Producing an excellent, quality sound on your bagpipe should be a worthy goal for every piper whether you’re starting out, have a few tunes under your belt, or are an experienced vet in the piping trenches. A water manometer is certainly a vital tool to help you along in this process. Here at Dojo U there are numerous video tutorials, classes, and free articles espousing the details and benefits of manometer use to build better sound production so, we won’t delve into too much detail about manometer use as it is thoroughly explored elsewhere here on Dojo U and in “Master the Steady Blowing Trifecta” success plan.
To recap: A water manometer is essentially a “U” shaped tube partially filled with water. One end goes into your pipes, usually at the top of a drone. When you strike up and play, the pressure from your instrument is reflected back through movement of the water through a section of the tube. The water level’s stability in the tube is a visual feedback cue for how well (or poorly) you are holding a consistent pressure through the instrument. That consistent pressure should be at the “sweet spot” of your chanter reed.
Our objective is to be blowing at the sweet spot consistently and sustainably for the duration of a performance. It can seem very confusing at first when doing this kind of work. The path to the results you want may seem murky and elusive. You might question whether this is helping at all and ask yourself, “Why the heck am I doing this, I just want to play tunes?!” When that kind of doubt creeps in, it’s time to dial back and set up a framework of small goals and benchmarks to mark your progress.
Physical Blowing Milestones: Start Small and Stay Small
Like mastering the technique and music of a new tune, good sound production moves in stages by breaking down the fundamentals into their smallest parts. For those pipers just starting out on manometer work, the physical blowing mechanics can pose a challenge. Once you have found the “sweet spot” and marked that place on your tube, you should play a single note, let’s say Low A. Again, your objective is to keep the water level in the manometer steady so it is not bouncing around. The duration of a typical two-parted, 2/4 march is about 60 seconds give or take. That is your first target:
Can you get there right away? Maybe not. You may find it difficult to hold steady the entire 60 seconds. That’s OK! Note the amount of time you are able to achieve this. It might be 20 seconds at first. That is your milestone. The next milestone is then to hold it for 30 seconds. Once that is achieved, move to 40 seconds, and so on until you can comfortably play Low A at the sweet spot for 60 seconds. Make the changes to your blow–squeeze cycle and/or your body mechanics that you need to make, adjust and experiment. Do this in increments of about 5 to 10 minutes per practice session.
Mental Blowing Milestones: Lower the Demand
“Mental blowing” is that mental anomaly that causes physical pressure changes in different parts of your playing. Part of manometer work is to improve those anomalies as along with the physical mechanics of playing. Once you have mastered the single-note exercise and are adept at maintaining a pressure that keeps your note at the sweet spot, it’s time to move on to actual playing. But again, we stay small by lowering the mental demand on the process. The next target:
Play the scale up and down at a slow tempo at the sweet spot.
Set a metronome to 50 bpm. Play Low G for 8 beats, then move to Low A and so on up the scale every 8 beats. From High A, move down the scale similarly. The entire exercise will take roughly 2.75 minutes. Can only reach D before the water of the manometer starts bouncing? That’s OK! Then your milestone is to reach E for 8 beats keeping the water level steady. Do not try to move on until you are able to achieve this small milestone. Continue with each note similarly up, and down, until you are maintaining your pressure at the sweet spot.
Small to Big
Setting small, achievable milestones for your sound production can have a greater impact on your skills than you might realize. These are exercises that are infinitely adaptable. But they are exercises. There really is no need to blast out lengthy pieces of music while plugged into the manometer until you have mastered the necessary skills. These small milestones are designed to build those fundamental skills that underlay great sound production. Small exercises like this will pay off when the time comes to move onto the bigger stuff of playing tunes in performance. It’s like sitting in an uneven, wobbly chair when trying to drink your tea. Sometimes all you have to do is jam small bit of paper under one of the feet to improve the whole experience.