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"How Long Does It Take to Learn to Play the Bagpipes?"

"How Long Does It Take to Learn to Play the Bagpipes?"


Like many such open-ended questions, it depends! A short answer would be that the time it takes to learn the pipes depends on age, enthusiasm to learn, patience, and a willingness to spend sufficient time learning and practicing.

While the world’s greatest pipers started their piping careers by the age of 8-10 years, it is interesting that adult learners make up the bulk of beginner pipers, with a good number of folks in their 30s and 40s and even older. This writer was rather old at 55 years when he started on the practice chanter. Despite such a late start, no musical background and unable to read even a single note of music, through exposure to world class instructors and Dojo University, along with frequent and regular practice, some successes in band and solo competitions have been my reward.

It is probably an urban myth, likely propagated by pipers themselves, that the pipes are the most difficult instrument in the world to play. Yes, there are a few unique challenges to the bagpipes, but any instrument that one wants to firmly master will take time and great effort. Interestingly, many adult learners naively view the pipes as "easy" to master, perhaps because they might have seen friends or other adults marching in parades, playing at a wedding, or playing a few tunes at a pub. The difficulty with the bagpipes arises because there are two main areas that must be properly addressed: 1) the physical blowing and squeezing of the bag to maintain a constant air pressure, and 2) while seeming to wrestle with an octopus, the piper must simultaneously play the tune from memory, play the tune "on the beat", and play while marching (at least when performing a "march" tune).

Instruments other than the bagpipes can be used as an analogy for anyone interested in learning how to play the pipes. Consider for a moment the following question: If you had chosen any other instrument, such as the violin, piano, guitar, flute, etc., how long do you think it reasonable would take to learn how to play it well? How long would it be before you were "good enough" to be welcomed into a group of local musicians? One year? Five years? Adults, for some unknown reason, often expect it to be an easy journey to learn the Highland bagpipes.

Adults learn music differently than younger folks. Motivated youngsters absorb music quickly, often learning "by ear". The developing brains of young people pick up new skills more quickly than adults. Adults often put pressure on themselves to succeed quickly, and invariably attempt to play beyond their immediate capability. This unrealistic adult expectation leads to frustration. Adults have busy lives and many external pressures, and may have the idea that they can be as successful with piping as with other aspects of their lives. However, like any skill, it takes time and patience. One of the many truths about playing the pipes is the following: “If you can’t play a piece slowly and perfectly, then you will never be able to play it faster.” For adult learners (as well as youngsters), the shortest path to success and enjoyment on the pipes is to BE PATIENT.

As a general rule and regardless of age, if a beginner approaches the tutor’s instruction diligently, practices often (and correctly), steady progress will be assured. One starts to learn how to play the bagpipes by using a practice chanter, which simulates the chanter on the actual bagpipe. However, the practice chanter is mouth blown. The practice chanter is used to learn the different finger positions for the different musical notes, and finger movements called embellishments, which ornamate the music. Pipers will have a practice chanter with them for the duration of their piping career, as it is useful for many pipers to learn new tunes before playing them on the bagpipe. There’s a bit of tradition that one should memorize a few tunes and play them correctly on the practice chanter before taking up the pipes. However, it is fun and enlightening for even a new student to “try out” the real bagpipes. Holding the pipes and attempting to blow and squeeze in a coordinated way gives a preview of what’s to come later. The singular reason to learn the basics on the practice chanter is because there are too many things going on while playing the pipes to learn good finger technique. Once the instructor is satisfied with the student’s progress and suggests it’s time for the pipes, the student will find a host of new challenges. An adult learner who practices on the chanter at least 15-30 minutes each day, will certainly make steady progress, and might be expected to be on the pipes within 6 to 8 months. But everyone is different.

The frequency of practice is the key to success. Like any endeavor, if it’s not done often, how can one expect progress? Learning any new skill, be it golf, cooking, or speaking a new language, takes frequent practice. Repetition is important to build muscle memory, so spending a few minutes each day, or at least several times each week, will build the required skills quite rapidly. Then, at each lesson with the piping instructor one will be able learn new things each lesson instead of re-hashing what should have already been learned. Small, incrementally steps that show progress are tremendously fun and encouraging.

From personal experience, the following are this writer’s suggested keys to success:

1. Listen to pipe music often, but reject the idea that you can play like that right away!
2. Get superb instruction
3. Practice often, even if only 10-15 minutes
4. Persevere. Find an excuse TO PRACTICE, not an excuse to do something else.
5. Never stop learning. Consider attending a summer school for pipers.
6. Be proud of steady progress, regardless of how long you think it is taking.

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John Holcombe John began piping at the ripe old age of 55 years. Always liking the sound of the bagpipes, John grew up in Oklahoma, where he never had a chance early on to experience firsthand this amazing instrument. But after moving to Indianapolis, he had the great fortune in 2004 to begin lessons with Craig Waugh, and Open Grade piper originally from Manitoba, Canada. Through that outstanding instruction, along with annual attendance at Jack Lee’s Piping Hot Summer Drummer and being a founding and continuing premium member of Dojo University, John has continued through hard work and determination to advance his knowledge and technical skills. As a retired research physician, John now enjoys immersing himself in piping, and he is proud to have won several first place medals in Grade 4 competitions in EUSPBA-sanctioned events. John’s current goal is to achieve the Grade 3 level of competence.