Learning to play the Great Highland Bagpipes can test a musician’s patience. Unlike most other musical instruments, musicians don’t decide they want to play bagpipes, find a set, and get started. The fact is, musicians who’ve determined to learn the bagpipes may not get their hands on a set for up to two years. They’ll be starting off on an instrument called the practice chanter.
Why Play Practice Chanter Before Learning to Play Bagpipes?
A set of pipes is made up of a bag, a blowpipe, several drone pipes, and the chanter. These parts work together to produce the melody line and those distinctive drone notes.
The practice chanter closely resembles the bagpipe chanter. Basically, it sounds much like a set of bagpipes minus the drones.
This means all musicians have to deal with in the beginning is a long, recorder-like instrument. They get to save the added complications of the bag, blowpipe, and drones for later. Starting off with the practice chanter allows musicians to develop solid fingering technique before taking on the distractions and physical demands of the pipes.
Beginners will be pleased to discover that practice chanters are far less of an initial investment and can get by on a lot less upkeep. Bagpipes need a fair bit of attention when it comes to tuning and maintenance, but practice chanters usually only require a quick cleaning after each playing session.
Additionally, the practice chanter is much quieter than a full set of pipes. When musicians consider that many pipers wear earplugs to prevent hearing loss, it’s no wonder much practice is done on the practice chanter even after the pipes are mastered.
Though practice chanters are often regarded as a step up instrument to the pipes, they can be extremely enjoyable to play. Quality practice chanters have a warm, mellow sound capable of all the embellishments players use on the pipes.
Parts of a Practice Chanter
A practice chanter is basically a long, narrow tube designed to resemble the chanter on bagpipes. Musician’s blow into the top which causes a double reed housed inside the instrument to vibrate.
The practice chanter is made up of two sections. These sections are disassembled for regular cleaning.
The top section begins at the mouthpiece and widens at the reed cover. Inside this thicker part of the practice chanter a musician’s breath is channeled over the double reed. The top section ends at a decorative band called the ferrule. This band may be made of silver, stainless steel, nickel, ivory, imitation ivory, plastic, or nylon.
A practice chanter’s lower section has seven finger holes on the front and one on the back. The reed is placed in a tiny hole at the very top of this section. Below the reed, hemp wrapping creates a tight seal between the top and bottom portions of the chanter.
At the very bottom of this section is a disk called the sole. The sole is often made of ivory, imitation ivory or plastic. Because its purpose is to prevent a wooden chanter from splitting, a sole on a polypenco chanter is purely decorative.
The Great Highland Bagpipe
Nowadays, when one mentions bagpipes, one usually thinks of tartan-clad pipe bands, or the label of a bottle of Scotch whisky. But bagpipes had been around for thousands of years before they reached the shores of Scotland.
It is unknown when the Highlands first echoed to the keen of the pipes. They may have been introduced by the Romans when they invaded the British Isles, or perhaps carried over from Ireland when the Scots invaded and settled the highlands – or they may have evolved independantly.
Early Highland pipes were quite different to their modern cousins. The actual pipes themselves were crafted from whatever was available – even bone was used. Tonally, they were probably somewhat lower in pitch than modern pipes. Early bagpipes only had one drone. The design gradually improved, with more drones being added, until by the time of the last Jacobite uprising in 1745-6, bagpipes with two drones were the norm, although three-drone pipes were not unknown. Two-drone bagpipes are still played by Irish regimental bands, and are called Irish Pipes.
The modern Highland Bagpipe consists of three drones – one bass, two tenors – a chanter (the melody pipe, through which nine notes are produced), a blowstick ( through which the bag is inflated), and, of course, a bag of leather or synthetic material.
Pipers occupied an important niche in clan society. Highland pipe music evolved separately from that of the lowland scots: highland pipers came from a totally different culture and their music reflected this. Over the centuries, a style of music known as piobaireachd evolved. It is a gaelic term, correctly pronounced as piparachk, or, more commonly, pibroch. It means, simply, piping.
Pibroch is regarded as the classical music of the pipes, and is sometimes called Ceol mor (great music.) It reached it’s highest pinnacle of development with the MacKays, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan. There was no notation: pipers learnt by ear and utilising canntaireachd, a curious chanting whereby each note on the pipes has a vocal equivalent and certain signature ‘phrases’ denote different movements to be executed by the piper.
Pibroch is incredibly complex and some pieces can be twenty minutes in duration. One way of looking at it is to interpret a pibroch as a story told on the pipes. To be an acclaimed player of pibroch is the highest level of achievement for a Highland piper. Many pieces are centuries old. Traditionally, they would have been played at suitably grave and important occasions, like going to war, or to honour a chieftain.
Ceol beg or ‘little music’ is the style most familiar to modern pipers. It consists of strathspeys, jigs, reels, marches and retreats – mostly music for festivities and celebration.
Bagpipes in Battle
So highly esteemed were pipers that highlanders never went anywhere without them. Their first recorded use in battle was at the great clan fight at Perth in 1396. As a battlefield instrument, they are perhaps without equal: their strident tones can be heard at distances of 6-10 miles.
When the english finally crushed the clans in 1746, the wearing of tartan and playing of pipes was punishable by death. One piper was hung, drawn and quartered in York. Bagpipes were labelled a ‘weapon of war’. The only way for many highlanders to retain their warrior heritage – and keep playing bagpipes – was to join a highland regiment in the British army.
The work of authors like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns rekindled a tremendous resurgence of Highland culture in the Victorian era. The exploits of Highland regiments abroad captured the public imagination. Pipers and drummers marching on parade became an iconic feature of Victorian military pomp. Suddenly, pipes and all things Highland were very fashionable. Britain’s colonial expansion meant that Highland Pipes were introduced to countries around the world.
Nowadays, when one hears the Great Highland Bagpipe, one would do well to reflect that they are hearing a sound from man’s primeval past: stirring strains which once echoed above the screaming clangour of savage brawls on blood-soaked Highland hillsides.