Op-Ed: Not Just a Pipe Dream

Michael Young ’23 plays the practice chanter.

Most people who want to learn an instrument usually go with the piano or guitar, or something else commonly played. The first instrument I learned was technically the guitar, but in pursuit of something less common, I learned the electric bass.

I already know how to play the bass, but most musicians I know end up learning a second instrument. My friend, an excellent drummer, started to learn the mandolin a few years ago. I decided to follow him by tackling the bagpipes.

Let’s get something straight; the bagpipes are very difficult to learn, and it’s not something you just pick up. Beginners play a practice chanter, a part of the bagpipes where the melody is created. This helps beginners learn the correct finger positions for notes.

Usually, one uses the practice chanter for about a year before playing the full bagpipes. I got my practice chanter at the end of 2019, so if I continue on, I could be playing the full set by next year.

On the bagpipes, a G note sounds more like an A-flat on the piano. In other words, notes don’t sound completely the same when compared to other instruments.

Unlike other woodwind instruments, musicians manually cover the holes where the notes are played with fingers, instead of pressing a button that sets off a contraption.

In the United States, it’s hard to find a bagpipes teacher. I know from experience. I’m learning the instrument by myself, with the help of a book, The Highland Bagpipe Tutor.

I’m learning a particular type of bagpipes, the Grand Highland Bagpipes, the most well- known—though the appeal of its sound remains divisive. To make up your own mind, listen below to an expert playing Amazing Grace. 

I like the sound, but the practice chanter is not as elegant. It sounds more like a recorder than a bagpipe.

Some people think that the bagpipes are just a Scottish instrument, but they are found all over Europe. There are also multiple sets of Portuguese bagpipes and Spanish bagpipes. There are bagpipes in Italy, Poland, the Baltic’s and even in the Balkans.

Not matter the type, bagpipes are not a silly instrument. They take years to master, and the learning is a unique experience. I’m glad that to take up the challenge.

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