Bruce Carson Wright

Bagpipe and Practice Chanter Lessons and Classes

No prior musical instruction needed.

Additional Information

The bagpipes are woodwind instruments that are distantly related to the oboe, clarinet, and saxophone.  Unlike most woodwinds they have multiple reeds, typically 4, one single reed for each of the three "drones" which are the pipes that rest on the piper's shoulder (or for many small pipes are held roughly horizontally in front of the piper) and which play a constant background chord, and one double reed for the chanter, which is the pipe that carries the melody.  All of these reeds are contained in small reed chambers and are not obviously visible unless you take the pipe apart.

The chanter is played much like any other woodwind instrument;  the piper's fingers move to cover and uncover the holes in order to make the notes -  however the pipes present a couple of unique challenges to the musician.  To begin with, because the bag produces a continuous stream of air, techniques like "tonguing" the mouthpiece to momentarily stop the air flow and separate the notes are not available.  Secondly, most pipes are not able to play louder or softer without going out of tune.  Because of this, a number of techniques have been developed to provide "articulation" between notes and some kind of "emphasis" on the strong notes.  The most obvious of these are grace notes, which are short notes that separate two melody notes.  Sometimes several grace notes are combined into a more complex sequence that pipers call an "embellishment."  Orchestral wind musicians do use analogous movements, but they are not needed nearly as often as on the bagpipe - in fact, it is hardly possible to play even the simplest tune on the bagpipe without using at least a few grace notes, while with orchestral wind instruments a student may not learn about grace notes for years. The effect of this is that the finger work required to play the pipes at even a basic level is fairly demanding.

Normally, a beginning student starts out learning how to play the bagpipe by working with a "Practice Chanter" (which pipers often call a "PC").
  This is a small instrument somewhat similar to a recorder that uses the same fingering as a pipe chanter.  Using the Practice Chanter has several advantages:
  1. It is much less expensive than a full set of pipes:  good practice chanters can be bought for $50-100, while a decent set of pipes will start at about $600 for a new plastic set and over $1000 for an African Blackwood set.  This allows the student to get started without investing in a full set of pipes.
  2. Since it does not require as much breath support as the full pipes and does not require any coordination between blowing into the bag and squeezing the bag, it allows the beginning student to concentrate on the basics of the fingering.
  3. For youngsters, you can get practice chanters that are significantly smaller than a full-sized pipe chanter, which often helps while they're getting started.
The best practice chanters and bagpipes are made in the British Isles and North America.  Very often you encounter practice chanters and bagpipes for sale on the Internet or in a few brick-and-mortar music stores that have been made in South Asia, particularly Pakistan.  These are nearly always grossly inferior, and often hardly even playable - particularly the bagpipes.

Once the student can play a few tunes reasonably well on the practice chanter, they can progress to the full pipes.  Often it is possible to find good used pipes much cheaper than a new set;  also if you are interested in playing with a band, many bands have loaner pipes that they can hand out to beginning pipers.  Most beginning pipers start out on the pipes playing only the chanter, and then add one drone at a time as they develop their stamina and coordination until they are playing all three.

Piping students who reach a reasonable level of proficiency on the pipes may want to consider playing with one of the bands in the area.  As part of my role as piping instructor for the North Carolina State University Pipes and Drums Grade 4 band, I work with the novice pipers who are transitioning into playing with the band.  Typically it takes about 2 years for a student to go from starting out on the practice chanter until they're playing in public either solo or with a band, although there are exceptions in both directions.

I am often asked what ages are appropriate for learning the pipes.  Generally speaking, anyone over about the age of 8 can start learning the pipes - much below about 8, many children's hands are too small and they don't have a long enough attention span.  No two youngsters are identical however, and a few children have started as young as 6.  There really is no upper limit to learning, and I've worked with some students who were in their late 70's - so we can probably say that it's appropriate for ages 8-80.  As with anything else, younger students can often make faster progress, as can those who have prior musical experience.

Like any other musical instrument, it does require practice.  Regular daily practice is much better than trying to "cram" an entire week's work into one session.  Most people won't make much progress if they can't devote at least 30 minutes a day to practice, and 45 minutes to an hour is better.  However, it is not necessary for this to be done all in one session - in fact, since frequency is very important, it can be beneficial to have several 15 minute sessions every day.  If you can find a few minutes in the morning, a few more minutes at your lunch hour, and then some more in the evening, you'll probably do OK.  If you can't find any time at all, you should probably take up some other pastime.

Located in the Triangle area of North Carolina - Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Cary.
Available for events throughout the Carolinas and Virginia.



Phone: (919) 286-9206
Cell: (919) 943-9289
Email me

NC State Pipes and Drums Grade 3 Band
playing at the Loch Norman Highland Games
in Charlotte, NC - April, 2008

Raleigh St. Patrick's Day Parade - March 2003

Useful Links:

The North Carolina State University Pipes and Drums
The Carolina Celt

Bagpiper in Durham
Hire Bagpipers 
 Gigmasters - Booking Bagpipers Online Since
Gigmasters - Booking Bagpipers Online Since 1997
Bruce Wright