The foundations of great bagpipe sound can be summarized in the video, "13 Steps to Great Bagpipe Sound." In Part III, we'll drill into Steps 5 through 8.
In Part II, we explored Steps 1 through 4. Steps 5 through 8 of the 13 Steps prepare you, and your instrument, to sound great.
Step 5: Find Your Chanter Reed’s Sweet Spot
A manometer should be in every piper's toolbox. That's a bold statement but it makes sense. A manometer will measure and diagnose the pressure at which you are blowing your bagpipe. It will also provide you with immediate feedback if the pressure varies. The "sweet spot" of your chanter reed is the maximum safe pressure at which a reed can be played and produce a pleasing sound without unwanted squeaks or squawks. To find the sweet spot, hook up your manometer and gradually overblow your pipes. When the sound becomes distored (gurgles and squeaks), back off just a bit. Do the notes sound clear and pleasing? That is the maximum safe pressure. That is the sweet spot. Mark it on your manometer. Move the second marker to within one inch of the sweet spot. That is where you want to be blowing all the time.
Step 6: Physical Blowing Mastery
Without doing any finger work, steady your blowing at the sweet spot. If you are blowing an unsteady tone, the manometer will show you. As you blow your pipes, ask yourself, what is the cause of the unsteadiness?
Work to keep your pressure within one inch of the sweet spot. As Andrew notes in the video, make no exceptions.
Step 7: Mental Blowing Mastery
You want to be so steady that your fingerwork does not affect the steadiness of your instrument. Play the scale slowly and note whether your fingerwork causes unsteadiness. Look for what Andrew calls "mental blowing mistakes." Ask yourself whether any particular notes or the transition from one note to another causes unsteadiness. By practicing the scale slowly while focusing on maintaining steady pressure through the blowing, transitioning, and squeezing phases of the cycle, you will be able to identify, correct, and practice maintaining a steady pressure. The result? Superior tone.
If you listen carefully as you practice steady blowing, you can transition from watching the manometer for variation in pressure to playing without watching the manometer. As Andrew notes, if you can play steadily without watching the manometer, it is a good test as to whether you are ready to move on to quality tuning.
Step 8: Bagpipe Acclimatization
When you are preparing to practice, play your pipes for 15 minutes to let them warm up. Then put the pipes down for fifteen solid minutes to let the reeds acclimatize.
The smaller problems listed in steps seven and eight do require some skill and some practice. Take your time, this is a good place to practice slowly. If you get frustrated, execute Step 8, then cue up one of your favorite piper's CDs and have a listen. That is where you are heading. That is where the thirteen steps will take you. Take your time, practice slowly, you can do it.