Bagpipe Instruction: How Does an Adult Beginner Begin?

By Elizabeth Anne Muckle, Calgary

The offering of a one hour weekly beginner bagpipe instruction course at our prestigious Conservatory of Music at Mount Royal University, Calgary, has raised a number of concerns about instructional approaches to assisting trusting enthusiasts as they begin mastering the essentials of a complex skill. 

The group session, offered in the Fall 2019 from Sept. 10 to Oct. 29 will be continued in the winter term, starting the following February. 

Apart from leaving the new learners to their own inadequate and possibly misguided supervision for an extended time, the proposed list of learning objectives and anticipated results appear, in my opinion, too ambitious for a beginner. 

Programme description includes the following statements: ‘Highlights of the course will be learning finger movements and embellishments in a detailed and simple manner. This will build a firm foundation in playing the Great Highland Bagpipes at a competent level. Specific building blocks to the course will be the following: Learn to play and read the notes of the Scale, Grace notes, Triplets, Doublings and Taurluath’s [sic]

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‘Depending on progress, a few tunes will also be covered such as the Brown Haired Maiden, High Road to Gairloch, Highland Laddie and the Mist Covered Mountains. Class fee for eight hours of group instruction is set at $250.00 plus the optional but practically necessary parking fee of $64.00; thus hourly fee for group beginner instruction $39.25. 

This eight hour session is at odds with the statement, ‘Learning the bagpipe is difficult enough without setting unrealistic targets’, (ref. Bagpipe Tutor 1, by Robert Wallace (RW), 

Experienced teachers know that covering something is not the same as teaching and resultant learning by the student. 

It would be very interesting to know if any teachers have ever observed that eight weekly one hour evening group sessions have resulted in beginning students completing such an ambitious curriculum to an acceptable standard. Building a solid foundation of technique and musical sensitivity is a large undertaking. 

Beginners come with enthusiasm but little skill or knowledge. They trust their instructor to assist in skill development so that their enthusiasm is maintained or increased. With adult students, who arrive for an evening class after a busy day of work and other responsibilities, it is essential they realise success, personal progress, and enjoyment as they strive to devote scarce time to undertake learning of new skills.

Adult beginners are a brave group and deserve an instructional programme that is geared to their beginner level, realistic expectations, and adequate resources. Individual instructional time, especially for a beginner is crucial. No one is born that knows how to listen for a crossing noise or to identify any false fingering that may sneak up, unwanted, into their beginning habit formation.

Pressure, self imposed or otherwise, to get through the curriculum and play through all or any of the tunes covered, can only lead to unwanted musical results and a limited piping future. 

How should a beginner proceed to learn to play the bagpipe? People come with a variety of learning styles, prior knowledge, prior skills, motivation, physical strength and co-ordination, determination, etc. 

Given this great variability, are there particular principles that should be followed? What did the expert players of today do in their first instructional lessons? Why do some keep at it and others give up?

Of those at a high level of playing, do they have ‘piping faults’ that were not noticed or addressed in their formative stages? How did some pipers get to be so good and be able to have maintained enjoyment in playing ‘simpler’ tunes, such as ‘Will Ye No Come back Again’? Is there a ‘TO DO’ and a ‘NOT TO DO’ list for piping instructors? 

For any teacher, the above questions and those similar, are endlessly fascinating and worthy of ongoing exploration and discussion. For any human being, developing sensitivity of our senses and enhancing our abilities to express ourselves through interaction and performance is crucial to our existence.

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A human being learning a new skill deserves guidance and caring support from those more experienced. Teaching should be approached with the best of intentions. 

In current instructional literature, there are numerous references to what is ‘good practice’ for instruction of beginning musicians. The bagpipe tutor books, with online video and audio resources, by Robert Wallace, contain excellent, concise, precise practical advice and sequential strategies for learning to play the bagpipes accurately and musically: 

‘There is no set time limit on how quickly these lessons can be successfully absorbed and applied to the fingers….Each student should pace their study accordingly’. RW, Bagpipe Tutor 1. 

‘It is absolutely fatal to try to rush things …when you are at the learning stage’. RW, Bagpipe Tutor 1 

‘Let rhythm be your guide, even when working through the most elementary passages.’ RW, Bagpipe Tutor 1 

‘Study the music carefully before beginning. Try singing the tune over to yourself.’ RW Bagpipe Tutor 1 

Other books with essential information for music students and teachers are:  ‘The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music From the Heart’, by Madeline Bruser. ‘The Elements of Skill: a conscious approach to learning’, by Theodore Dimon Jr. , ‘Violin Playing As I Teach It” by Leopold Auer 

It is a noble endeavour to study music and learn to play an instrument. Be the teacher your trusting students deserve to have to guide them in their quest. 

  • Elizabeth Anne Muckle is a highly respected teacher with over 40 years experience and is a registered piping tutor with the Alberta Society of Pipers & Drummers.
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2 thoughts on “Bagpipe Instruction: How Does an Adult Beginner Begin?

  1. All particularly worthy comments with regard to teaching ‘oldies.’ As a teacher of the Great Highland Bagpipe, one comes across pupils with a variety of reasons why they wish to learn. Sadly, some do not have that musical bent that I feel is essential to make a musician of any quality. There is however, no substitute for ‘one to one’ instruction with regular lessons over an extended period. I have usually taught on this basis, with one exception of a father and son who wished to learn together. This way, the teacher can be completely aware of any pupil’s issues and problems and in all cases, I have found a vital need for encouragement and praise during the process. Having said that, I was three years on the practice chanter before I ever got to grips with the full set. I don’t strictly advocate that these days, but I do feel that perhaps pupils can be premature in tackling the GHB. As we all know, if the fingers are not sufficiently adequate, they will be the first thing to let one down when tackling the demands of the blowing technique.

  2. A beginners group course is not the way to start learning. Everybody is different – some will have co-ordination problems, some will have fingers that lay across a chanter as if they were born to play the pipes, others with long, bony fingers might really struggle. The ones with difficulties will either get left behind, or the more able ones will get bored, waiting for the teacher to deal with the less able. One-to-one is the only way: after all, the GHB is probably the most difficult instrument there is, to learn

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