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Is it You or Your Pipes?


Have you been off your pipes for a while?  Are your pipes now hard to play?  How do you know whether the struggle is because of your pipes or because of you?

Andrew explains the chanter reed litmus test to be sure your reed is the correct strength.  Carl addresses how best to check your bag for airtightness.  These guys will help you get back on your pipes no matter how long it has been.

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Video Transcription:

This is from Brian, January 3rd. He had his pipes silvered before Christmas. Nice, congratulations. I can't have nice things, so that's good for you, "The turnaround took about a month, so now I'm fighting my way back to reacclimatizing my far-from-youthful lungs. It feels a tad labored, so I thought I'd test for leaks and cork the bag. I returned for the bag after 15 minutes and it was still fairly firm. I know that air tightness is never 100%, but it had lost maybe 5% inflation." That's after 15 minutes, by the way. I don't think that's that bad if you've only lost 5% in 15 minutes.  "Therefore, I had a good hunt for a leak, slightly squeezing, but couldn't find anything. I'd be grateful for any thoughts."

Maybe you have lost strength in form, right?  When we're talking about strength in blowing the bagpipes, there's a couple things to think about. Let's just start at the top, lip strength, that tends to be the first thing to go. If you haven't played a lot, your lips are going to get weaker and we need to practice regularly to get that strength.

Then, we've got our diaphragm strength, we've got the capacity of our lungs. All these things are important things to think about, right? I always want to do one line of Scotland The Brave mouth-blowing on my chanter. What you could find after a month of not playing is the reed where you used to be able to get through that one line, now you can't anymore. That's a great litmus test for whether or not your chanter reed is too hard and/or the right strength for you, is to be able to play the first line of Scotland The Brave, right?

Then, the next thing I want to say is, if you could play the first line of Scotland The Brave from start to finish mouth-blowing your chanter, followed by doing the four questions of bagpipe maintenance correctly, it's scientifically impossible for your pipes to be too hard to blow, okay? Somewhere in there is the answer to your question. Basically, he's coming back after a month, his pipes feel really hard to play, okay? Somewhere in those five things, do the litmus test for the strength of your chanter reed, followed by redoing the four steps in absolute detail, it's scientifically then impossible for your pipes to feel hard to play.

If they still felt hard to play after doing that correctly, it would only be a matter of maybe reevaluating our form with our blowing, maybe. Maybe things get a little out of sync, so maybe you're out of practice, but that's it. Do those things. Do the chanter strength litmus test, followed by the four questions of bagpipe maintenance correctly and it's scientifically impossible for your bagpipes to be too hard.

Cool. I have a thought here also, Brian. There's something we need to remember here. When you blow up your bag and you set it down and you walk away and 15 minutes later you come back and it's still fairly firm, double-check that it's not just deflated. That the pressure itself has deflated, and then just the bag (when it's under pressure) doesn't lose anymore air. We want to do something more like a kneel test, where you literally take the bag and you kneel on it. We're putting it over pressure there, but then we can really feel if there's air leaking out. It could be leaking out for the first three minutes, even fairly significantly. As soon as it loses the pressure in the bag, it stays more or less inflated. That, I would double-check there that it's really airtight.

That makes total common sense.  That's a great point. Instead of leaving it for 15 minutes, just do a kneel test for 30 seconds, that's what I do. I season my bag, I get it going the way I want, and then I kneel on it, which is ridiculous amounts of pressure, consistently for 30 seconds. Then, if it only loses 5%, I'm pretty damn happy, right?  Not to mention, it takes 14 and a half less minutes to get that over with. If you don't feel confident in doing the kneel test, blow it up under your arm and maybe, with your free arm, grab your arm and just squeeze on it really hard for 30 seconds and make sure it stays like a football.

Right. You shouldn't be able to feel any movement, whether you're on your arm or kneeling. There can't be any deflation that you can feel. If there is, that means you're definitely losing air.

100% agree. That's it. Good question, though. Really good question.

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Andrew Douglas Andrew is a prolific practitioner of the bagpipe, having been active at the highest level of pipe bands, solo competition, teaching, and creative endeavors for the past 20 years. He's also the founder and creator of Dojo U and of PipersDojo.com