How often have we pipers been told to “blow steady” or that our chanter notes or drones are “wavering” in and out of tune while we’re playing? On the other hand, how can other pipers seem to blow so steadily that one can barely see their arm move?
Steady blowing is a learned skill, and for most of us pipers it does not come naturally. One of the great challenges of mastering the bagpipe is the sheer physical exertion and coordination involved with playing this instrument. Not only must we memorize our tunes, play on the beat, play in unison with others, we also must march and coordinate our blowing and squeezing, all while blowing at our chanter reed’s sweet spot. These efforts are enough to make some of us want to switch to another, more simple, musical instrument, right?
Please note that when we refer to “steady blowing” it means blowing at the chanter reed’s "sweet spot": maintaining a constant pressure inside the bag that allows the chanter reed to vibrate to maximize the reed’s full range of harmonics. If we blow steadily, but below the sweet spot, we will certainly fail to produce good tonal quality. For great discussion on tonal quality, refer to the following link:
We need to approach learning steady blowing in a logical way, and by doing so, our efforts will soon be rewarded. A tube water manometer is an essential tool that will help a beginner to get a grasp of the concept of steady blowing, and a more advanced player further improve their blowing prowess.
Before using the manometer, however, consider the four phases of blowing and squeezing, as follows: First, there’s the act of 1) blowing into the pipebag, 2) transitioning to squeezing, 3) squeezing steadily (allowing us to inhale) and 4) another transition to blowing. All four of these actions must not only be coordinated, they also need to become absolutely second nature. We simply can’t be thinking about blowing and squeezing while we’re playing a tune. Steady blowing needs to become as automatic as our breathing, which then allows us to concentrate on playing to the beat, correct notes, embellishments, etc.
How to Do It
Now, the time has come. Attach your manometer to one of your tenor drones, and assure a snug fit. Since our goal is always to play at the sweet spot, play the scale up and down, one second for each note, and observe how close to the sweet spot you can keep the water. It’s not easy, is it? A reasonable goal, especially for a beginner, is to keep with water level somewhere near the sweet spot, say plus or minus 1-3 inches (3-7cm). But advanced pipers should be able to maintain a water level AT the sweet spot with a much more narrow range of plus or minus one-half inch (1 cm), regardless of the type of tune or its tempo.
To begin your journey into steady blowing, play Low A and hold it for several breathing/squeezing cycles. Concentrate on trying to keep the water level exactly at the sweet spot. But while you’re playing that one note, also observe what you’re doing that makes the water level change. Where are the pressure swings during the blowing cycle? Does the water level go up or down at the transition between blowing and increased squeezing? Are there big changes only during squeezing or blowing? Is the variation at the transition where we start blowing again after taking another breath? Most unsteady blowing occurs at one or more of the four points of blowing and squeezing. Lack of good coordination during these cycles is known as a “physical blowing error.” Such errors can certainly be eliminated with dedicated time with manometer.
The building blocks of learning steady blowing extend from playing single notes, to note changes up and down the scale, through arpeggios, simple tunes, and then more complex tunes, all the while using the manometer as the gauge of your progress. Most of us tend to tense up and blow harder (and unsteadily) with tunes with faster tempos. But by going from the simple to the more complex, all the while focusing on our blowing and squeezing, we will build on our ability to have steady blowing become automatic. After a few sessions with the manometer, you will definitely get a feel for what it takes to blow steady, and at the sweet spot.
We should expect it to take at least 20 sessions with the manometer to achieve reasonably steady blowing, but some improvement will happen right away just by our being aware of where we’re making blowing errors. Be patient. Steady blowing will come to those who become self-aware, and then endeavor to improve.
Learn more about how to improve your blowing steadiness by visiting these great Dojo U classes: