“My Pipes Are Too Hard!”
You are blowing and moving your arm and wiggling your fingers just as you’ve been taught, only the sounds coming out are not what you know you are capable of producing, and you’re ready for your lungs to burst as you collapse into a puddle of sweat. Sound familiar?
Beginning pipers will often be heard declaring that their bagpipes are “too hard.” This is a common complaint for new players of the instrument but also an occasional complaint of intermediate and advanced pipers too.
Many pipers will find themselves in this situation at least once. Your bagpipes may have been comfortable, but now you can’t seem to keep them going. Or, you are just starting out and they have always been too hard and playing this bagpipe thing is just not working. Even advanced players encounter this. The difference? Advanced players have learned how to address it. You can too.
There are several possible sources of this problem. Locating the true cause and taking direct action to eliminate it follows three steps.
Step 1: Ask the Four Essential Questions
Here at Dojo U, we always (and we mean always!) ask four essential questions before putting any air into our bagpipes. They are the key to obtaining optimal air efficiency and stability of sound.
- 1. “Is my bag airtight?” Put simply, cork up your stocks, put air into the bag until you can put no more in and give it a squeeze. Then try to blow into it again. If you can put in even a small breath of air, your bag is not airtight. Make it airtight.
2. “Are my joints airtight?” Make sure all the places that require hemp have the right amount to create an airtight seal. Redo your hemp at these points if needed.
3 “Are my reed seats airtight?” Make sure your drone reeds and your chanter reed are hemped so that they are firmly fitted into the seats. No wiggling or looseness.
4. “Are my drone reeds calibrated?” Drone calibrationis the key to making sure your drone reeds are taking the correct amount of air for your comfort level and chanter reed.
Have you answered “no” to any of these questions? Correcting them to get to “yes” should take care of the problem. If your pipes are still too hard, then proceed to the next steps.
Step 2: The Chanter Reed
Sometimes, you may have just picked out a chanter reed that is too hard for you to play. (And thus, your drone reeds will be calibrated beyond your blowing abilities!) What do we mean by “too hard?” How easy is it for you to blow to the “sweet spot” of the reed? Blowing to the “sweet spot” of the reed should be something that you can comfortably hit all the time. If this is too much of a chore, and you’re fizzling out after a short while, then your reed is likely too hard. Switch to one at a strength that allows you to practice good blowing fundamentals. If you were weightlifting, you would not slap on super heavy plates too soon. You need to remain at a lighter weight that allows you to master good form and movement. This is for safety as much as gaining strength. A bagpipe is no different. Play a reed that is easy enough to allow mastery of solid blowing and playing fundamentals.
A note about choosing chanter reeds: Conventional piping wisdom dictates that one should choose a new reed that is slightly harder than you’re used to so that it can break in to a comfortable level. This is an anachronistic idea left over from an earlier age of reed making. For details, check out “Choosing Your Ideal Chanter Reed.”
Step 3: Practice
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. Playing bagpipes is hard work! The physical mechanics of playing the Highland bagpipe are demanding. They will require practice. Sometimes it just might take a while for you to build up the proper kinesthetic memory and muscle strength to perform all the physical requirements with ease. The good news is, just like riding a bicycle, once you learn it, it is learned. And, just like learning to ride a bicycle, it takes constant effort before everything just “clicks.” Stick to good fundamentals, ask your Four Essential Questions, play a chanter reed that enables you to hit the “sweet spot” comfortably, and work through the frustration and the exertion. You will find yourself comfortably playing for long periods of time without collapsing in exhaustion sooner than you think.