Taking Rest Days

I’ve had a few students recently bring up a topic that I found interesting. They were having trouble with stamina when playing the full instrument. I asked, “How often are you playing the actual pipes?” I got replies stating they’ve consistently played pipes the last 5 or 6 days in a row, which can actually be harmful to your stamina goals.

No wonder they showed up for a lesson, or band practice, and got the “raspberries” after only a few minutes of playing! When it comes to building up stamina, either as a beginner or an experienced player, it is definitely important to incorporate rest days into your playing schedule. One thing I tell beginner/intermediate players is to not play the day before band practice. That way, they have lots of gas in the tank, so to speak, to play for a long time at band. As most experienced pipers know, we often play the pipes much more at band than we would on our own at home. It’s similar to long-distance running. Runners don’t try to run a marathon every single day, they have to have rest days so they can run longer and longer.

So if you are thinking that playing every day will make you stronger, don’t. Even the most experienced pipers incorporate rest days into their schedules.

  • Author:Palmer Shonk
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Using Exercises to Improve your Technique

I’d like to talk about exercising for better piping. When pipers first read a sentence like that, they’re probably thinking about technique exercises to do with doublings, taorluaths, etc. However, that is different from what I’m discussing today. I am meaning physical hand and arm exercises to increase strength, flexibility, and hand control when playing the practice chanter or pipes.

Essentially, from my experience, the stronger and more flexible your arms and hands are, the less tension you have in your hands and fingers. From there it’s easier to lift and place your fingers on and off the chanter in the correct order. In other words, you are controlling your fingers and not the other way around.

Let’s look at an under-appreciated group of muscles known as the lumbricals. To start, humans have lumbricals in their hands, as well as their feet. But obviously, I am focusing on the ones in the hand. Lumbricals run from your palm up to the large knuckle at the base of your fingers (or thereabouts). They run parallel to the direction of your fingers. What I find the most interesting aspect of lumbricals, is that they attach directly to the tendons that run through your hands. These are the same tendons that help you lift and grab your fingers onto the chanter. Lumbricals are by no means the only muscles that assist in your piping, but they are an under-utilized muscle group that doesn’t get much attention. I have noticed an increase in control over my fingers after explicitly focusing on lumbricals for the last 5 or 6 days.

So, how do you work them and make them stronger? You can start by grabbing a stress ball or something squishy. With a straight finger and thumb, grasp the ball with just a finger and your thumb, similar to how you’d hold the practice chanter. Then gently squeeze down and “pinch” the ball with those two fingers and hold for 1 to 2 seconds, then release. You can do sets of 10, 15, or 20, depending how strong or weak you feel when doing it. You can also do this on each finger, although the pinky is really tough so don’t stress if you can only do 4 or 5 with that finger. Do this a couple of times per week, and it will really help you keep your hands in shape for better control and technique!

  • Author:Palmer Shonk
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Glenfiddich 2022 - The Debrief

Another piping season has come and gone. Pipes will start to go into the case over the next few months and for many, may come out a few times. That’s important. Pipers need to rest and recover especially if they’re into competition of any kind. As mentioned in the title, the 2022 Glenfiddich solo piping competition took place a few days ago. In case you live in the U.S. or Canada and decided to sleep in on Saturday, the event ran from 5 AM EST to approximately 1:30 PM EST.

I decided to get up at 4 AM to watch the whole event which for me is a first. I’ve watched it here and there over the years, but usually after waking up at 8 or 9 AM. It was certainly interesting to listen to the whole piobaireachd and MMSSRR events. It gave me a more “whole” perception of the contest and some ownership over my own “results”, which, definitely didn’t line up with the judges. Really though that’s to be expected. The quality of play is so high that the results are mostly down to subjective items (sound of the pipe, expression, tempos etc.). I thought everything ran quite smoothly aside from some technical issues with a few microphones not picking up the sound, creating a choppy quality over speakers. After the 3rd or 4th player in the piobaireachd, the sound came back in quite nicely.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my results by event – Piobaireachd: 1st Angus MacColl, 2nd Callum Beaumont, 3rd Jack Lee, 4th Willie McCallum, 5th Fred Morrison. MMSSRR: 1st Callum Beaumont, 2nd Angus MacColl, 3rd Connor Sinclair, 4th Fred Morrison, 5th Willie McCallum. Best sound of the day: either Jamie Forrester or Fred.

So yeah, waaay different than the judges. I just thought Callum and Angus played all of their music with lovely lift and tempo control. If you’re reading this, I hope you enjoyed it and I’m certainly looking forward to next year!

  • Author:Palmer Shonk
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leaves blog

Get back to basics in the Fall!

Fall is upon us, and for most bagpipers in Pittsburgh, and through out the U.S. and Canada, the competition and performance season is beginning to wind down. Now, many Pittsburgh bagpipers will still have to perform at funerals and/or weddings, as I do, but, it’s always a good idea to take a small break, and get back to basics over this fall and winter. What do I mean by that?? I’ve listed a few items to work on in order to improve your playing and your performance ability.

1. Exercises – Now, I don’t mean going out for a jog, but rather, playing technical exercises on the practice chanter with or without a metronome. It’s important to take some time in the fall to work on technique, and working on any issues you may have been dealing with over the spring/summer time. Get back to playing basic movements, properly, and with consistency!

2. Maintenance – Re-hemping your pipes, or re-taping your chanter for instance, are great ways to make your bagpipes more airtight and efficient to play. Having fresh tape put on your chanter will help you be more in tune when you strike up your pipes to practice, or play for a funeral, birthday party, or such.

3. New tunes – Refresh your repertoire by learning some brand new tunes during the fall and winter. It’s great to take your mind off of competition music, be it band or solo. Also, for playing gigs, it’s important to have a varied list of music available to play for events, and customers often make requests. Learning new tunes may increase the chances of you knowing a tune requested by a potential customer!

  • Author:Palmer Shonk
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Learn to perform at the Pittsburgh Piping Society!

If you are a bagpiper living in the Pittsburgh area, chances are that you ‘ll have to play at some point in public for a crowd. Playing in front of a crowd can be intimidating, if you’re not used to it. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and the more enjoyable your bagpipe playing will be. This is a brief post to let you know that the Pittsburgh Piping Society can be a great venue to get in front of your bagpiping peers who live here in Pittsburgh, and play a few tunes without the daunting expectations of a competition. The Pittsburgh Piping Society meets monthly from September to May, and is always a great time to catch up with other pipers who you may haven’t seen in a while. The crowd is very supportive and lively, and we are always looking for new players to come join the fun!

  • Author:Palmer Shonk
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Happy St. Patrick's Day Parade Eve!

Tomorrow, March 11, 2017, is the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Pittsburgh. It’ll be a great occasion, although cold, to hear some bagpipe bands, as well as some great solo playing! If you are a bagpiper living in Pittsburgh, this weekend will be a great one to get out and perform, or to have a listen to those Pittsburgh bagpipers who will be out playing.

If you’re reading this, and have a performance tomorrow in or around Pittsburgh, it’s important to take this evening to put in some maintenance and TLC for your set of bagpipes. I would start by checking the level of hemp on all connecting joints on the pipes, making sure that they aren’t too tight. Additionally, in cold playing conditions, the bagpipes are likely to get a build up of condensation from the breath/blowing, so a dry water trap, or other moisture control system, is vital to your instrument remaining steady throughout the performance, or performances.

Personally, right now I’m playing a “hide” Bannatyne synthetic bag with a Ross Canister system and short tube water trap. This is great for controlling my moisture levels, and I can always swap in a fresh canister with dry “rocks” should my drones start to get wet and become unsteady. This is just one way to control moisture, and there are many great products out there, some with “rocks” or kitty litter like the Ross Canister system, and some with silica gel beads that cool down the air before it enters the drones, thus preventing hot air from accumulating and forming condensation.

No matter how you like to keep up the maintenance on your pipes, make sure they have been dried out and are in good playing shape, it will make your parades/gigs that much more enjoyable!

  • Author:Palmer Shonk
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A New Year, a "New" Bagpipe

I hope everyone’s’ 2017 is off to a great and bagpiping-filled start! If you happen to be one of my students, or a member of a bagpipe band I teach in Pittsburgh, then I’ve probably mentioned how important proper maintenance is to having an efficient and stable bagpipe. Whether you have to play your bagpipes for a wedding, funeral, or special event in Pittsburgh, or elsewhere, there a few tips I wanted to pass along to help you get a “new” bagpipe for this year!

When I say “new,” I basically mean a re-vamped bagpipe from bass drone to chanter sole! Taking your pipes apart and giving them the TLC they want and need will pay dividends down the road in 2017 when performing or competing. So, a few tips:

1. Re-hemp! It’s important to re-hemp drone joints, stock joints, blow pipes, and even the top of the chanter. Having smoothly turning drone pins that aren’t wobbly even when tuning up higher is key to having stable sound. Make sure that your stock joints for the drones and blow pipe are nice and tight in order to prevent air from leaking. The hemp at the top of the chanter should allow you to smoothly twist the chanter in order to orient it in the proper direction to reach the holes with your fingers, but not so loose that it risks falling out!

2. Check for efficiency! Making your bagpipe as efficient as possible without having the chanter going will make your playing much more enjoyable! To do this, first take out all drones and the chanter, then cork up the stocks while leaving the blow pipe attached to the bag. After that, blow up the bag to make sure no air is leaking out. Once the bag stays tight without leaking air, put the drones back but still leave the chanter stock corked up. Blow up the bag/drones, then blow/squeeze extra hard. Your drones should shut off fairly easily, and stay off for several seconds until the air slowly moves out of the bag. This will ensure that you are playing an efficient set up!

3. New reeds! If your pipe chanter reed is a year or more old, and it’s squeaking, too easy to play, and doesn’t have a lot of “pop” then it’s time for a new pipe chanter reed! Do some research online and order up a fresh reed to start the year. It’s better to blow in a new reed now, than later in the year right before a big performance!

I hope these tips help you get the most out of your bagpipe in 2017!

Funeral Run-around!

I wanted to pass along a piece of advice for anyone thinking about starting to play bagpipes for funerals, weddings, etc. Recently I played my pipes at a funeral in the northern pan-handle of West Virginia. The funeral had been booked with me a week and a half ahead of time and I was told the name of the funeral home, the town, and the street that it was on. I thought to myself, OK, this should really be easy enough to Google and find out the location. For some reason I didn’t write down the name of the road that the funeral home was on, just the name of it and the town.

A week and a half goes by, and I’m arriving that the funeral home to begin warming up about 25 minutes before the service is set to start. All of a sudden, a funeral home employee approaches me and says the family just arrived and they didn’t request a piper. I began to panic. I gave them the last name of the people who had hired me, which they wrote down, so they could see if that funeral was happening at one of the FIVE other funeral homes they had in the area!! Sure enough there was another service about 10 minutes away starting in oh, about 10 minutes! I drove quickly and arrived just as they were about to start the service. Fortunately my clients weren’t upset and had me play for a few minutes to kick off the service. All’s well that ends well I guess, BUT remember to write down the address of the funeral home when booking the gig!!


Some New Teaching Ideas for 2017!

Greetings! If you’re reading this, then I hope your holiday(s) was restful and full of piping or drumming! Actually, like most pipers, I took a little bit of time off, but not too much. Coming up next week I have a competition in Kansas City, Missouri, so no slacking off! Having recently commenced teaching bagpipes for the new year, I had a couple of ideas to pass along that some might find helpful, if only just starting on the pipes, or practice chanter.

1. Write out the letters. If you, or you’re student, are having some trouble learning to read the scale on sheet music, or in some cases re-learning reading the scale, I highly suggest writing the letter of the note underneath the corresponding note on the scale (as in the feature picture for this posting!). I have found this to be helpful for students with poor eyesight, or who just don’t have a knack for quick sight-reading.

2. Re-assess hand positioning on the chanter. I find that beginner bagpipers struggle with learning the correct hand and finger positioning on the chanter. Making sure that the top and bottom hands are positioned correctly, with the proper finger pad touching the chanter, will drastically reduce stress and discomfort while playing the chanter or bagpipes, for any amount of time. Additionally, it is important that the bottom hand thumb be located directly behind the “C” finger, or really, your middle finger (!).

3. Don’t be afraid of corks. Unless you are a full time professional piper, or are extremely addicted to piping, then chances are, you took a little time off around the holidays (as I mentioned above). This is perfectly normal, especially because this time of the year is the bagpipe competition “off-season” in North America. There’s nothing wrong in my opinion, for the amateur player to use drone or stock corks to make a bagpipe “goose.” This will ensure a much easier instrument on which to rebuild stamina, blow in a new reed, or learn new solo or band music.

I hope these tips help and all the best in 2017!


Just Let the Children Play!

Another summer piping/drumming season has come and gone. As we transition into the year-end highland games, I think it’s fair to begin looking back at the season behind us. You know folks, another year of piping/drumming, another World’s, and I hear/read the same complaint as always, “Why does such and such a band have so many ringers, it’s NOT right!”

To be fair, I’m down for complaining, or, if you’re so inclined - ranting!! If it wasn’t for people ranting about this and that, then we as a society might not have nearly enough topics to discuss and even argue about. So, in light of my ability to write about others’ complaints, I bring to you a counter argument to the whole “ringer” in a pipe band situation.

You know, I hear what people are saying and why they become so angry when talking about the inflated sizes of pipe bands, especially lower grade bands at say, the World’s. When a band has only 7-10 pipers throughout the year, but then has 15-20 just for one competition, then it’s sorta not the same band, really. It’s more of an amalgamation, or a compilation of good players. BUT, and I do say BUT(T hehe), I really don’t find fault when one’s pipe band isn’t “going over” and as a piper or drummer you just – want – to – play! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a very good player and jumping in to play with a better or worse band than the one you play with during the year. Why should someone be denied the chance to make music with another pipe band? Isn’t that why we all got into this in the first place? For the music??

Many of you are really, really into the whole pipe band scene, or game, if you will. Some of us are pretty much addicted to it. That’s fine. You’re allowed to be. When I read people’s negative opinions about “jumping ship” to another band it just confuses me. As long as a person isn’t taking advantage of competition rules, I think we should celebrate when the occasional long distance player is willing spend a lot of time and money to learn and make music; and to celebrate the Scottish arts with like minded individuals!

  • Author:Palmer Shonk
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