Is it difficult to play bagpipes?

This is definitely the most frequently asked question during seminars, musical workshops or other meetings with musicians and amateur musicians.

 As it happens the answer depends on many different factors. The most important thing is passion for the instrument itself and music in general. 

Sometimes the bond between the person and the instrument is instant and happens the moment they see or hear it, whereas other times it builds up slowly. So it isn’t easy to answer this question to someone who has come into contact with this instrument for the first time as they doubt they have ‘enough passion’.

I will try to give a little help writing some practical advices about the world of bagpipes:  

1 - bagpipes don’t have many notes, usually only nine, but some have up to eighteen and in rare cases a more sophisticated one could go up to a maximum of about thirty. This means that to play the notes of the melody your fingers only practice a limited number of movements. This can be an encouragement for some students, but let’s look in further detail…  

2 - bagpipes are built in a way so that the sound never stops. Once you start playing the flow of air creates a continuous sound until the end of the melody. How then are you able to separate one note from another? Between one note and another in a melody, you need to add a third sound or group of sounds, that gives the impression of a gap between the notes and gives it a rhythm. Basically this means that the fingering becomes a little more complicated.  

3 - music has its own rhythm. Instead, to play the bagpipes, you need to interiorise two different rhythms. When we play this instrument we don’t actually activate it from our mouth like a recorder, clarinet or oboe, but through a bag which functions as an airtight reservoir, regulating the flow of air. You fill the bag with air and then you play. When you need to breath you can maintain a continuous sound by pressing the bag with your arm to continue the sound. This cycle has its own rhythm which depends on each person’s lung capacity, the size of the bag and by how much air is needed for that particular instrument. The sound remains continuous, independent of the tempo of the melody we are playing. Basically you need to gain a certain independence between the tempo of the music and the rhythm of your breathing. Some people find this a spontaneous action, but for others it can be quite difficult to get at the beginning. In both cases there are a series of exercises you can do to help improve this technique.  

4 - another important thing to take note of is instrument maintenance. All musical instruments need special care to work correctly and play in tune. The time needed to look after and care for the instrument depends on the various type and does not always depend on the competence of the musician. Sometimes it is more than enough to let the maker or the specialist technician sort out any problem. In the case of bagpipes maintenance is a daily commitment in which learning to play and learning to look after the instrument go hand in hand and most normal maintenance should be done by the musician himself. Bagpipes are made with different materials: leather for the bag, wood for the pipes, cane for the reeds of chanter and drones. Because these are all natural materials they are delicate over time and to climate variations. As the musician gains experience he learns to understand and manage these variables so as to keep the instrument in top condition. In the beginning this continual maintenance can seem like a great responsibility but with time this comes an enjoyable daily routine. Bagpipes are a very tactile instrument and their playing positions shows a close connection between player and his instrument. It is important for a new bagpipe player to took up the maintenance challenge, only in this way he will understand well his instrument, the secret of its voice and also the right playing approach. 

To accompany bagpipes enthusiasts on this adventure there is a bagpipes course in Padua. 

This School started from a meeting between ‘Musica Inspirata’ and Be on Stage Factory of Selvazzano Dentro. A music school aimed at modern music teaching which expanded its program towards folk and early music opening the "Scuola di Musica Popolare del Veneto". You can find many more informations clicking here:

Course informations

Courses are structured around 60 minute weekly lessons which take place at Be On Stage Factory located in Via A. Meucci 2 in Selvazzano Dentro (PD).

The first lessons are entirely dedicated to getting to know the instrument, its components and breathing techniques. When you have gained confidence with these first steps you can go on to learn technical exercises which can be applied to tunes.

You start with a soprano recorder in C with German fingering and even the plastic ones are perfectly adequate. You will also need a metronome. There will be time to talk about all this during the first lesson. For the first few lessons you will be able to try out the teacher’s bagpipes, then once you have understood where you want to go from there you can go on buying your own instrument so you can practice and continue at home. 

The first part of learning is based exclusively on single individual lessons. Once you have reached a certain level you can participate in group lessons which helps students share their passion for the music and work together to improve their playing intonation and rhythm. 

It is important to note that it is very useful to start using the recorder even though many of us didn’t enjoy using it in school! Bagpipes are very complex musical instruments which require a great deal of movement while playing therefore it is important to learn songs on the recorder first. This is especially important due to the concentration needed on actually breathing when playing the bagpipes which would be counterproductive if the student was unable to play the song well first, on the recorder. This means the recorder is very useful to learn songs and practice fingering on so it can be then transferred easily onto the bagpipes. Plastic recorders are perfect for this preparation especially as they don’t require great physical effort and the volume is limited. They are also very cheap and they have exactly the same fingering as the bagpipes we use during the lessons.

Lastly we want to make a note on the type of instrument used in these lessons. It is possible to study two different type of bagpipes and every student can decide which one.  The first type are hypothetical reconstructions of early instruments and the repertoire played on them comes from the Medieval and Renaissance period and sometimes from folk tradition. Additional information on the type of instrument can be found clicking here.
A second type of bagpipes are traditional folk instruments from Galicia, their name is Gaitas and the repertoire studied on them will be tradicional galician music. 

This is to clarify that the course is not dedicated to other bagpipes, but specifically to the instruments specified above. Although some general tuition can easily be applied and adapted to different types of bagpipes, it is important to remember that every type of bagpipe has its own heritage, its own sound and its own specific technique. 

Here you can take a look to a couple of videos about these two different type of bagpipes:

Should you require any further information or have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us by phone or email and come and visit.

See you soon and happy playing!