Many who are reading this may consider that the title above is pure heresy, because, after all, we pipers have been consistently admonished to "blow steady"!
Of course a bagpipe has to be blown steadily—it’s the essence of the instrument, right? Why would we not believe that blowing steady should be our primary objective when it comes to getting a good sounding instrument?
In the big picture, we agree with you, but in the short term, digging a bit further into the sound that we are trying to create will answer lots of questions you may have about why “blowing steady” is a bit of a misnomer that does more to take our eye off the ball than it does to help you develop as a piper.
Obviously, becoming a steady blower is eventually important in the overall scheme of things, but before we focus on that task, there is something far more important that must concern us.
Consider an archer. Before he or she can develop the great form they need to shoot arrows accurately, what do they need to do first?
They need a target, of course! No amount of practice on technique could possibly amount to any degree of accuracy if they weren’t in fact aiming at a specific point in the distance.
Well, bagpiping is the same way. We can’t just “blow steady.” We need a target. We need to know at what pressure we want to blow steadily. Let’s dig deeper and use a bit of logic to discover what our true steady blowing target should be, and learn how you can find the target on your own.
It’s Really About “Tonal Quality”
When push comes to shove, steadiness is only a small part of our overall goal when we strike up our pipes. Actually, if you think about it, a bagpiper’s overall concern, above all else, is to produce great “tonal quality”, or “richness of sound”. In fact, without good tonal quality, it makes no difference at all whether one is blowing steadily. The resulting sound will be less than optimal.
So, what exactly is tonal quality? Tonal quality can be defined as maximizing the full harmonics of the chanter reed by blowing at the highest air pressure that creates the most robust number and quality of harmonics. You will recall that the chanter reed, as well as the drone reeds, produce far more than one pitch. There is a “fundamental” pitch, which is invariably the loudest, but layered on top of that fundamental pitch is an entire array of overtones that are mathematically related to the fundamental pitch. Those beautiful overtones, also known as harmonics, are the primary reason that the bagpipe offers such richness and fullness of sound.
A chanter reed requires energy to achieve the maximum number of harmonics. Thus, under blowing will not produce the tone that we desire. We define the pressure to produce good tone as the chanter reed’s “sweet spot”—that pressure high enough to produce good tone, but without unwanted sounds, such as squeaking or squawking. Even the practice chanter reed has its own sweet spot. This can be confirmed by playing a tune while under blowing the practice chanter. Sounds terrible, right? But when the pressure is increased, the sound becomes much more pleasing. Therefore, a focus on good tonal quality must come before worrying about steady blowing. Indeed, good tone must also come before attempting to finely tune the drones or the pipe chanter. If the chanter reed is not vibrating to its full potential, the individual notes on the chanter will be impossible to tune correctly and, even if you could tune them correctly, you’d end up with an in-tune-but-displeasing-sounding bagpipe. What a shame that would be!
Blowing at the Sweet Spot is the Target.
If one works hard at hitting the “tonal target” that is the sweet spot of your chanter reed, and develops through experience what that should sound like, steady blowing will start to come along naturally as a result. Of course, there are technical skills and concepts that we can learn later to make us super-steady blowers, but the key word here is “later.” Learning to seek the “tonal target” NEEDS to come first.
Conversely, if one focuses on blowing steady, but has no idea what pressure to maintain while doing so, the resulting overall sound is always going to be less than what you want to achieve. Stop falling into the trap! Just focus for now on hitting your “tonal target.”
Download our free guide detailing the "Steady Blowing Trifecta" - 3 basic steps you need to master the art of steady blowing on the bagpipes.