As its name suggests, a bagpipe is a wind instrument made of a bag attached to a number of pipes – the blow pipe, the melody pipe or the chanter, and three drones.
The ‘piper’ blows the bag by mouth through the blow pipe, and the chanter is where the piper’s fingers work to produce a tune. The drones are so called because they produce only a single note, which is either a bass (the long pipe), or a tenor (two shorter pipes).
The bag, which is made of animal skin, is held by the player between the arms and the side of the chest. Using the blow pipe, the piper fills the bag with air, and rhythmically squeezes it to feed air to the chanter and drones.
To begin learning bagpipes, a learner has to start with a practice chanter, an oboe-like instrument without the bags and other pipes. After learning a few simple tunes, usually after several months, a new set of pipes may then be required. It usually takes a focused practice of 20 minutes a day, five days a week, to be comfortable with bagpipes.
Music lessons at home with an instructor, with an instructor, via online lessons, is crucial to learning bagpipes because unlike other musical instruments, they are not easily ‘picked up’ from written tutorials, even if the player has already come from other instruments.
Bagpipes have rustic beginnings, going all the way back to ancient civilizations, but they are highly technical instruments that cannot be learned well without the benefit of a tutor, ideally through in home music lessons. ‘Grace noting’ (a short note that’s not part of the melody) and timing are central to bagpipe music, and these do not translate well into written tutorials. To learn bagpipes, and to appreciate the kind of music they make, it’s more of a show-and-tell type of instruction. Lessons can be conducted even with an online music instructor.
Bagpipe music features prominently in “Highland games,” gatherings of Scottish and Scotch-Irish clans to celebrate heritage, enjoy traditional cuisine and folk music and dance, and play traditional sports. The instrument’s close association with Scottish highlands originated from when bagpipes were played to inspire troops to battle. A solo piper plays laments at a funeral, a tradition that continues to this day.
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