How to play

By: Dennis Havlena

As the bagpiper at historic Fort Mackinac (built by the 84th Highlanders in 1780) I've piped for several million visitors over the past 18 years. This certainly does not make me a good piper, but I do know something about piping. During my time at the fort I have taught many how to play the instrument. Of those who stuck with it, about a half dozen have gone on to become better pipers than I am.

I've developed a rather unorthodox but very effective self-teaching method that gets one started in piping by teaching them one complete, fully ornamented pipe tune. The normal teaching approach is to have the student grind away mercilessly and endlessly on scales, -- often never seeing a real tune for the better part of a year.

Note: The aim of this method is to as easily as possible enable one to play the tune "Amazing Grace" on the practice chanter. Obviously there's more to piping than just this, but I maintain (& have seen proven-out many times) that with one tune under a person's belt, it's a simple matter to similarily learn others and to pick up the remaining ornamentation. As I get time, I plan to spell out just how to play this remaining ornamentation.

Because everyone's so busy here at Fort Mackinac, my lessons are set up to be self taught -- only rarely (like when I hear a student making an obvious mistake) will I intervene with any "one-on-one" instruction.

I make no apologies for my method, which works quite nicely. My best success using this approach was a young fellow who went from never having had a bapgipe in his hands to playing daily during public demonstrations here in three months! The next best success took six months.

Here is this method I assign those interested in becoming a piper:

Step 1: Click here For fingering chart & other preliminaries

The instrument has only 9 notes, no sharps or flats and only one octave. This fact greatly simplifies the learning of proper fingering. Main melody notes are fingered according to this invariable fingering scheme. The only exception to this scheme involves ornamentation, which is fingered as easily and simply as possible, without necessarily resorting to "proper fingering" (more about this later). Assignment: spend several days to a week learning the scale, up and down, using the proper fingerings shown. Only when you can play the scale up and down fluently, without thinking about it should you progress to the next step.

Step 2: Click here For "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound"

Once proper fingering is learned, the next step is to pick a slow, well known tune. Without reservation, I recommend "Amazing Grace". This tune is universally known and contains a good many piping ornaments. Step 2 through 5 illustrate how to finger and play each and every note of "Amazing Grace" and includes full ornamentation. Although written music is also shown, one need not know how to read music to be successful here. This is the same, full, " professional" version of the tune that I play for public occasions.

Step 3: Click here For "that saved a wretch like me"

Step 4: Click here For "I once was lost, but now am found"

Step 5: Click here For"was blind, but now I see"

Step 6: Click here for info on a few other ornaments

This illustrates the taorluath and the c doubling. These are illustrated as part of the first two measures of "Scotland the Brave". The taorluath is perhaps the most difficult ornament, but not that hard. I found that once I mentally "visualized" the taorluath properly, it became very easy to play. Tips on this "visualization" are included here.

A few words here about "determination". Musical ability counts a small bit, but BY FAR the most important consideration in becoming a successful piper is determination, aka "stick-to-it-ness". By FAR. In fact all one really has to do is "trend in the direction" & he'll eventually surprise himself by realizing one day "Hey - I'm a bagpiper!" -- SO LONG AS HE HAS UNWAVERING DETERMINATION TO KEEP AT IT. I cannot stress strongly enough the power of determination. The vast majority of my students who quit did so due to lack of determination. When they saw that they wouldn't be an "instant piper" in a few days time, their initial enthusiasm and determination waned. Another observation of mine over the years is that undoubtedly, if more people knew how easy it is to play the bagpipe, a lot more would be pipers. There's a popular myth that bagpiping requires at least a lifetime to do properly. Just ain't so. In the most a year's time, anyone can pipe good enough to please themselves and others. Anyone. "The world's got enough bad bagpipers" is a refrain often heard from the bagpipe elite -- in their eyes only the highest competition-grade piping counts as bagpiping. Obviously this line of thinking has no merit whatsoever. Piping is a fun endeavor & truly the more the merrier. The step from playing a tune on the practice chanter to playing it on the real pipes is not that traumatic. At first cork up two of the drones & have at it. As you become more comfortable, uncork another drone -- then eventually the other drone.

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Dennis Havlena - Mackinac Straits

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