2) The Great Highland Bagpipe.

2.1) What is a Great Highland Bagpipe?

2.2) How hard is it to learn? 

2.3) I want to learn to play the GHB; what do I do first? 

2.4) Okay, I've got a practice chanter, now what?

2.5) I live in the Aleutian Islands and there are no GHB teachers here. What can I do? 

2.6) What will a set of Highland bagpipes cost me, and where do I find them?

2.7) I can play the practice chanter better if I finger the notes like I do on a tin whistle. That's O.K., isn't it?

2.8) What is the scale of the GHB?

2.9) What key is the GHB?

2.10) What keys can a GHB play?

2.11) The popular tune I want to play needs a note in between the ones on the chanter. Is there any way to play these?

2.12) Do grace notes come before of after the beat?

2.13) What are "light" and "heavy" D throws?

2.14) Which D throw should I learn?

2.15) Which type of pipe bag is best?

2.16) Should I oil my bagpipe?

2.17) What is a Shriner?

 

2) The Great Highland Bagpipe.

 

2.1) What is a Great Highland Bagpipe?

 A) The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) is native to Scotland and is the pipe most people think of when bagpipes are mentioned. Main pipe components include a bag, a blowstick, a number of single-reed drone pipes (usually three), and a double-reed chanter. The GHB is usually played in a standing position with the bag held between the piper's arm and side. The drones rest against the piper's shoulder and point upward. The bag provides a constant supply of air to the pipes, and is inflated by blowing into it through the blowstick. The piper produces sound by inflating the bag and applying pressure to the bag with the arm. The air escapes through the drones and chanter, via reeds placed within each pipe. The drones produce a constant tone in accompaniment to the chanter. The GHB usually has three drones: two tenor drones tuned an octave below the chanter's low A, and a longer bass drone tuned one octave below the tenor drones. The chanter usually has eight finger holes, two tone holes, and a range of nine notes from low G to high A.

 

2.2) How hard is it to learn? 

A) The GHB is a complex instrument, and the initial learning curve is rather steep. A fair amount of dedication and perseverance is required to develop the initial skills necessary for playing the pipes well. It is definitely not an instrument to be learned easily and lightly. On the positive side, initial success with the GHB produces a sense of accomplishment not often found with lesser instruments.

 

2.3) I want to learn to play the GHB; what do I do first? 

A) The first thing you'll want to do is get a practice chanter, as you'll put in a fair amount of time on it before you move on to the pipes. You'll also use it throughout your piping life, so it may be best to get a good one right at the start. The practice chanter is just that - a pipe chanter which is used for practice. It consists of a chanter body, a mouthpiece, and a reed. Practice chanters come in "short" and "long" sizes, where "long" practice chanters are those which approximate the size of the real pipe chanter. Many people advocate the use of a long practice chanter, claiming that it's easier to transition to the pipe chanter.

 

2.4) Okay, I've got a practice chanter, now what?

 A) You'll also want to find a teacher. There are several ways of doing this. If there is a pipe band in your area, you might query one of the band members. There will often be one or more band members who conduct lessons for beginners; it's a time-honored technique for recruiting new band members. You can also contact one of the piping associations - these associations often have a list of teachers in various local areas. There is a list of bagpipe teachers. on the CEOLAS archive.

 

2.5) I live in the Aleutian Islands and there are no GHB teachers here. What can I do? 

A) Well, you can get one or more of the excellent printed tutorials available (see "The Printed Word", below). For some additional expense, you can also get accompanying audio and videotapes. See the "Suppliers" in the part 2.

 

2.6) What will a set of Highland bagpipes cost me, and where do I find them?

 A) The cost of a set of pipes will vary greatly depending on maker and materials. Cheap instruments can be had for a few hundred dollars, and high- quality pipes made from expensive materials can go well into four figures (dollars *or* pounds!). If you're going to be at all serious about playing you should avoid cheap imitations - with cheap pipes, you get exactly what you pay for.

 A set of good-quality pipes from a reputable maker can be had new for about $1300. A good used set can cost less. If you want fancy silver or ivory ornamentation the price explodes. You can always get pipes directly from the maker, and you can also get pipes from many of the suppliers in the resource list (see Part 2).

 

2.7) I can play the practice chanter better if I finger the notes like I do on a tin whistle. That's O.K., isn't it?

 A) Well, no. The practice chanter approximates the sound you get from the pipe chanter, but not entirely. If you finger the notes incorrectly on the pipe chanter, you'll find that you often fail to produce a true tone. Also, you'll find it impossible to correctly perform many of the common gracings.

 

2.8) What is the scale of the GHB?

 A) The chanter plays a nine note scale from low G to high A. The intervals differ from the standard western (diatonic) scale so that all notes sound good against the drones. The tenor drones sound an octave below the low A and the bass drone is an octave below the tenor drones. The absolute pitch can vary over a substantial range. Today, the low A on most instruments falls between 472 Hz and 480 Hz. Thus low A is sharper than B-flat on the standard A=440 Hz scale.

 

2.9) What key is the GHB?

 A) This is an ambiguous question since people mean different things by the "key" of an instrument. If you mean what is the natural scale of the instrument (the one with the key note at or near the bottom of the range and with simple fingering) then the actual key is approximately B-flat (notated as A in GHB music) with a flattened 7th (written high G). If you want to know what standard scale the instrument best apporoximates, then it is E-flat (notated as D). Remember that in GHB music, two sharps are understood. By "key" some people are referring to the relationship between the written and actual music. An instrument which plays as written is said to be in the key of C. In this sense the modern GHB is approximately in the key C-sharp.

 

2.10) What keys can a GHB play?

 A) Some might doubt the validity of this question for a non-chromatic intstrument like the GHB, but it is clear that most light music for the GHB is written in one of the nominal (as written) keys of A (with flattened 7th), D, or B minor. These approximate the standard keys of B-flat (with flattened 7th), E-flat, and C minor. Ceol Mhor (piobaireachd) is written in one of three pentatonic scales A (A, B, C-sharp, E, F-sharp, A), G (G, A, B, D, E, G, A), and D (A, B, D, E, F-sharp, A). Each of these scales can be used to give the effect of two or more keys.

 

2.11) The popular tune I want to play needs a note in between the ones on the chanter. Is there anyway to play these?

 A) Maybe. The GHB chanter is not designed to play these missing notes, e.g. C natural, but some reed and chanter combinations can manage some of them. See Andrew Lenz's Bagpipe Journey for fingering charts.

 

2.12) Do grace notes come before or after the beat?

 A) There is no consensus on this question, even experts disagree vehemently. For them it is a fine point in the discussion of expression. Usually this question is asked by beginners seeking a mechanical means of interpreting written music. In this context it may be the wrong question, as it pertains to just one element of expression. Notation is imperfect and cannot tell you exactly how to play the music. To do this you need to be familiar with the musical tradition to which the music belongs. Record your playing, and based on listening to lots of music of the same type, or, even better, to a good recording of the particular tune, adjust your play to match. Because beginners usually rush, a good starting point is to try to play the grace notes on the beat.

 

2.13) What are "light" and "heavy" D throws?

 A) The light throw is what is written in modern GHB music. It is best played by closing to low G, playing a D grace note on C, and finishing by lifting to D. The "heavy" or "grip" D throw has an extra low G after the D grace note. It is played by making a grip to C then lifting to D. N.B. Seumas McNeil confuses this issue further by calling the throw on D a D doubling in the College of Piping Tutor Volume I.

 

2.14) Which D throw should I learn?

 A) There is no consensus on this issue. One or the other is more popular in different regions. The light throw is more versatile and less likely to interfere with expression. The heavy throw is more dramatic. If you are in a band, use the one the band uses.

 

2.15) Which type of pipe bag is best?

 A) This depends on your skill level, how often you play, where you play, your pocketbook, and your patience. Actually with the constant introduction of new bag types and variations thereof, this topic has gotten too complicated for an FAQ. There are now sheepskin, cowhide, goretex, other synthetic, hybrids, and most of these with zippers. There are also various dessicant systems which are sometimes included with the bag. There are proponents for every bag type. Nobody has actually tried them all.

One bag type is not necessarily decidedly better than the another. Much of the differences will depend on how often the pipes are played, whether or not the piper wishes to spend more time performing maintenance, and what the piper feels comfortable with. For example, beginning pipers may want to start with a synthetic bag (to allow for more concentration on playing, and less time spent maintaining), while many more experienced pipers prefer the "control" of hide or skin-- even with the added time required to keep the bag in shape. We highly recommend that any piper getting a new set of pipes COMPARE the bag types first-hand.

 

2.16) Should I oil my bagpipe?

 A) From Walt Innes: This question refers to the bores of wooden pipes. Plastic pipes, of course, need only by cleaned with mild soap and water if necessary. The outsides of wooden pipes should be treated like any fine hardwood, that is, it is treated as appropriate for its finish. In most cases this means just wipe it with a soft cloth if it is dusty. The interiors, however, are unfinished and exposed to moisture. Many advocate regular treatment with bore oil, either the stuff in music stores, or some magic elixir from the pharmacy (usually almond oil). Others say don't bother at all. When opinions are so different, it may because it doesn't matter, or that the answer "depends." The same discussion happens for all wooden wind instruments.

 

2.17) What is a Shriner?

 A) From Larry MacLean: The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America is a fraternal and philanthropic organization in Canada, USA, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Phillipines. Their official philanthropy is the Shriners Hospitals for Children, about two dozen orthopedic and burn care hospitals that provide no-cost care to children. It is recommended that a Master Mason have achieved the 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite or the Knights Templar degree in the York Rite before he petitions to become a Noble of the Mystic Shrine. In public they are most famous for circuses and parade appearances that feature clowns, miniature cars sometimes doing drills, "Oriental bands" (shawms and drums), and the occasional pipe band. Some of the bands are stable, tolerable organizations who give pipers a good foundation. Some of them are primarily social, with spotty results. Rarely are they above "street band" caliber, leading to the comments in this internet group.

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Back: Administrative Questions
Forward: The Uilleann (Union) Bagpipe
If you have comments or suggestions, email me at walt@slac.stanford.edu Letters