The Truth About Gigging

garyatweddingI have taught many people throughout the last 17 years.  A lot of my students have been intrigued by the thought of playing for money.  My colleagues and I in the bagpipe performing business have seen a lot of people come and go in that time.  The problem is that many bagpipers believe that all they need is a set of pipes, a kilt and some business cards and then they’re in business, ready to play for money.  So, for all of you who are thinking about entering this market, I thought that I would give you a preview.  Don’t quit your day job yet.

 The first thing that you MUST be before entering the market is an accomplished bagpiper.   What does that mean?  You, as a piper, should be able to play all genres of bagpipe music.  That means, in addition to the 4/4 march, you should be able to play marches in all meters, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs, and maybe even a little Piobareachd to develop your musicality.  You should have a very long list of tunes that you can play to cover any type of event.  Playing “Scotland the Brave” over and over again won’t cut it.  You also need to be an experienced bagpipe technician as you can’t afford a bagpipe failure during a performance.  If you are a truly honest individual, you will make sure you can do all of the above before taking your first paying job.  I’ve seen too many people enter the market who shouldn’t be in it, taking advantage of a customer’s  naiveté about bagpipes and bagpipe music.  That’s too bad as the public should get the best of what the bagpipe world has to offer..100% of the time.

 The majority of our gigs are once-in-a-lifetime events for most people:  Usually they are funerals, weddings and parties.  If you’re not the best bagpiper and performer that you can be, you shouldn’t be in the market.  It’s not easy money.  This person is paying you to do something almost sacred for them.  For example, there’s a certain demeanor that you must have when discussing a funeral with a family member of the deceased.  You need to know what you are going to do and how you are going to do it.  In most cases, this person has never hired a bagpiper before.  You need to make them feel that they are getting the best person for this job.  If you think that maybe you can wing it, you will be one of those people that we’ll see come and go.  In the funeral market, the funeral directors know who we are and what we can do; they know who is good and who is not.  They are the gate keepers in this market as the majority of funerals are booked through them.

 Weddings are another story.  Again, most people have no idea what a bagpiper does at a wedding and how the piper and pipes should be used.   It’s my job as the bagpiper to educate the bride and groom on how the bagpiper works into their wedding.  I do what an organist would do if they were at a church.  The bagpipes, in a lot of situations, are the only music played at a wedding, especially if the event is outside.  That being the case, I explain exactly how the process works before I give the price.  (As a business person, if I am going to invest 5 hours away from my family on a Saturday and drive umpteen miles to the gig, I’d better be in charge of the rate of return on that investment.) You might consider taking a Sales 101 course.  If I explain to the bride and groom exactly what I am going to do, it is only then that I give them the price.  To be honest, any price that I quote them is miniscule compared to what they have already been charged by the florist and caterer.  I personally want to get as much as I can on a Saturday trip away from my family.  I also want to be fair.  I also tell all prospective brides and grooms that they shouldn’t hire anyone that they can’t see perform first.   Sometimes hiring that “friend of the family” is a bad idea.

 Look, I’m realistic too.  There has to be a point where a new bagpiper can come into the market.  If you think that you’d like to compete for business someday, maybe you should consider competing in solo competition.  Knowing that you have to prepare music by a certain date is a goal.  It gives you a reason to practice and learn new music.  Remember, you’re only as good as your last performance.  The bottom line is that the market place will determine your success or failure and whether or not your are ready to play for money on a regular basis!

The Value of Books

Scots Guards Book 1

Scots Guards Book Volume 1

Burt Mitchell Books


The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor

If you are a bagpiper, I have a question for you: How well do you know the bagpipe literature? When I started playing way back when, the second book that I purchased was the “Scots Guards Volume 1”. I paid $7.95 for it. Today it sells for $60.00. That’s inflation! I was a very determined bagpiper back then. I couldn’t get it fast enough.

I had days that I designated as “sight reading days”. I wanted to be able to play in any band that I chose. If I was able to read and learn the music on my own, I was better prepared to compete for a spot in the band then perhaps someone who was dependent on someone else teaching them the music. On these days, I took the Scots Guards Book and started with the first tune and often played the first part of each tune in the book. I marked tunes that I liked. That did a few things for me: It gave me an idea of what tunes to come back to and learn, and over a period of time it made it possible for me to read and play any tune.

When I competed back in the 70’s, it was during these sight reading days that I discovered that year’s 2/4 competition march, the Strathspey, the Reel, the Hornpipe and the Jig that I would be playing. As I ran out of some of those genres I would buy another book or collection. I purchased the William Ross Collection, which contained 5 books. I paid $2.25 per book back then. I recently saw a listing for his Book 1 at $26.95. Another great investment not only in my music education but a financial one too, if I ever decided to sell them. I think I paid $9.95 for my Kilberry Book back then. Unfortunately, it was stolen last year. Today, that book sells for close to $70.00!

The point is that purchasing bagpipe books is a good step towards developing your bagpipe playing skills. This is definitely an area that you don’t want to skimp on Today, one of the best deals around is the Burt Mitchell Books. As they are published on inexpensive paper and not parchment, you and your teacher can write in these books and not feel like you are destroying a masterpiece. My only regret about Burt’s series is that he didn’t do a Dancing Tune Book. It would have been great if he had arranged some Strathspeys, Reels, Hornpipes and Jigs. Maybe that’ll be my next project.

Poor Bagpipe Inflation Could be Symptom of Low “P”!

I learn an awful lot of stuff from my students.  I personally believe that the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is physically one of the hardest instruments to play.  As I said in the last post, I can tell from the condition of a student’s bagpipe what their activity for the week has been.  In order to play the bagpipe, you need to have the “bagpipe trifecta” going for you.  You need a strong lip, a lot of breath and a strong arm for the bag.  The lip and the lungs are developed on the practice chanter, provided that you inhale fully and play through as much of the tune as you can on one breath.  As you can’t tongue the bagpipe, where you take a breath has nothing to do with the music.  The lip is the timer.  How long is your lip?  If you play until your lip gives out, when you start to sputter each time you practice, the length of that time interval will get longer and longer.  If you have strong breath support and a good lip, it will mean very little work for your arm.  Again, we want to blow hard enough to create “psi”.  We want to blow up to 110% and squeeze down to 105%.  You don’t get “psi” until you’ve blown up beyond 100% capacity.

The truth is this: If you are struggling to maintain full bagpipe inflation, it may be due to low “P”.  “P” stands for practice!  You don’t need drugs or steroids.  There is no trick to making this happen, what you need to do is practice every day.  You chose to do this.  You can’t give playing the bagpipes a try.  With that attitude you’ll never succeed.  I would say that if you gave it 110% for a year, you will see tremendous results.  What does that mean?  You need to find “bits” of time to practice on a daily basis.  Start by practicing your practice  chanter until your lip gives out.  You will start to sputter at your limit.  If have a two minute lip, play to that point, put it down and come back to it.  Use your nonproductive time to do this.  You might find that when you add all of this up, you might just be practicing for 30 to 45 minutes per day.  If you have pipes, your lip will also be the gauge to determine your limit. You’ll never get anywhere if you wait until the day before your lesson to practice.  As I’ve said before:  “my job is to teach you how to practice this week”.  If you follow your teacher’s program and do something every day you will succeed!

Remember:  Poor bagpipe inflation could be a symptom of low “P”!

Dead Bagpipes Tell All Tales!

Sometimes the behavior of my bagpipe students perplexes me.  They work hard through the initial “honeymoon” phase, get past what I refer to as “the struggle”, reaching a success point where they are ready for pipes..and then they die on the proverbial vine.

 My students make a substantial investment in their pipes and only at the point when they can play enough tunes to make it worth the investment.  When they come to their lessons, I can tell if they have been playing their pipes.  Dead pipes tell all tales.  Last night, a student came in and was huffing and puffing trying to blow just one drone.  I took his pipes and, upon inspection, I found that the stock joints had loose hemp.  That means that they had been sitting all week and not played as the hemp had dried out and was moving on the spindle.  (I’ve learned over a period of years what the bagpipe says about whether someone has practiced or not.)

 Let’s address this problem.  I personally try not to overwhelm students when they get their pipes.  The first thing we want to concentrate on is blowing and squeezing.  We will usually cork the bass and a tenor drone and the chanter stock.  The goal is to get the one drone sounding even during blowing and squeezing.  I also tell my students that when they get to the point where they are blowing hard enough to blow that drone out, then they are ready to open drone number two.  When opening the second drone they now have an opportunity to learn how to tune drone one to drone two.  We usually continue this process through all three drones.  The goal is to be able to blow enough air into the bag to make all three drones go out.   By this time, blowing, squeezing, and basic tuning should become a habit.  Then we can start playing the chanter on the pipes.

Why is it that people die at this part of the project?  Again, I try not to overwhelm them.  I also find that when the pipes get home and stay in the case, they are usually forgotten.  My solution to that problem is a “Bagpipe Stand”.  When you get home, you take your pipes out and put them in the stand where they are in your line of sight.  I have found personally that I play the pipes more when they are out in the open than when they are in the case.

 If, however, you don’t want to buy a stand, another solution is needed.  Maybe your bagpipe goals need to be updated.  Have you ever thought about competing?  Maybe you should try that.  The judges are cordial and kind.  They want you to come back so they aren’t going to insult you and your playing.  My experience has been that they write comments to help you improve your playing and performing.  Maybe you need some new tunes.  Hey, I’m all for new tunes!  Do you play anything else but marches in 4/4 time?  If you are intimidated by your pipes, then you need to find something new in the bagpipe world to float your boat.

 Remember:  Dead pipes tell all tales!

Attitude = Altitude

In our era where everyone gets a trophy for not doing anything amazing, I still find it refreshing that that attitude hasn’t trickled down into the bagpipe world.  In teaching people I find myself saying to them:  “Your attitude will determine your altitude in this project.”  I think that I borrowed that from my favorite motivator, Zig Ziglar.
Presently I am teaching a few young men who I think have a great deal of potential.  My problem is that I’m not sure that they’ve decided to “do it” yet.  Again, I don’t why anyone would take a 2 to 5 year project and make it a 20 year project when the option to do it faster is indeed a possibility.
If you want to play the bagpipes, the piano, the clarinet or climb Mount Everest, you need to make a decision to do it!  You also need go in with the attitude that you are going to win.  Everything in life, whether we like it or not, is about winning and losing.  If it wasn’t, then why do people spend their money buying tickets to sporting events or tie up a Sunday watching the Super Bowl?  Why do we have talent contests and art contests?  The problem is that we have people telling us that “competition isn’t everything”.  Tell that to your friend who didn’t get the job, or the part they wanted.
Going into practice wanting to win the task will certainly get you there sooner than being indifferent or defeated.  If you are feeling indifferent or defeated, you need to ask yourself why you wanted to do this.  Can you restore those feelings that made you call your instructor on the phone to book your first lesson?  You might need to dig deep.  What else are you doing to maintain your attitude between lessons?  Do you watch bagpipe You Tube videos?  Do you read blogs?  Do you listen to bagpipe music in the car?  Doing these things will get you past “the struggle” which, by the way, comes after the “honeymoon”.  If you can get yourself past the struggle, than you will win.  Completing the task is about winning.
In real life, not everyone gets a trophy. However, it’s there if you want it badly enough!

Warning! Some types of practicing can be hazardous to your home.

Make-Up-Mirrors-10I hear a lot of funny stories from my students about practicing.  Here’s one of them.
One of the hardest parts of learning to play the pipes is getting the hand position “right”.  The hands need to be flat and straight and slightly angled downward almost in a 45-degree angle.  I had a new student who was working on his hand position.  I told him to get a “make up” mirror that he could set on the table in front of him so that he could watch his hand position as he moved up and down the scale.  One day, while practicing, he was sitting on his couch with the mirror placed on the coffee table in front of him.  After a while of this, he got up and went out to do some errands.  When he came back, he noticed that he had a burn line on his couch.  He told me that behind the couch is a window.  While he was away, the sun was shining through his window.  It hit the mirror and reflected on the couch.  Because the mirror was magnified, the sun burned the line in the couch with it’s movement in the sky.  I don’t think that he was laughing at the time, however, when he told me the story, we both thought that it was funny.
That certainly shouldn’t discourage you from using a mirror.  Seeing is still better than trying to imagine good position.  We want to do everything we can to make the process easier and more efficient.

Why You Should Own a Bagpipe Stand

bagpipestand1Last week I wrote an article explaining how I came to own and sell bagpipe stands.  Most of you probably said,  “That’s cool”, and then moved on to the next Facebook story.  But perhaps you should stop and ponder why it is that you should own one.
Obviously, you spent a great deal of time and money getting to a point where you could finally buy pipes.  I don’t know about you, but buying them was a big deal for me.  After 40 years of playing, I’m on my third set of pipes.  I have had a bagpipe stand for the last 5 years.  By having the stand, I  have found that I play my pipes more often because they are out in the open and calling my name on a frequent basis.  I have also found that my instrument is more stable because it is out in the room with me.  It only goes in the case when I am going somewhere.  If I go from room temperature to another room of the same or about the same temperature, my pipes are easier to warm up.  I can also do it in less time.  I also like the way that they look.  I think that they’re too pretty to be boxed up all of the time.  Don’t you think that your pipes should be out where you can see them?
Those are all valid reasons to own such a stand. Besides, I am currently offering a promotion on this item and am offering $10.00 off on the price of the bagpipe stand, which is available in dark pine or light oak.  You can see it here: