pipes for personal enjoyment, many for some fine public performing, and some can become rather fluent. There is great variability from one individual to the next and no way to predict success without trying.

A Few Specific Observations

The first effect I see inflicted by age is not in flexibility but in motor skills. A young child can be shown a movement and given a few tries to reproduce it. Take a 2 minute break and discuss school or the weather, and the child will often be found to have improved during the interval. An adult, even in the early 20's, will often have gotten worse during the same interval. I see these effects earlier in men than women.

Clearly something about the child's anatomy has a stronger memory for finger actions, and some important subconscious learning abilities, that begin to fade with age. Thus it is possible to teach many children successfully by focusing mostly on the musical sounds and paying relatively little attention to the details of fingering. In contrast, a successful teacher of adults needs much greater knowlege of how the fingers work because the adult's body does not solve so many problems automatically.

Another common adult-student annoyance is crosstalk between the hemispheres of the brain, such that the intention to lift say the right index finger causes both index fingers to rise. Usually it can be outgrown or at least survived by the determined adult learner, but it can noticeably prolong the early stages of learning any finger motion.

A limited range of mobility is often seen in adults. This in itself is not necessarily a hinderance except for the birl. Adult learners may have much more success with the "figure 7" or downward-swipe / upward- curl form of birl or the down-swipe / up-swipe birl, rather than with the tap-curl variety, since the former birls can produce distinct sounds with considerably less motion and speed of the finger.

Some adults simply have stiff, slow-moving fingers, which may have considerable difficulty moving independently. Practice will improve every learner but there is a point at which the exercise yields diminishing returns. Stiff-fingered adults should give piping a good try if they love the pipes, but recognize that for some there will come a point of recognizing that the technique is too demanding for their particular hands.

It is very common to experience "plateaus" in which a certain set of skills have been improved to some degree, after which no amount of observation, thought or effort seems to make any further improvement. This happens both in large stages of development and also in moment-to-moment exercises. This affects all students, but adults especially.

For momentary plateaus occuring during practice sessions, a break of a few seconds to several minutes in length may allow the nervous system to recover from overload. Major plateaus in stages of learning, however, can only be accepted graciously. The best advice is not to push too hard when progress is not occurring, but rather to practice regularly, perhaps concentrate on some other area of learning, and enjoy piping as much as possible until the fingers have again become able to improve.

Most important is the requirement to pay much more attention to the mechanical details of fingering and hand-posture than the young student does. Whenever learning a new motion, expect to spend considerable time examining the motion and posture of fingers, making sure that all is correct in initial attempts with low speed and power.

Frequently the adult student should evaluate hands carefully. Watch in a mirror, use a video tape if one is available, and of course have the teacher watch the technique closely for signs of inefficiency, overwork, or dangerous shortcuts.

Every time the student attempts to advance an established motion to a higher speed or power, the vigilance needs to be renewed, both initially and periodically thereafter until the new level is reliable and comfortable.

There is also the matter of "good" vs "bad" days. The adult learner will often experience a wide range of playing ability from one day or playing-session to the next. This fact cannot be changed, but it emphasizes the importance of learning skills 100.000% and of knowing how to drop to a reliable level of playing (especially when performing) when the student is not having a good day.

Finally, there unfortunately seems to be quite a "racket" in the teaching of adults. Too many self-proclaimed adult piping specialists have never themselves played above the novice level. They have never faced, let alone solved, the problems of making fingers produce sounds as they were intended to be made by serious players.

I personally feel that a teacher should play--or should once have played--at an advanced level (able to perform all varieties of pipe music), should be happy working with adult learners, and should have established an ability to bring some adult beginners up to a solid intermediate level as judged in solo contests open to learners and players of all ages. This must include the range of music considered standard for the pipes, not simply marches and airs but also light dance music.

For the slow-of-fingers who enjoy the music for its own sake but find they are not getting control of the bagpipes, a good alternative is the (Irish) tin whistle or pennywhistle. This cheap, portable and very reliable instrument actually sounds much better with slow and moderate speed fingering than with the blinding speed of the professional piper, and embellishments are entirely optional. It has the added bonus in being able to play along with other common folk instruments. Smallpipes are another option for those with a good musical ear and commitment to the maintenance required to keep dry-reed pipes in good tune & working order.

Special Problems of the Musician-Learner


How to Un-learn Bad Playing


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