The Celebrated American Performer on the Irish Pipes

THERE is probably no musical instrument in existence today that is so diflicult to master as the Irish or Union bagpipe, and for that reason the percentage of proficient performers is much less than on any other instrument. The lack of competent teaehers is also an important drawback, particularly because on no instrument is an instructor so neeessary to the success of the learner, as on the Union pipes, unless perhaps it be on the `Scotch or Highland pipes, on account of the shriller tones.

In the hands of a capable performer, no instrument gives to Irish melody, especially dance music, such true traditional expression as the loved instrument of the Irish peasantry.

To acquire any reasonable degree of expertness on this most complicated and highly developed bagpipe, the learner instead of attempting too much, should be content to commence at the bottom, as he would in any other line of studies, and not undertake to play haphazard, as too many often do.

Fired by ambition on hearing the performance of some good piper, the music lover ordinarily having more or less acquaintance with some other wind instrument, obtains possession of a set of Irish pipes, out of tune and repair from disuse, and starts in to be a piper, without a teacher, and depending altogether on practice based probably on his previous fingering of the flute. He expects to accomplish in six months what may be took the piper whose playing inspired him, twenty years to acquire; the consequence being, of course, one more name added to the list of bad or indifferent pipers.

It is well to remember at the start that the fluter, Highland piper, or clarinet player, has also much to unlearn, if success is to be attained on the Irish or Union pipes.

Before attempting to play or practice on a full set, the learner should procure the best bag, bellows and chanter obtainable. With the bag under the left arm, strap the bellows under the right arm, and let the end of the chanter rest on the right knee. Hold the bag securely when inflating it with the bellows, and with the left hand uppermost, place the fingers so as to evenly cover the holes of the chanter; the first joint of the left thumb covering the D hole at the back of the chanter, which should be held as loosely as possible. It would be too tedious and confusing to describe in detail the manner of holding each individual finger, with the names of each hole, which, by the way, are the same as in the flute, excepting the low and high D. The amateur must, however, be particular to hold the fingers straight across the chanter, using the second joints of the second and third fingers of each hand to cover the holes. Neither shall the fingers be crooked or bent, or the tips thereof used instead of the flat joint for that purpose.

Assuming that the learner has already some rudimentary musical training, he will understand that with all eight holes stopped evenly the tone of low D is produced, that being the lowest note on the Irish chanter. Differing from other instruments, the end of the chanter rests on the knee, except when low D is being sounded. The player automatically lifts the chanter in playing that note.

To get the hard sound of low D, the note must be helped by a short snap of the A finger. After this trick has been learned, the E will he sounded by lifting the two lowest fingers - that is, the little and third finger of the right hand; F sharp, by lifting the middle finger; and G, he middle and forefinger of the right hand. Then follows A, which is sounded by lifting the third finger; B, the third and middle finger; C sharp, the forefinger; and high D in the first octave, the thumb of the left hand. To make each tone clear or staccato, the finger or fingers producing each note must be closed as the succeeding notes are being opened.

When the first eight notes or octave has been mastered, the learner may start the second octave by blowing stronger on the bellows, with a corresponding increase of pressure on the bag, and lifting the same lingers as before for E, F sharp, G, A and B. The C sharp, in the second octave, is produced by lifting the third and forefinger of the left hand,gall others being closed. The tone of high D in the second octave is made by lifting the top or forefinger of the left hand and the three lowest fingers of the right hand, with all other holes closed.

Three months is not an unreasonable length of time for a beginner to practice reading and playing the scale in the key of D, that being the scale in which the Irish chanter is pitched. After he has practiced the scale in two octaves, until he can sound it up and down lively and without any after sounds between the notes, he may attempt some simple exercises, but above all things he must avoid playing for dancing or playing dance music even, except very slowly, for at least six months. Once the amateur starts to playing for dancing, and playing too fast, he can seldom or never learn to play slow or proper time.

Every beginner should first practice the scale of D, because he gets that scale with the fingers only, without the use of keys. After D, he should take the scale of G, with only F sharp, the C being natural and fingered with the key on the back of the chanter. With the proper fundamental knowledge, all the rest will come with practice.

One of the graces essential, - it might be called indispensable - to effective pipe-playing, is the “turn” or “curl.” Without graces of this nature, the performance of even the best player is too formal and bare. It is done as follows: Sound first the note to be “turned,” then the note above it, the note itself again, next the note below it, and lastly the note to be “turned.” For example, if G is the note to be “turned” sound G, A, G, F, G in quick succession (the five notes to be made in two eighths or triplet time), otherwise the proper effect will be lost.

Another embellishment in pipe-playing is the “roll” or “cran,” as it was termed by most of the old time players. This is accomplished on the low E and the low D by quickly snapping A, G, F, at the same time keeping the E or the D note open, both being similarly rolled. In other words, snapping the notes A, E, G, E, F, E or A, D, G, D, F, D in three-eighths time.

The “turn” and the “roll,” I believe, are the two great embellishments of pipe-playing when done neatly.

Another embellishment is the triplet with the top hand. For instance, if B is the note to be taken for a foundation, the triplet consists of B, C, B, B played quickly. If it is A, the notes are A, C, A, A. This combination is very essential in jig, reel and hornpipe playing, or in fact any quick or lively music.

When the amateur has mastered the scales, of D and G, and acquired dexterity in the “turns,” “rolls” and triplets above mentioned, he is ready to start to play any kind of music on a full set of pipes. The experience acquired so far in practicing on the bag, bellows and chanter, will enable the advanced learner to keep wind to the full set without much inconvenience.


The next step is tuning the drones, one of the most important features in connection with the instrument and an art in which some so-called pipers are lacking. Commence by tuning the smallest or tenor drone to A on the chanter. If the latter is properly fitted with a reed, it will tune also to low D and high D. Then tune the second drone to the tenor, and lastly the bass drone to the second. In some old style pipes there are four drones, but the same rule holds good in all cases. No piper worthy of the name will play in public when his instrument is out of tune.


An instrument equipped with three drones and three regulators is considered a full set. Few made in this generation have more or less. The regulators are arranged as follows: First the G bass on the outside (furthest from the player) with four notes in the following order, G, A, B, C, and corresponding to the same notes on the chanter but an octave lower. Then comes the first treble regulator with D, F sharp, G, A, corresponding to the same notes on the first octave of the chanter. Next comes the second treble regulator with F sharp, G, A, B, C, in unison with the same notes on the first octave on the chanter. Should there be a fourth regulator or D bass, it is generally placed on the inside or nearest the performer's body. It has three notes, viz., D, E, F sharp, an octave lower than the same notes on the chanter, being in fact a continuation or complement of the G bass.

Across the bottom of the three outside regulators, we have G on the bass, D on the first and G on the second treble regulators, making the chord of G - first, fifth and octave of the chord. We also get first, third, and fifth, of the chord of G by sounding G on bass, D on first, and B on second treble regulators, which is the form of G chord most commonly used on the Irish or Union pipes. A form of the chord of D is obtained by sounding the notes D on the D bass, F sharp on the second, and D on the first treble, and A on the G bass regulators, the full chord of D being D, F sharp, A and D. The chords of D and G are most frequently used and the only ones that can be made correctly on the limited compass of the regulators.

A good accompaniment for lively music in the key of G can be made by the wrist on first and second treble regulators, using G on the first and B on the second, as changes in the tune require, the ear being the guide in changing the chord.


The lowest note G on the bass can be tuned to G on the chanter and D on the first treble to G on the bass. G on the second treble can be tuned also to G on the chanter. All other notes on the regulators may he tuned to their corresponding notes on the chanter.

To amateur pipers endowed with special aptitude, tireless persistence, and unlimited patience, the foregoing suggestions will, it is hoped, prove both helpful and instructive.