Bagpipe Maintenance – My One Simple Technique

maintenance the four questions Jun 02, 2024
A piper adds hemp to a bagpipe tuning slide.

The vast majority of bagpipers are plagued by hopelessly hard-to-play instruments, destroying any chance of comfortably and confidently playing anything, ever, on the pipes.

In other words – they have poor bagpipe maintenance.

If this is the case for you, you’ve got to solve this problem before you can solve any other bagpiping problems.

The Golden Rule of Bagpipe Maintenance

Your bagpipes should be easy to play. Always.

The idea that pipes are meant to be hard and ‘just blowing through’ is a rite of passage is simply not productive, and prohibits anyone from actually enjoying the process of learning to play and/or developing their own true self expression.

Imagine if baseball was physically painful to learn to play. Who in their right mind would willingly subject themselves to a hobby that hurt them (not to mention actually practicing hard at it)? Tons of kids and adults love baseball. A huge industry has grown up around it, and teams around the US and the world thrive on its culture, from Little League up to adult social teams. It’s fun, promotes fitness, and provides a great sense of community and achievement.  

Meanwhile, a depressingly low number of kids or adults love piping. It’s a fringe culture, and one that is dwindling at best. Any tutor or band leader knows that attrition among brand-new beginners is depressingly high. So how do you keep learners interested? 

To me, it’s obvious. Bagpiping has to be easy, fun, and offer a sense of achievement for people to want to keep doing it. A huge part of that is that your bagpipe must be comfortable to play, from day one. 

Will you break a sweat playing bagpipes? Of course. But you should never feel physically overwhelmed. 

Identifying Key Principles of Bagpipe Maintenance

So, let’s talk about the principles of bagpipe maintenance and efficiency. How do you set up your instrument to actually be able to (comfortably) do the things you need to do on the full pipes?

The key here is to identify the essential things that need to happen to achieve an efficient (i.e. comfortable) bagpipe, break them down into singular concepts (so as never to be caught multitasking), and assemble these actions in the correct order, thereby creating a reusable system that we can always rely on to achieve an efficient bagpipe, day after day. It’s a similar process to the ones we teach here at Dojo University in our 11 Commandments of Mastery and Bagpipe Freedom program

Just like an astronaut needs to know their suit isn’t going to leak when they go on a spacewalk, we need to know our bagpipes are 100% airtight and efficient before we blow up to play music. For this reason, I like to ask myself a goofy but fitting question every single time I lift my pipes out of the case:

“Would I wear my bagpipe to outer space?” 

You wouldn’t want to go on a spacewalk while you were starving for air because you took shortcuts with your spacesuit. Not only would your spacewalk be very poorly executed – you’d probably die in the process. The same principle applies with our pipes. We can’t play complex music and create a beautiful bagpipe sound if we’re gasping for air and wrestling with a leaking bag while we play. 

Just like a spacesuit must be 100% efficient in order to secure an astronaut’s safety in outer space, a bagpipe must also be 100% efficient, utilizing no more air than absolutely necessary, so we can be comfortable and focused on music making in front of a discerning audience – an environment that’s arguably far scarier than outer space!

As it turns out, a bagpiper’s maintenance routine can be distilled into four simple questions in order to be able to safely proceed with music making. If the answer to all four questions is ‘yes’, you’re good to go. If not, stop what you’re doing and adjust before proceeding. 

Here are the four questions of bagpipe maintenance:

  1. Is my bag airtight? 
  2. Are my joints airtight?
  3. Are my reed seats airtight?
  4. Are my drone reeds calibrated?

I want to make you a promise – if you ask yourself these four questions, and check they’ve been addressed, every single time you get your pipes out of the box… you will be completely in control of the airflow of your instrument, and your bagpipes will always be easy to play.

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