Bagpipes may seem difficult to play for several reasons.
Let's list them in a logical order, and address each with suggested solutions.
• Bag is not airtight (including the blowstick valve)
• Joints are not airtight
• Reed seats are leaking air
• Drone reeds are not calibrated
• Chanter reed is too difficult for your level of playing
• The blowing/squeezing cycles lack good coordination
• Lack of physical conditioning
The bag is not airtight
The bagpipe bag must be 100% airtight. Airtightness should be checked periodically, at least once every few playing sessions, and anytime that something changes relative to the ease of playing the pipes. Check the airtightness by corking off the chanter stock and each of the three drone stocks. Blow enough air into the bag until you can’t add any more air. Wait for at least 30 seconds, and again try to blow air into the bag. If you can manage to blow only a small puff of air or less, and no more, the bag is sufficiently airtight. If, however, you can blow a noticeable amount of air into the bag, or if the bag is noticeably less rigid, then the bag is leaking air. If the bag is hide or sheepskin, consider re-seasoning the bag if no other cause of air leaking can be found. If the bag has grommets for the stocks, assure that the seal around the grommets is airtight. Listen at the end of the blowstick for any escaping air from a full bag. A leaking valve can sometimes be manipulated a bit to make it airtight, but it may be worthwhile to buy a new valve. An extra blowstick flapper valve should be part of every piper’s maintenance kit, along with waxed hemp, extra reeds, etc.
Joints are not airtight
The chanter and the drones should fit very snugly into their respective stocks. Never should a drone turn in its stock while tuning the drone! Use waxed hemp on the drone to assure a good, airtight seal with the stock. It should take a firm twist of the drone to remove it (carefully!) from the stock. The chanter should also fit snugly in its stock, too, and should always be removed after playing to allow moisture that has accumulated in the hemp to escape between sessions of playing.
Reed seats are leaking air
This source of air leak is often overlooked or neglected. The drones should fit firmly into their reed seats for two key reasons: The first is that a drone reed that has fallen into the bag will likely ruin your day, especially if it happens in a band situation! The second is that a drone reed that is loose in its seat will lose more air than you think. If all three drone reeds are even a bit loose, those air losses quickly add up. Every time you put your pipes together, check how firmly the reeds are in place. The best way to deal with loose reed seats is to “tap” the reed seat with a tool that cuts small threads. That way, the drone reed can be “screwed” securely into its seat, totally eliminating the risk of air leaks or the reed falling out.
Drone reeds are not calibrated
Drone reeds must be calibrated to the strength of the chanter reed so that they take as little air as possible, while maintaining rich harmonics. Any more air than that is wasted. Each chanter reed is different, and calibrating the drone reeds should be done any time a chanter reed is changed, or one’s physical location changes, especially in altitude. For example, it is a bit harder to blow the pipes in the mountains than it is on a beach. Calibrated drone reeds are most efficient to play, so all the air that goes through the reed is used to vibrate the reed. There is no “lost” or “wasted” air. A drone reed that has its tongue too open is grossly inefficient. If all three reeds are too wide open, it is very much like having small hole in your bag! (See "Take Action" below to learn more about drone reed calibration.)
Chanter reed is too difficult for your level of playing
If all of the preceding issues have been eliminated, and the bagpipe is still too difficult, then the chanter reed might be too strong for you. Drone reeds that are calibrated to that reed are too open (see above). In general, one should be able to play at least one line of a tune while mouth blowing a reed in the pipe chanter. Also, on the pipes one should be able to blow at the chanter reed’s sweet spot continuously. If this isn’t possible, or your face turns firehouse red at the exertion, the reed is too hard for you. Consider having an expert piper, someone whom you trust to know what they’re doing, manipulate the reed to make it a bit easier for you. Or buy a slightly easier reed. Over time, you will be able to advance to stronger reeds.
The blowing/squeezing cycles are not coordinated
One source of frustration and difficulty in playing the pipes is a lack of coordination between blowing into the bag, and squeezing the bag while one inhales. If these actions are not coordinated, one will end up fighting the bag, such as blowing and squeezing at the same time! The blowing and squeezing, with a transition period between each, must become totally automatic and relaxed. Pipers have too much on their minds to think about blowing and squeezing, as these movements should become as natural as breathing. But it takes practice! Even when blowing into the bag, there should be a small amount of upper arm pressure on the bag, but do not “squeeze” while blowing. You would be competing with yourself cause a lot of unsteady blowing. Think of “blowing your arm away from your body”. Then, at the point of needing to inhale, simple increase the arm pressure that is already on the bag to allow you to inhale. When ready again to blow into the bag, gently release some of the arm pressure as you begin to blow. Using a water manometer can be a tremendous tool to learn how to become a steady blower. Remember, the name of the game is to blow at the chanter reed's sweet spot. Nothing but poor tone and tuning is accomplished if one is a steady blower, but consistently at lower pressure than is needed for maximum chanter reed harmonics.
Lack of physical conditioning
Playing the bagpipes is, indeed, a physical effort, and one must develop sufficient stamina to play for relatively long periods. Frequent practice on the pipes is the key to stamina. Arm and abdominal muscle strength will improve over time. Don’t become impatient if at first you can play the pipes for only a few minutes (assuming every preceding potential issue has been addressed). The bagpipe should be a joy to play, not a grueling ordeal. It is perfectly acceptable to use an easy chanter reed at first, slowly building your stamina to advance to a stronger reed. If you can play the pipes for five minutes, shoot for six minutes the next day. Slowly build your endurance by frequency of playing the pipes.
Download our free guide detailing the 4 basic steps you need to master to make your bagpipe fully efficient (i.e. easy to play!!!)