Madison Pipes and Drums - Title Bar

Getting Started on Bagpipes

Bagpipes are a fairly difficult instrument to learn. The challenge of pushing air through the stiff pipe chanter reed fast enough to make a steady sound demands a dedicated effort spanning a few months before a student can play for a long non-stop stint. Learning the fingering requires long non-stop stints right up front, though! Thus, nobody learns bagpipes by starting with a bagpipe. Instead, people learn the fingering first with a "fingering tool" called a practice chanter, and start on the bagpipes after a year or so of practice chanter work.


Practice chanters can be purchased from many locations, but which practice chanter to buy is an important decision because you'll be learning tunes on it for years and you want one that feels about the same to your fingers as a real bagpipe will. Also, you want one that will last and be convenient to use.


There are three sizes of practice chanters: long, standard, and child. The "child" size is rarely found, and the standard size is appropriate for all but small children. Standard size practice chanters usually have very small holes that are hard to feel, and the holes are closer together than on a normal bagpipe. Thus, long form practice chanters are usually better to start with except for children whose fingers cannot reach the holes on a long one. There are, however, some "standard" practice chanters which have the same hole spacing as regular bagpipes. These would not be appropriate for children, but are as good as the long form practice chanters for adults. You have to check the advertising regarding the hole spacing; if no mention is made, assume a standard-size chanter has holes that are fairly closely spaced, differently from a regular bagpipe chanter.


Some practice chanters are made of wood, some are of a special sort of plastic. The plastic ones are quite acceptable and many people prefer them because they are cheaper and hard to break, but wooden ones are better from a playing standpoint because your fingers will unfortunately slide around more on the plastic ones. Plastic ones will probably last longer without becoming damaged, as the wooden ones can split if the instrument is not properly taken care of, and this is a common occurrence. Since most damage to wood chanters consists of a split in the wood of the top part, which doesn't affect fingering, the ideal practice chanter would have a plastic top but a wooden bottom where your hands grip the chanter. Such dual-material chanters can be purchased.


If you buy an all-wood practice chanter, it is important that it be made of blackwood, which is extremely dense and has a very dark color. Many cheap wooden chanters are made of more porous wood, which is recognized by the light brown color. The cheap chanters look nice enough, but the porous wood makes them much more susceptible to cracks, and the pitches of the notes of the scale are usually not true. Whatever wood your practice chanter is made of, you should purchase woodwind bore oil for it at a music store. Swab the inside of the wooden part of the practice chanter with bore oil thoroughly, especially the top, before you play it at all. Wipe the excess off. Then give a light swab of bore oil every three months or so after that. This will do a lot to prevent damage to your instrument.


A very significant feature to look for in a practice chanter is finger holes that have been countersunk or otherwise altered so that they feel similar to the holes on a real pipe chanter. Otherwise you will have unnecessary trouble covering the holes properly, and a more difficult time making the eventual transition to the bagpipe.


The band sells inexpensive but good practice chanters to new students at our cost. If you purchase a practice chanter through the pipe band, you will be sure to get a decent one like what we've recommended here, except you cannot purchase a wooden one through the band. For those, contact one of the vendors on our band's link page.


When you buy your practice chanter, be sure to ask and note who manufactures the reeds that work best in your chanter. If you don't buy your chanter from the band, buy about four reeds made by the manufacturer of choice from the person you buy the chanter from, when you buy the chanter. Chanter reeds are available from the band, but they may not be a good kind for your own practice chanter.


You will also need to buy a tutor book. Madison Pipes and Drums requires students to purchase the tutor from the Piping Centre. This is a different book from the "green book," the College of Piping Tutor, which some other piping instructors use. You can buy it directly from the band (e-mail us to inquire the price of the book or the practice chanters we have) or buy it from a vendor on our links page.


If you buy a wooden practice chanter, you should also buy a spool of unwaxed yellow hemp from a bagpipe supply vendor or from the pipe band. This may or may not be necessary with a plastic practice chanter. Your instructor will tell you how to use it.


That's all you have to buy to get started! Additional materials such as instructional video tapes can be beneficial but are not needed when learning through our band.


One final caution - do not buy a set of bagpipes without asking the pipe major of the band for a recommendation of what pipes to buy! There is a natural tendency to want to save money, and as a result some people waste a lot of money by buying an inexpensive set that is completely unsuitable. Since you will spend months just learning the fingering, there is absolutely no need to purchase a set of pipes before you start lessons and we discourage it. But if you already purchased or inherited a set of pipes, great, it just demonstrates your commitment!


Band Manager - Steve Melde          Pipe Major - Christopher Brand          Band President - David Bradley
Madison Pipes and Drums is a non-profit organization for the purpose of education and entertainment through the promotion of Celtic music and heritage.