Saturday, July 7, 2012

How to get started n Medieval Bagpiping

So you want to play medieval bagpipes? You probably have questions, like "where to start", and others. So this, in brief, is what to do to make everything easier.

There are 2 ways you can go about it.

The first way is to actually find a Bagpiping instructor, and learn the traditional way. The Second way is my suggested way, which will attempt to leave you less frustrated.

When I started Medieval Bagpiping, my goals and desires were essentially strictly to learn and play Medieval bagpipes. I had no desire to learn Highland piping, or play Highland music, or play anything Scottish at all. I just wanted to learn Medieval Pipes, and nothing else. Eventually I wanted to buy a set of Medieval bagpipes. I was on a budget. I didn't want to spend the bulk of my money on Highland pipes. I wanted to jump right in.

One thing that you need to know ahead of time is that Highland Bagpipes and Medieval Bagpipes, while very similar, have significantly different fingering (what hole you have to cover with your fingers to get a certain note). Highland pipes are specialized instruments -- they are designed and tweaked specifically for playing Highland music, and when you learn them, you learn Highland fingering, rhythmic finger work, and music that is all specially tailored for the instrument. After accomplishing music on the Highland pipes, you will have one disadvantage -- you will be an expert Highland piper, and will have to learn a totally different style of piping, different fingering, etc. Though most of your skills can be transferred, you will have to un-learn a lot of what you learn. Highland piping is very hard. It's highly technical, and to be good at it requires a lot of practice -- not just playing melodies, but practicing rhythmic fingering techniques. You may not have what it takes to become a highland piper, if you want to play medieval music, but you may be cut out for medieval piping or other period instruments, and not know it.

If you don't want to get frustrated and quit Highland piping, because your reflexes aren't quick enough, and you can't master certain playing techniques, my method might be a good alternative. Also, I have nothing against Highland piping. It just may be too hard for someone who is not interested in Scottish music. It's also not good for someone who is impatient, and wants quicker results

Step 1: learn how to play the recorder

First of all, get a good plastic recorder. I highly recommend the Mollenhauer Dream Flute line of recorders. The Plastic "Medieval style" recorder, with the single holes, is an excellent instrument, and

Note the double holes on the lower section of this Mollenhauer Dream Flute. Most recorders have double-holes on the lower notes, like this.

Below is the Medieval-style Mollenhauer Dream Flute. Note the large single-holes

Though the fingering is the same, you will find that the medieval-style recorder is closer to a bagpipe. You don't have to get the single-hole version. Both cost about $20 - $30, and will last forever, barring accidents. Sure, you can get a $5 plastic recorder. It won't be different, but the Mollenhauer one is an excellent sounding instrument compared to the majority of plastic recorders.

I'm not going to write about how to play the recorder. Every recorder has a fingering chart (if you buy it new, and in a box). Learn it well. Practice it. I have found that practicing your recorder in your spare time for just 10 minutes a day is all you need to be able to get the hang of it.

The reason for learning the recorder is simple. Most medieval instruments, including medieval bagpipes, have nearly the same fingering. If you can master a recorder (Or at least become Intermediate at it), you can play a medieval bagpipe. By learning the recorder, you will develop the skills needed to play a variety of instruments -- Rauschpfeifes, Conamuses, shawms, oboes, clarinets, and various other woodwinds. Focusing on this simple, inexpensive instrument will prepare you for making music on nearly anything.

Did I mention that I still do not really know how to read music? This is because I have a well developed ear for music. This gave me an ability to figure out how to play songs accurately that many people don't. Don't worry -- if you learn how to read sheet music, you will be a better musician. It just wasn't for me.

A little background, now. When you learn Highland piping, you learn on a "Practice Chanter", which is softer-sounding, easy to blow, and has the same fingering as the Highland piper's chanter. By using the practice chanter, you eliminate the need for waking your neighbors up when you try to practice your pipes, plus you can play indoors, or anywhere, for that matter. I used to practice (and still do) on the toilet. Seriously, When you have 10 minutes to dump a load, it's perfect time to practice. Essentially, using the recorder to practice is going to accomplish the same task -- you will learn how to play songs and learn the fingering required to play most bagpipes.

Step 2:What to practice

You should pick some actual medieval songs to practice, preferably your favorites, preferably simple songs. My first song was Herr Mannelig. It's a very simple melody, and very short. Other simple songs to learn are In Taberna, and some of the Cantigas De Santa Maria. The important thing is to learn some short, easy songs. When you can play a few songs without mistakes, you are ready for the next step.

Step 3: Mimicking a Bagpipe

One thing that is different about bagpipes, is that once you get them going, you don't stop. The noise is continuous. To make breaks in your playing, especially when you play the same note several times in a row, you quickly lift the finger on the note just above the note you're playing, and put it back down again. Try blowing your recorder without stopping, while playing a tune. Use this technique to mimic what a bagpipe sounds like. You can also practice circular breathing. Most of the music from medieval times is made of short segments. Breath after playing one segment, and before beginning the next. Eventually, you can practice inhaling through your nose, while using your cheeks for storing breath (like a bag on a bagpipe) and blowing. It's a tricky thing to learn, but if you get the hang of it, playing bagpipes will be easier.

Eventually, you will want to be able to play several songs through without stopping, and without making mistakes. If you can accomplish this, you will be ready for playing bagpipes. What bagpipes to buy is detailed in my other posts.

Step 4: Your first set of pipes

If you have made it this far, and think you're ready for buying a set of medieval pipes, the one piece of advice I have is this -- Get a professional quality instrument, and avoid cheap pipes from online music stores.

Cheap pipes are exactly that -- they are cheap, crappy, and will make you yearn for something better. Plus, there really aren't any cheap medieval style bagpipes. Mid-East Musical instruments sells a loud medieval and a soft medieval bagpipe, and they both are under $200, and both, as of late, have been plagued by quality control problems. I got the smallpipes years ago, when quality control was better, but I haven't seen new ones that were as good, lately. Plus, the ones that I got took a lot of fussing to get working.

The best thing for you, is to contact a bagpipe maker, and order a professional quality instrument. It will cost you over $1000, on average, but it is an investment that will eliminate spending more money on a series of poorer-quality instruments over time. When you get these instruments, they will treat you nice almost from the start, and will last for decades if you treat them nice. They are not just instruments, they are works of art. But most importantly, they are manufactured with such precision and from such quality components, that playing them will be easy, even for lesser accomplished musicians.

Step 5: Going Droneless

When you get your instrument, you should not play it fully assembled. You need to go in stages. Plug up all the drone holes with corks so that only the chanter is connected. Essentially, this is to get you used to playing with the bag -- to practice breathing, controlling the bag, and so on. Basically, you will play the tunes you've learned with the bag and chanter, so that you can be used to when to breath into the bag, and when to squeeze the bag. When you can play all of your tunes correctly without making mistakes, and without getting stuck breathing out of rhythm, you can add the bass drone. You will need to blow more to keep the chanter and the drone going at the same time. Just using the chanter was a stage to help you build up your ability to keep the bag full while playing. When you add the drone, it's essentially going to take more breath, but you will already have a sense of when to breathe from that stage. By adding the drone, you will only need to adjust your breathing a little bit, and it will be a small step to add drones, if you have more than one.

Of course, I leave out a lot of details here. This is an overview. There are lots of details on the care and use of the bagpipes that are difficult to convey in a short blog posting. I intend to cover those things in more detail later.