Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson

bringing quality 'piping instruction to you for free
How To Start Your Own Pipe Band


A pipe band is an orchestra of bagpipes and drums.

It consists of bagpipes, snare drums, tenor drums and a bass drum. Likely, if you are here, you have a pretty clear idea of what you want.

Of course, it should be noted that each community will have its own dynamic, and every area in which a band is set up will also have different legal requirements.

These suggestions are for forming your own interest group, prior to establishing a legal entity.

Suggested order of actions

It takes longest to train pipers, therefore, it is advisable to get a group of them together first.

The earliest stages of forming a group are the most important as this will set the overall culture of your group. Some bands are formed to compete, others just to teach, some to explore what a pipe band can do and be and others just for fun.

You need to be clear what kind of a group you want to establish.

This page will deal initially only with groups that wish to learn for fun.

A suggestion of the order in which to collect your people together and when to do so:
  • Find a group of willing pipers or would be pipers
  • Make a simple repertoire – five or six tune sets of different types (two or three tunes joined in each set)
  • Do exercises and tunes together as a group
  • When this, first repertoire, has been achieved, start looking for a snare drummer and a bass drummer.
  • Ask you snare drummer to teach basic drumming arrangements – your bass drummer really belongs to the pipe section, especially now.
  • Do more difficult exercises whilst your drummers are learning.
  • When your snare drummer thinks it is time to let the drummers loose, try to play together. Starting and stopping together will be hard at first, and it is important to get this right.
  • At this stage, you will start to need equipment. It is important that you do not enter into complex ownership/fundraising issues too early. Legal advice might also be needed.
Just like an orchestra, there will be times when sectional rehearsals are needed and times for playing together. Do not be afraid to all sit round the same table and give your drumming teacher his or her moment to make comments to the drummers.

Group learning

This is a big subject. Please note, that each and every group will have different needs and will respond in different ways, and this is only a simple set of very general guidelines.

Simple rules:
  • Structure your meetings carefully and be strict about timekeeping.
  • Set goals and give reasons why they are chosen
  • Explain how to achieve each goal
  • Break each step into deliverables
  • Check everyone understands and is willing to try
  • Agree deadlines (at the very least with yourself)
  • Go get!
Each and every tune and or ‘set’ of tunes is a goal in itself. Each tune should seek only to teach one thing to everyone. It is suggested that a band learns from the big picture down to the finer details.

Suggested goals in tunes:
  • Playing the melody together
  • Listening to each other
  • Changing and controlling tempo (speed)
  • Getting the louder gracings together (throws, taorluaths, grips)
  • Getting doublings together
  • Memory techniques
General Programme

For a new group or a group dealing with beginners and inexperienced pipers (even for some groups dealing with more experienced pipers) the plans should include some time on securing common, group, technique, both fingering and blowing, and some time learning tunes, to apply this technique.

A break for tea/coffee and chatting is also advised, although this should be timed with discipline.

A group should learn with the ‘five steps’ and generally speaking apply the method explained in how to practice. As they get better, the amount of time spent on basic X+O programming will decrease but this is never-the-less important. The pressure of group learning doing every step seven times in a row correctly is important as this motivates everyone to practice and gives measurable, deliverables, or results.

Specific areas

Exercises in listening to each other, in changing speed together and in managing mistakes are important. The intermediate exercises are ideal for use in a band. Not too much time should be spent on them each session, but enough to allow real progress.  Perhaps one exercise per meeting is enough. This can be repeated throughout the night as a mental break from other tasks. At times, more may be needed and sometimes less.

For beginner groups, the two minute trick will be needed – get a buddy to hold the pipes and time each attempt until this is achieved. Everyone at the beginning will be light-headed and will appreciate the break.

When playing basic exercises, everyone will be aware of their own mistakes. It is usually enough to make sure they understand how to fix them. Doing the five steps on the pipes is a surprisingly effective and thorough way to make progress. If an exercise is not working, take it back to the five steps of programming each action - grouping the instructions, assigning the groups time, making the time regular and finally speeding up. The leader should give foot or hand signals to show when to make an action, and this should be irregular to begin with – this is important as it helps the group learn to follow instructions and listen to each other.

When everyone is tired of exercises, move on to a simple tune, which should have no more than two learning goals set for it. These should be of the type ‘playing the basic tune together’ or ’playing all throws together’. After each time playing through a tune, there should always be some advice on something to improve. That is to say, every single time something is played, it should be used as a chance to improve. If it is at an acceptable standard (seven times…), tell the group and move on to a new task (or make a new, higher, goal).

People want to come t practices because they get something out of them – that is every time they play, they find something to improve, and have the time to do so.

The format can be the same for chanter and bagpipe practice.

In fun bands, it is usually wise to spend some time each session on pipes. Many people can’t play at home (neighbours aren’t always enthusiasts) and will want this, whether or not the group leader wants this.

The general purpose of meetings in this scenario is to enjoy oneself whilst improving. Therefore set small enough steps as goals for each session, and small enough jumps in what is expected of technique improvement at each level to allow everyone to feel comfortable, but not so low as to de-motivate. Common sense will show, and tea breaks will give the groups members ease to express their thoughts.

Groups, especially new ones, often can behave in bizarre ways. Think of a young group as a young entity, or a young person – it will go through a childish stage, a teenage troublesome stage, a growing up and coming to terms with itself stage, and a stage of delivering. You need to recognise this and change your style of leadership accordingly.

A group leader need not be a dictator, but should manage the groups and motivate the members carefully. The ‘One Minute Manager’ series of books, intended for company managers is actually a great guide to becoming a good ‘Pipe Major’. It is more a teaching and motivating task than a musical one. If you have a good attitude towards your members and their group, then everyone will have a good attitude towards you. The exact style of how you should behave and why will change as the group dynamic changes.

Playing bagpipes together in a group is not easy, but is very rewarding. Do not set impossible goals to begin with, and be very, very patient. Simple marches and slow airs are a fine way to get started.

These are small suggestions and can never cover everything you need. Comments are very welcome.  


Every member should leave every rehearsal feeling they have made some kind of progress.


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Lindsay Davidson
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