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Starting Out With Smallpipes

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  • Starting Out With Smallpipes

    I'd like to hear some comments on a fleeting thought I had about beginning with a bellows blown smallpipe instead of a practice chanter if that is the ultimate goal anyway.

  • #2
    I have always taught smallpipe students chanter first. My interest as a teacher is to see progression and improvement, and I think initially starting on the pipes would take quite a long time (months rather than weeks) for a beginner to feel they are making solid progress week to week and day to day. Like starting out with the big pipes straight away, it's not so much that there's anything wrong with it per se: it's just that it distracts from finger technique. Certainly one can argue that technique is less important to smallpipe players, and many people do, but I don't find it a hugely convincing idea. You may wish to use very different technique, but you still have to learn to use it effectively.

    Of course there are NSP and Uilleann pipes where the learner starts on them straight away, but that's partly because they have to, and it's much easier on an instrument with a closed end so you can stop, think, repeat an action.

    I'd suggest if you do go ahead and start on the pipes straight away, grab a practice chanter as well so that you can try things out on the side as well.
    -- Formerly known as CalumII


    • #3
      FWIW, I agree with Calum. You can concentrate on note execution without overlaying the challenge of bellows coordination, steady pressure, and drone tuning.
      "What we play is life." - Louis Armstrong


      • #4
        I, too, agree with Calum. And I'd underscore the importance of a student having the sense of accomplishment sooner, rather than later. Adult students, especially, seem to need that reinforcement, for I feel they frustrate earlier and/or more easily (i.e., often have unrealistic expectations).


        • #5
          I agree with the comments above. Learning to play PC is like learning to walk. Learning to play a mouthblown bagpipe is like learning to walk, chew gum and rub your stomach at the same time. Learning to play a bellows pipe is like learning to walk, chew gum, rub your stomach and jump up and down on one foot. All of the required tasks are readily learned one at a time, but trying to learn them all at once is signing yourself up for some frustration and initially slow progress, which may make you question why you are doing this. I started piping around 1998, actively played GHB in a band for about dozen years before making the almost complete switch to bellows blown SSP. After all of that, I still reach for my PC almost every day to play a tune or two or work on a new one. If you get a poly PC, it will stand up to much more abuse than your bellows blown SSP, so you wont feel stressed about leaving it on the kitchen counter, dining room table, work bench, dash board, coffee table etc. Also, a good poly PC will cost you less than $100, while bellows blown SSP start at well over $1000 depending on what options you choose.

          Good luck with your piping journey.

          P.S. I wouldn't recommend leaving your PC on the dashboard, but it happens.


          • #6
            Thanks to all for your comments. You've confirmed a nagging feeling I had about the idea. I've been on the practice chanter for about two weeks and agree about the sense of accomplishment. I can sense improvement from one day to the next, so it's been a fun experience.



            • #7
              At the Glasgow smallpipers group, absolute beginners were taught on the practice chanter first. I think it's a very good idea. A long practice chanter has similar hole spacing to an A smallpipe chanter. I'm fairly new to smallpiping myself, and have found it practical to unlearn a lot of GHB technique. Heavy throws on D or even the occasional grip can sound too much on the smallpipes, in my own personal opinion. If you want to take up the smallpipes as a unique instrument, I'd advise an instruction book like More Power To Your Elbow, from the Lowland and Border Pipers' Society. If you want to use them as a practice aid for the GHB, then just stick to whatever GHB instruction you have been receiving. I gave up the GHB when I had a battle with cancer. Not only was I physically weakened, for a few years I had so many tubes coming out of me, to be candid, wearing a kilt was impossible.
              I started properly on the smallpipes at the age of 60. I just couldn't face building up to GHB standard again, I'd been through too much. You learn things more slowly as you get older, and I have found bellows a real struggle, I'll admit, but I can't imagine how much more difficult it would have been if I hadn't have some chanter knowledge, no matter how rudimental, to revive. I started a video diary on YouTube, as an old man starting from scratch, just to give me some impetus towards picking the things up and learning, as I have had a couple of previous false starts with a set that lay in it's box untouched for years. In most of the videos my playing is absolute rubbish, I'll cheerfully admit, (another thing about getting older is that you care less and less about what other people think of you), but I like to think I'm improving. I occasionally post links to a Facebook smallpipes group for advice, because, believe me, I need it. With learning bellows, not only technique, but also timing seemed to go out the window. I'll take any help I can get, no shame in that.
              For the morbidly curious, my video diary is here
              I hope to improve enough to enter the LBPS intermediate class comp next year. Making videos is a confidence building exercise for me as I have always been a nervous performer. That's just my own personal experience. Get comfortable with your practice chanter. All the best to you and your piping endeavors, wherever they may lead.
              Callander Pipe Band FB page Please click and "like". Thanks
              Lowland and Borders Piper's Society


              • #8
                I'm going to be somewhat contrarian here. If the ultimate goal is to play bellows pipes, then ... play bellows pipes. From the very beginning.

                I started with bellows pipes. From the first day, I obsessed over learning the bellows, playing just one sustained note at a time. First the chanter, then adding one drone at a time. Countless hours over a period of about two weeks. I then advanced to tunes. In fairness, having not played any mouth-blown pipe previously, it might have been easier for me than perhaps for those coming to bellows from another tradition.

                I see no real harm in working on basic movements on the practice chanter. But serious bellows work can be taking place simultaneously Then move onto tunes once the bellows are going well.
                Last edited by Tervs and Tunes; 11-01-2021, 07:09 AM.



                • #9
                  Originally posted by Calum View Post
                  I have always taught smallpipe students chanter first...initially starting on the pipes would take quite a long time, months rather than distracts from finger technique.

                  ...Uilleann pipes where the learner starts on them straight away...
                  I've taught uilleann beginners for over 40 years and yes beginners have a lot more on their plates from the get-go than Scottish pipe beginners do.

                  The uilleann pipes are like trumpet or clarinet etc, it's meaningless to learn the fingering divorced from the blowing, because the various notes have to be blown in specific ways. Uilleann beginners have to learn to do exactly what Highland pipe beginners are taught not to do!

                  In any case uilleann beginners struggle with operating the bellows, operating the bag-arm, and fingering the chanter all at once. I have them start NOT playing tunes or scales, but just holding one note as long as they can. I have them use an easy note to finger like B (thumb and one finger on the chanter) or A (thumb and two fingers on the chanter).

                  Only when they can maintain a single note for a couple minutes with no pressure fluctuation do I have them start branching out to other notes. Getting to the point of playing the entire scale can take weeks.

                  Originally posted by Calum View Post
                  ...NSP and Uilleann's much easier on an instrument with a closed end so you can stop, think, repeat an action.
                  Seems to me that on any instrument a beginner can stop, think, and repeat an action. As an uilleann teacher I can't follow the intended meaning of that statement.

                  It must be specifically referring to NSP pedagogy about which I know nothing. (The uilleann chanter has an open end.)

                  proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; Son of the Revolution and Civil War; first European settlers on the Guyandotte


                  • #10
                    > The uilleann chanter has an open end.

                    Not when it's sitting on your knee!

                    Point being, on the Uilleann chanter or the NSP, I can close the chanter, stop sounding, and I'm not having to put (much) effort into keeping the instrument going, so the beginner has brain space available to think about what they are trying to do. With the smallpipe, you either keep sounding the chanter, or you stop entirely.
                    -- Formerly known as CalumII


                    • #11
                      Just a suggestion for the O.P-why not use a poly SSP chanter in A with a practice chanter top? My current. PC is a Cushing A SSP Chanter with a PC top he made for it.
                      Slainte Leibh/ Slan Leat, Bob Cameron


                      • #12
                        I'd like to suggest that such learning isn't an either/or. Learn the fingering and tunes on the practice chanter while spending some time getting used to the bellows and bag, learning how to hold a note and as Kevin puts it, "learning to walk, chew gum, rub your stomach and jump up and down on one foot".
                        "It only has 9 hard can it be to play?"