Saturday, October 23, 2010

Blowing a Bagpipe

Having assisted several pipers lately it appears to be a common thread that poorly controlled blowing technique is severely hampering the production of tone produced by many pipers.
There are several issues to look at when attempting to produce a good, steady, tuned sound from a bagpipe.

1. An airtight instrument. Both bag and ALL joints.
2. Well set up bagpipe and reeds that do not use too much air.
3. Correct blowing and arm co-ordination.
4. Blowing correct tone.

Check Instrument
The bagpipe should be airtight. Cork all stocks, insert a blow stick and blow up the bag. The valve should be working correctly and the bag should stay up very tight. Try to twist the stocks in the bag. They should be tied in firmly. This applies to all types of bags.
Next step is to check that all joints are tight and none leak. This will affect steadiness if they leak at the stocks, but will also affect the instrument if the drone slides are loose and wobble.
Lately I have been seeing all sorts of gadgets and gizmos in the bags. Moisture control systems and drones valves are fine, but I fail to see how they can be left in an instrument if they affect steady blowing, or tone. I have seen a few instruments with all the gadgets lately that were simply unplayable.

Check the reeds
Reeds should all be efficient, meaning they should not use too much air. Drones should be set so that they cut out if overblown, but produce a free pleasant tone. Double toning at the strike in should cease before the chanter sounds. When testing drone reeds they should be under blown to ensure a double tone does not come back easily whilst playing.
Chanter reeds should be free and as easy to blow as stability will allow. It should not be a huge physical effort to blow a bagpipe. A well rehearsed piper should find their instrument refined and reasonable easy to blow. As a rule, it should be no effort to play for an hour or so.

Blowing a chanter

The next stage is to insert a chanter with the drones in the stocks but corked. The chanter should be blown so that with even pressure up the scale all notes sound true. Blow high A. Now think pressure. There should always be pressure from your arm on the bag and never any wild variations.
Fully inflate the bag until it can take no more air, too many pipers play with a semi filled bag which allows for a lot of arm movement. The pressure of the air now within the bag must now be maintained. Very gently squeeze with your left arm SLIGHTLY BEFORE taking a breath. The pressure in the bag should remain constant. Blow more air into the bag but DO NOT slacken off your arm. Allow the air you blow in to push your arm. Once again when the bag is fully inflated gently squeeze with your left arm and repeat the process. Too many pipers pump their bag. Blowing into the bag does not equal the same pressure from start to finish. Whilst taking a breath the amount of pressure on the bag increases until you start blowing again. The pressure applied by your arm should then decrease evenly until your breath reaches its maximum pressure.
High A should produce an even tuneful sounding note that does not vary. When you get proficient at this, other notes and then a tune can follow. Slow tunes with long sustained notes are best for this purpose.

Blowing drones

Another exercise is to cork your chanter stock and tune your drones together. Listen to them as you blow and practise the same technique. They should feel nice to blow, sound steady and even and produce a pleasant full tone. If they vary a lot, you should go back to the previous steps.

Blowing the entire instrument
The next step is to add a chanter. If an experienced piper, you can play all drones. If not add them one at a time. The same technique should now be practised with the entire instrument to consider.
Listen to the tone the chanter produces against the drones. Every note should sound true and steady.
1. Do not get into the habit of blowing harder for top and notes and the easing
off for the bottom hand notes.
2. Do not take too long a breath.
3. Do not blow harder for difficult or fast tunes and softer for slow or easy tunes.
4. Do not under blow your chanter so that high A is indistinguishable as a note, or your pipes choke.
5. Do not over blow so that high A screams and your chanter squeals.
6. Play long slow tunes and listen to the drones against your chanter and practice holding long stable notes.
7. Piobaireachd is excellent for this.
8. A water meter or tuner can help when trying to visualise what is at fault when steadiness cannot be achieved.

Always aim to blow correct tone
This starts on the practice chanter long before you pick up a set of pipes. Low A and High A should be an octave apart. After a short time you should begin to realise whether the notes on your practice chanter are in tune or not. Learning to tune your practice chanter and blow that tone consistently at an early stage will help you when moving up to the pipes. Every time you play your pipes you should attempt to tune them to the best of your ability. Test you blowing technique during the tuning procedure, and then listen to your sound 100% of the time when playing. Listen for steadiness of drone sound, the sound of the chanter against the drones and eventually the sound of your chanter against those of the rest of the band.
Ensure that you are match fit and able to perform on the full instrument with comfort for the required time frames.
Many pipers blow differently when tuning to one note as compared to playing a tune. Many also blow differently for various tune types. It is important to be able to separate blowing pressure and technique from actually playing. Listen to your instrument at all times, and with practice your ability to produce a steady and pleasant tone will increase and in turn so will your enjoyment and that of your listening audience.

There is a lot more of this article and other information to be found in Brett Tidswell’s book, “The Complete Pipers Handbook”. This is the most comprehensive guide to setting up and playing the bagpipe that has ever been written. It is available here:

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Psychology of Performing

By P/M Brett Tidswell


Piping, Drumming or playing in a Pipe Band has long been dominated by competition. Actually performing in the presence of an informed audience also forms a large part of what we do. There are equally the same pressures on the performer when playing in front of one’s peers as there is in competing. Many players fail to perform at their peak in front of an audience due to the distractions around them or those created in their own mind. Many performances also fall down when preparation is lacking. The most confident of performers will not play at their best on a poorly maintained instrument, or when their performance is inadequately prepared and rehearsed. On the other hand a well rehearsed performance on an immaculate instrument can crumble, due to the performer being nervous or inexperienced. Let's take a brief look at some of the basics of putting together a performance both physically and mentally.


The goal is obviously to present yourself in a confident manner. Start by looking smart and gaining the attention of the audience and the judges. You should look professional, your uniform should be immaculate, you are groomed appropriately, and you have good bearing. If you look good, you feel good about your appearance. Everything about you says that you know what you are doing. You look and feel confident. A good start.


Well before the event; look at the maintenance of your instrument. It should look clean and well set up. Your instrument should be able to sound great for the length of the performance and you should practice under similar conditions to the performance (There is no point in having an instrument that goes great in a small heated room at home, but stops when you get into a cold hall). If you have an instrument that is well set up, feels comfortable to play and sounds good your performance will be a lot better than one where you are worrying about unsteady drones, a squealing chanter, or a rattling snare.


Before attending your competition or performance, have a good idea what you are going to play, and have the pieces thoroughly memorised. Be well rehearsed and have the stamina to perform at your peak. If you can only just get through an MSR before your lips start to go, your shoulder feels like it is coming out of its socket or you feel like dropping your drum, you are hardly going to play at your best. When rehearsing, play more than you have to in the actual performance. Play your March twice, Strathspey twice into the Reel twice. For an half hour recital, tune up and practice for an hour. If you can't do it, you either have to look at your instrument set up, or improve your stamina. You will be a more confident performer if you know that you can do a lot more than required of you whilst actually performing. Play in the jacket you are going to use, there is no point rehearsing in a t-shirt, then putting on a jacket that causes your bag to slip, or catches your sticks. If you are playing well, you will be comfortable during the performance. So your instrument is going well and you look and feel good. Something is still missing?


You haven't competed for two years, or played in public since the beer tent session after that Pipe Band competition last year and you are now starting the ground of your least favourite Piobaireachd in front of an audience and a judge you have never seen before. You have done all the preparation above, but so has the guy after you who has been competing all season, has been given his favourite tune and played in front of the same judge at last week’s contest. There is no substitute for experience. It is a lot easier if you feel comfortable about performing and can lean back and enjoy what you are doing and really put some music into your performance.

Those who are experienced at performing at numerous venues, in front of different audiences obviously feel more comfortable in a new place than someone who plays just as frequently, but only at one venue.


There is no substitute for experience, but there are ways to make the psychological aspect of an unfamiliar place or experience a little easier. Gold Medallist Donald Bain once told me that he imagined he was competing at Inverness whenever he practised (Complete with audience and judges)." I always seemed to play well there" he said. Well, is it a wonder, in his own mind he probably played there hundreds of times. Even if you take a look at the area where you are performing before you tune up, you will at least become more familiar with this environment, and then you can imagine playing in it when running through your tunes.

Some performers lie in bed imagining the venue, running through the performance perfectly in their mind, in a completely relaxed environment. This has to be backed up by some ability to actually do what you imagine, but does help to associate being relaxed with the actual performance and helps solidify what you are trying to achieve in your own mind.


You are all dressed up. You have your instrument tuned to perfection. You have fully planned and rehearsed your performance and your knees are shaking, you are sweating and your heart is pounding at a hundred miles an hour. You are not going to play well, you feel tight in the chest and hands and want to run through the nearest exit. What do you do?

Imagine a number between 0 and 10 where you perform at your best. 0 is asleep and 10 is blind panic. Performing music needs an element of calmness and relaxation. You may select for example a four, whereas a 100m sprinter may select nine or ten. Now imagine what number represents how you currently feel. It might be eight for example. Well picture the eight in your own mind changing to a seven, then slowly to a six and so on until it gets to four. Your breathing slows, your heart rate slows, your mind is on the numbers and you feel ready to go on!

There are a number of breathing exercises that can help. Breathing out lowers your heart rate. Try taking a deep breath counting to three as you breathe in, then breathe out to the count of six and totally empty your lungs.

Remember that being calm and the effects of adrenaline are not opposites. Adrenaline gives you the energy to perform and can be harnessed to improve your performance.
A few positive last minute suggestions, nice and relaxed and hopefully a great performance will follow.


These are just a few points that I believe go to making up a solid, confident performance. The simple little psychological games that help you get your mind ready need to be practised and get better with time. Constant reinforcement of positive suggestions and frequent visualisation is required. You cannot make yourself play better than you are capable of, neither can you make up for lack of preparation. Know you can do a great performance by practising until you get it right and then use the above suggestions to ensure that you don't spoil your own good work.

No-one else makes the mistakes for you, no-one else loses concentration for you and no-one else causes your hands to clamp up and go tight. Remember you are totally in control of how well you are going to perform, and I hope the above suggestions help to bring out the best in your playing, when it is needed!

The full article can be found in “The Complete Pipers Handbook” available from where numerous similar articles are also located.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Thoughts on Chanters

Let me first start by saying that this is an observation and based on my experience and is no way a dig at anyone or any brands or bands.

I play a wooden chanter in solos. Wouldn't dream of playing plastic. It has a warm tone, good harmonics and a quality of sound that (in my opinion) plastic can't beat. I play more than one chanter by the way. I have compared plastic chanters and haven't changed. The chanters I play are very stable and I do not believe there is any added stability from plastic.

When we first started the City of Adelaide Pipe Band, we purchased plastic chanters. More for cost reasons than anything else. We then changed after a few years due to reed availability more than a chanter issue and really got a very similar sound despite reed and chanter changes. We later purchased wood chanters and the quality of sound and depth of harmonics changed noticeably. The overall character of the sound did not change dramatically. But this was the biggest sound difference we have ever had.

The question is, how much better would some of the worlds best bands be if they changed from plastic to wood chanters? I do not quite understand why some don't. I can't see that it is a cost issue. Maybe it is what they are used to? Is the chanter sound that SLOT or SFU get (as an example) that much better in tonal quality, or does an organ like drone sound (using FMM as an example) offset or enhance the tonal quality of the chanters.

On a good day there is little seperating these bands in terms of sound quality. in fact on any given day any one of the top 6, or even an outsider may have the "sound of the day".

Maybe I am just a wooden chanter snob and hear what I want to hear or am I not alone in my thoughts?

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Thursday, October 14, 2010


Last week I was saddened to hear of the passing of Ron Gallacher. Ron had been National Principal of the Australian Pipe Band College some years before me, and was very helpful to me in my early years in this position. As Pipe Major of the very successful Hawthorn City Pipe Band he was someone I always looked up to and respected. In recent years he had been very ill, and despite living in different cities I looked forward to a chat on the phone and always enjoyed catching up with him at Victorian Contests. It was great to see him at the Victorian Pipe Band Championships this year at Haylebury College and have a bit of a chat between judging bands.

Ron's time was always given generously and he tutored the Melbourne Ladies Pipe Band for some 40 years, the Geelong Ladies and more recently the Geelong RSL Pipe Band.

I true bagpipe scholar and a gentleman of the highest order. His funeral today was more like a friendly get together than a sad event, which I am sure he would have appreciated. He will be sadly missed, but not forgotten.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Free Bagpipe Music Book

I have prepared a free booklet of some simple pipe tunes that appeared on my "Scotland the Brave" album.

This is a free download from the School of Piping site

I have also prepared a series of 11 audio lessons that accompany the book and are now available from here

I hope you find them enjoyable and beneficial.