South Africa correspondent Nicholas Taitz has devised what may be a new practice idea for those unable to play their pipes because they live in a flat or apartment. There must be many hundreds worldwide with this problem. Nicholas writes…
I recently came up with what I think is a very effective practice idea for the big pipes. Like many pipers, I don’t have a venue available late at night where I can practice on the pipes and as a result I struggle to get enough time on the full instrument. Practice chanter is alright as far as it goes, and some good fingerwork, as we all know, can be done on it, but it has its limits.
One need only compare how well we can play on the practice chanter compared to the pipes to see the limitations of the former as a practice tool for high performance on the latter. So the dilemma remains – if you want to practice pipes up to two to three hours a day, and have no venue, what can be done? I have a rather simple solution that I am enjoying and which I hope may be of use to others. Luckily I have a spare bagpipe which I keep fully set up for this method. If you don’t have a spare set it’s still possible to employ my practice idea using your main set.
First, take the pipes and close all the drones off. This may best be done by corking the tops. I have closed off the reeds in mine, which is probably a bit drastic, but it means I needn’t bother with corks. If I were using my main solo set I would of course use corks in the drone tops. Whatever the method, the drones are stopped. I use a spare pipe chanter of the same make as my competing chanter, Naill. I set it up with a very hard chanter reed, which I can hardly even get to sound.
Stick this in the pipes, and you have, when blown at your normal easy solo pressure or a wee bit below, a silent pipe which still takes air! This allows you to blow almost as normal. If the chanter reed is very hard, you can blow and remain silent. The sound made is only of the air flowing down and out through the non-vibrating reed and the chanter.
This method enables one to approximate playing the pipes as closely as possible in almost all respects. First, your arms and hands are in the same position as when competing. Secondly, you are squeezing and blowing, and especially important is the fact that the squeezing arm is working whilst having to play technique – just as when competing. Thirdly, the bottom hand is in the correct competing position.
Some may say this method lacks aural feedback (you don’t hear enough of the music you are practising) and so is of limited use. I’d argue the opposite – by having to concentrate on the fingers and how one moves them, one’s focus is enhanced. As MacDougall Gillies said, not only should your ear hear a gracenote, your finger should feel it too. This method is best suited to slow work on technique, or slow work on tunes, I feel. At speed its value may be different, but is perhaps not as beneficial as it is for slow technique work.
By focusing on the hands and the ‘blips’ of air the fingers produce as the air escapes, one’s work on gracenotes whilst maintaining correct hand position is really focused and effective. This is the greatest value to be found in this practice method. I hope it might be of some use to others in pursuit of improving their piping. As we all know, good technique liberates the music, and this kind of practice done daily is of substantial benefit.
All basic technique and scales can be practiced this way. An hour a day or less yields exponential dividends I believe. Even 15 mins a day can be of great benefit as it is such relevant and effective practice. Of course all of your tunes, band sets and medleys can be worked on, not only technique. And one other point: this ‘silent’ practice on the full pipes keeps the lips, and all the muscles we use when blowing, up to strength so that when we get to the band hall or any other place where we can play with impunity there is less chance of blowing past, or fingers, neck and arm muscles tiring.
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